Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Plan . . . Or Don't. Just Make Up Your Minds

The Greensboro City Council is scheduled to vote this evening (item #8 on the agenda) on whether to amend the city's Comprehensive Plan in order to accommodate a dense development of apartments, condominiums, and townhouses in an outlying area that the plan designates as low to moderate residential.

The world will not end if the council votes for this development, but the Comprehensive Plan will.

This vote will tell the true tale of whether the council is serious about the plan or is simply willing to follow wherever the development industry leads.

The area in question could certainly be profitably developed within the parameters set by the Comp Plan, thought the developer obviously sees more profit in a denser development. Therefore a vote to amend the plan would be a de facto admission that the whole idea of comprehensive land-use planning is a dead letter in Greensboro.

Now there are plenty of people who think that's a good thing: Joel Kotkin pretty much makes his living making the case for market-based urban development. And John Hammer of the Rhino Times has lately made a cottage industry of beating up on the Comp Plan and city planners in general.

But if that's the way Greensboro wants to go, the council ought to say so outright and act accordingly.

If it votes to amend the plan for this project, it ought to apologize to all the citizens who volunteered hundreds of hours working on the plan and say, "never mind."

It should inform the citizens' advisory team that is helping to rewrite the city's land development ordinance that its task is no longer to implement the Comp Plan, which was its original charge.

It should tell citizens who are involved in neighborhood planning and identity efforts, like those in Lindley Park and Cedar Street, which are a part of the Comp Plan, not to waste any more of their time.

It should tell the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress, which has twice voted to endorse the Comp Plan, "that's nice, now run along."

And it should also save the taxpayers money by cutting the city staff in charge of comprehensive planning.

If, however, the council votes not to amend, I say, "amen."

Update: Cara Michele reports that council voted to amend the plan, with Gatten and Carmany dissenting.

I'm now seriously wondering whether it's worth my time to continue working on the citizens' advisory team helping to write the new land development ordinance. We're supposed to be implementing the Comp Plan with that new ordinance, but if the council doesn't really support the Comp Plan . . . what exactly are we trying to accomplish?


Anonymous said...

So what do you think they'll do? Do you have a sense of which way folks on the Council are leaning? Or do you want to say? You may want to keep your peace on that one, and wait for tonight. (If so, no problem.) I'll either be there or be watching tonight.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear! Great post. Raleigh recently decided that their comprehensive plan is in fact the "Comprehensive But Ultimately Meaningless Suggestion."

Outside of downtown Raleigh, the plan denotes two regional centers for growth, Brier Creek and Triangle Town Center.

This past week, the Planning Board and the City Council both overwhelmingly voted to approve a 42-story glass hotel/condo skyscraper not downtown or in either of those centers, but at Crabtree Valley Mall.


Total time from project announcement to City Council approval?


Joel Gillespie said...

Thanks for the heads up. Please remind me not to hold my breath or get up my hopes. Is there anything us common folk can do at this point to encourage the City Council to stick with the Plan? Joel.

David Wharton said...

Cara, Joel, I have no idea what will happen. If you want to address the council, show up at city hall and sign up to speak during "speakers from the floor."

Anonymous, I read about the Raleigh development -- I guess Raleigh ain't Portland, eh?

Patrick Eakes said...

Or you could just ask Henry Isaacson how he told the council to vote.

Jim Rosenberg said...

David -- Mhy $.02. Don't quit. Sharpen your tools. The Comprehensive Plan is a blunt instrument. It lays down a foundation and sets some overall priorities. It is a step backwards to curse or abandon it now. Instead, ask yourself "what is the next step?" What pressure, processes, procedures, relationships can be layered over the Plan to advance your goals? What if you simply had an advocate speak briefly at every Council meeting evaluating the Concil's adherence to the Plan in the previous meeting's votes. Then, issue a year-end report. You could raise money to find, train and retain your own Henry Isaacson. You could start a single-isse blog which does nothing but frame and comment on upcoming votes. Personally, I shrug off complaints about broad visionary documents such as the Comprehensive Plan and Visions. They are first steps -- batons that either get passed to the next runner or fall to the ground.

jw said...

I agree with Mr. Sun on several points. What happened with the Comp plan was that the Council didn't know what they wanted to do with it. THAT should have been decided in advance. I think that plans should be living documents with the ability to change if the circumstance change. But what we've done is set the plan up for failure. We treat it the same way we treated corridor studies. We trot it out when it is convenient to do so, and we ignore it when that works. When you start with the premise that the document is flawed, and that's exactly what the council did, then it's going to be worthless.

Anonymous said...

Kotkin rules. I would love for him to replace that hack Florida as the GSO development guru du jour.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone else watching the Council meeting last night notice that every other zoning discussion included references to the Comp Plan, even though Council had voted to amend it on the very first vote? I found that highly ironic, that folks were still using it as their yard stick even though it was a moving target after vote one.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that the folks spending the money, the developers, come in after the fact with their own ideas. There's quite a difference in making up a plan on paper in a committee with no money at stake and voting to deny someone wanting to spend millions on their own land for high density rather than low density.

David Wharton said...

DB, a few observations: (1) Developers had plenty of representation on the committee that made the comp plan, including the GFLUM. (2) Other people who are spending millions to make any new development work include taxpayers who pay for the infrastructure of roads and services. If the development is poorly planned or placed, the taxpayers pay more. (3) Surrounding property owners also have invested millions (collectively) which are at risk if development is not done carefully.

Nobody forced the developer to buy the land and come up with a plan to develop it; he bought it knowing how it was zoned and how the city wanted it to be used. Surrounding property owners are perfectly justified in expecting that the city would enforce a land use plan that went through extensive public review and approval.

Sun & JW, thanks for your encouragement. I'm just gonna keep pluggin' along.

Anonymous said...

D.B., I generally support the rights of property owners to decide how they want to develop their own property (within reason), and I agree that the developers and investors who are putting up the money have a very different perspective than folks on committees who have no stake or risk. That said, what I don't get is Council saying things like, "Follow the Comp Plan... well, we can amend it... include connectivity... well, we can change that..." It just seems confusing both for the developers and for residents or conservationists or others who might oppose a particular development. If the rule is going to be that there is no rule and projects are decided on a case-by-case basis, then fine, that's cool with me, but just say that up front so people know what to expect.

Council's own rules seemed to trip them up a lot last night.

Anonymous said...

DW, 1. Some developers may have been represented, but not necessarily the one that wants to make a multi-million dollar investment. 2. Many taxpayers pay for infrastructure not the least of which are the taxpayers the new development attracts. 3. Agree on the interests of the other 'investors.' However, this is a tough call. Not all investors have the same interest. There may be property owners nearby who prefer the high density development over low for whatever reason.

Don't know the specifics of this particular deal, but sometimes the developer's purchase of the land is contingent that the intended use be approved. Therefore it's the rights of the original property owner that may be in jeopardy.

I agree with you on sensible planning. However, I don't see how you can build a detailed plan when no money is on the table and you're dealing with twenty year time horizons. Who knows where development is headed? You have to evaluate every deal on a case by case basis.

Agree 100% CM. The way it's going, it was a colossal waste of time. The group's efforts would have been better spent coming up with a generalized set of principles rather than specific planning.

Patrick Eakes said...

I think the offer for the land in question was contingent on getting the rezoning and variance from the Comp Plan, DB. The deal is supposed to close around the turn of the year, which allowed enough time for the Council to delay the vote until after the election, too.