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High-tech helps White Flint area developers open doors
Until early this year, Federal Realty kept Goldman under wraps, offering up higher-ranking executives to talk about plans for White Flint. But when the partnership -- Combined Properties, Federal Realty, Holladay Corp., Gables Residential, JBG, Lerner Enterprises and the Tower Companies -- began to promote its message to a broad audience, Goldman became the leading spokesman. This year, he has been to more than 60 meetings to spread the word.
The outreach plan was initially crafted with the help of Kiki McLean, a former political operative for Al Gore, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John F. Kerry who moved on to another job in the spring. The partnership now gets assistance from former Bill Clinton strategist Craig Sutherland.
Mailbag is filling up
The efforts appear to be resonating. The County Council's mailbag has more than 300 letters and e-mails commenting on the plan, and many are exact copies of those provided by the partnership. About 100 people testified at two recent council hearings, many voicing enthusiasm for the developers' concepts.
Among them was Barnaby Zall, a lawyer who lives and works near White Flint and served on a planning agency panel to assess redevelopment plans. Although not previously involved in local development issues, he became so engaged that he formed his own community group, Friends of White Flint, whose paid members include residents, businesses and developers.
Zall says the partnership's outreach rivals anything he has seen in Montgomery.
"They have fashioned what might be called a suite of communication tools, similar to that used by many businesses to explain a very complicated subject," he said. "You are asking people to change a long-established mind-set. It is hard to do that."
Paula Bienenfeld, a resident of nearby Luxmanor who is skeptical of the developers' claims, said that even though developers have blanketed the area with their message, she does not think that residents are sold on their vision.
"When people realize what is really being planned, they become very concerned. The lobbying efforts are big on 'vision' and lots of similar buzzwords, but as residents, we know the traffic, we know the schools, and we know our neighborhoods. The developers clearly don't know these things," she said.
John King, a leader of the White Flint Community Coalition, told the County Council that the proposals are shortsighted. "The proponents paint the best of all cases, and they do paint a pretty picture. But there's nothing in the plan preventing the worst case: inadequate transit, gridlocked traffic and a lack of those very amenities that make a community work."
Groups such as King's also have turned to some of the same Web tools, including e-mail groups, blogs and prewritten form letters, although they are not nearly as well-financed as the developers.
Similarly, the Walter Johnson High School Cluster of PTAs offered a sample letter for residents to raise several concerns, including the possibility that new development could lead to changes in attendance boundaries to relieve school crowding.
Patrick Fox, a top executive with the Boston-based Saint Group, which advises developers, said local politicians ignore such concerns at their peril.
"The old way was to cut a deal with the mayor, have dinner with a couple of city counselors," he said. But if there are "passionate, angry neighbors, the project is dead. Politicians are very unlikely to commit political suicide to get a developers' project built." The most effective offense, he says, is to try to convince residents that developers' interests and their own can mesh and enlist local supporters to testify at hearings, write letters and send e-mails.
Goldman is firmly on message: Developers and residents face the same challenges and have the same stake in the outcome, he says, describing efforts to persuade the county government to help finance road improvements with developers soon.
"Both developers and residents need that kind of security," he says. Then he heads to another meeting.