Overcoming Obstacles to Smart Development

Edward H. Starkie and Bonnie Gee Yosick, Julio 1, 1996

Driven by an awareness of population expansion and the difficulties that follow growth, Oregon’s Departments of Transportation and of Land Conservation and Development created the “Smart Development” program. The state retained Leland Consulting Group and Livable Oregon to define the goals of Smart Development, to identify obstacles to its execution and to enjoin the development community in discussions about how to implement its goals.

Smart Development is land use that:

  • Lowers automobile use;
  • Provides nearby services;
  • Lowers commuting time;
  • Reduces congestion;
  • Encourages and makes possible alternate modes of transit;
  • Provides better neighborhoods for walking and living;
  • Is environmentally sound;
  • Maintains Oregon’s historic affordability; and
  • Enhances the quality of life and sense of community.

In examining over 60 projects across the country that attempt comprehensive solutions to problems of urban growth, the consultant team looked at examples of “new urbanism,” as well as infill development, subdivisions, affordable housing, adaptive re-use and neighborhood revitalization. While common factors exist among all projects, none of the ones that are successful for their developers satisfy all Smart Development goals at once. The good news is that careful attention to local market conditions and demographics can result in successful projects that do satisfy many of these goals.

Why Smart Development Raises Financing Questions

Projects that satisfy some goals are unlikely to satisfy others because the goals may have different land use solutions which—when built in current markets—are in conflict. Proponents of neotraditional, transit-oriented, small-lot, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use and grid-platted development have bundled these styles as a single concept. Developers and lenders do not understand the markets, values and risks for these hybrid products.

When we surveyed lenders about the factors that affect their decision to finance Smart Development projects, they explained unequivocally that financing of innovation required clear limits on the risk the lender could accept. While factors such as preleasing and on-site management were considered important, lenders strongly preferred working with a developer who had a track record, financial capacity and experience in the product type.

Lenders also expressed doubts about the willingness of the secondary market to lend on innovative projects. The problem is not innovation in physical design itself, but lenders’ anxieties about FannieMae’s “pass-through” requirement: the bank is financially responsible for the project through foreclosure of the asset. FannieMae support does not insulate the bank from the risk of default. Since banks do not want to own real estate, innovative project types that cannot show strong track records cause anxiety that is not allayed by securitization.

Overcoming the Obstacles

There are three technical obstacles to financing Smart Development:

  • appraisal and comparables;
  • lack of market and demographic research; and
  • lack of clarity in presenting project aims, risks and mitigation to lenders.

A fourth obstacle is financial, relating to the first phase provision of new infrastructure.

Appraisal and Comparables: Standard appraisals usually focus on the housing product without accounting for the economic value produced by higher quality infrastructure, adjacent services, pedestrian amenities, and access to transit. By comparing only housing units, appraisals allot them the value that they would have in adjoining subdivisions that contain none of the amenities. Yet, new projects that we reviewed were often higher in price than the surrounding market. The quality of new designs may justify pricing, but appraisals based on the local area did not support the same percentage of purchase price as for nearby units. Smart Development projects also required proportionately higher cash down-payments, making the units harder to buy (and harder for the developer to sell).

It must be emphasized that Smart Development features are positive attributes that have long-term effects on value. Appraisal is regularly performed involving regression equations to model the economic value of positive externalities and could be applied to this area to produce new standards for evaluation of Smart Development. This process needs research but is well within the professional purview of the appraisal community.

New Market Studies: Smart Development, with its sophisticated land use and concepts such as inclusion of retail into subdivision development, attracts different demographic groups than standard development. Income levels per capita are higher, household sizes are smaller, and the use of transit and other services per person is often greater.

To overcome feasibility and appraisal obstacles, it is useful to consider Smart Development not as a single market concept but as a series of land use solutions that incorporate traditional real estate products in innovative ways. The market for the products can then be assessed in the same way as existing similar land uses that have attracted the demographic groups noted above—older neighborhoods with the sort of land use proposed in these projects. Through this method it is possible to avoid the pitfalls of “trend” studies that are unable to assess the market for new products.

Presentation of Smart Development to Lenders: The business plan for new products describes how products were arrived at in response to market niches and supporting demographics and sales potential. Every aspect of the business is revealed: project principals and roles; financial structure; applied start-up capital; reserves for operational deficits; and projections of revenues, cash flows and profits. The plan illustrates potential risks and suggests mitigations for risk should conditions not meet expectations.

Presentation of real estate development is typically done through market trend studies and architectural drawings. Neither of these modes addresses the issues raised in a business plan. It may be worthwhile for proactive lenders to consider offering assistance with business planning and presentation of innovative projects to alleviate the anxieties of capital investors and loan boards.

First Phase Financial Feasibility: In many western U.S. cities, grid street plans were built by the city and then builders provided the houses. After World War II, American cities stopped creating streets and the developers began providing the local infrastructure. The major public infrastructure dollars were funneled through federal agencies into regional infrastructure improvements (freeways) which sped private development into fringe areas.

It is now understood that highways and major arterials do not eliminate congestion but rather act as a subsidy for congestion-producing development. New requirements for grid streets, pedestrian amenities, sidewalks and parking strips with trees can make development either unaffordable to median buyers or financially infeasible, and there are no local support mechanisms equal to the magnitude of highway funding.

If the goals of Smart Development are serious social goals, then some level of first phase credit enhancement in exchange for fulfillment of social goals is appropriate. Such credit enhancement would serve to produce land use with the long-term benefits of lowered social cost through reduction of congestion and auto use and a better quality of life.


Edward H. Starkie, principal, and Bonnie Gee Yosick, associate, conduct economic analysis and research on downtown redevelopment for Leland Consulting Group, 325 Northwest 22nd Street, Portland, OR 97210; 503/222-1600.