Are Developers Just Trying to Maximize Profit?


Podium Building -Photo by G.B Arrington

I commented on a friend’s Facebook thread in which he lamented the lame podium building getting built on his street. Somebody posted a comment that “It’s all about maximizing the developer’s profit” to explain why the building was not great.

I gotta say, that’s really over-simplifying what it takes to get a building constructed in Portland.  There is a pretty good chance that trying to build a building will result in the developer losing money if they are not on top of things. I guess Not Losing Money may be the same as Maximizing Profit, but there is a lot more to the work. If you lose money often enough you become a former developer.

Most developers are minimizing risks and maximizing returns within the current crop of constraints which include local, state, and federal regulations, local approval processes, skilled construction labor shortages, and a number of can only be described as short sighted bad habits. Over the life a a project it is too easy for design to end up as the superficial consideration -kinda like deciding how a cake will be frosted. All of the other things (that will blow up your project if you don’t pay attention) are about the cake. Attention to urban design and place making should be part of the cake because they can add a lot of value and solve some gnarly problems. The developers that get that employ urban design as a tool with great flexibility and utility. For the rest, well, that design stuff is just frosting.

While we can beat up developers for being unaware of the power of design to manage risk, let’s bear in mind that there is plenty of cluelessness to go around.  Some of the problem with how buildings are currently conceived and delivered be found in the unfortunate culture and habits of the design community. Most planners, urban designers, and architects are satisfied with remaining uninformed and unskilled when it comes to developer math and operations.  In the end they don’t have much of a common vocabulary to communicate with their clients (which is unfortunate.)

The bar for decent infill is pretty low these days -even in a place that likes to consider itself forward thinking and progressive like Portland.  It is very hard to build trust with local folks who have seen a lot of lousy buildings go up recently. If you do succeed in building something  something decent, you can start to carve out a place for yourself in the neighborhood. No matter how good your built work is, chances are good you will still be treated with contempt if your chosen line of work is to be a developer. Other people get paid at their job, but getting paid to make buildings happen is somehow something sleazy in the minds of some.  Development work is considered a vocation reserved for individuals of low character. Your buildings will have to speak for your character after you are dead. In the mean time, most folks will just think you are an asshole.  That does not mean that you can consider yourself some sort of community builder/martyr.  It’s an everyday thing.  Humans prejudge strangers based upon fear, myth, or by their direct experience of some recent bad building put up by somebody that you resemble.

2 thoughts on “Are Developers Just Trying to Maximize Profit?

  1. John Hooker October 15, 2017 / 4:31 pm


    “It is very hard to build trust with local folks who have seen a lot of lousy buildings built recently.”

    You’re starting to sound like Jim Kunstler. But I have to agree. People are afraid of change or just angry about change because so much of change over the past 50 years has just been loud, ugly and sad.

    I see so many poorly-conceived, ill-proportioned Modernist boxes today where even the simplistic facades are stupid while the massing is just ugly. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to visit such buildings or even just walk by them. Where did we lose our sense of beauty and art in building?

    • rjohnanderson October 15, 2017 / 5:13 pm

      So, other folks build lousy buildings. That’s the world we occupy. There appears to be no end to the tide that hurls up one crappy building, or wide fast street after another. If that is the starting point, is there any wonder that anyone trying to do better is frustrated and occasionally angry? Some folks seem want a better breed of developers _and_ they want them to also be well-mannered polite sensitive singer-songwriters. A better breed of developers will come from the same scruffy humanity that wanders around our cities and suburbs right now. It may be helpful if they have not accumulated too much experience doing conventional large scale development. It is hard to translate the habits learned shepherding residential subdivisions, office parks, and strip retail into the building/rebuilding of walkable neighborhoods and coherent districts and corridors. I think it is time to cultivate a new cohort of small developers focused upon their neighborhood. Change will happen at the pace of trust. Small developers need to build a reservoir of trust and good will with a series of worthwhile buildings. Start small. Be thoughtful. Look around for the best examples you can find. Take the long view.

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