My brain is full, and my extrovert buffer overfloweth
Submitted by murph on 18 October 2007 - 12:06pm. amtrak | trips | urban planning
I'm freshly back from 2 days in Chicago, representing my fair Ypsi at the National Brownfield Association's "The Big Deal" conference, and, after 2 full days of being "on", am quite looking forward to hiding in the office with some nice quiet paperwork. (Chicagoans: yeah, I'm sorry, I didn't let you know. This was a very surgical strike sort of trip, with almost no time spent outside of Navy Pier and Union Station.)
I was there primarily playing marketer - the NBA invited us to bring our 38-acre crown jewel brownfield site to their "property showcase", and was nice enough to waive the $400 registration fee. I was the guy uncommitted for those days, so was the lucky representative - and, while I ordinarily can easily talk up Ypsi's virtues at great length (a former faculty member recently asked if I secretly work for the Chamber of Commerce), it's a little more high-stress when the person you're pitching to is representing a private equity firm that's walking around the conference saying, "Hi, we've got $1 billion to spend - what've you got?"
Aside from that, though, I quite enjoyed this process. I'm historically somewhat leery of large-scale, monolithic redevelopment projects, both from the Jane Jacobsian bias towards fine-grained, incremental construction, and from a sort of "redevelopment roulette" point of view: while every city in the country is undertaking large-scale brownfield redevelopments, and it almost always turns out very well, you always have to wonder whether your project is the one with the bullet in the chamber... Seeing the various projects being undertaken around the country helped shift that general opinion, though, and the reaction of the various developer types to my pitch (and what sounded like envy from some of the other towns showing off property) did a lot to alleviate the background fear in the particular case - I had one developer almost visibly salivating, and another has already e-mailed expressing an interest in visiting. Score.
In between, I also found time to hit break-out sessions, and would have to say that this was one of the most enjoyable/informative conferences I've been to. (Thanks, NBA!) Some random tidbits:
The typical idea of a "brownfield redevelopment" involves taking old industrial land and putting it into residential use. Some communities have seen so much residential development pressure, though, that they've started encouraging industrial redevelopment into...new industrial space, and setting up zoning that protects industrial land from residential encroachment - the exact opposite of 100 years of zoning practice. Portland, OR, calls these "industrial sanctuaries". One person spoke of maintaining some industrial land, but cleaning it up, as an environmental justice issue, as this land is typically in or near low-income neighborhoods that need redevelopment to provide jobs, not just 40-story luxury lofts. (It was either NYC or Chicago speaking...)
Developers take blogs/youtube/etc seriously. One of the big developer types stressed the need to monitor, and get involved in, the public discourse about a project, even or especially when the people talking are completely wrong. A representative of a PR firm talked about a vicious cycle of negative public opinion and negative media coverage that could spiral out of control and sink a project if not addressed by the developer - beyond a certain balance of public opinion, there's nothing a developer can do beyond cut bait, abandon the project, and let some new developer start the process all over. Both of these guys mentioned local blogs within about a minute of opening their mouths, which made lil' ArborUpdating me pretty happy. (Interestingly, when I asked, both the developer and the PR guy seemed to think that public agencies had little role in the discussion over a project - it's the developer's responsibility.)
Developers don't seem overly worried about Michigan's economy at the moment - because the real estate market in the rest of the country has gone to exactly the same place. Michigan is apparently no longer even in the top five states for mortgage delinquency and foreclosure rates (the honor goes to Nevada, California, Florida, Georgia, and Ohio). And developers don't even seem that scared of the overall real estate market - concerned, but not scared. Experienced brownfield developers know that it will often be a year or three before they're ready to start building, let along selling, and so look at the market years from now, not the market now, so starting projects still makes sense to most of them. Starting projects in the commute-shed of Ann Arbor, in particular, seemed to appeal to a lot of the people I spoke to individually.
At any rate, my head is full, and the above is a small smattering of my 25 pages(!) of notes from various sessions, so maybe I'll share more later...