Big Reflections on Small Development

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On October 14th, more than one hundred architects, engineers, developers, and community leaders gathered at the Center for Civic Innovation in downtown Atlanta for the Small Developer’s Bootcamp, hosted by the Atlanta Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, the Georgia Conservancy, and Kronberg Wall Architects. This diverse group of individuals was on hand to hear two small-scale development experts – R. John Anderson and Jim Kumon – discuss the practicalities of development that fall within the “missing middle” spectrum: buildings in between the single family home and the looming apartment multiplex. Throughout the day-long workshop, topics ranged from efficient floor plans and building design to loan types and financial negotiation tactics.

The room was full of seasoned developers and designers well-versed in the vocabulary and methods of real estate development, but also present were a large number of newcomers for whom the Bootcamp was a whiplash introduction to the development world.
Three of those newcomers just starting their careers as professional designers at Kronberg Wall – Eric Bethany, Sanaa Shaikh, and Elizabeth Ward – took some time to reflect on the concepts and ideas from the Bootcamp that resonated most with them.

Read more for Eric Bethany’s thoughts on the demystification of the development process – check back later this week for more reflections.

EXPLAINING THE MYSTERY OF DEVELOPMENT

Cities across the country are full of old, modestly-scaled, critically-located buildings with character and quality, and a lot of them are empty. Many of these were once neighborhood cornerstones, and those that survived shifting social, economic, and development trend still have plenty of life to give. In contrast to the multitude of multifamily mixed-use developments that dominate many in town blocks, these existing elements are an attractive alternative. But what does it take to actually purchase and reconfigure an existing building? Where does the money come from? How do you avoid the quagmire of code upgrades? How is profit generated?

The Bootcamp removed a lot of the mystery surrounding the act of adaptive reuse. John Anderson and Jim Kumon showed that it is not only possible, but imminently achievable for a motivated group of individuals to tackle small-scale development projects. Walking through a pro-forma, acting out a financial negotiation, and reviewing examples of financially-efficient design were illuminating exercises. Getting an idea of what questions to ask and when to ask them was hugely educational. The shocking takeaway was that mere mortals such as myself are capable of affecting neighborhood development and are not simply subject to the whims of the next big-money developer eyeing the empty lot down the street.

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