How Municipalities Can Attract Private-Sector Investment

Summer 2023 Issue
By: Gary Kerr
When it’s finished in May 2025, Greystar’s The Maxwell will consist of 355 market-rate apartments, 29 affordable-housing units, a parking garage with 460 spaces, and roughly 5,300 square feet of retail space on the ground floor.

The Commercial Triangle district in Everett, Massachusetts, provides a case study in putting a strategic vision into action.

Municipal leaders are continually seeking to improve their communities by bringing in private-sector investment, which catalyzes growth and opportunity. But how can a municipality attract the right kind of investment?

Welcome to Everett

Located just outside of Boston, the city of Everett witnessed the surging economic development in nearby communities such as Cambridge and Somerville. So, with the support of Mayor Carlo DeMaria, Everett decided to use the available tools to attract investors — and it worked.

In the past decade, Everett underwent a master planning process for the Commercial Triangle district, a 110-acre area in the heart of the city, with the objective of spurring investment. Despite being an ideal location just minutes from downtown Boston and Logan Airport, the district lacked proper transit service and largely catered to heavy industries and manufacturing, which impacted its desirability as a residential and retail destination. The new master plan encourages large mixed-use developments (50-plus units) with engaging ground-floor retail. While the master planning process began in 2015, it didn’t pass the Everett City Council until August 2018.

To further modernize the area, the new zoning allowed for uses that offered employment and/or essential services for residents (business offices, banks, financial services, research/development facilities, retail services, and indoor entertainment/recreation under 15,000 square feet). This significant overhaul is in concert with the opening of the Chelsea MBTA station in 2021, which is located about a half-mile outside of the city limits and offers access to the Silver Line and commuter rail. To encourage more transit-oriented development, the city took steps such as championing fare-free buses and installing peak-hour bus lanes at a time when other cities were worried about whether such lanes would be feasible. This has resulted in the development of thousands of units of housing, the creation of highly desirable retail, and a $2.6 billion casino and resort complex, the Encore Boston Harbor (which is in Everett despite the name).

Greystar realized the opportunity presented by Everett. Over the past few years, the company has invested $730 million in the city, building more than 1,900 housing units and creating new public outdoor spaces with multimodal connections, improved pedestrian walking paths and sidewalks, and public dog parks.

Everett is an example of a municipality that established a vision for its future and used the tools it possessed to make the city attractive for private-sector investment. But that path was not as easy as it may look, and it took more than proximity to Boston to make it happen. While any community would welcome booming industries and high-paying jobs, it’s hard to see the sentiment reciprocated if the environment is not fertile.

Advice for Municipalities

For municipalities interested in turning desire into dollars, here are some tips to keep in mind.

Create transparent pathways for development. Extensive or unexpected red tape can dampen private-sector interest by complicating a project’s timeline and price tag. Make the development process clear and straightforward to enhance the municipality’s attractiveness for investment.

Engage the community early. When municipalities undertake master-planning efforts, it can be helpful to both existing residents and prospective investors. In the case of the former, it lets the population understand and contribute to the changes coming to their community, which can serve to soften reactions to proposals in the future. Developers, meanwhile, can follow the process in real time by observing and monitoring public meetings and the release of reports stemming from planning efforts. By doing so, they can be ready to act when the plan goes into effect, if they have investors lined up and opportunities in their sights.

Avoid excessive granularity. Hyper-prescriptive planning stifles interest by requiring projects to fit specifications that might be at odds with developers’ perspectives. For instance, a plan that requires certain building types at specific locations could reduce interest if the builder doesn’t have the confidence (or financial backing) to successfully carry out the municipality’s desires.

Keep an eye on the practical. A municipality seeking to significantly ramp up development needs sufficient staff to review and process proposals. Failing to scale up relevant staff while soliciting development proposals is a recipe for disaster because it clogs the pipeline, extending and injecting uncertainty into timetables. Being realistic about infrastructure is also critical. Traffic, public utilities and schools are typically the most affected by development. They can be pain points for residents if they are ignored until they lead to crises. In many cases, municipal investment should be considered a precursor to private-sector investment — much as Everett did by addressing its gaps in transit access.

Ready to take the first step? Start with conversations rather than consultants. Look to communities that found success with new master plans and ask how they did it and who they talked to. This will provide the best foundation for taking the next steps and understanding what might work elsewhere.

To complement that with industry perspectives, talk to a broad array of development companies. Their views might spark ideas previously not considered. Additionally, unlike those preparing feasibility studies, developers are the ones who would be pursuing and executing projects.

As anyone in a position of leadership understands, change can be difficult to maneuver. This is especially true for development, where short-term headaches and long-term fears can dominate the conversation. Leadership is crucial. It is far easier to get 10 opponents to speak up on a topic than it is to get a single supporter, so leaders must properly frame conversations and lay out a clear vision for the future. Do that, and there is a strong likelihood that the private sector will come knocking.

Gary Kerr is the managing director for Greystar Development Services in the Northeast region.

Relevant Research

Relevant Research Report

The NAIOP Research Foundation recently published a second research brief in a series that reviews local permitting processes. “Examining Development Approvals Across North America: An Analysis of Site Plan and Building Permit Review Processes” is a follow-up to “The Development Approvals Index: A New Tool to Evaluate Local Approvals Processes,” released in February 2021. The Index focuses on transparency, accountability and consistency regarding how local governments handle building plan reviews, permitting and inspections. With the assistance of several NAIOP chapters and George Mason University, the Index now includes data from 100 jurisdictions in 30 states.

To view and download the report, visit