Development Diary: A Public Gathering Place?

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Chris Curtis is the co-founder and SVP of Development for Compass Datacenters. We are publishing a series of posts from Chris that will take you inside the byzantine world of data center development, shedding a pro’s light on the many aspects of the development process. See Day 3 for previous installment.

CHRIS CURTIS
Compass

In our previous installment of this Developer Diary for a data center project in the southeastern United States, we left off with the news that the city zoning process required our data center site to have a “public gathering place” — a phrase that hints of antiquity. It conjures memories of the summer afternoon ice cream social. A warm breeze, the smell of fresh cut grass, the local brass band playing in the background and your dad smacking you upside the head for dropping your chocolate cone on your new shirt… I guess one man’s fond remembrance is another’s therapy moment, but let’s get back to the issue at hand.

Development requirements are frequently very open to interpretation. Like so many other things in life, the answers to certain questions can only be derived through actual experience. In terms of site development, this is why municipalities have 5-inch-thick development manuals.

Rules of the Road

It’s not because they purposely tell you what defines their various requirements, but because they are so explicit as to what you can’t do. And why is this? Because at some point in time, some other developer’s liberal “interpretation” of a requirement resulted in that neo-classical B-B-Q place that sits across from the mayor’s house. You can just hear the officials saying,  “We aren’t about to make that mistake again.” With the burden of history on my shoulders, I decide that whatever my “public gathering place” winds up looking like, Greek columns and nude statues won’t be part of the overall theme.

Managing Rainwater

I should take a moment to note that as we were grappling with our gathering space problem we were informed that we would also have to build a “storm detention pond” and corresponding rain gardens. Although I made sure that our site is not located within a flood plain, the storm detention pond is required to hold enough water to ensure that the data center doesn’t wind up residing on waterfront property in case of a 100-year flood. As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve been a developer for more than 12 years, but I must confess to not quite understanding how they came up with the concept of the 100-year flood. Did they haul out some old codger to tell them, “Well back when we had the big one in 1912, the water line was up to here…” And even if they did, what happened if he died and the next oldest guy was only in his 80s?

Despite my lack of clarity on origin of the 100-year flood, I still needed to build a detention pond to deal with it in case the next big one occurs sometime this century. Let me note that I could have tried to argue that the pond was not needed using a very reasonable line of reasoning. However, I’ve learned that sometimes a reasonable statement of the obvious: “This pond will provide the community with a fertile breeding ground for deadly West Nile Virus carrying mosquitos” isn’t the best way to respond to an unreasonable requirement. So to all you junior developers out there, learn and embrace the concept of “shut-up and smile.” Some things you’re just going to have to do. It’s times like this when a developer earns his keep.

Idea that Solves Both Issues

I earned my keep when I realized that building my pond also solved my public gathering space problem. Picture if you will a tree-lined preserve surrounding a placid pond accessible by a stone pathway with a couple of benches to sit on to take it all in. A “Zen-like” refuge for the overly stressed data center employee. A place to contemplate life’s big issues, “Is there a God?”, “Why am I here?”, “What’s my PUE?” The city loved it. With the pond and gathering place issues addressed it was time to go back to the commission for final site approval.

It was Yogi Berra who said, “It ain’t over until it’s over” and in the world of development, truer words were never spoken. Even though you’ve done everything that has been asked of you, and followed the manual’s directives to the letter, your plans can still be derailed when you go before the commission for final plan approval. This is when scores are settled and long-held grudges are unleashed. That woman who you were snotty to at the clerk’s office turns out to be the head of the neighborhood association next to your project, or the guy you thought really liked you thinks your proposed signage looks like crap. I won’t lie to you. These things can get downright vicious.

Final Approval: Always Hanging in the Balance

As I seek out my lucky Samsonite chair in the meeting room, I cast a wary eye to detect furtive glances or small knots of people whispering in corners and pointing at me. My reconnaissance does not indicate any overt ill will towards me – although I think the guy in the tweed jacket could be in for a long night – so I settle in and look at the agenda. My project is number 37 on the list. Two thoughts immediately enter my mind, “Why didn’t I eat before I came?” and “Does my position indicate they want time for an extended discussion or does it meant that my project approval is guaranteed?”

The meeting drones on and my hunch proves correct as the guy in the tweed jacket makes the cardinal developer mistake of volunteering too much information, such as “The lights in the parking lot will illuminate the surrounding neighborhoods like a super nova.” And he gets pummeled. Finally, it is my turn. As I approach the podium I notice a new face has entered at the rear of the room. Immediately, my suspicions are aroused because no one shows up at these things at 9:30 on a Tuesday night unless they’ve got an agenda.

Unfortunately, my gut proves to be right as she asks the commissioners to look at a specific drawing in our 30-page submittal package. Uh oh. Suddenly, tweed jacket guy starts to brighten up. The prospect of a kindred soul to compare war wounds with seems to have him bordering on giddiness. Luck is on my side however, as the commission head replies to her request with a terse, “Mira, we’ve already been through all this,” and makes a motion for full board approval that is immediately granted. I give out a small sigh of relief. Tweed jacket guy is devastated.

Next Week: With site approval in hand, I meet with the building commission to see if what I proposed can actually be built.

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