NIMBY Namby Pamby

9 min read

Overcoming resistance in Kentucky  

It was a warm, humid summer night in Lexington. More specifically, it was about to get hotter. I was on my way to the first neighborhood meeting of the infamous Meadowthorpe Neighborhood Association to introduce my proposed affordable housing infill development. Their reputation preceded them as one of the oldest and most well organized, vocal and powerful neighborhood groups in our town. Suffice it to say, everyone was on high alert, and the sultry summer night didn’t make anything more appealing.

Generally, I don’t have to woo neighborhood groups. Our company’s work is known all over Kentucky and a large part of West Virginia. The majority of our work is a result of communities calling us. About 80 percent of our portfolio is comprised of historic buildings that are vacant and abandoned eyesores, for which no one has been able to figure out a solution. We are the alchemists that transform liabilities into assets, and along the way, restore long lost memories to the local townspeople and reignite their love for the buildings (usually schools), that they had grown up in, taught in or their grandchildren attended. In rural Kentucky, communities don’t really pigeonhole us into a negative connotation of low-income housing. That’s generally due to median incomes being so low that our rents are indeed “market rents” but our product is clearly superior. Oftentimes, our buildings are the first (and only) ones in the county that have elevators.

But this one was different. It was new construction infill in a well-established older neighborhood. So how did we transform a room full of skeptics into a neighborhood of supporters? Here are the steps I took, and the result was remarkable.

1)   Go alone
I purposefully did not want to show up with a team. More importantly, I did not want to show up with a lawyer. A huge neighborhood group had just been in a very contentious and very public fight on the other side of the city, and this same attorney had been front and center, representing the developer. Needless to say, we did not want to have any “halo effect.” I wanted to introduce myself to the neighbors to begin.

2)   Arrive with a process, not a plan
I think perhaps the most insulting thing to do to a neighborhood is to show up with a plan on big foam core boards and to tell them what they want, especially when they don’t want you there in the first place. Maybe you might think you impress them, but I would invite you to sit in their seats and look at yourself from their perspective.

How does it work for you when you are presented with a solution to a problem you did not have, with no input and no consideration? A little arrogant? A little narcissistic? My speculation is that is how a neighborhood feels when developers (who are perceived as driving black Mercedes or Escalades and are insanely rich) show up with a team of architects, a lawyer and some marketing people to tell you about the project they are going to do with no input from you. I can tell you, the answer is not good.

When I showed up, by myself, with no plan, I was met by skepticism. No one had shown up before to one of their meetings without a fully baked plan. Here’s how the conversation went.

Neighbor 1: “Where’s your plan?”

Me: “I don’t have a plan.” (Actually, of course, we all know we have some idea before going in of the size, scorability, and such, but I did not have anything fully baked, or even halfway, for that matter).

Neighbor 2: “What do you mean, you ‘don’t have a plan’?”

Me: “I was actually interested in what your neighborhood wanted to see, and what type of housing you wanted to have.”

Mystified looks from all the neighbors. More skepticism, the arms crossed a little harder across the chests and people standing (standing room only crowd), shifted their weight from left to right.

Neighbor 1: Scowls in disbelief

Me: “I thought it might be helpful to tell you how we approach a project, and also to show you some of our other projects that you might already know.”

Neighborhood: Stunned silence

With that, I showed them a power point of before and after projects that were located within a 10-mile radius. The projects I shared were a mix of historic adaptive re-use and new construction urban infill. Almost all were Low Income Housing Tax Credit projects. It didn’t hurt that our company is also currently doing an adaptive re-use of our Fayette County Courthouse, which is a really big, high profile project that makes the papers quite regularly, and that has been met with joyful anticipation. It also didn’t hurt that two of our council members’ assistants, and one of our new council members, was in the audience.

I then took them through the process that we normally go through when looking at a project. I shared with them an aerial of the site, and spoke to the challenges we sought to solve, including traffic, view sheds, orientation of the sun and shadow, the urban edges, the need for respecting the architecture and the context of the area, and the fact that we would take our cues from surrounding neighborhood fabric. We had vignettes of interesting architecture in the neighborhood, and had the good fortune to highlight the architectural details of some of their own homes.

Throughout this, I welcomed questions and feedback. I wanted to generate a two-way conversation, and it worked. The neighborhood realized I really was interested in what they had to say. I asked what concerns they had, and responses included a range of issues. They wanted to know if we would connect this to the area, they wanted to know about sidewalks, trees, community gardens and a neighborhood dog run. When it came to the type of housing, (I already knew the scoring outcomes to this answer), I asked their preference for family or seniors.

There was a lot of discussion here, with the general consensus that their schools would be overloaded with a lot more children and they didn’t want that many more families in the neighborhood. I asked for a show of hands for seniors, and every hand in the room went up.

I said that looked quite conclusive to me, and that we would, indeed, develop senior’s affordable housing. Here’s what ensued:

Neighbor 1: “So when will you be finished with this housing?”

Me: “Well, I was not even going to take this to be rezoned unless this was a project that you all could support. We can only do this development with your blessing and concurrence, particularly since I have to be on a fast track to even get this submitted for funding. If this is a project that you want to see, we need to begin immediately on the development plan and re-zoning, along with site control. How about we get to work on the schematics and I will come back to your next meeting and show you where we are.”

All Neighbors in unison: “When will you be ready to come back?”

Me: “When is your next meeting?”

3)   Listen, listen and listen some more
So we went to the drawing board. This time, we had already done a proforma and researched the zoning requirements. We knew roughly what the footprint might be, based upon the approach that we laid out for them. We knew their concerns, and we incorporated them into our plan. We also knew we would be doing seniors housing, now, and we designed accordingly.

Our schematics showed a community garden, community space in the building, adequate and well-designed parking, a generous landscape buffer, sidewalks that connected the site to the neighborhood and the potential unit count and floorplates.

We were ready for the next meeting.

4)   Show them you care
By the time the next meeting rolled around the following month, we had a game plan with drawings. We showed them the typical units, one and two bedrooms, described the rent structure, our management company and we had obviously listened and responded to their concerns.

We didn’t have much time, since we had to get this development plan into the city for a zone change within six weeks from our first meeting.

When I arrived at the next meeting, (an ice cream social), the neighborhood group was convivial and supportive. They realized that I really did listen to their concerns, and that our plan reflected it. They sensed that we cared, and they looked at the foam core plan boards with enthusiasm. I announced that we would also be having a naming competition, and brought a suggestion box, pens and slips of paper.

They were thrilled. Lots of children were in attendance that night, and everyone had a suggestion and the box was stuffed.

As I wrapped up my presentation, the neighbors asked if they could write letters of support, and did I need them in attendance at the hearing? The president of the association told me he would draft a letter on behalf of the neighborhood association and would be delighted to be at the public hearing to voice support. Indeed, the entire group had become my most vocal supporters.

Fast forward to today. At our planning presentation on August 24, 2017, we had unanimous support from the planning staff, not one person in opposition, and a letter of support from the neighborhood. We also had the unanimous support of the planning commission for a zone change.

Now on to our funding round application in October and we will keep our fingers crossed for a successful allocation. Many of the neighbors want to live there, and I think our occupancy might happen in record time!

It’s all about collaboration.

Holly Wiedemann, founding principal and President of AU Associates, Inc., earned a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from Duke University and Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Design and Land Use Planning from the University of Georgia. She has been responsible for a wide range of projects throughout her career serving as a Financial Analyst, Project Manager, and Developer. She has specifically worked in the renovation, creation, adaptive reuse, and development of affordable housing since 1986.