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Tips for greedy developers in Nimbyville

Jeffrey Denny

I’m fortunate to live in a lovely, leafy, historic walkable urban neighborhood.

We have a nice mix of old homes both grand and modest, classic pre-war apartment buildings, a plethora of great public and private schools, a major university, a rich blessing of places to worship, wonderful new libraries, restaurants and stores galore, and good public transit. Most of all, I love the people here — smart, caring, civically involved, truly neighborly.

Like most people here who care about our “village in a city,” I follow land-use issues and debates closely.

So if you’re a developer or own commercial property here, I have one thing to say to you:

HAHAHAHAHA!!!!! Good luck, silly billy!

Ahem. Sorry. What I meant to say is, consider these 10 helpful tips for doing business here:

1. Even for the most historically respectful, tastefully designed and LEED Platinum energy/enviro-rated project, expect a bitter, costly fight.

We love to put the “nay” in “neighborhood”.

You can follow zoning and historic preservation rules to the letter, honor the look and feel of the community, and engage us on your plans with openness, cooperation and collaboration. Yet be prepared for us to stink-eye, carp, quibble and objurgate your project down to the curb cuts — or better yet, to death.

A passionate minority will oppose any development whatsoever, even if the majority welcomes it. Opponents have the time, passion, powerful rhetoric, trenchant insights and moral high ground to stop or slow-roll any development it cannot deign to bless.

Also note: While we haven’t risked the time or money to research, locate, finance, design or obtain the regulatory approvals for your project, we can use Google to provide indisputable peer-reviewed research. Or inject our personal experience or preternatural wisdom that trumps your careful analysis and demonstrates your project is harmful. We have no skin in the game but it’s no skin off our noses!

Whatever you do, do not threaten old-growth trees! They give off oxygen and protect the planet even if they’re dead or dying from bugs, disease or other natural causes. We read “The Lorax” and assume you care more about money than trees.

2. Make sure you build parking

Our neighborhoods are already choked with parked cars from locals and visitors. Cherished businesses struggle and fail for lack of parking. Many in our community — seniors or families with small children — need to drive because getting around by foot, bike, Uber/Lyft, scooter or the broken metro system is highly impractical especially in bad weather.

3. Do not build parking.

It enables and even encourages people to drive. This creates more traffic, chokes the streets, and melts the polar icecaps. People should walk, bike, scooter or take the broken metro system. A little icy rain never hurt anyone. Or use Uber or Lyft, although our jury is out regarding their moral standing.

Given our mixed message on parking, developers should stand by, let the cost of financing pile up and allow their projects to languish while we argue.

4. If you own commercial property, never renegotiate a merchant lease without the community’s input.

If your capitalist one-percenter mind thinks business deals are primarily between buyer and seller, think again, greed-head.

While definitely not fans of Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal,” our unmatched intellect, moral suasion and experience negotiating global trade agreements and peace pacts can wrest costly concessions from you. And we have a LOT of lawyers and political people here. Bringing the community to the table and empowering us early will save us the trouble of attacking you later.

Whatever you do, never terminate a merchant lease without gaining prior community review and approval. Even if the merchant 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 occurs in owner-tenant negotiations, the community will assume Trumpy avarice, extreme bad faith and disregard for the commonweal on your part.

5. Obtain the community’s approval for any new tenants.

Make sure they satisfy the community’s preferences that may include, but are not limited to:

— Plant and garden stores;

— Adorable little shops offering handmade ice cream, irresistible cupcakes lovingly baked by two sisters, and very special overpriced wine, cheese, olive oil and vinegar that the declining Amazon Whole Foods has become too corporate mainstream to carry. Our bohemian bourgeois sensibilities simply cannot resist costly boutique products.

— Funky gift shops offering clever hand-made arts and crafts by local artists and artisans or better yet, the indigenous peoples of poor 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 rom-com, “You’ve Got Mail.”

Recognize that our community wishes to recreate the charming postcard Main Streets found in historic New England villages but without the atrocious tourists, tee-shirt shops and traffic.

6. Always select small independent “mom and pop” merchants over big faceless corporate chains.

The community was saddened when a beloved family-owned Italian restaurant failed, and frustrated when the space remained boarded up for a while. We blamed the rich, greedy landlord. Outrage ensued when a 7–11 moved in. It’s pretty busy, suggesting some shameless people here secretly like convenience.

Generally, the community hates chain restaurants and retailers that 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 demand at least a market return on their portfolios or else fire their fund managers.

Nevertheless, always prefer the independent merchant, even if chain franchises offer a stronger, more stable and sustainable business plan and income stream ensuring they can afford market-rate rents.

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 tasty sandwiches.

7. 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, margins and customer traffic, then it’s up to you, Scrooge McDuck, to subsidize them.

8. Never sign any new merchants that compete with community-favored merchants.

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

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

9. Do not 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 in letter and spirit.”

Claiming property rights will only inflame the community. Property rights are a right-wing, Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, unfettered free-market concept, something the capitalist one-percenter corporatist shills promote at the harm of people and communities.

If we sound like a bunch of aging hippie socialists or “woke” Millennials, we also have a wicked sense of irony: The average income around here is over $200,000, four times America’s, while median home prices are getting close to $1 million, over five times the nation’s.

Yes, many people here live on limited or fixed incomes but we’re all equal because whatever our financial situation might be, we agree: When you own property in this community, it becomes community property.

This gives us the right to tell you — in great and gory detail — what you can and cannot do. Our principles supersede the zoning rules. Sure, we have lawyers, political levers and a powerful voice to reshape the zoning rules to our liking. But it’s easier to demonize developers and landlords.

10. Avoid pointing out that most people here are in fact property owners.

The majority are homeowners. Homeowners generally hate being told — especially by neighbors — what they can and cannot do with their property.

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

Many here rent out their homes or spaces in their homes. Suffice they also don’t like the city’s recently clampdown on Airbnb use. Nor, I suspect, would most appreciate meddling in what rent to charge for their “English basements” (i.e., dank hovels), the tenants they must welcome, or additions they need to build for aging parents or woke Millennials returning home.

Final thoughts

If my community’s decades of cranky micromanagement of development and retail commerce has led to empty storefronts, lamentation and accusation, while other neighborhoods across the city with more common sense and open arms bustle, then it’s your fault, developer or commercial landlord, not ours.

Remember: You’re the bad guy, the despicable landlord, the Grinch, the Gingrich, the Mister Potter in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the stone-hearted, icy-souled grubbing pinch-penny.


I share these tips at great personal risk.

I expect the community to carp and cavil my advice like it did the proposed new public swimming pool, senior living facility, transitional homeless housing and transit-oriented mixed-use projects. Some might slam me as a shill for developers even though I have zero association with any.

I just happen to be a progressive that likes progress.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.

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