In March 1996, at the age of 27, Patrick Slevin became one of the youngest mayors in the country. The New York native served for three years in Safety Harbor, a city of around 17,500 near Tampa Bay. As an elected official, Slevin became involved in land use issues, where he confronted the “not in my backyard” attitude toward new development, or NIMBYism. After serving out his term, Slevin entered public relations manager, where he has worked for 15 years. Some of his first projects included representing the expansion of a big box retailer and a master plan development.
“When local residents speak out against a project, they’re often the vocal minority,” said Slevin. “It’s the responsibility of the applicant to find the thought leaders who represent and influence the majority.”
Slevin’s central belief is that developers and corporations combat NIMBYism in an improper way. Rather than being on the defensive after the “NIMBY genie has left the bottle,” he said said, project applicants need to be proactive. Roughly half of the projects that erupt into controversy are due to a breakdown in communication from the developer, he said, which leads to misinformation and, ultimately, a confrontation that is often portrayed as a “David vs. Goliath” scenario.
“The notice and hearing process is archaic,” said Slevin, who favors preempting public reviews with direct community outreach, particularly involving influential “thought leaders” in the community.
“When you have more social sustainability and civic engagement,” said Slevin, “concessions are less expensive and opposition less venomous.”
In New York, he cites the proposed Islamic community center and mosque near the World Trade Center as an example of NIMBYism gone awry. Although the development was met with support at a local community board, which had typical land use questions, the project, known as Park51, was subsequently decried as offensive in the context of the Sept. 11 attacks.
That eruption was at least partially due to the developer’s underpreparedness, said Slevin. Indeed, and the sponsors and developer Sharif El-Gamal have acknowledged that they were taken aback by the fury of the opposition, who mischaracterized the project as within the borders of Ground Zero and sowed doubts about the project’s funding and ties to radicalism.
The opposition culminated in street protests and a contentious Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing, as opponents sought to landmark the existing building – where prayers are held daily – to prevent its redevelopment. The LPC declined such a move, and the project can move forward as-of-right, although financing is not yet in place.
NIMBYism has also been cited in areas as disparate as Jamestown Properties’ proposed addition to Chelsea Market, New York University’s four-building proposal south of Washington Square Park, Wal Mart’s rumored plans to lease space within the city, and during the proposed creation of additional Upper West Side and Downtown Brooklyn historic districts.
For applicants in trouble, Slevin advises: Step back. “When I’m called in to a project, I typically advise them to pause and reevaluate the political and social dynamics at play here,” said Slevin. That can mean reconsidering the merits and proposals for a project – developers sometimes compromise on density and heights in the face of public approvals – or potentially even relocating, although such a move is much harder in space-constrained Manhattan.
However, he notes, no matter how steadfast the opposition, there may still be local supporters. “When a community in proximity to a project speaks out against a project, they’re not necessary the majority,” said Slevin. “It’s the responsibility of the applicant to find the leaders in the community.”
A constant supporter of new development is the construction unions, but Slevin – himself a former member of the National Association of Home Builders – cautions that a project needs more than just economic activity.
“There’s not doubt that homebuilders contribute to our economy. But building for the sake of building is not going to happen in our lifetime again,” said Slevin. “We need to have better arguments for approving projects than just creating jobs.”
Slevin was born in White Plains, N.Y. and grew up in Kingston, N.Y. After serving in the U.S. Air Force, he moved to Florida, where he served as mayor. He began his own consulting firm, the Slevin Group and served on the National Federation of Independent Business and the Eckerd Corporation, a drugstore chain, before joining Hill & Knowlton.
Slevin has contributed to various publications and speaks to groups such as the Building Owners and Managers Association International and Urban Land Institute, where he stresses to developers to take NIMBYism seriously and to not ignore it.
“It would be a costly mistake,” he said. “Why roll the dice?”
To read the full online 2011 interview click on: Ex-Mayor Patrick Slevin Rethinks NIMBYism