Rick Redniss, president of Redniss & Mead, on what a land use consultant does, how a book idea led to a career at his father’s firm, why Stamford is the biggest small town in the world, and his dream urban planning project.
Q&A with Rick Redniss, president of Redniss & Mead
Q: In newspaper articles, you are frequently quoted as a “land use consultant.” What exactly is a land use consultant? Who are your clients and what do you try to accomplish for them?
A: A land use consultant advises public, private and nonprofit landowners on meeting land use goals for property they own or are contemplating buying. These include feasibility, development, redevelopment, aesthetic improvements, conservation, and estate planning. Clients include cities and towns, single-family owners, private developers, neighborhood organizations and nonprofits such as schools, religious institutions, and affordable housing providers. When I believe in their goals, I try to help them achieve them. Many times, the right solution is “outside the box.” Land use has become much more complicated since Stamford enacted zoning regulations in 1926. Many times creative solutions deal with these complications. Rather than force a less than optimal solution inside the box, we try to adapt the box to make a better fit for them and their surrounding community.
Q: Tell us how you got your start in urban planning.
A: Growing up in Stamford, with my parents and brother Ray all in the surveying and civil engineering business, the familiarity with land use was there. While teaching elementary school in the 70s, I got involved with Paul Davidoff and a special program that was involved with planning in the public schools. That compelled me to get my master’s in urban planning at Hunter College while still teaching. I took some of my sixth graders to Vancouver (Canada) for a conference on human habitats, which reinforced my desire to transition into professional planning. My first job opportunity as a planner came via Herman Badillo, a deputy mayor in the (Edward) Koch Administration, and it actually paid less than I was making as a teacher. At that point, with two young children, we could not afford a pay cut. One of the mentors in the planning program was Martha Munzer, who had written several books on planning. We pitched a book idea to her publisher about the power of children to facilitate positive changes in planning. When I asked my father to borrow some money so that I could spend time writing and researching for the book, he said “No, but you can come to work.” So I did, and realized I could be a planner as part of our family’s business, and never left.
Q: It has been said that land use decisions reflect a community’s values. Having sat through countless public hearings over your career, what do you think is the hallmark trait that defines Stamford?
A: My associate calls Stamford “the biggest small town in the world.” The city is always working to find that balance between a bustling downtown metropolis and quiet suburbia. There are some that still long for the Stamford of the 1950s, but that’s not realistic. After World War II, the baby boom, the construction of I-95, and urban renewal, the die was cast, and things were going to change. The population of the city, as with the county, state, and country has increased over 70 percent since 1950. More than 50,000 additional people live in Stamford since I was born, and that number continues to grow. Where should they go? Sprawling continuously into leafier areas or concentrated in areas where the infrastructure can accommodate and sustain growth? It is an easy answer.
Q: Discuss some of the lessons you learned over your career.
A: My father and brother were Eagle Scouts before me; and the Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared” was always lesson No. 1. Working in land use, it helps to be over-prepared. You can prepare for 99 potential issues, but it will be that 100th one that ends up being the difference maker. You also need to understand the total context of where you are, what you are doing, and whom it impacts. And building consensus is paramount. The key to getting Newbury Commons, a housing development in the early 1980s that required rezoning, ended up being trash management. While meeting with neighbors, we learned that the older condominiums in the area were built with inadequate parking plus their dumpsters took up valuable parking spaces. We also studied the parking ratios of most of the larger residential buildings and discovered that the then-new parking regulations required more than the demand. We wrote a parking reduction regulation for large residential complexes while developing a site plan that provided extra parking for neighbors and a shared trash management program located on Newbury Commons property with an indexed fee structure. Working with neighbors in support, we got 260 new apartments approved by three local land use boards and the state traffic commission in 11 months.
Q: Smart growth is a planning term that gets bandied about a lot these days. Define it for us.
A: To me, it is applied common sense and a balancing of competing interests to address the changing dynamics of cities and towns. In the simplest terms using Stamford as an example, it is to concentrate growth in the downtown and satellite neighborhoods where the infrastructure is available including mass transit and a walk-ability to meet most everyday needs: homes, jobs, recreation, culture, food, shopping, etc. in a sustainable manner.
Q: What is it like to be the public face of so many developments that have gone before the city, many of them controversial?
A: I made a decision long ago to only fight for what I believe to be good planning initiatives. I pass on things that are not well conceived or appropriate. Most people in opposition over time come to realize that their fears were exaggerated and the impacts they worried about never materialized. So I am OK showing my face in public. There are people who associate me with change. They do not like change, and will do anything to stop change, even when change is an improvement. It is always an educational process.
Q: Lastly, what is your dream project for Stamford?
A: Looking forward, we have a fantastic opportunity to transform our train station area into a showplace of smart growth. There are so many improvements that can be made with the right comprehensive solutions. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that would be fun to help put together. It would also represent coming full circle since our firm was working with Transportation Plaza Associates when the state took the train station by eminent domain in 1980. I’d hate to witness a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not seized twice in my life. This station is the most important planning project in our region. It needs to be done right this time.