Getting your plans through City Hall
Photo by Nicholas Upton
I recently witnessed a public tarring and feathering for the ages at an open house that left me scarred as a reporter and occasional public speaker.
Picture the scene as a well-dressed 30-something from a local development company presented plans for a new apartment complex to be built within eyesight of my own kitchen window. He came with impressive demographics and beautiful renderings, but walked into a buzzsaw of uncouth words, disgusted chuckles, hoots, hollers and generally embarrassing antics from a cohort of my neighbors who hated his plans with visceral intensity.
I’ve covered countless such meetings, and maybe you’ve been in this position yourself—these type of heated public meetings are a sign of the times in this age of empowerment and infinite social connections. Bringing business plans through the municipal approval process has never been so complicated or fraught with unexpected obstacles.
Cutting to the chase, this developer’s plans were ultimately approved, but not before sweating his way through a few more, similarly unpleasant meetings as the proposal evolved to reflect feedback from the community, city staff, planning commission and city council.
Nobody wants to be that guy, so I spoke with some experts who’ve been there, done that and know a thing or two about anticipating roadblocks and moving your own plans from glossy renderings into the real world.
Now that I’ve got your blood pressure up, some good news: you can prepare for these obstacles, head off possible opposition at the pass, and maybe even make some friends in the ‘hood or at city hall if you play your cards right.
Just down the road from my first-ring suburb, Minneapolis is a big, progressive city with a reputation for making life challenging for small-business owners, especially in the restaurant community. Kim Bartmann, who owns eight of the city’s most charming restaurants, is no stranger to working the system. Over her 25 years as a restaurateur, she’s been through similarly tough experiences and lived to tell the tale.
“I’m a totally urban operator, so I’m biased toward operating in an urban environment as opposed to a suburb,” she said. “The whole farm-to-table movement has brought along with it people’s love of neighborhood restaurants in urban environments and I think there’s probably one or two franchise operators who’ve experience pushback in that regard, like we don’t want a quote-unquote chain restaurant in our neighborhood.”
One of Bartmann’s popular places, Pat’s Tap, is a cheese-focused gastropub with Skee-Ball in the back room. It’s the lone commercial corner in a gentrified neighborhood. After buying the former dive bar, she ran into opposition as dozens of citizens voiced concerns about the liquor license she applied for, fearing the noise and frequent police presence that doomed the previous owner.
“There’s always some part of them that can turn negative, and you just have to remember that when you go to those meetings, it’s best to be a good listener,” she said. “My advice for someone going into an urban location who hadn’t done it before would be to not have your lawyer or consultant or someone else go to that meeting for you, because then you’re inviting the suspicions that people have.”
She recommended hiring the help of a professional lobbyist or consultant if circumstances require, but stressed the business owners themselves should be present to show a personal connection and openness to individual concerns.
“You need to connect with someone who is familiar with the municipality you’re operating in and knows the written rules and the unwritten rules, and has an idea of how to navigate those things,” she added. “You can design around anticipating roadblocks so they don’t come up to begin with.”
The Red Stag Supper Club is one of restaurant owner Kim Bartmann's creations in urban Minneapolis.
Show your best side
Calling from his winter abode in Hawaii, Jimmy John’s operator Mike Mulligan is living the dream most franchisees imagine. His family operation owns 12 locations in the Twin Cities, all but two in Minneapolis proper—so he’s no stranger to neighborhood opposition. Contrary to reports from other local ‘zees he knows, Mulligan said the city’s approval and licensing process couldn’t be much easier.
“Other than baking bread, we don’t cook in the store so we don’t have some of the problems with grease and ventilation,” he said. “We have had the same lady who we have worked with repeatedly at the city, and she said, ‘I’ve worked with you guys for years, you know what you’re doing, so just keep at it.’”
Noting his distaste for the finer points of some of the city’s progressive policies, like an eventual $15 minimum wage and an especially controversial employee scheduling provision, Mulligan said one of his locations received significant pushback from the neighborhood association concerned about initial plans to stay open late.
In the end, the neighbors won, but he felt the shorter operating hours were a net positive for the store and added that dealing with their concerns meant stressing the family business angle of the company and simply stating a desire to be a good neighbor.
“You can’t ignore them,” he said. “You’ve got to listen to what they have to say and you may have to adjust your plans a little bit.”
A fantastically well connected lawyer, consultant and lobbyist with 50 years of experience, James Erickson of Solomon Strategies Group, met me for lunch to share his advice for ‘zees and ‘zors grinding their way through the city approval process. Careful to avoid sounding self-serving, he said the argument for hiring professional help comes down to a simple question: Would you hire me to do your job?
With so many groups involved along the way, possibly even including historic preservation folks in some cases, hiring a professional can save countless time and frustration for the business owner, he said. “That’s where professionals are vital to success. They have done it before.
They know to do the city and neighborhood due diligence early. They know who to and how to first present the project,” he said. “The staff vis a vis the elected officials dynamic is different in each city; they know that balance, and that both are important in the end.”
Even during a quick meal, it was clear that Erickson is generally unflappable with no shortage of confidence. Asked how one can stay cool in heated meetings with pitchforks clanging and cameras rolling, he said striking the right tone is a mix of experience and personality.
“With experience comes the wisdom to not take the slings and arrows of the opposition personally,” he said. “It should be no secret that you absolutely need a thick skin to have a long career in this business—that’s what the professionals do.”
Reflecting on earlier days as a lobbyist, he added that social media has made it easier for angry people to form opposition groups and generate considerable pushback if they desire. In addition, where powerful neighborhood groups and not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) factions used to be mostly big-city phenomena, he sees the trend radiating beyond big cities.
Getting to yes
Back in my hometown of Columbia Heights, I spoke with Community Development Director Joe Hogeboom, whom I’ve witnessed under the gun in public meetings. He called the apartment controversy an anomaly in a city that tends to welcome new development, but said the rise of citywide and neighborhood Facebook groups has been a significant disrupter with certain new proposals.
When a business person comes to city hall with initial discussions of a new proposal, he said it’s generally fairly easy to determine if the plan will be a good fit “or at least no net harm to the city.”
His staff walks business owners through the city’s comprehensive plan that guides future development standards, as well as any relevant zoning requirements or concerns that may arise from the planning commission or city council.
“What is a recipe for failure is when a developer thinks their plan is better than the code we have and is not willing to make any concessions,” he said. “A lot of what developers need to know is to do a little research on the community you want to go into.”
That research can include easy things like paying attention to similar business already in town. If nearby drive-thru restaurants, for example, have bike racks and minimal signage, it’s likely yours will be required to, as well.
With an eye toward avoiding becoming the sweating, frustrated person at the front of your city’s public room, Hogeboom recommended meeting early with staff if the city is large and sophisticated enough to have an economic
development arm. “A lot of times what the developer has to offer might be just what the city is looking for,” adding that many places are eager to assist when beneficial proposals come along. “We’ll work with you, we’ll arrange a tour, we’ll see if the Economic Development Authority will contribute some kind of financing—we’ll work with you.”
Tom Kaiser, pictured on opposite page, is associate editor of Franchise Times and writes about urban tales in franchising in each issue. Send story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org