While you were driving home from work Tuesday night, Plainview, N.Y.–based developer Renaissance Downtowns was getting unanimous approval for a $1.5 billion redevelopment plan for a 17-acre former shopping mall in Bristol, Conn. By using social media as a tool to leverage “crowdsourced placemaking,” Renaissance overcame an initial two-story height restriction with a concept plan that now includes a seven- to nine-story boutique hotel, a town square piazza, and 3,500 apartment units, all by resident request.
Profiled in the Idiot’s Guide to Crowdsourcing and in a New York Times article titled "You 'Like' It, They Build It," Renaissance’s patent-pending process—one that the company’s vice president of marketing and public affiars Brandon Palanker jokingly calls a focus group on steroids—could totally reinvent counter-NIMBY operations and re-grease the wheels of the suburban development approval process squarely in the developer’s favor.
Palanker stopped by Multifamily Executive this week to talk with senior editor Chris Wood about the win in Bristol, leveraging social media, and saying bye-bye to the traditional psychographic approach to placemaking.
MFE: Congratulations on your approval for the Bristol concept plan! How are you feeling about that win?
Palanker: Thanks; it’s really good stuff. Last night, we got approval for the plan that includes 3,500 units downtown, 1,000 of which are under our control on municipal property, and there was not a single naysayer in the crowd. It was a straight seven-to-zero bipartisan vote. Even the mayoral candidates currently running against the mayor are for our program. It’s incredible what bringing a community onboard can do; it really is.
MFE: So “crowdsourced placemaking," huh? Can you help us out here?
Palanker: The idea really comes from the history of the developer, long before social media. In order to succeed with suburban redevelopment, you needed community support. You literally used to go door to door and sit in old ladies' living rooms and talk in Town Hall meetings until 4 a.m. It’s the same thing here, but it’s about being much more productive in regards to using social media for community education. The other part is about transparency and being available as a developer to the public. It’s always been the intent of the developer to reach out to the community and become part of the community that you are going to develop in, because a) it’s the right thing to do, and b) in suburbia, it’s the only way to get things approved.
MFE: But what exactly is crowdsourcing?
Palanker: Some people call it a focus group on steroids, but crowdsourcing methodology is really just taking a process that used to be done in-house, such as research, and literally having an open call to anyone in the community to participate in your planning process. We utilized three platforms, two online and one in-person, to create a grassroots social media campaign rallying around a triple-bottom-line development: socially, economically, and environmentally responsible. It’s very hard for even NIMBYists to be against that.
MFE: How does crowdsourcing counter NIMBYism?
Palanker: Through the Internet, we can reach the silent majority. We all realize the people that go up to city hall and town hall on a regular basis to complain and impede progress are the vocal minority. People who are working two jobs and get home at 7 p.m. stay at home: They elect their officials and expect for them to act on their behalf. But when elected officials hear the same 10-20 people talking 10-20 times, it becomes a chorus of hundreds. Through the Internet, the silent majority can participate via five minutes at lunch or 10 minutes on a Thursday night.
MFE: And how does your social media platform work?
Palanker: It’s very similar to Facebook, with online forums and blogs where we can talk about upcoming events, people can discuss what they’d like to see in their downtown, voice what their concerns are. They can engage with us as a developer; they can engage with each other as a community. There is an online voting application not dissimilar to YouTube where a user’s content is voted on via likes from other users in the community. But there are rules. In order to upload or vote on content, you have to sign an electronic agreement stating that you will abide by the triple-bottom-line: that ultimately we are trying to provide and promote development ideas that must be socially, economically, and environmentally responsible. People post what they want to see downtown, and then we can commence feasibility studies on the top vote getters.
MFE: What kind of deliverables do you expect from a process like that?
Palanker: The biggest vote getter on the Bristol website was the idea of a public square piazza. When we began, they all said that more than two stories was not going to happen in downtown Bristol. It’s crime; it’s Section 8; it’s more traffic; it’s all of those misnomers. But very quickly, as they asked a blend of retailers what necessitated three to four to five stories, they saw also that it still looked like a quaint New England village. So we presented to the crowd and said, you can have your piazza, but if you have your piazza, you are going to need a seven- to nine-story boutique hotel. Suddenly, the same people who were against anything more than two stories weren’t just embracing, but asking for a mid-rise hotel, because it is their amenity. That’s support for density that we couldn’t even ask for at the beginning. If we had come in there with a plan for a piazza and a seven-story hotel, they would have run us out of town.
MFE: With social media, finding participants is often the toughest part. How did you recruit the people that participated in your crowdsourcing?
Palanker: First, we seed the process with dozens and dozens of meeting with groups before we even launched the crowdsourcing endeavor, so when you do launch the website, you already have 50-100 people who are educated on the issue and ready to sign up. Second is via transparency. We are typically a top-down industry: This is our zoning, this is our plan, we know we have the votes, deal with this, because it is going to get done. Instead, we opened the entire process to the community. We even opened up what we think is the only developer's office in a city hall. We wanted to say that this is a true public/private partnership. We are open for business, come on in, and ask us questions.
MFE: How successful was the program?
Palanker: We had more than 1,300 members sign up. That’s almost half the people that voted in Bristol’s last mayoral election. That’s some voting block we’ve got now. No wonder we get unanimous votes. But this is, in reality, something completely new for us, too. We are adjusting and learning as we go, but we think we’ve found something pretty special for suburban redevelopment.
MFE: Do you have system functionality to archive all of the comments and study how people navigated the process?
Palanker: We’re refining all of our archiving and traffic reporting as we move forward, definitely. We are patent-pending and considering spinning off crowdsourced placemaking as a separate business entity. What do different demographics tend to want? We are getting some consumer knowledge that no one out there has, and we’re not just guessing at psychographics; it's real people saying, "This is who I am; this is my place in life; and this is what I want."