Developer recruits new urbanists for multi-city building campaign

Long Island-based Renaissance Downtowns is using the downturn to avidly propose development projects in third- and fourth-tier cities.

Some new urbanist architecture and planning firms have noticed an uptick in interest from real estate developers in the past two months — possibly a sign that development activity has bottomed out and is now hesitantly starting to revive.

At CNU’s annual gathering in Denver in June, the spotlight was seized by a new player — Renaissance Downtowns LLC of Plainview, New York, which has begun advocating new urbanist concepts in projects that the company wants to build, mainly in municipalities across the Northeast.

Renaissance, led by Donald Monti, has assembled a Who’s Who of new urbanist planning firms, including ACP Visioning + Planning, Dover Kohl & Partners, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, Goody Clancy, Jeff Speck, John Massengale, Looney Ricks Kiss, Moule & Polyzoides, and Urban Design Associates. These and other firms, along with consultants such as Zimmerman/Volk Associates, have been asked to work with Renaissance on mixed-use projects in cities of 30,000 to 150,000 people.

The projects are situated in “third- and fourth-tier cities” — places that Monti says are ripe for undertakings that would greatly expand their downtown residential population. Others are in suburban downtowns. Most of the downtowns where the projects are being proposed “have no people living in them,” Monti told a CNU session. “We will try to get 3,000 to 4,000 people living in them.” Each project proposed by Renaissance “has to have a transit component,” Monti pointed out.

In five northeastern states, Renaissance and other Monti companies have targeted 22 communities, including Paterson, New Jersey; Springfield, Massachusetts; Nashua, Concord, and Manchester, New Hampshire; Norwalk, Bridgeport, Waterbury, New Britain, Hartford, Bristol, Meriden, Enfield, Windsor, New Haven, New London, and Norwich, Connecticut; and Glen Cove, Long Beach, Hempstead, Copiague, and Freeport, New York.

“Over the next 24 months, as other investors and developers take a wait and see attitude, Renaissance plans to invest its resources and human capital for select opportunities that are now available for those entrepreneurs with the vision and stomach to step up to the plate,” declares a 65-page prospectus that was distributed during CNU 17.

“Renaissance believes that the market will rebound no sooner than 2011,” the prospectus states. Consequently, the company’s goal is to hammer out local agreements and get plans completed within a two-year time span — before more cautious developers decide it’s safe to reenter the market.

Privately paying for planning

In communities where Renaissance hopes to work, the company’s strategy revolves around quickly obtaining cooperation from the local government. In Nashua, New Hampshire, the first (and currently only) city where Renaissance has been named “preferred developer,” the company concluded about six months of negotiations this May by winning authorization to devise a plan for waterfront land at the edge of downtown.

Half of the city-owned 13-acre site near the confluence of the Merrimack and Nashua Rivers consists of virgin land. The other half is a former Johns Manville asbestos plant property that Nashua Economic Development Director Tom Galligani says was “completely cleaned 15 years ago.”

Renaissance’s strategy for the target communities also emphasizes the need to persuade “significant private downtown property owners” to join with Renaissance; those owners would form a “private property owners’ alliance” (PPOA) that would bring multiple properties into each project. Such partnerships will ensure that a “comprehensive shared redevelopment vision” can be conceived and carried out, Monti says.

In Nashua, the company is looking at forming a partnership with the owners of about 17 adjacent acres. Thus the entire redevelopment area there would cover approximately 30 acres.

Renaissance promises to pay the cost of any master planning up front — an offer that’s expected to make the process palatable to municipalities strapped for cash. Galligani anticipates that the master planning in Nashua, an 84,000-person city about 40 miles northwest of Boston, will cost between $200,000 and $400,000.

In each participating city, the government presumably will use one of the New Urbanism-oriented planning firms recommended by Renaissance. Part of Monti’s pitch is that the company will bring in one of the nation’s best planning teams. The planners would work with the government, land owners, and “stakeholders” to devise an acceptable plan. Monti says that although Renaissance will pay for the planning, the municipality will be in charge.

“They will do extensive public outreach,” Galligani said of the developers. ”If they work with us collaboratively, it will be easier to go through the permitting process. I’m very excited about the potential. We’re assuming that by the time we put the shovel in the ground, about two years will have passed.” That estimate matches Monti’s forecast of when the market will have rebounded.

‘Whatever it takes’

Among some new urbanists who have agreed to work with Renaissance, there is uncertainty as to how successful the company’s pursuit of projects will be. Monti has been a developer for 35 years, operating companies such as Glen Isle Development Co., which is carrying out a joint development with RXR Realty and the Posillico Group on a 46-acre site in Glen Cove, New York. In Denver, Monti identified himself as “a reformed developer,” admitting that until not long ago he was undertaking projects that emphasized privacy and exclusion rather than spaces open to the public.

Brandon Palanker, director of new business development for Renaissance, says the turning point for Monti came when he asked Beyer Blinder Belle of New York to lay out a sequestered development in Glen Cove. The firm refused, saying the concept of a development with cul-de-sacs separated from the rest of the community, was “not the right way to do things” and was “not where the market is going,” Palanker says. Thus, 18 months ago, was born Renaissance Downtowns. Four months ago the company began doing its road show for municipalities, planning firms, and others.

“Cities of Tier 1 and 2 are too expensive” for Renaissance to pursue, Palanker says. Therefore Monti’s organization has fastened upon third- and fourth-tier cities, preferably those that are not far from a large metropolitan center. Nashua became an enticing prospect because it has undeveloped land near a downtown that has gone from dull to lively in recent years. Furthering its appeal, commuter rail service has been proposed for an existing freight line that runs through the area.

Some new urbanists wonder whether many communities, with their entrenched local politics, can be enticed to embrace an out-of-town developer, form public-private partnerships, and adopt a plan quickly, as Monti wants them to. The prospectus says Renaissance has a “whatever it takes” attitude.

The company says it uses a “stage gate process” to systematically evaluate projects and avoid losing much time pursuing proposals that will not come to fruition. “This isn’t going to be easy,” Palanker says. The prospectus states: “To take advantage of these next two years, a sense of urgency must be acknowledged by both the developer and the municipality.”