Bargaining Power

People love to feel special. Sales agents make a living by understanding the power of “just for you”: “I don’t usually do this, but just for you, I’ll …” It closes the deal and mitigates buyer’s remorse.

But “just for you” would lose its value if there were no standards or rules to push back against. Rules enable the exceptions that make people feel they’ve scored a bonus no one else got.

Over the years that I’ve watched or participated in Town Council meetings, I’ve seen this duality of rules and exceptions play out every time a developer presents a project for council approval. Those intertwined notions of rules and exceptions took center stage at the March 6 council meeting as we struggled with refining regulations for the Ephesus-Fordham form-based code.

The two concepts we spent the most time on were block length and open space.

The specter of enabing another Alexan-type building – that cruise ship run aground look – prompted some of us to scrutinize block length closely. Regulations put in place after Alexan was approved cap block length at 400 feet, with a mandatory cut-through at 200 feet or less. The manager can boost the block length 10% to 440 feet, and the Community Design Commission can approve up to 600 feet in the face of extenuating circumstances. The proposal before us last Monday was to up the baseline to 450 feet, at a developer’s request, and the cut-through to 330 feet, with staff allowing an extra 10%.

On the issue of open space – green space, such as a pocket park, or a plaza or civic space, such as dedicating a room for community use in an otherwise private building – the form-based code had no such requirement coming into the meeting. Four advisory boards recommended unanimously to require 8% of each parcel be open space, but town staff countered with 5%. Mayor Hemminger suggested a compromise: 8% with the ability to negotiate a lesser amount, down to 5%, if the developer provided other incentives – for instance, making the building more energy efficient or providing shared parking.

The haggle factor, along with my desire to encourage walkability through shorter blocks and breathability through more open space, pushed me to vote against the staff recommendations of a 450-foot block baseline and 5% open space. Form-based code projects require approval only by staff and the Community Design Commission (and the town manager can overrule the CDC’s decision).

To operate in the best interests of the community, the staff needs to have some bargaining power. In the case of the developer who wants a 450-foot block, the town could negotiate getting a patio with planters and benches for the public if the baseline were 400 feet. But if the form-based code specs are tailored to meet developers’ needs already, we’ll never get that little respite space or anything else on our wish list.

My vote against the staff recommendation last week was a vote for empowering town staff, to give them the tools they need to operate in the best interests of the community, to give them the power of “just for you.”
— Nancy Oates

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