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Are Developers Evil?

June 16, 2009 Planning & Design 12 Comments

First, full disclosure – the bulk of my work as an architect has been for and with developers and their cousins, commercial property managers.

In the world of urban design, developers, many times, become the fall guys and/or are blamed for building the suburban blandness that we all love to take pot shots at. I fall into the camp that the development community is much like any other – you have few crooks and sleazeballs, you have a few truly outstanding, creative and “sensitive” individuals, and most just fall in the inoffensive middle. I’m also a big believer in the three-legged stool analogy – developers don’t and can’t act in vacuum. Before anything can be built or renovated, in addition to the developer, a project requires approvals by “the government” and willing buyers or renters. Granted, developers are “in it for the money”, and many times tend to favor “cost-effective” choices over more sustainable ones, but they can only “get away with it” IF the government approves and/or IF their customers are willing to write the check for the finished product. People are buying vinyl-sided boxes in O’Fallon for a variety of reasons (including “affordability” and a “yard”), but having a gun held to heads isn’t one of them. The same goes for the proliferation of Walgreen’s at the expense of the locally-owned corner pharmacies – people are voting with their wallets.

Unless you’re one of those real rarities, a fourth of fifth generation living on the family farm/homestead, you can thank a developer for where you live, where you work and where you go to school. Someone, sometime, took a risk and laid out your block or cul de sac. Someone built a structure, and it may have been renovated, one or more times, by other people, or even you, willing to take the risk, a.k.a, developers. And in the realm of higher education, nearly every institution continues to invest and reinvest in their facilities, acting very much as developers.

The second leg of the stool is “the government”. I’m going to save a discussion of the quality of our elected officials for another post, but we can certainly kick around the wonderful world of government regulation. If you go to any jurisdiction that has a Planning, Community Development or Public Works department, you can be pretty sure that you’re going to have rules that limit what you can do and specify what you can’t do. And while appeals of and challenges to the regulations remain a possibility, most developers and most clients would much rather just comply with them, get the project done, and move on. These rules and regulations don’t just magically appear on the law books – they originate either from the professional staff or from the legislative side, and almost always are enacted, with the best of intentions, to address, in someone’s eyes, a bad or problem situation. Unfortunately, that Law of Unintended Consequences has a nasty habit of kicking in, and bland is “safe”, which is one big reason why suburbia looks remarkably consistent across the United States.

Finally, the third leg is the consumer. Like they say, never overestimate the taste of the American public. We’re a country that has embraced the mullet, shag carpet, avocado green appliances, vinyl siding, PBR and jacked-up pickup trucks. There’s a saying in the auto industry that “there’s a butt for every bucket”. Most developers aren’t stupid – if nobody’s buying at the price that they’re selling, guess what, they don’t do it again! So while it’s easy to sit in our ivory towers, in front of our keyboards, lamenting that too many people simply “don’t get it”, the hard reality is that they DO! The developers are giving them what they want, at a price they can afford, and everyone (except maybe “us” urbanists) is walking away happy . . .

– Jim Zavist


Currently there are "12 comments" on this Article:

  1. PT says:

    I couldn’t have said it better. The dollar vote is the most impactful way to change anything.

  2. Angelo says:

    You don’t think that the large amount of money developers have weighs in their favor? It obviously gives them a leg-up in the debate, and certainly campaign contributions are no small matter.

    Also, consumers buy what is provided to them. If we didn’t have safety or regulatory standards at all consumers would buy poisonous, hazardous, dangerous, or misleading products (they still do, actually). People aren’t exactly 100% logical, and it is necessary to counteract basic human negligence, ignorance, and naivite’ with regulations crafted by the interested and well-informed.

  3. John says:

    Great piece…a refreshing dose of reality.

  4. GMichaud says:

    Part of the confusion comes from government handing over their role to developers. Developers do not look at the bigger picture. How to shape cities, interconnect transit, create public spaces. Sometimes developers attempt this efforts in these areas with a variety of successes.

    Ultimately the consumer will buy what has been made favorable to them. Thus the gutting of transit in the city and the abandonment of urban policies has contributed as much to the success of the suburbs as the desire to have a house with surrounding land.

    It is not so much developers have given consumers what they want as it is that true choices have been eliminated. This creates todays situation where the City of St. Louis does not know whether it is urban or suburban.

    It is like saying health care in America is a success because it is what everyone uses. Where is the choice?

  5. Angelo says:

    I wholeheartedly support GMichaud’s comments.

  6. GMichaud hits the nail on the head again. Government should regulate proactively in the public interest, not reactively to serve development interests. If government did proper regulation, many developer/citizen fights would not exist — there would be clear rules to follow in development that would have wide public support.

  7. john says:

    MO is the only state in the country that turns the power over to developers when blight is declared in the use Eminent Domain. The US Constitution requires that one of government’s main objectives is the protection of property rights and in StL even free speech is threatened when someone attempts to alert the public to the ED abuse. “St. Louis’ censorship is a case study in how so-called ‘sign codes’ give local bureaucrats across the country license to stifle speech,” said Bill Maurer, executive director of the Institute of Justice. “When the government has the ability to regulate speech, it also has the power to censor speech it does not like.” Balanced stool? You must be kidding…

  8. Angelo says:

    Are developers evil? No. It’s just that they have fewer blocks on their road to evilness, and certainly more power than most when committing acts of evil.

    The government is complicit when developers go evil, and consumers/citizens havn’t a huge amount of power to name the number and sorts of choices they have. It’s either between vinyl siding or a dilapidated brick building; a parking lot or a slowly collapsing modernist structure.

  9. Dave says:

    Ain’t the fourth leg of the stool ‘us’ urbanists and architects? Why eliminate that integral part of any development project from responsibility? Developers minimize cost in order to minimize perceived risk. Isn’t it the architect’s job (or one of many) to sell good design as effectively minimizing risk? Can’t they only ‘get away with it’ if we design it?

  10. Steve Waldron says:

    ‘Us’ urbanists and architects are not a leg on a stool so much as the seat of the stool. We’re the ones that ties the other three pieces together through management and understanding of each aspect. Additionally, we’re the ones that are the most visible when something does right or wrong, and the foundational supports below that shape the product.

    Even Corb wasn’t able to get his projects built without financial backing and governmental approval. He often lamented that he, too, was a pawn to the system.

    I think what would be effective policy is a higher level of “social responsibility” ingrained in the mindset of developers. Architects who are currently going through school have 6 years of collegiate education, 3 years of interning, and then 2 years or so of test taking before becoming a registered architect. Imagine what a year or so of “social justice and development” might impact a busin4ess major becoming a developer. Even more impacting might be some requisite field trips. Developers have a heart, they just haven’t been told to look for it. They know where their wallet is, and so that’s what they use.

  11. At Washington University’s School of Architecture, freshman can take a course taught by Bob Hansman that takes them up to the Wellston Loop. Students offer design solutions to community problems in one of the city’s most distressed areas.

    After freshman year, though, there is no follow-up. Imagine if the school had a social justice track that students could follow after that eye-opening freshman experience.

  12. I’m cleaning up some old emails and this blog was published in a newsletter in Denver called the back fence. Great blog and post, it’s why I had to comment. Some of the comments got me upset though, so I thought I’d return the favor.

    Angelo’s, the second comment, “People aren’t exactly 100% logical, and it is necessary to counteract basic human negligence, ignorance, and naivite’ with regulations crafted by the interested and well-informed.” Wow, I can’t believe nobody said anything. As one of the interested and well-informed I vote that you are not and your opinion doesn’t matter. (Sarcasm) Many of you urbanist have no sense of humor so I thought I’d point it out.

    Dave, I loved your comments.

    The suggestion that developers rely on being forced to take a course or learning track in “social responsibility”. I would vote yes if all urbanists, union organizers, political and community activists have to take courses. In economics, accounting, business management. The should also have to take a course in business responsibility where if the business fails all the employees you are putting out of work.

    P.S. I’m pro light rail. Believe that developers and societies goals can be aligned. I live in Denver and actively support light rail. I grew up in Springfield, MO and have spent a ton of time in St. Louis.


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