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Trust Building, Site Selection, and Community Engagement: An Interview with David Hecht

Exploring Project Viability and Community Education in Real Estate Development

David Hecht Interview

Introduce yourself: Name, current role, and how you ended up in your current position.

I’m David Hecht, Founder and Principal of Formwork Development, a boutique real estate development firm I established about ten years ago in New Orleans. We currently have projects in New Orleans and a few other markets across the Southeast. My background is in architecture; I practiced for about a decade before transitioning to real estate development. This architectural foundation informs all my work, driving a design-focused approach to development where the design itself serves as a value-added differentiator.

Was there a particular moment that led to this shift in you pursuing more development work instead of architecture? A lightbulb moment?

There was. Most of my career as an architect was spent in New York City, where I managed numerous projects for developer clients, including hotels and high-end condominium projects.

I found that on a lot of those projects, the architect is often confined to a narrow scope and kept on a need-to-know basis regarding crucial real estate parameters that were driving project decisions. I wasn’t involved in fundamental decisions like site selection, programming, budgeting, or financial parameters—elements that truly shape a project. This distance from impactful decision-making led me to shift towards development, aiming to reclaim a role in these larger, more influential aspects of creating spaces and shaping cities.

Highlight a project in your portfolio that had challenges with community engagement and zoning.

In many ways, all my projects require a high level of community engagement since most involve urban infill sites or historic buildings. So, by necessity and definition, they all require creative and thoughtful community engagement.

And part of the community engagement is community education. I’ve been fortunate enough to develop new buildings within historic districts – buildings that are quite contemporary in their architectural style. This of course poses a challenge, but I see it as a real education opportunity to engage with the local community and demonstrate how a modern building can be appropriate and thoughtfully designed to complement and integrate within a historic context.

An example of that is 722 Girod Street in the Lafayette Square Historic District. This project required significant community interaction, particularly concerning the contemporary architectural style within its historic context. The front façade, clad with bronzed metal screens, drew both interest and concern. The Lafayette Square Neighborhood Association is very active, so we had numerous discussions about how this design choice was very intentional and accurately inspired by the traditional wrought iron railings and balconies prevalent in the area. Not many people know that… a lot of people associate those balconies with the French Quarter, but they’re actually quite prevalent in the Lafayette Square Historic District as well. By explaining our design intent and its roots in local architectural traditions, we garnered community support and received unanimous approval from the historic district commission.

Do you have a formal community engagement plan for your projects, or does it differ from project to project?

722 Girod Street had a much formal outreach process due to the proximity of residents and the active neighborhood associations. The buildings were extremely close together – lot line to lot line – so there was a lot at stake. We scheduled regular meetings and presentations to keep the neighborhood informed and engaged. This structured approach was essential given the close-knit urban environment and the association's vested interest in local developments.

In contrast, Hotel Henrietta was a bit more fluid because the immediate neighbors are a bank in a medical office building and a bar. But I was still very intentionally reached out to all the stakeholders.

What has been one of your biggest challenges with community engagement?

Building trust with immediate neighbors has been the biggest challenge. For many, there’s an inherent mistrust of developers. For one of our projects that shared a wall and a property line, it helped to address those shared concerns transparently and respectfully. We related to the common challenges like old masonry issues or leaks, and we worked collaboratively to resolve them. That was crucial in overcoming this hurdle. It’s about treating the community as knowledgeable stakeholders and involving them in the process.

For Hotel Henrietta, what came first: the decision to build a hotel or finding the location? Can you discuss your site selection process?

I found the site first, and the program and the use came after. But ultimately, the viability of the project was really about the synergy of the two.

I discovered the property and, after studying the zoning and neighborhood, determined that a hotel was the highest and best use. My architecture background is beneficial here, as I conduct concept test fit designs to assess what can be built on a site.

How do you approach community engagement for your out-of-state developments?

For out-of-state projects, like our current one in Huntsville, AL, we take a more intentional approach. We partner with local teams—architects, engineers, brokers—to get plugged into the community. This local involvement helps us understand the development ecosystem and build relationships. We also chose Huntsville because they’re quite pro-development, for the most part. They want high quality projects, and they’re embracing the growth that’s happening in the city. So, it hasn’t been adversarial, really. We’ve just had to make a more intentional effort on building trust.

What advice would you offer to those embarking on a project like 722 Girod Street?

Be thoughtful and communicative and know that the best solution isn't always the first one. There’s often a creative or financial solution that can make the project work better and address community concerns. Proactive communication and transparency build trust and lead to more successful outcomes. Throughout my career, I’ve found that keeping people informed and involved is key to gaining their support and achieving project success.

More about David Hecht and Formwork Development can be found here.

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