Land use attorney Sarah M. Rockwell, of Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell, grew up hearing dinner-table conversations about Denver redevelopment
Published in 2013 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine
on March 15, 2013
Updated on April 9, 2013
Q: You graduated from law school in ’85. What led you to the law in the first place?
A: I actually thought I was going to be a city planner [but] my brother said, “Go to something like law school along with planning school because nobody will know what you do if you’re a planner only.” I decided to do the joint degree at MIT and Boston University. From there, I ended up working a couple of summers at law firms in the land use arena and really enjoyed it.
Q: As a land use attorney, do you deal with a lot of city planners?
A: All the time. A lot of our work involves projects that have some sort of public sector component to them. A lot of my work in the land use arena involves working with planning departments of different cities and counties, so I’m constantly in meetings with planning professionals and folks who have been through the planning school realm. I find that my background in planning has helped [me] understand … how they have been trained and the kinds of things they’re going to think about. It really comes up all the time.
Q: Any regrets? Do you ever look across the aisle and think, “It might be fun to be on that side”?
A: Not really. By practicing law in the area I’m in, I’m able to work on a lot of [the same] projects; I’m just working on different aspects of them. A lot of what I do is draft the documents and prepare the agreements that help, for example, a public sector entity and a private sector entity do a project, and I really enjoy that part of it. I’m better at that than I would be trying to design a site plan, for example. My background and my expertise is really more in drafting and writing than the creative side.
Q: Do you tend to represent public or private entities?
A: Half of our clients are probably public sector entities and the other half are private sector entities.
Q: What are some of the big projects you’ve worked on?
A: We represented Forest City Enterprises from the beginning of their project at the Stapleton Airport. That representation has probably been over a 12-year period. I don’t know if you know, but [Stapleton] is basically a closed airport that has been turned into a mixed-used community, with commercial, residential, schools and open space. We were involved in negotiating the original agreement between Forest City and the Stapleton Development Corporation; then we’ve been involved in a lot of the subsequent agreements related to how that project has been developed from the public financing issues, environmental issues, zoning and land use issues.
Q: Would this be the most complex case you’ve worked on?
A: It probably is. It’s basically a brand new community: an infill project of 4,700 acres, and not a lot of experience by the city of Denver doing a project of that size.
Q: You’ve been involved in transit-oriented development projects recently. Could you talk about those?
A: Sure. Transit-oriented development is, by its name, a development that surrounds transit. As the Regional Transportation District in Denver has been building out its FasTracks transit project, there have been different transit stops that have been identified, both by RTD—as what they call their Transit-Oriented Development Pilot Project—but also other sites that just have been identified to be good places for a mixed-use development around a transit stop.
We’ve been involved, most recently, in two or three of those: one on behalf of a private sector entity, one on behalf of the city and one on behalf of another city. Each of these projects involved some combinations of public and private sector, and a transit agency trying to get a project done. They usually involved several different sources of funding—whether they be private sources or public sources. They involve a lot of agreements that tend to be complicated. They’re long-term projects and each one of them is a bit different just based on the communities where they’re located.
Q: What are the biggest stumbling blocks in projects with public and private sector entities, various forms of funding, and, I assume, different goals?
A: I think you’ve hit it. Each entity has a different goal, and they tend to have different time frames to fulfill their goals, and they’re not necessarily consistent with each other. Particularly in this economy, the sources of funding are limited, and you really have to be creative about how you’re going to come up with all your sources of funding. The parties have different levels of expertise in terms of their ability to get these kinds of things done, but they also present enormous opportunities for urban areas, these kinds of projects.
Q: What’s your role in all of this? Is it to best represent the entity? Are you involved in negotiation? Are you just making sure i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed in terms of the contract?
A: All of the above. Generally my role as a lawyer on these kinds of projects is to help take parties that are trying to achieve a common purpose and help them figure out what that purpose is, and then document their agreements. As part of that role, I’m involved in a lot of meetings where parties are sitting around the table saying, “Hey, we want to get this done and we want to do it in a particular way.” I think one of the things I’m good at is trying to help the parties articulate what their ultimate goals are and come up with agreements.
Q: Is one of the ultimate goals to promote density as opposed to sprawl?
A: I think the goals are to acknowledge and encourage denser development, to take people out of their cars and have them use transit. There’s an enormous amount of research being done now on the benefits of locating affordable housing near transit. People are looking to get people out of their cars.
Q: What would you say is the biggest disconnect in the conversation between the public and private sector?
A: Oh, boy. That’s a hard one.
The private sector, obviously is motivated by the need to make a financial return for both themselves and their investors. They have time constraints in order to make that happen. For them, time is money.
The public sector doesn’t necessarily have the time constraints; they have a longer time horizon than the private sector. Their needs and goals tend to be more oriented toward achieving a public purpose, to meet the needs of a community, so in some cases they probably have a broader set of goals that they are trying to achieve.
I think the disconnect comes from the private sector sometimes not understanding that the public sector is going to have broader goals than they are, and the public sector not understanding that the private sector needs to have certainty, and they need to be able to get things done quickly, and they can’t be delayed forever. The private sector, what they really like is predictability. If they know up front something is going to take three years, and they’re told that, they can work around that. If they’re told it’s going to take one year and it takes three years, that’s when things get frustrating.
Q: What did your parents do?
A: My dad was a prominent banker in Denver. He also was one of the original founders of an organization called the Downtown Denver Partnership, which is the downtown business organization that plans, manages and develops downtown, and, among other things, was responsible for implementing our 16th Street Mall. My dinner-table conversations growing up were about redevelopment issues. My dad also served on the board of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority during a pretty controversial time in Denver, where a lot of lower downtown was, during the skyline urban renewal period, razed for redevelopment. Meanwhile, my mother served on a lot of boards and commissions, and was also on the Denver School Board.
Q: These dinner-table conversations: Any moment where you thought, “That’s what I’d like to do”?
A: I think it was just a compilation of all of all those conversations. I was just fascinated with it. I’ve always loved cities and the diversity and excitement that they have to offer. I really do think it came from watching my parents be so involved in Denver.
Q: Is there a development you’d like to see in the Denver area that is not happening that should be happening? Some dream project?
A: I think that Denver is headed in the right direction. We have an incredibly active community of people who care about design. I’d really like to focus on good design, and exciting projects, and projects that bring people together. I think that’s the beauty of an urban environment. We’re certainly headed in the right direction with our Union Station redevelopment, which we’ve been involved in. We just need to continue to grow those projects and hopefully find funding for the new ones, and hopefully develop this area called Arapahoe Square that is near downtown Denver.
Right now, Arapahoe Square is many blocks of disparate ownership, triangular parcels, lots of parking lots, and it’s walking distance from downtown. It’s considered to be one of the new up-and-coming areas that’s ripe for some kind of development. What direction it goes remains to be seen, but it presents a lot of interesting opportunities.
Q: One of your most recent seminars was called “Certainty in Uncertain Times: Do Plans Make Sense Anymore?” Based on what we’ve been talking about, I assume the answer is … yes.
A: It is. The topic was given to me by Tom Ragonetti. It was really a question of … Cities and counties create these long-term comprehensive plans, and sometimes by the time they’re done, they’re already obsolete. So what should be their time frame? Can you make them more flexible so you don’t always have to go in and change them? I think they do make sense because they allow communities to come together and identify what their vision is. Without good visioning, you can’t do good land use regulation. You can’t zone unless you know what kind of land uses you’re looking to have there or what kind of transportation system you want to have there.
Q: So it’s less about uncertain economic times than a rapidly changing or speeded-up world.
A: Right. But this is also the time, frankly, to do that visioning and to put those plans in place.
Q: Why is this the time?
A: Because there’s less development going on. Public planners have a bit more time on their hands. In the private sector, there’s an enormous amount of expertise out there that is basically underemployed and underutilized, and they’re certainly willing to volunteer time or be consultants to work on good planning.
Q: In other words, in the aftermath of the global financial meltdown, there’s an opportunity.
A: I always think there’s an opportunity.