A big real estate project is like a giant, charged particle. Such particles generate an electromagnetic field with lines of force radiating in all directions. Very close to the particle, the force field is strong. Farther away, the field's strength diminishes, eventually becoming negligible.

Large-scale, prominently situated urban development projects likewise have powerful force fields. A small building knitted into a city's or suburb's fabric affects relatively few people. Some buildings, small or large, merge subtly into their urban context (architects often refer to them as "background" buildings). But most big building complexes rarely camouflage themselves or humbly participate as background.

Representing investments of hundreds of millions of dollars, a project force field can extend for miles and affect many people never directly engaged in the project's creation, people who nevertheless feel its presence. Project impact can be regional or even national and international. Size alone may guarantee notoriety, imparting celebrity status no matter how questionable the aesthetic or practical merits.

Hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people ultimately see and use big projects. Big projects generate larger tax revenue, more employment and increased Small and moderately sized building projects might require three to five years for their creation, but big projects can easily take two or three times as long from idea to occupancy. demand for public service. They are more complicated to develop, design, finance, construct, market and manage. They require enormous investments of time and money while entailing much greater risks.

To appreciate fully what is involved in creating big projects, recall the development process and its ramifications from a developer's point of view.

In addition to experience and expertise, a development entity must possess or have access to extensive financial resources. Millions of dollars have to be committed and spent "up front," long before construction begins or income is produced. How is this up-front money used?For assembly and acquisition of land, which can require years of quietly negotiating sophisticated options and contracts with separate landowners and government agencies. For obtaining needed zoning, design and jurisdictional approval, which also can take years, especially if there is substantial public opposition. For market studies, economic analysis and budget projections, which have to be continually revised and updated as circumstances change. For environmental impact and other studies relating to traffic and transportation, parking, utilities (water, sanitary sewage, storm water management) and energy use. For land surveys, subsoil testing and site engineering. For architechtural design and building engineering. For advertising and public relations intended to gain support and approval for the project, and to attract prospective tenants or purchasers. For legal fees associated with land acquisition, zoning, public hearings and contractual arrangements involving participating parties (investors, lenders, government agencies and consultants). For real estate taxes on land owned during the development period. For financing costs -- fees and interest -- related to project equity and debt financing necessary to carry all other project development costs. For the development entity's day-to-day and year-to-year administrative and overhead costs attributable to the project -- office rent, executive and staff salaries, bookkeeping, communications, insurance, supplies, transportation and entertainment.

All of these activities and their funding precede the issuance of building permits, closing of construction loans and commencement of construction. Thus, many years can elapse between project inception and groundbreaking. If the project is abandoned or delayed indefinitely, much of the preconstruction investment can be lost.

Then construction can require several more years, more risks and hundreds of millions of dollars. The ideal is to achieve full use and occupancy as soon as possible after substantial completion of construction. But this, too, can take even more years in a less-than-ideal economy.

Consequently, although small and moderately sized building projects might require three to five years for their creation, big projects can easily take two or three times as long to complete from idea to occupancy. Patience is clearly an indispensible asset for undertaking such ventures.

Imagine the numbers of variables, unforeseen conditions and operational tasks that must be handled over such a long period of time. Consider the initial assumptions subsequently proved wrong. Contemplate the financial, professional and psychic gambles taken by those making critical project decisions.

Of course, their motivations are no mystery: to earn profits and increase wealth, to gain recognition and enhance reputations and prestige, to contribute economically to the public good by satisfying public needs, and perhaps to leave desirable legacies of architecture and urban design.

On the other hand, those not part of the development team may have a different view. A giant project may seem like a massive, negatively charged particle, perhaps even a black hole. They may feel like concerned but tiny particles being buffeted and engulfed by the project's pervasive force field.

The costs, risks, commitments and intentions enunciated by the developer may be of little concern. They may react skeptically to pronouncements of the project's measurable public benefits -- job opportunities, augmented tax base, presumed urban beautification or renewal -- so often cited by project boosters.

Instead, they worry about: Traffic and parking in the project's vicinity and the ability of the surrounding road network to accommodate more cars. Loss of preferred, pre-existing uses or physical amenities on or around the site -- older buildings, parks and open space, views, vegetation, access -- for functional, visual or historical reasons. Need for the project in light of competing facilities. Adverse impact on the character (and property values) of abutting or nearby sites and neighborhoods. Aesthetic issues of architectural style, building bulk and height, materials, colors, facade compositional motifs and streetscape design. Overburdening public services considered marginally adequate -- transportation facilities, utilities, fire and police departments, and sometimes schools. Development in general is symptomatic of greed-motivated, uncontrolled, unnecessary growth threatening the status quo, which may be perceived to be a traditional way of life or a memorable, collective architectural image.

Ambitious, grandiose projects inevitably have many positive and negative attributes, any one of which can become the sole focus of attention. Yet comprehending and assessing such projects from all angles is essential for making reasoned and balanced judgments. Therefore, both proponents and opponents, too often consumed by single issues, can benefit from mutual education.

NEXT: Techworld -- proposition and opposition.