Architects Play a Key Role in Developing Multi-family Projects

Partnering with local developers and municipalities helps expedite the approval process
By Barry Poskanzer, AIA

When it comes to designing and building multi-family housing, the importance of the relationship among the developer, architect, and municipalities cannot be overstated. As land becomes scarce and codes become more stringent, careful consideration must be paid to critical factors, large and small. Teamwork on projects that not only require approval from zoning and planning boards, but must also be buildable and livable, is paramount to ensuring their ultimate success.

As an architect and partner of an established design and planning firm, I have seen first-hand the benefits of collaboration between local developers and municipalities, on multi-family projects, whether urban or suburban. Developers typically call on an architecture firm when they need project “eyewash.” They could be better served to contact an experienced firm when they need to prepare a convincing case and promote meaningful dialogue with a municipality. They can take advantage of firms like ours with intimate knowledge of zoning restrictions, building codes and environmental concerns, and experience with creating strong relationships with local administrators and zoning and planning boards.

Making a project successful requires a deep understanding of variables such as the difference in developing market rate apartments in a city such as Hackensack, N.J., versus that of luxury condos on Jersey City’s booming Gold Coast. A project is not only about density, but also about future sales, rentals and livability, and other considerations. Architects, when involved in the pre-development phase, can play a helpful role.

Helping Steer Clear of Potential Issues to Get the Deal Done: The planning process differs in small cities and the suburbs versus larger urban areas. For example, larger cities have significant planning departments; small towns usually don’t. It’s a very different process when trying to develop a successful relationship. The knowledge base and expertise of an experienced firm is especially valuable for new developers and investors who are unfamiliar with the “quiet back-and-forth” dialogue which often takes place to arrive at a mutual agreement between developer and administration. This understanding has enabled us to be of great assistance to developers.

Clients have often completed some of the compliance-related work with their attorneys and the municipality by the time they call us. If they have not, we can provide ideas and sketches to indicate what’s possible. It’s wise to present these ideas early in order to gauge whether or not a project is going with or against the tide. Experienced architects can often recognize who will and won’t object to certain concepts. They can help developers avoid issues and obstacles. We have often been hired to help in circumstances where the developer and the town are not yet in agreement.
It is better to have municipal officials and the developer in agreement. Developers will sometimes take a stand and go for a variance in the face of opposition. However, today we find that, more often than not, they are less inclined to spend years fighting to find mutual common ground.

For example, a number of North Jersey municipalities have indicated that they are open to new multi-family construction by designating areas for redevelopment, making zoning changes or offering tax breaks to developers. These tend to be cities and urban areas with transportation hubs. By contrast, residents of many suburban towns fiercely resist what they see as overbuilding, which they fear will be a burden on local roads, schools and services. Developers are more likely to focus their efforts on towns where there is both apartment demand and a welcoming administration.

Across New Jersey, affordable housing projects continue to take shape with more built in the last two years than during the last decade collectively. The ultimate goal is for every community in the Garden State to include affordable housing. Proper planning and partnerships among developers, architects and municipalities will be of particular importance due to both the obligations for affordable housing and what can be a challenging approval process.

Working Together to Improve Communities: Architecture firms that are looking to collaborate with developers need to have an ability to create genuine relationships with the local agencies. Establishing a reputation in a specific region helps position a firm not only as a credible resource, but as a reputable partner invested in improving communities. This adds tremendous value to the services that the firm provides.

For example, Poskanzer Skott has worked with LeFrak, the New York-based real estate developer, for more than 15 years. During this time we have designed a diverse range of over 800 multi-family units, primarily on the Hudson River Waterfront in Jersey City, and been involved in projects from site plan approval to completion.
The success of this longstanding relationship is proof that architects and developers can work together to ensure that multi-family projects meet the necessary technical, economic and legal requirements, while serving the needs of the people who want to live in them.

Barry Poskanzer, AIA, is a partner in Poskanzer Skott Architects. A full-service design and planning firm with over four decades of experience in New Jersey and the New York Metropolitan area, Poskanzer Skott Architects has deep roots in the multi-family market. He may be reached at barry@psaia.com or 201-445-2322.

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