Observations about places, planning and architecture as I accompany client RobertsDay on the 2013 Great Places Tour. More detailed posts with video will appear soon at www.robertsday.com.au.

The growing village of Providence, just west of Alabama, was almost just a collection of apartment blocks. Half a million dollars had been spent on planning and design, contracts with the master builders were ready to be signed, and the dirt was ready to be turned. And then, on the eve of kick off, developer David Slyman woke in the middle of the night and decided to do an about-face.

His time in the small boroughs of San Fransisco and New York was the catalyst to create something far different. Spending half the night researching urban design firms who could bring his nascent vision to life, he told his wife when she got up the next morning that he was going to build a town, where you had all that you needed to live and you felt comfortable.

This is a story of having a vision, and building relationships, and understanding the market. It's also the story of a hard-working guy with a finance brain who listens. (And when the video of his hour-long talk is finally loaded you'll see what I mean.)   

1. VisionSlyman's story of the pink brick house probably best sums up the idea of having a vision - and staying true to it. The scenario is this: The development - Providence - has been in development for some time. The GFC has hit. Everyone's doing it tough. (Even Slyman, who's selling more at Providence than anyone else around, is being squeezed; he's just lost $4million on a commercial building contract that went bad.) A woman and her husband come along and they want to build an $800,000 house in Providence. She wants to use a pink brick. David tells her 'no'.

Her:  'Whatddaya mean, y'all gonna run me offa here over a pink brick? I'm gonna build an 800 thousand dollar house!' Him: 'You could build a two million dollar house and you still couldn't do it in the pink brick.' Her: 'Why not?' Him: 'That pink brick doesn't fit with what we're trying to build here. So  I'm protecting the value of what your neighbour's already got. If you built a two million dollar house in the pink brick it wouldn't be worth two million dollars when you've finished.' The husband: 'I told you honey.'

2. Building relationshipsIt's clear Slyman is a networker - a serial networker is how he describes himself. From the moment he blew in from Ohio 11 years before - a damned Yankee carpetbagger - he'd probably been charming the pants off all and sundry. Long before he began developing the 300 acres that is now Providence, he'd been doing small developments around the Huntsville area so he'd worked hard to create relationships with city staff in planning and engineering for instance, and it's a good thing he did.

After he'd researched 31 urban design firms and finally settled on DPZ, he decided to ring the Mayor. They didn't talk for long; he told her he had 300 acres west of Huntsville, she asked him which urban designers he was using, and then she told him to be in her office at 11 am the next morning.

When he arrived he had no idea that he'd be walking into a meeting with every department head in the city office. Nor that the Mayor would say this:

'Y'all know David. He's developing this land west of Hunstville. So here's the thing. Number one: He's using DPZ, the firm we couldn't afford to hire. Number two: We need development west of Huntsville. Number three: If I find any part of this project sitting on anyone's desk, then they're fired.' End of meeting.

Slyman says that he was horrified and had to ring up all the people he'd been creating relationships with to assure them that he'd known nothing about what the Mayor had been planning to do; after all, administrations come and go but the staff don't change quite so often.

3. Understanding the marketThis last, understanding the market, is very closely related to the second, building relationships, and while there are many examples of how well Slyman understands the market he's serving there are two anecdotes that seem to be illustrate the point. First, is that when he went to present the urban plan to the city officials, he knew that there was no way that he could foresee more than the zones of uses that would be needed over the next 20 years. "If you think I'm going to look into my crystal ball and try and slice up my lots for what  I'll need over the next 20 years, then you're crazy."

Over the time of the development, he's read the market and responded; developing product that suited the time. For instance, Providence sits nearby to the Arsenal - and seat of  60,000 jobs; but also to Research Park - home to many of the US' top biotech and hi tech firms as well as growing start ups. And here, again, Slyman's networking comes into play. Chatting to two banking friends, he fond that they wanted to leave their firm and start up a new bank. He leased them one of the flex offices he'd created - groups of 12 or 13 small offices with a phone, internet, a desk and a shared reception area. They're now a $3billion bank - and the source of many referrals of other start up businesses.

I said earlier that Slyman was a guy who listened well and in this advice that he gives his staff in dealing with all people but particularly city officials, you can see one of the key reasons for what he calls his 'executional success'. 

"Let them talk enough and they'll give you the recipe of what will work. And in some recipes, you'll find that sugar and salt do mix."


AuthorAmanda Falconer