September 25, 2015 Eric Bethany

Small builder/developer bootcamp

Missing Middle 2

While these photos include buildings probably dating from the 1920s, we are not necessarily promoting a historic style. Moreso that apartments built in the 1960s are usually so amazingly ugly, and that zoning laws from that general time period made buildings like these illegal in most communities from that point forward.

I’ve been spending a lot of time mulling on both the small developer/builder Facebook group and the upcoming small builder/developer bootcamp coming to Atlanta. Part of the conundrum I have been trying to get my head around is this: what is a reasonable combination of experience, scale, and location that fits a small developer? We work primarily in Atlanta, with most of our clients being seasoned developers. We tackle really messy, hard projects, and we see countless ways that a newbie can get put through the buzzsaw, and quickly. However, we are seeing that there are folks involved in the industry – architects that design these projects, residential and commercial property brokers, and builders – that have experience with some, but not all, of the pieces needed to do their own deal.

It isn’t important that just industry professionals be aware of the pitfalls and intricacies of a redevelopment project: community leaders and city officials must also understand these issues for responsible and effective development to be a realistic possibility. Redevelopment projects require a unique degree of collaboration between designers, brokers, builders, officials, and the community, and for projects to succeed everyone needs to be on the same page.

In terms of scale, it is often said that the complexities of permitting a fourplex are not much more than permitting a fortyplex in the city of Atlanta. This is a discouraging barrier to entry for folks trying to get in to build new. However, there are a range of simpler options in the city that involve renovation as a way to sidestep significant and costly site development requirements.

For location, part of the pitch is also to provide (re)development skills to folks in small and mid-sized towns, not just the big city. These are the places that the experienced developer isn’t coming to. If you want your downtown fixed up, it’s on you to figure out how to do that. If you are that person in the community, then we suggest getting in a car and braving Atlanta traffic to join us for what will be an amazing time.

I’ve also finally connected the dots between the small developer bootcamp and the key concept of missing middle housing. This is a focus on the key housing types that are more dense than a single family house, and less than the 100 unit apartment complex. Two great articles with more on this can be found here and here. These are the types of housing that would fit well in the context of a traditional single family neighborhood. Honestly, if we are talking about a neighborhood developed before 1925, then it probably has a smattering of these six and eight-plex apartment buildings mixed in. These are the older dignified buildings that tend to never have any vacancies. The ones where you have to know someone leaving to have a chance at getting in.

Developing new missing middle housing is hard for a variety of reasons. Crappy zoning laws are usually a good start.  But these are things that can be risen above.  Learning building code efficiencies, pro forma requirements, and general approaches to creating a product that benefits walkable communities is core to the small developer bootcamp. This is how the bootcamp becomes a worthwhile experience to those already feeling somewhat skilled in the realm of development, and also valuable for those starting out. It is also a critical experience for city officials trying to understand how to spark redevelopment in their towns. A critical phase that will be repeated is, “if the math doesn’t work, you can’t do the project!” Breaking down this math is critical in helping both city officials and small developers understand the roadblocks and workarounds to making incremental development happen.

We are committed to helping redevelop great places. This takes engagement on all sides. Folks willing to dive into development are a critical piece of this puzzle. The small developer bootcamp is an important tool in honing the skills to ensure successful redevelopment happens. Designers, builders, officials, and community leaders who are interested in attending should register on the event website here.


About the Author

Eric Bethany A graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, Eric Bethany joined KWA in 2015. In addition to contributing to the architectural activities of the firm, Eric works with principal Eric Kronberg to compile and publish research on KWA's Urban Space blog and helps manage KWA's marketing efforts.

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