ULI Boston/New England Blog

Action Planning for Urban Development

By Heather Scranton

High land and construction costs – coupled with limited, undeveloped land – are familiar challenges for most urban developers. And when a lot for re-development is acquired, other issues can significantly impact the project schedule and outcome, potentially costing millions of dollars.

There are many different issues, some of which include:

  • Adjacencies: The site is next to or over critical public infrastructure (tunnels, bridges, highways, rail, air rights, etc.); next to historic or concerned building owners that may see impacts, such as building settlement, because of the new development.
  • Brownfields: The site contains contaminated soil and/or groundwater, and the contamination needs to be remediated to meet regulatory or litigation requirements. Worker safety and future tenant/resident risks may be impacted.
  • Public perceptions/impacts: The development will generate vibration, dust, noise, traffic or shade to the area during construction or in its final condition.
  • Environment: There is the potential for flooding from coastal or rainfall events, for excessive temperatures, or for energy blackouts. The site needs to be accessible and its function sustainable during emergencies.

In my work as a geotechnical consultant for development projects in the Boston area, I’ve witnessed the effect these types of challenges can have if potential impact and mitigation measures are not thoroughly assessed. The good news is that these issues can be addressed with proper planning and engineering in design and construction.

When developers go through the process of formally assessing the vulnerabilities of a site, they can gauge potential risks as well as the success of mitigation options. The process works best when stakeholders – including project team members, contractors, neighbors or public agencies – are engaged during the process of assessing vulnerabilities. They can help select preferred alternatives, and ultimately, agree on desired outcomes and design/construction approaches. When project goals are made clear and relationships are already established, expectations are made clear and costly surprises can be addressed immediately, thus saving time and money down the road.

I saw this approach lead to a successful outcome during a project that had adjacency issues. The site was adjacent to an existing bridge, which supported a major highway. Before construction began, we identified the potential for settlement of the bridge’s foundations because of the adjacent construction. The project team worked with stakeholders to develop and implement a program prior to construction to monitor the bridge and install jacking systems in the event it became necessary to maintain alignment. Also before construction began, the project team and the controlling highway agency identified and agreed upon protocols and criteria for when to jack the foundations. When an adjacent foundation eventually settled during construction, the team reacted quickly, jacking the foundation back into place. Without such pre-planning, the highway agency would have shut down the bridge, impacting traffic and safety, and causing expensive delays and claims.

Developers also need to consider how to mitigate long-term project vulnerabilities, like whether their building will be impacted by flooding from increased precipitation rates or from more frequent and severe coastal storms. Already permitting agencies are beginning to require that developers include vulnerability reviews and some mitigation measures in the project designs. However, we expect future regulations will require projects perform rigorous site and project-specific risk assessments and require projects implement mitigation measures for a more resilient design, even those that may help protect the neighborhood, not just the building. For existing buildings, insurance companies are also providing rate incentives for retrofitting buildings to make their buildings more resilient.

Although the specific approach and solution will be different depending on the type and complexity of the issue at hand, a little planning and forward-thinking goes a long way to make an urban development project more successful. Like the old saying goes, “Practice and planning lead to performance.”

Heather Scranton is a senior associate/program manager at Haley & Aldrich, Inc. and co-chair of the ULI Boston/New England Climate Resilience Committee.

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