A Tale of Two Developers

Published on: April 22, 2002

Note: When I was a much younger attorney, working on my first condominium, a client I respected told me, “I don’t need a lawyer to tell me why I can’t do something; I need a lawyer to help me find ways to do what I want to do.”

That advice has assumed a decidedly negative hue in the shadow of Enron’s shenanigans and Andersen’s shredding. But I interpreted the message then, and still view it today, as a reminder that an attorney’s job is to help clients achieve their (preferably legitimate) goals. This role is particularly satisfying and exciting in the real estate development arena when working with clients who are breaking new ground and challenging traditional assumptions about what can and cannot be done.

Two of our current clients illustrate the point: Alan Green and John Marini. The size and scope and style of their projects differ but the two share a disdain for development fads, a commitment to quality, a clarity of vision, and an ability to win community support that enables them to conceive and execute developments that many others would not even attempt. We decided to feature them in this month’s “alert” simply because they illustrate so well why we so often enjoy what we do. – Stephen Marcus

Alan Green, driving force behind The Green Companies, has been putting his unique stamp on residential development in Massachusetts for more than four decades.  His latest project, The Pinehills, is a sweeping, multi-faceted development on a 3,000 acre site in Plymouth, where Pinehills LLC, in which the Greens are partners, plan to develop 2,880 dwellings (attached, detached, fee-simple and some rentals), along with 1.5 million sq. ft. of commercial space. The development includes, among other features, a conference center, hotel, two golf courses, community swimming pools, town greens, an unpaved colonial-era road, cranberry bogs, and an expansive network of hiking and biking trails interwoven with the construction.  The homes are arranged in clusters forming a series of self-contained communities or “pods.” One example is Winslowe’s View, consisting of 400 attached units now under construction, surrounding a small, old-fashioned village common containing swimming pools, a meetinghouse, and a combination post office and general store, where residents will collect their mail.

Elaborate landscaping and open space are central to the plan, which calls for building on only 30 percent of the site; 70 percent of the 3,000 acres will remain open space, ensuring uncluttered views from virtually all of the residences.  “With the roads following the contours of the land and homes carefully sited for views and privacy,” The Pinehills web site explains, the developer has produced “an innovative, environmentally sensitive community in harmony with the land.”

Give and Take

Not surprisingly, given the development’s size and density, negotiating the local approval process was challenging, to say the least, requiring time, effort, and especially, Green says, “tender loving care” by Tony Green, managing partner of Pinehills LLC Because the project will unfold in stages over the next 10 years, the developer needed a measure of certainty from the outset that future phases would not be subject to appeal. A special permit would not work, so the town approved a zoning framework that allows him to build “by right. This gives us the flexibility to do what we need to do,” Green explains.

In exchange for what represented a major concession by the community, Green knew the development had to provide “public benefit.” That meant addressing Plymouth’s concerns about open space and about overburdening the local school system.  The open space part was easy, or relatively so, since 2,000 acres of the site will remain open space “for perpetuity.”The school issue was somewhat more complex, given that fair housing laws prohibit rules barring children. The solution was to zone the site as a “limited occupancy community,” which had the effect of limiting occupancy not by number but by design. Residences contain a maximum of three bedrooms with the master bedroom suite on the ground floor, a configuration more likely to appeal to the empty nesters and retirees the development is targeting than to parents with young children, who generally want the bedrooms all on the same level.

With the school burden issue resolved, the development had considerable financial appeal to the community, Green says, noting that nearly 3,000 residences selling for $300,000 and up, generating property taxes based on $15 per $1,000 of valuation, produced numbers “the town really liked.”

Forget New Urbanism

With its emphasis on self-contained communities, walking trails, old-fashioned town centers, and open space, the design of Pinehills seems to reflect at least some aspects of the “new urbanism, a planning philosophy that proposes high density development near shopping and other amenities, as an antidote to suburban sprawl and the traffic-related problems it creates. Green supports high density development but rejects that part of the new urbanism concept that limits development to the urban downtowns or in the transportation centers. “It’s like the phrase smart growth, it’s not clear what it means, but how could anyone possibly be against it?”

The new urbanism theory is grounded on the assumption that cars are bad and that people would prefer to walk – an assumption that Green is convinced ignores reality. “People like their cars,” he insists. “They’re not going to give them up.” New urbanist designs often deal with the issue by hiding the garages – an out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach that Green finds a bit unrealistic. “Alley-loaded garages in the rear of dwellings are anathema to me, as that design restricts the rear yard and eliminates long natural views from the living areas of a home. I don’t think it’s what most people are looking for,” he asserts.

Instead of hiding the garages in the attached units at Winslowe’s View, Green uses them to form a small, private courtyard for each residence, gated and landscaped as the owners desire.  This reflects his own development philosophy, which has little to do with the smart growth aspects of new urbanism (or any other textbook planning theory) and everything to do with “understanding what people want, identifying their expectations, and then meeting them.”  He almost makes it sound easy.John Marini: Saving Downtown

John Marini has the same matter-of-fact way of making the equivalent of a development marathon sound like an effortless stroll. His most recent development initiatives in Canton actually began in the mid 1990s, with the suggestion that he had reached a stage of life when he might want to consider retirement. He had recently sold one of his larger properties, which seemed consistent with that plan, but instead of investing the proceeds in stocks, as his accountant recommended, or in the retirement travel his wife might have encouraged, Marini bought a bunch of dilapidated buildings along the railroad tracks near Canton’s decaying downtown. His plan: Tear the buildings down and build condominiums on the site.

“People thought I was crazy,” Marini says, making it clear that those people included his wife, as well as the banks he approached for financing. “I had some trouble getting a mortgage,” he admits. But when those first 66 condominium units sold out almost immediately, and the next 58 units he built nearby proved equally popular, the conventional wisdom began to shift.

Marini wasn’t surprised. The success of those developments simply confirmed his belief that “people are ready for a different lifestyle,” a lifestyle closer to the one he remembers as a boy growing up in Watertown Square. “We lived over a meat market. We didn’t have a car – we didn’t need one. We walked everyplace we went.”

Marini thought the same concept – residences atop commercial space – would work in Canton Center, accomplishing two goals: Providing attractive housing for long-time Canton residents who wanted to remain in the community, but did not want the hassle and expense of the large suburban homes they owned; and revitalizing a downtown that, after years of losing business to nearby shopping malls, had little energy or hope remaining.

Back to the Future

Why was he so sure about the demand for in-town housing? In part, because the market he was targeting included people very much like himself. “I could afford a big house in the suburbs. But I built a four-family house in Canton two blocks form the downtown, and I love it. I love seeing people walk by. I walk to my office every day. I don’t want to live in a huge house where you don’t know your neighbors, where the only people you see outside are the crews your neighbors hire to landscape their yards.”

Local officials were generally receptive to his idea, but they were concerned about the traffic high-density development would create downtown.  To allay those concerns, Marini did a study of the 120-plus condominium units he’d sold previously. The study found that most of the buyers were 50 and older, 55 percent used the MBTA, and when they moved into town, they went from two cars to one.  “The traffic situation didn’t improve,” Marini said, “but the development didn’t make the situation any worse, either.”  So the town approved his plan, allowing Marini to build one unit per 2,000 sq. ft. instead of the one unit per 7,500 sq. ft. the zoning rules allowed. Razing two dilapidated commercial buildings and five old houses, he built 8,000 sq. ft. of retail space and 27 apartments in a configuration that retained most of the trees and incorporated an abundance of open space. Once again, the retail space and the apartments were fully leased before the construction was complete.

Now on something of a downtown revitalization roll, Marini spotted a huge warehouse in the center of town sitting in front of a pond – an incredible development site, he concluded. He didn’t have much trouble getting the permits he needed, partly because his previous developments had all been so successful, but also because this proposal, for 35 apartments and 7,500 sq. ft. of retail space, left one-third of the site as open space, with old-fashioned sidewalks, benches, and a gazebo surrounding the pond, all accessible to the public. From the community’s perspective, there was little to oppose.

Building Support

Noting the relative ease with which he has won support for developments that did not match conventional planning theory, Marini concedes that his reputation in the community, where he has been building homes for 35 years, was a major factor. But his approach also fosters cooperation.

“The most important thing is to get the community involved,” he says. “A lot of builders run into roadblocks with people fighting this or saying they don’t want that. I find if you really explain things and are reasonable, people are ready for change. You don’t run into that, ‘not-in-my-back-yard’ attitude if you go about it the right way.”

Like Alan Green, Marini does not have much use for labels or development fads. He certainly wasn’t thinking about the “new urbanism” per se when he started that first Canton condominium project along the railroad tracks six years ago. But he was thinking about bringing people back to the downtown.

“I’m renting my commercial space for $20 to $24 a foot,” he says. “Nobody in Canton ever got more than $8 for their space before; now it’s worth $15 before they do anything. Merchants in town are starting to fix up their places now,” Marini says, with the cheerful air of someone who knew exactly what he was doing, but is still excited about the result. “I think I’ve started something.”

And not just in Canton. He recently bought a small parcel in South Norwood, tore down an old building and constructed a new six-family home on the site, then remodeled the house next door to put in a new restaurant. Another developer, who, Marini says, “drove me crazy while I was doing my project” has since constructed a small apartment building nearby.

The thoughts of retirement that preceded his first Canton revitalization projects are still very much in his wife’s mind, Marini says, but they remain a distant concept, at best, for him. A far more immediate prospect is a large piece of land he’s found in Franklin. “I’m starting to put together some numbers,” he says.