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DesignIdeation: Public-Private Partnerships

Beyond the technical skills required to bring a project to life, AEC professionals are being asked by public entities to find innovative ways to take community-oriented projects that lack funding across the finish line. One solution that is more frequently brought to the forefront is public-private partnerships (P3). LandDesign’s Richard Petersheim has spent his 20+ year career navigating P3’s, or “five-way marriages,” as he calls them, and finding the right partners that can support the public in delivering projects that will have a meaningful impact on the community. 

Below, Richard shares his thoughts on the importance of P3’s and how designers can be a partner in bringing together stakeholders with different goals and objectives under one vision.

What is P3?

P3 stands for public-private partnerships. Typically, they are long-term commitments where a public entity engages with a real estate developer or a non-profit organization to deliver a project that will bring value to the community. The public and private sectors come from very different standpoints—the public and their civic responsibility, and the private and their financial responsibility. There are a lot of moving parts—I like to call them five-way marriages. As designers, we have to understand who our partners are and ensure their goals and objectives are met every step of the way.

What role do designers play in navigating public-private partnerships?

We begin by creating the framework of thinking, working with the public and private to determine the core objectives. A lot of times, we are on the front end of selling the idea to the community and serve as the neutral party by providing an objective opinion, saying “Here are the benefits of this marriage, how it will meet community goals and the result of the combined investment that is more valuable to the community.”

How do we help public entities identify private partnerships?

We are helping cities and towns on a handful of developments in the region that involve some level of P3. Throughout the process, we help identify valuable areas for new development and may suggest partners that are skilled at delivering the development they want. Whether it’s transit, retail, residential, office, mixed use, etc., our responsibility is to bring everyone to the table under one vision.

What is the value of P3 in advancing new development in high-growth cities?

It can serve as an accelerant. Usually, we draw very aspirational plans that aim to create as much value as quickly as possible. Most of these aspirational plans, however, don’t align with reality—the market factors and economics. For example, if a developer wanted to create a retail hub, but we know that retail dynamics are changing, we may suggest being more aggressive with density to support a mix of uses that will be more profitable in the long run.

What are the challenges that come with P3?

The biggest challenge is making sure everyone is transparent about the true objectives upfront. During one-on-one conversations with stakeholders, we are able to get an understanding of where everyone is aligned and where there are disconnects of the core goals, objectives, etc. Our job is to bring the collective together and show them that we all want to accomplish the same thing. The rest of the process becomes a lot easier once you determine that initial alignment.

How is P3 influencing how we approach the design of our projects?

Most projects I’m involved in have some level of P3. When a developer comes to us with a piece of property, my first thought is to look at what’s happening around the site, such as roadway improvements, public infrastructure like greenways, or opportunities for public art, and find ways to leverage the collective investment to give as much back to the community as possible. 

Public art, for example, is a small investment to make but creates a more connected community. There’s never enough funding to overlay development with art, but through these partnerships we can advance art within our neighborhoods. Additionally, these types of community-focused investments can rally support around new projects and deliver a positive message about what a developer is trying to accomplish. 

Even massive projects, like The River District in Charlotte, NC, needed strategic partnerships to happen well beyond the borders of State DOT. Once we understood the magnitude of The River District, Dale Stewart (LandDesign) led the charge to look outside of the property limits and determine how to get the right partners, like NCDOT, CATS (Charlotte Area Transit System) and the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, to the table early on.

Throughout your career, what have you learned about bringing together various stakeholders with different objectives?

Be neutral. You are the moderator of the discussion, presenting the best opportunities and strategies, and if you are perceived as leaning one way or the other, you’ve created a problem. Throughout the process, I like to remind everyone of the overarching goal of the project, which is always our starting point. Every decision that is made is in service to the goal, and if it’s not we need to understand why we are deviating from the mission.

What is an example of a successful P3 project you’ve worked on?

There’s a handful of them underway now, but the one that has had the most momentum is Brightwalk in Charlotte, NC. The developer behind Brightwalk, David Howard, had a mission to take a neighborhood in a very challenged part of town and partner with the City of Charlotte, DOT and the arts to deliver a mixed-income community. We knew early on there would be gaps in the financial model to deliver a mixed-income project that has an exceptional public realm. 

But from the start, we had the right partners in place. The social and human capital attributes that you want from the civic side came together with the mission-driven developer and resulted in a marriage that worked out extremely well. Ultimately, Brightwalk was an accelerant to the North End transformation, which has since resulted in CAMP North End’s investment and the stabilization of this diverse community. 

Is our involvement in navigating P3 unique to LandDesign, or are other firms doing this? 

I’m sure there are firms that do this to the extent that we do, but we are very effective at navigating public-private partnerships. From identifying hurdles that might derail an initiative, to leveraging infrastructure or roadway improvements, we are always looking for forward-thinking solutions that accelerate these projects. 

We are exceptionally good collaborators, so we don’t need to be right—we need the right solution. We understand how to navigate these relationships and recognize the big idea that’s going to get these projects over hurdles to implementation. This is pretty unique for our marketplace. Most firms are myopic in that they deliver their technical expertise and they’re good at that. But aligning planets is kind of our skill set—it’s our forte.