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White Hats versus Black Hats

It’s easy to assume that a land use developer wears a black hat, with city staff in white hats. The truth is usually more complicated, but sometimes land-use professionals truly don white hats.

Many years ago and in another state, I scheduled a meeting with the staff of a small city about an on-going land-use project. It was a significant meeting for a large project, so the meeting was to be attended by many, including the developer, his staff, his consultants, city planners, and city public works staff.

As we filed into the room, the City Engineer took control of the seating arrangements, directing that "the black hats should sit on that side of the table and the white hats on this side." The City Engineer may well have spoken in a moment of ill-considered haste, for which he was known. My memory is that the City Development Director immediately rebuked him for his words. But years later, his words still rankle.

They rankle for several reasons. The immediate reason is that the city, like many cities, was dependent on continued growth to keep the municipal books balanced. This is the state of municipal finance that StrongTowns argues is fatally flawed, with the day of reckoning now upon us. But even setting the StrongTowns argument aside, if the city thought they needed new development to keep the city afloat, why should the people who were working to bring new development be denigrated as "black hats"?

But more fundamentally, the City Engineer’s words rankle because, even if one accepts that there are white hats and black hats in the room, it would be wrong to automatically assign the hats based on job titles.

I suggest that there are three constituencies are represented in any development meeting. The first two are the ones highlighted by the City Engineer’s words, the team responsible for ensuring that the developer makes a good profit on the new land use and the team responsible for assuring that the new development conforms to appropriate city standards and pays all required city fees.

It’s the third constituency that is often forgotten during such meetings. That third constituency is the people who will live in the city fifty years hence. If land sales are the goal, the developer’s window is often only five years. Even if the improvement is to be held long-term, the developer probably doesn’t care about more than fifteen years. And the city’s windows can be even less, perhaps only looking to improve city finances over the next three or four years during which much of the current council will be running for re-election.

It’s often the case that nobody is looking fifty years into the crystal ball. And if perchance someone is, they are the ones who deserve the white hats. And, not surprisingly, increased urbanism is often the perspective taken by those taking the long view.

This subject comes to mind because of a meeting I attended in early October. The Urban Land Institute (ULI) has a program through which land-use professionals from other regions will visit a city with a pending project. The visiting professionals will engage in extended meetings over a couple of days to learn about the issues. Next, they’ll meet far into the night to pool their training and experience to offer true outsider advice on how to configure the improvements to optimize the long-term public benefits. Finally, they’ll offer their thoughts to the project members and the public.

The visiting ULI members have their expenses paid and receive their regular pay from their employers, but receive no additional compensation for their long hours of work and travel. Nor is there any hope of securing a new contract. They offer their services solely for the betterment of a community that is often several time zones away.

The project under discussed in October was the Railyards in Sacramento, a vastly interesting urbanist development near the recently reconstructed Sacramento Train Station, pictured above. The ULI team presented some cogent and interesting suggestions that I may review in the future.

But for today, with the Christmas spirit hopefully still lingering in the air, my only goal is to let you know that there are sometimes white hats in the land development process and that those hats don’t belong to the developer’s team or the city staff, but to the professionals who go over and above their regular duties to serve the long-term interests of a community. And their advice usually advocates for the urbanist aspect of the future.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net )

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. He has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and three dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.comHe can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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Dan Lyke January 02, 2013 at 07:37 PM
Before you dropped in on the shindig on Saturday there was a short discussion about validity of models in which one participant in the conversation roundly poo-pooed the models under which some large set of people were making their decisions with as "stupid". Said person was quite confident that their own non-falsifiable models were "smart", and though they laughed and agreed when I observed that I consider it a success when I can see when my own models have been stupid, there didn't seem to be any room for introspection and reflection. I think the necessity underlying any attempt to change systems and processes is the ability to accept that the people on the other side of the table, no matter their hat color, are acting in a way that best serves the outcomes based on their model and assumptions. Sure, there are always a few outliers who are genuinely nuts, but more often there are real concerns and real interests that can be solved by listening and educating. And prematurely assigning hat color doesn't do that at all. The best systems come when you can align the interests of the individuals comprising the process and the outcome of the overall process. The citizens have an interest in guiding the goals of the overall process, we should also be looking at ways to make sure that the city engineers and the developers have as their primary interest supporting those goals.
Dave Alden January 07, 2013 at 07:41 PM
Dan, I agree. Sometimes there truly are villians. But more frequently there are people much like us who have inadvertently grasped the wrong end of the argument. Or who find that their continued well-being depends on something being true, so they selectively grab only the facts that will make it true. Villifying those folks doesn't serve any purpose. It's the same reason that I don't choose to use "smart growth" instead of "new urbanism". Starting a discussion by advising the other side that their position is the opposite of smart isn't productive.

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