Top 10 TND mistakes

Developers get into trouble when they fail to address the following issues in building a new urban community.��

It is much easier to develop a traditional neighborhood development (TND) today than it was a decade ago. At that time, discussions were dominated more by entitlement and financial issues than by design, marketing, and construction. Few tools were available to help in the process. There was no Best Practices Guide from New Urban Publications, no Lexicon, no SmartCode, no National Town Builders Association. There were few built projects to visit and study, even fewer development teams with TND experience, and no email listserves that connected practitioners across the globe.
Despite the advent of new tools, developers continue to make errors that could be avoided. Here is a list of ten common mistakes developers make as they weave their way through the complicated maze involved in creating worthwhile communities:
1. Failure to leverage the charrette process adequately. Many developers continue to view the charrette as simply a planning and design exercise, failing to see that is also a means for securing regulatory subsidies and an unparalleled public relations opportunity, which can help recruit development team members, builders, and potential buyers. If you want special treatment from outside entities, you need to show them that you are special; the charrette is the best way to demonstrate that, early in the process. If a bureaucrat who controls some aspect of your entitlements sees that your final presentation was “standing room only” and that you received enthusiastic applause, this could make a difference.
2. Failure to entitle and design a sufficient volume of building type diversity. Local governments tend to discourage a wide range of building type diversity by outlawing small units, zero-lot-line residences, and certain kinds of attached units. Even if a developer overcomes these obstacles, building type diversity is often abandoned over the life of the project because of costs (it is more efficient to have fewer building types and fewer designs). Developers end up producing less-interesting places and missing the huge premiums that result from diversity (which greatly outweigh the costs). Diversity also reduces risk, by opening the project to a broader market.
3. Failure to develop a house/building plan generation strategy quickly for every lot. The biggest ongoing problem for TND developers is securing enough high-quality building designs. Architectural charrettes have helped, but the core problem remains: most developers do not have a realistic game plan for identifying how to generate building designs for each lot. This often results in delays or design compromises. By carefully analyzing this issue early in the process, a developer should be able to assemble a unique blend of strategies that make sense for a particular TND, given such factors as absorption goals, resources, and design aspirations.
4. Failure to create an effective builders guild or building program. Developers typically devote too few resources to recruiting and managing the number, mixture, and quality of builder-partners that will be required to execute a well-conceived TND. While the selection of builder-partners is important, the manner in which the builders are managed is equally important. Too often, collaboration among builders is sparse because the communication structure is poor (lacking weekly or biweekly meetings during the TND’s early stages, for example).
5. Letting local engineers undermine the master plan. The master plan should continually be reexamined in light of market changes and the introduction of better ideas. But too often local engineers make changes without adequately consulting with the original planners. The problem is that local engineers may not understand the importance of certain design details that, when changed, can affect the entire plan. Developers can remedy this by continually engaging the planners as the community progresses.
6. Selling the features of a TND instead of the benefits for owners. Once people learn the design details of TNDs, they enjoy sharing that information. The result may be marketing materials more akin to a design dissertation than a concise explanation of the benefits of living in a TND. Instead of being told that a fine-grained mix of housing types is an important principle, a prospect needs to be informed that a TND offers the freedom to stay in the same neighborhood when life circumstances change or that such diversity permits different generations of the same family to live as neighbors. Benefits should be framed in the same manner as other products are sold in our culture (by emphasizing aspects such as value, convenience, choice, safety, healthy living, or beauty).
7. Hiring real estate agents who do not adequately understand New Urbanism. Just as a builder would not add costly features to a house without expecting a sales agent to highlight them, a developer should not spend the extra time and money to put together a TND without selling its extra value. Too often sales agents know more about square footage costs and kitchen countertops than about the special benefits of the neighborhood. Developers need to hire the right people from the start or make sure they train their sales staff thoroughly. Sales agents must be familiar with planning and design.
8. Spending marketing dollars on the wrong things. A well-designed special events campaign or a well-crafted PowerPoint presentation costing $5,000 can generate greater results than spending $35,000 on brochures, conventional advertising, and overly ornate signage during a TND’s early stages.
9. Website overdesign. Too many developers believe the primary purpose of a website is to provide information to prospective buyers as opposed to bringing traffic to the sales office. No matter how well done, a website cannot capture the essence or special nature of a well-executed TND. Strive to provide enough information to instill excitement about visiting the TND, but don’t present so much information that the browser will end up thinking it’s not necessary to visit the development itself.
10. Failure to pay enough attention to homeowners association documents. In almost any kind of development, many of the ramifications of the legal documents are not immediately clear and won’t be visible for several years. What makes this a major problem in a TND is the larger number of problems that the association will have to address — arising from the mixture of uses, the small lots, and the wide range of lot types near one another. Make sure that all the members of the development team have an opportunity to provide input on the final documents (and use legal counsel that understands TNDs).

Nathan Norris is director of marketing and sales at The Waters, a TND in Montgomery, Alabama, and a principal at PlaceMakers, a new urbanist design and implementation firm based in Miami Beach, Florida.

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