In the first year of opening Greenlight, we started two zoning cases: one that was drawn and out successful, and one that went rather poorly. As these cases progressed, I learned a lot about how the process has changed over time, and how to work with communities who, in the areas we serve, are more engaged than ever.
This engagement has affected the way we handle the process. In the past, many city staff members ask us to do the bare minimum – this is a service to the developer, giving the team the freedom to develop design after the entitlement process is done, minimizing high costs of completing a detailed level of design before anyone knows if the project can even be built on the property in question.
So, for quite a while, city staff and planning and zoning commissions, who are trained in this process, helped us with very simple site plans, lot lines, and setbacks. The planned developments in the City of Dallas is a good example (and easily accessible here). There may be a detail of a property entrance, the metes and bounds of the property, and limitations on use – and sometime some architectural guidelines.
This vague documentation is starting to become rare. In some cities, the process requires a site plan approval even if the use isn’t changed. In these cases, site plan approval, which sounds like you just need a site plan, is rather detailed – they require elevations, landscape plans, and sometimes fully engineered drawings. Although these are quite detailed and require a substantial amount of work and cost, it has become obvious to me that it is still not enough once the project emerges from the weeds of the city planners and engineers. Because it then becomes open to the public. And the public, most times, wants not only to see what is going on, but wants to be actively involved.
City councilmembers and the public in general want to know some simple questions – what will it look like? Does it fit in our context and community? Will it make our community better?
These questions need to be answered without the need of a degree in urban planning. So, I started updating how we do visualizations. Our projects – particularly ones that go through an entitlement process – don’t just show the site, but how it relates to the buildings, public network, and green network around it. Although the concept isn’t novel, the process needs to be applied to more and more projects.
Quality of graphics are important. Even if the spirit of the project is in line with the community, one distracting detail can blow out of proportion and spread misinformation.
We started studying how larger urban planners handle these challenges on large scales and mimic the approach on our smaller projects. After working on a few planning projects, I’ve settled on a graphics style for Greenlight – at least for now. This style looks like the cool little models of days gone by – and they make me think of the old HO scale train models. These finished contextual physical models can cost anywhere from $30,000-$60,000, which is why we don’t see many of them anymore. With our investments in workflow and different layers of software, the entire process is MUCH faster and cost effective. I also like to show the trees in autumn, well, because I think they’re beautiful.