The objections to most real estate development are too often misguided and ill-informed, leading to an unintended effect.
By David Todd McCarty | Monday, October 4, 2021
I have been seeing a lot of commentaries online lately about real estate development in southern New Jersey, and specifically in Cape May County. Mostly it’s uninformed opinions on how it must be stopped. How it’s the root of all evil. That it’s our civic duty to stop it. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Opposition to all development will only ensure bad development. That is a fact.
Generally speaking, most of us have no idea what we’re talking about, most of the time, about most things. It’s true. We’d all be better off if we admitted it. We’re all experts of our own opinions, which are based on nothing but shit, and little else. It’s okay, most of my knowledge is about an inch deep as well. I’m equally full of shit. We’re all in good company. Just a little delusional. A little hopeful. Mostly wrong.
I read a lot so I’m familiar with a lot of subjects, which makes me a jack of all trades and master of none. Well, none isn’t quite accurate. I’m an expert in quite a few things, but they tend to be rather specific that involve a few decades of experience. That leaves the other 99% of things I only know enough to be dangerous about. These are often the things I like to write about. I don’t often write about my work on here.
I try to stay in my lane when it comes to actual expertise but also try to remain wide open with my curiosity and opinions. But like everyone else, I swerve out of my lane from time to time, like a South Dakota Republican Attorney General. I try not to kill anyone.
I have a relative who is well-rounded, overpaid, and who knows a little bit about a lot of things. The problem is he likes to claim expertise about everything. I’ve caught him more than a few times spouting nonsense about something I actually know a bit about and it makes me question everything else he has to say. If you’re completely full of shit about the one thing I know, why would I believe what you have to say about the rest?
I’ve spent my entire professional career in branding, and the majority of that time has been spent marketing high-end real estate projects around the globe. I’ve consulted on enormous projects in Dubai and Moscow, Dusseldorf and Miami, a fair bit of North America from East to West, North to South.
I’ve learned a thing or two about real estate development. How it works. Who the players are. What makes them successful. What makes them fail. You could say it’s one of my areas of expertise.
Consequently, one of the things I’ve learned over the years, that is especially relevant to where I live, is that very few people understand real estate development. I hear all manner of nonsense that so clearly illustrates a lack of understanding that it’s hard to know where to begin. All you have to do is attend a city council meeting or read the Spout Off.
Republicans think they should be able to pave over wetlands with asphalt made from baby seals, because God wants them to, and Democrats think that every time you swing a hammer, a baby owl dies and Mother Earth sheds a tear.
The reality is, everyone is fine with certain types of development, it just depends on how and where you do it. You could build a gigantic mall in the middle of Rio Grande and no Democrat would give a shit, but if you wanted to build a luxury fishing cottage on Cook’s Beach everyone would lose their minds.
There is a serious problem on the left with opposing all development like they’re the Lorax and the fate of the planet hangs in the balance. But really it’s always a question of NIMBY, or not in my back yard.
Republicans smoke plenty of weed, they just don’t want anyone to know about it. They want to build prisons and open weed shops, but over in the poor part of town. Democrats like to shop at LL Bean but don’t want you to put one in their town. They want cute, overpriced boutiques they can’t afford to shop in, and wouldn’t even if they could because they think buying leftover shit from Marshalls and TJ Max is somehow more moral. Eight-year-olds in Bangladesh still sewed that shit with their teeth, it doesn’t matter that you bought it on clearance.
Here’s what you don’t know.
There is no such thing as public real estate development. Your elected officials have little to no say about who or what comes to town. There are rules for sure, and often there are enough restrictions that everyone needs a variance for something. But that can often mean that instead of good development, you get a makeshift project that fits the letter of the law, but not the spirit.
City council jobs are rarely filled with qualified real estate developers. If they are, they’re in it for themselves. Zoning boards are just political fronts. Most often, no one is minding the store and no one knows what’s going on. There is no long-term plan. Therefore, they can never be held accountable for saying no. No is the safest path to re-election, and also the fastest way to kill a community’s economy.
Democrats would love to see a bevy of small, boutique shops housing a menagerie of artisan craftsmen, but they won’t approve a luxury condo building of people who might shop there. They’re not going to shop there, because it’s too expensive. The luxury condos don’t get built, so the rich people buy the cheap houses and knock them down, leaving no affordable housing and instead you get a new vape shop no one wanted or needed.
Responsible city planning takes experience and expertise, most often not found in petty, partisan, elected officials. It doesn’t matter which party. You need outside help. The absolute best you can hope for are quality developers who are in it for the long haul and who understand the community. They don’t have to be your next-door neighbor, and chances are your neighbor Jim doesn’t know shit, but the developer does need to get it.
I’ve worked with a lot of successful developers and very few of them are idiots. Most of them don’t understand branding, but they also don’t understand architecture, interior design, engineering, landscaping, or lighting. They hire experts who have done more than build out your local Wawa. They have the resources, and the taste, to do it right, which is exactly what you want.
I had a client who spoke at a local town meeting of a wealthy Florida town. He was redeveloping a property that was treasured, even though it sucked. He told them, “We’re lucky to be here. But I’ll be honest, you’re lucky to have us. Because we care enough to make this great.”
And he did. He made it 1000% better. It changed the town. It became a real destination. They realized after the fact, that what they’d had before, wasn’t that great after all.
I used to live just off South Street back in the late 80s and early 90s. Yuppies—which is what we used to call them back then—were moving in and then complaining about the neighborhood. I remember one old hippie hairdresser who’s been living and working there since the 60s telling them at a neighborhood meeting that they all should have stayed in Blue Bell. This was a diverse neighborhood and they were hoping to replicate a suburban mall somewhere. There was no sense of place for the area and no one in control of its destiny. Which is why after all these years, it’s still a shit show.
You should care about development in your town. You should care deeply. But opposing all development only means you will get bad development. Guaranteed. The good developers won’t bother so the crooks and thieves will just come in and build crap. Blocking good development hurts the community and aids the dishonest developer more than you can imagine.
So remember that the next time your flaming liberal neighbor starts screaming about someone knocking down a shitty cinderblock motel. Someone is going to do it. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to attract quality developers that will improve the entire town and not just that lot. If you want a developer who has long-term interests in your town, you need to give them a reason to want to be there. Otherwise, you will attract all the fly-by-nighters.
You don’t have to know everything, but you shouldn’t act like it either. There are experts who know what they’re doing. Some of them, have actual taste and money. Encourage them to make your town a better place to live.
Take the time to learn something. Don’t believe everything you hear. Before your beloved Victorians took over Cape May, it was a bunch of fishing shacks. A lot of them were owned by Black people. Then they kicked them out. Now you think that can’t be changed. Like a plantation too precious to touch.
It’s not always what you do, sometimes it’s how you do it.