In the Fabled Land of Big Developer™ Giants

It seems like every time someone wants to build a multifamily residential building, there has to be a public brawl about density and character in front of the City Council first. It’s completely unnecessary, but you get used it.  

This week I wasted another perfectly good Wednesday night of my quickly evaporating twenties in Saint Paul’s City Council chambers arguing against a development moratorium on Marshall Avenue. Long story short: it’s a great place to build apartments, the city needs apartments, a guy wants to build apartments within “by right” zoning parameters.  So the only way to fight it is to go to the City Council and ask for an overall ban on development where the guy wants to build.  

When you’re bickering in front of the Council, the most convincing arguments are not the guys who get up and rattle off a list of statistics. Instead, the most impassioned and convincing arguments use narratives and tropes, creating a story that’s easy to empathize with and follow.  The narratives and tropes on display that night are ones you’ve probably heard before: “Neighborhood Character”, “Historical Homes”, “Homeowner Good, Renter Bad”, etc. But the one that caught my attention that night is common but never struck me before “Big Developer™ Bad.”

I’ve got no love of big corporations. Faceless, people-chewing automata if you ask me, but that night at council I had unwittingly sat right next to Mr. “Big Developer”. He was an older bespectacled fella in a suit and tie, appropriate garb for a big business villain. Before our issue had come up in the meeting he had politely introduced himself.  Being petulant and bored, I smiled politely, shook his hand, said my name, and didn’t bother listening to him.  So when our issue came up we both stood, surprised at the other’s involvement in what he thought was to be a lonely fight.

He made his way to the podium and spoke before me. If I’m being perfectly honest, bumbled his way through an argument. He seemed exasperated and confused.  He was following the rules and building within the limits dictated by his property’s zoning. He informed the community well in advance and in return they had rounded on him, fangs bared.  

After I had bumbled through my own argument against the moratorium we both sank into the benches of the council chamber watching four times our number rise to argue for the moratorium. One of them was a Catholic padre. Sure, their arguments were razor thin, but the optics weren’t great.  The Big Developer™ sat hunched forward through the arguments, listening intently, running his hand through his hair absent-mindedly.

After the hearing he asked me, incredulous, “Who ARE you?”

I didn’t have a good answer other than ‘housing advocate’. Nosy idiot would have been too honest. He clearly wasn’t expecting any friends that evening. That baffled me. The Pioneer Press opinion section told me the suits owned city government. This suit had just suffered what I can only describe as a procedural beatdown from one of the council’s most pro-development members.

This suit was a Big Developer™ for sure, a rich guy from Inver Grove, an unlovable character as far as city politics goes and he’s probably gonna build some boring apartments that are probably too expensive even for their proximity to St. Thomas University. He’s still got an outside shot of getting this thing built, and if he can prove the moratorium is targeting his development specifically, he can sue the city and blast the thing out of the sky.

If this suit, with his money and his company, is getting such a rough time, it’s no wonder we don’t see the little boutique local developers that people rising in opposition say they prefer in their histrionic testimony.  Who but the Big Developer™ can survive in an environment where anything that increases density gets met with a small cadre of retirement age homeowners organizing against it? 

Going toe to toe with a NIMBY uprising requires resources, and if you don’t have money that means you better have the time. A “little local landlord” who wants to go from a duplex to a triplex doesn’t have time to go to 10 district council listening sessions while working a day job and managing property.  A family who wants to build an accessory dwelling for an aging grandparent lacks ability to lobby City Council against a platoon of grumpy neighbors while trying to deal with the challenges that their situation already provides. They might not even know the process to do that.

When we look at The Big Developer™ a little closer you find a villain of our own creation.  If The Big Developer™ is the only thing capable of getting permission to build something then everything will be built by The Big Developer™.

Tom Basgen

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