Consumers walking in successful placemaking project area

Expert Tips on Building Placemaking and Developer Partnerships

What is placemaking, and how can cities effectively work with developers to foster inviting spaces?

In a webinar hosted by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), Brett Malky, president and founder of EQA Landmark Communities, and Cody Howell, senior vice president at Buxton, addressed these important questions. Here’s what they had to say:

What is Placemaking?

Placemaking is a city planning approach that returns to development’s roots – the way things were done in the early part of the last century. Placemaking projects typically have the following characteristics:  

  • Often mixed-use, providing opportunities to live, work, play, shop, and dine
  • People enjoy being there
  • Has the “it” factor, which often means that a special characteristic (e.g. a waterfront) has been preserved

This approach to community development is what consumers want, which makes it sustainable.

Getting Started: Preparing to Talk to Site Developers

Before beginning conversations with a developer, there are some important steps city leaders need to take to prepare:

  1. Provide up-front intelligence on your community. You can’t assume that the developer will know anything about your city. Provide information on demographics – such as income, population and growth – as well as psychographics – which includes who residents are, what they buy, and what is important to them.
  2. Prepare site selection information. Have specific sites in mind and make sure they are ready for development through appropriate zoning and infrastructure.
  3. Know your incentive policies. Even if you don’t plan to offer incentives, be prepared to have a conversation about them. If you say no, be ready to give the developer a strong reason why. From a developer’s perspective, an example of a time when not offering incentives makes sense is if a big anchor tenant is already committed to the project and is drawing a lot of interest from others, which makes the project low risk.
  4. Identify what makes your place special or unique. To establish a strong sense of place, there needs to be an identifiable characteristic about your site. Perhaps your place has interesting buildings, historic ties to industry or agriculture, a waterfront, a park, or a great view. Know what makes your site special and be able to articulate that.

Vetting Potential Partners

Effective placemaking projects require effective partnerships. Both cities and developers should take steps to vet each other to be sure that the partnership is the right match.

From a city’s perspective, it’s important to find a trustworthy partner with experience who is willing to establish lasting connections in your community. Every developer will have had challenges and projects that didn’t go as planned; the important thing to consider is how they handled those challenges and whether they are forthright about them. For large, non-local organizations, ask if they will have local representation on the project, which demonstrates commitment.

From a developer’s perspective, a great partnership is one where there is consistent support from the city for the project. Political risk is a real threat for developers, as is the risk of the city or property owners trying to take advantage. Cities can minimize these risks through a separate economic development corporation and/or site control. Having an expedited approval process is helpful, but at the very least it should be a definable process. Finally, great city partners make sure the site is pad ready with infrastructure availability, such as roads, water, sewer, and telephone lines, and sometimes offer financial support.

The Bottom Line

Placemaking projects may be more challenging to define than typical community development projects, but they have the potential to create spaces that community members use for many years to come. By taking the right steps to identify what makes a place unique, prepare for conversations with developers, and vet potential partners, cities can lay the foundation for a successful development.  

Explore more economic development best practices from Buxton.

Journey Awareness Persona Economic Development/Elected Official City Government