Opponents of building developments are taking a page from birthday party planners and flash mobbers, employing social media sites like Facebook to coalesce their cause — and the industry is sitting up and taking notice.
The Huntington town board on Long Island recently voted down plans for a $100 million, 490-unit housing development, partly on the strength of media-savvy opponents who took developers by surprise.
"We were a bunch of moms," said Jennifer LaVertu, an opposition leader. "I didn't even have to be home to do it. We could access Facebook by phone, dropping a message to everyone that we needed them at town hall that night for a protest. It helped us organize much more quickly."
Well beyond Long Island, development opponents have created social media sites to trumpet their cause and gather like-minded neighbors. In Richmond, Va., residents have established a "Don't Big Box Carytown" site to fight the conversion of a two-story office building into a retail center. A group in the Chicago neighborhood of Wrigleyville, near the home of baseball's Cubs, also is fighting development through Facebook.
Now the real estate industry is debating whether to join the cyberspace fray to fight future not-in-my-backyard opposition like what happened in Huntington.
"Everybody in the industry was taken by surprise," said Desmond Ryan, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, a business trade group that backed the developer. He criticized local elected leaders for caving to critics.
The development would have been about a half-mile from a Long Island Rail Road station — ideal for people who need affordable housing close to public transport.
Opponents argued, though, that the project would balloon school enrollment and attract low-income residents. They hung signs on fences and protested at town meetings but didn't really make an impact until they enlisted social media.
The town board needed at least four of its five members to vote in favor of the application by AvalonBay Communities Inc., which owns 50,000 apartments nationwide, for the project to move forward. The September vote was 3-2, stunning backers of the development.
One town board member, Mark Cuthbertson, said he voted against the project in part because of concerns about its impact on school enrollment. He conceded that opposition lobbying on Facebook "was definitely a factor."
Vivienne Wong, an Avalon opponent, described the group's success as "a monumental win for the little guy. It was a great moment for the Internet to show that things can change; we were able to use these tools to bring the little man a victory."
Richard Guardino, a former Long Island town supervisor and the current dean of Hofstra's Breslin Center for Real Estate Studies, agreed the intensity of the opposition was a surprise.
"You had a developer who was caught off guard, and it happened very quickly," Guardino said. "It looked like things were proceeding routinely when all of a sudden there was significant opposition that became very vocal."
Real estate developers are realizing that they have to be geared up and ready to respond, he said.
"Without a doubt it's the wave of the future; it's something you need to embrace," said developer David Blumenfeld, the builder of an 800,000-square-foot Long Island shopping center called The Arches, as well as a huge retail development on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
"Every post you put on Facebook has to be an attention-grabber," he said. "It's got to be something visual and it needs to attract people, to bring them over to your side."
Facebook, which has a half-billion users, does not compile statistics on civic groups using its site for such purposes, spokeswoman Malorie Lucich said.
Matt Whalen, regional vice president for AvalonBay, insists social media was not the prime reason the project was killed but concedes it was a factor. He said it became difficult to shoot down rumors that the project was intended for low-income residents and other criticisms, including whether it was actually close enough to the train station to be considered a "transit-oriented development."
"The dangerous thing that we saw about social media in our case was that it really just allowed for a wide distribution of any kind of information that's not factually checked," he said. "The people in these social mediums can basically say whatever they want."
Not everyone is convinced that firing back is good strategy.
"We've been very nervous," developer Mitchell D. Rechler said. "The good news is you can get the facts out, but what we've also seen is that the facts can continually get buried with misinformation.
"Do you really want to ... respond to every single comment that comes through? Is that the best way to dedicate your time and money? I don't personally think so."