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New rules for NIMBYville

Your land is our land

Jeffrey Denny

I am blessed to live in a lovely urban historic community —dubbed a “village in the city” — that is passionate about managing change to protect and preserve its people-friendly character.

The upside: The community retains a delightful semblance of its prewar residential/commercial charm, with grand, ornate 1920s apartment buildings and preserved solid old homes fronted by porches and sidewalks under canopies of mature trees. We have nice little neighborhood schools and countless dog and people parks. Families stroll safe, cheery streets to shop and dine, or commute to work from the plentiful bus and metro stops. The “walk score” is an enviable 94 compared with the U.S. average of 49 and lower than 30 in many Sunbelt and Southern cities.

The downside: The community loves to rise up and oppose or nit-pick development, commerce and property use, even when it’s specifically intended to continue making the community the vibrant, walkable place we want to be.

To describe the community, my neighbors are well meaning, responsible and thoughtful. And educated. Almost 90 percent have an undergraduate degree compared with 30 percent for the country. Some 50 percent even have a masters or doctorate.

We’re thick with people who work for — or retired from — government, nonprofits, global NGOs and charitable organizations, trade associations, think tanks and political, PR and lobbying shops. Also, journalists, writers, research analysts, number-crunchers, academics and professional advocates, activists and other progressive do-gooders.

We enjoy more than our rightful share of lawyers, but not so much the corporate kind or those cheered or jeered on Law & Order. They write legislation, regulations and wonky policy briefs to tell the rest of the country what to do.

The private university here in fact deliberately chose the term “wonk” to brand itself. “Describing experts, thought leaders, and Washington insiders,” the university says, “the word was a perfect match for the [university] community — smart, passionate, focused, and engaged individuals who use their knowledge to effect meaningful change.”

Many in the community in their later years are proud to call themselves former children of the 1960s protest movements, people who came of age as college activists speaking truth to power and taking down Nixon, the war, and the establishment. The original #StayWoke.

No surprise the community is no fan of capitalism, free enterprise and the animal brutality of market forces as distasteful at best or perhaps evil.

Even though, with median household incomes over 200 percent higher than the nation’s, and median home values up to $950,000 compared with $207,000 nationwide, few communities on earth benefit more from the free economy than we do.

With its economic comfort and progressive politics, the community is rich with Bobos — the “Bohemian Bourgeois” — a term coined by New York Times columnist David Brooks to describe “highly educated folk who have one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success.”

Brooks, a former resident, is a prominent conservative thought leader, perhaps today’s William J. Buckley though less snarky and iconoclastic, much kinder and gentler. While the community has more liberal views than he, Brooks is a popular speaker here. His saving grace: He’s a proud member of the anti-Trump movement.

Folks here understandably are a bit conflicted when it comes to commerce.

The community magically believes you can micromanage local business, down to the favored type of merchant, without the usual unintended consequences such as empty storefronts. Years ago it fought to cap the number of restaurants to avoid attracting too many restaurant-goers. Now folks are upset about the chronic failure and lack of restaurants.

It’s like helicopter parents who wonder why their kids don’t launch.

On a happy note, the community for years fought the redevelopment of a dated, dreary commercial strip into a modern multi-use residential and commercial center. Eventually progress won, and today the development is a happy bustling place, while far short of perfect.

But the fight moved on. The community is now nit-picking a new community swimming pool, a local church trying to build a senior living facility, a transitional shelter for homeless families, and new multi-use of a decrepit grocery store. They’re not philosophically opposed to these things, of course, just the details.

The most heated community battle is aimed at the local wonk university. The offense: It failed to renew the lease of a commercial tenant, a beloved family-owned plant and garden store.

The garden store needed below-market rent and other breaks to survive in that location (two others remain open and will deliver here). The college explained that after concerted negotiations and a number of concessions, it couldn’t yield any more. It also needed part of the building to support another tenant, a pediatrics and OB-GYN facility of an area hospital system.

I lament the garden store’s demise —I loved the place, I can see it from my living room, it’s where I get my overpriced Christmas trees, and the staff was friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. Over the years I’ve bought, neglected and killed enough house plants from the store to fill Brazil’s Jardim Botânico de Curitiba.

The community was outraged. The most irate branded the university greedy, immoral and insensitive, not to mention insulting for playing a moral trump card by implying it was choosing pediatrics over petunias.

“The university has become a major commercial real-estate developer and has raised rents so high that it has driven out some of the diverse businesses that have helped shape and serve our neighborhoods,” one active local resident, a PhD, huffed in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

His point: As a tax-exempt entity, the college has a special duty to support community-favored merchants. In effect, subsidize and keep their businesses afloat with below-market rents and other special breaks.

The PhD did not address non-academic questions such as: Who in the community gets to decide what merchants the university must subsidize? How are the community deciders picked? What criteria must they use and how are the criteria determined? Are the breaks fair to non-favored merchants? What if the favored and non-favored are competitors — should the cherished vegan eatery get relief but not the more popular burger joint?

And should all tax-exempt entities — churches, nonprofits — be required to forego needed funds to subsidize community-favored tenants? Where do we draw the line?

Ignoring such complications, the community demanded the college save the garden store. The self-appointed leaders of the movement called for an old-school street protest to picket the college president, and circulated an online petition.

One problem: The college president is not your garden-variety corporate villain. She was a respected senior official in the Clinton and Obama administrations, headed a major global development program addressing world poverty, and the first woman to head the college.

“She brings the common sense that you see in small towns,” former President Obama said in welcoming her to the campus in the summer of 2016. “She brings the values of caring about your neighbor and ordinary folks to some of the biggest and most complex challenges of her time.”

Throngs of students, the majority of them women inspired by the university’s choice of the incumbent, lined to greet her when she first arrived, on bicycle with backpack.

The garden store has now packed up and moved out. But the kerfuffle continues. The neighborhood association is demanding that the university assist in bringing back and “resettling” the store at its original location or “find a suitable home” nearby, and finance the resettling costs. And also, release the store from its confidentiality agreement over the negotiations so the store “can defend itself” from the university’s “one-sided depiction of the relationship.” In effect, so the community can litigate the matter for itself.

As one local observed: “These same neighbors complaining about a business leaving have also worked tirelessly to block any new businesses from moving to the area — which I am not sure helped foster local commerce.”

The issue remains so hot that I expect the community to thoroughly trash my depiction of it.

As I’ve followed the many land-use debates here, avaricious commercial landlords in other Bobo NIMBY communities might wish to learn from the nonstop land-use fights in my community:

1.Always seek the community’s input while negotiating the lease of a favored merchant tenant.

If you think business deals are just between buyer and seller, sorry — that won’t work. Best to give the community a prominent seat at the table.

While definitely no fan Trump’s The Art of the Deal, the community’s unmatched intellect, moral suasion and experience negotiating global trade deals and peace pacts can wrest concessions from you that your merchant tenant cannot win on its own. This will save you the trouble of the community attacking you later.

Whatever you do, never terminate a lease without gaining prior community review and approval. Even if the tenant cannot meet the lease renewal terms you thought were negotiated in good faith. The community will decide what’s in good faith, thank you.

Also note: No matter what occurred in owner-tenant negotiations, the community will assume selfish avarice, extreme bad faith and disregard for the commonweal on the part of the property owner. See Rule #8.

2. Obtain the community’s approval before signing any new tenants.

Make sure any prospective tenants satisfy the community’s unique needs and preferences. Approved merchants may include, but are not limited to:

· Plant and garden stores, as mentioned above, but also adorable little shops offering handmade ice cream; irresistible cupcakes baked by two sisters or two girlfriends; wine and cheese that Whole Foods is too dumbly corporate mainstream to offer; likewise with small batch artisan olive oil and vinegar; or other shockingly overpriced boutique offerings irresistible to Bobos;

· Funky gift shops offering clever hand-made arts and crafts by local artists or better yet, the indigenous peoples of certain nations to support their micro-economies;

· Convivial neighborhood bistros and pubs, but not those catering to raucous beer-sodden college students;

· Bakeries with gluten-free offerings that taste almost like the real thing;

· Environmentally and politically “woke” locavore restaurants with respectful cultural appropriation, a generous kid’s menu of irresistible vegan options, and also, a few James Beard-nominated chefs (we’re not barbarians);

· Independent hand-roasted coffee houses with baristas who despise philistine customers (no more corporate Starbucks, please!);

· Hand-sewn children’s clothing stores (from places like Vermont, not Vietnam) (that offer a living wage and generous family leave policies);

· Authentic hardware stores with handy folks who can help you select exactly the right flange or grommet for your DIY project, but can’t afford to live in the community;

· Obsolete lamp, vacuum-cleaner and sewing machine repair shops that serve up to several customers a month;

· Small indie bookstores like the fictional “Shop Around the Corner” of the 1998 Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail.”

Recognize that the community wishes to recreate the charming postcard Main Streets found in historic villages but without the tourism and tee-shirt shops that bring unwanted strangers and traffic.

3. Always select “mom and pop” merchants over chain stores and restaurants owned by big faceless corporations.

The community was sad when a beloved family-owned Italian restaurant failed, and frustrated when the space remained boarded up for a while. It blamed the shameless landlord. More outrage ensued when a shiny new 7–11 moved in. Which is pretty busy, suggesting some in the community like it.

Generally, the community hates chain restaurants and retailers, which put profits over people because they’re beholden to rich, greedy shareholders. Even if people in the community with comfortable retirement savings accounts are in fact shareholders and expect at least a market return on their portfolios or else fire their money managers.

Nevertheless, always prefer the independent merchant (see Rule #2), even if chain franchises offer a stronger, more stable and sustainable business plan and income stream ensuring they can afford market-rate rents over the lease term or even long term.

Remember: Property owners must use more heart and less head when making merchant tenant decisions.

In that vein, under no circumstances allow a Chick-fil-A franchise to invade the neighborhood with its horrible politics and delicious sandwiches.

4. Support community-favored merchants even more than the community does.

If the favored merchants can’t pay the market-rate rent and survive on their business plans and customer traffic, then it’s up to you. As a landlord, you have plenty of money.

5. Never sign any new merchant tenants that compete with community-favored merchants.

Even if the new merchant might offer better products, services and prices.

For example, while the community cherishes the idea of the small local organic farmer, some fought a farmer’s market because the much fresher produce and lower prices might hurt the old cherished grocer. Even though the grocer looks and smells like an A&P in Toledo last refreshed in the 1970s.

One resident risked extreme opprobrium to call the old grocer “awful and absurdly overpriced” and “never would have lasted in our neighborhood other than the actions to protect it from competition.”

6. Whatever the plans for your property, expect a bitter, costly fight.

The community loves to put the “nay” in “neighborhood”.

So when developing or redeveloping your property, even if following zoning regulations to the letter and engaging the community on your plans with openness, cooperation and collaboration, you should allow residents to stink-eye, carp, quibble and objurgate your project down to the curb cuts — or better yet, to death.

Expect a passionate minority to oppose any development whatsoever, even what the majority welcomes. Opponents have the time, passion, resources, powerful rhetoric and moral high ground to stop or slow-roll any development it cannot deign to bless.

Also note: While community members may not have risked any time or financial capital to research, locate, finance, design or obtain the regulatory approvals for your project, they can Google, provide indisputable peer-reviewed research, or inject their personal experience or preternatural wisdom that trumps your careful analysis and demonstrates your project is stupid or harmful.

7. Be mindful of parking

Do provide parking. The neighborhoods are choked with parked cars. People in the community, many seniors or families with small children, cannot be expected to walk to dinner or shopping to support the cherished local mom & pop establishments (see Rules #2–5).

Do not provide parking. It encourages people to drive, which creates more traffic, chokes the streets, and melts the polar icecaps. People should be forced to walk, bike, or take the broken metro that never comes (or Uber or Lyft, though the jury is out regarding their moral standing).

Given the mixed message on parking, perhaps simply stand by and allow your project to languish while the community dithers.

8. Accept that no matter the details of any deal, the property owner is the bad guy.

As noted in Rule #1, you’re the hated landlord, the Grinch, the Gingrich, the Mister Potter in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the stone-hearted, icy-souled and grubbing pinch-penny.

The community will assume the worst of you, smear your name without regard to your side of the deal, and try to shame-pressure you to change how you wish to legally use your property.

9. Do not — under any circumstances — mention “property rights.”

As in, “This is my property, which I own, finance at market rates, manage, take the risk for, pay taxes on, seek to earn a market return on, and have the right to use as I wish as long as I follow the rules.”

Claiming property rights will only inflame the community. Property rights are a right-wing, Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, unfettered free-market concept, something the corporatist shills and ignorant Trumpsters promote to the harm of people and communities. Even communities where median incomes and home values are 2–3 times higher than the nation’s.

Remember: When you own property in this community, it becomes community property.

This gives the community the right to tell you — in great and gory detail — what you can and cannot do. The community’s principles supersede the city’s zoning rules. The community has numerous political levers to change the rules — a neighborhood advisory council, a local city council member. But it’s easier to attack landlords than change the rules.

10.Do not point out the irony that most in the community are in fact property owners.

The majority here own their homes. Homeowners generally hate being told what they can and cannot do with their property. Even here, where “property rights” is anathema.

Recently, homeowners here groused when the city clamped down on installing basement wet bars because folks were cheating on rules regarding in-home rental units.

Many in the community rent out homes they own, or spaces in their homes. It’s hard to imagine they’d appreciate the community dictating the rent they must charge or tenant they must welcome or protect. Or needing to subsidize community-preferred tenants at their expense.

But as I said, the community is a bit conflicted.

If the community’s decades of cranky micromanagement of the local retail economy, and hostility toward commercial property owners, leads to decline, lamentation and accusation, while other communities across the city with more common sense and open arms bustle with life and commerce, it’s your fault, property owner, not the community’s.

But I hope you’ll keep working through the noise and nonsense and making this community one of the best in the world.

As for me, I expect the community to carp and cavil this piece like it’s doing with the public swimming pool, senior living facility and transitional homeless shelter. And perhaps slam me as a shill for developers even though I have zero association with any.

I just happen to be one of those progressives who likes progress.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer