Friday, January 06, 2006

Slowin' things down...

The uproar following the charrette has, at times, made me question why we ever engaged in the process to begin with. Since the presentation of the "final" product, an effort has been underway to discredit the resulting plan and question the intentions of the charrette's organizers and facilitators--the charrette/charade comparisons being the symbolic rallying cry of this movement.

While I acknowledge the need to ensure--through observation and doggedness--that the adopted Town Center plan adheres to the input of charrette participants, those who are being most critical are motivated not by a desire to see that the "people" are heard, but by their own personal agendas and ideologies, which are held by only a small, vocal subset of Howard Countians.

Perhaps the biggest focus of criticism thus far has been over the possible 5,000 units of housing that was included in the plan. By focusing on this detail, however, charrette opponents have effectively shut off further discussions of the real issues we face--namely, how does the plan work as a whole. Certainly, 5,000 units seems, in the abstract, like a lot of growth, but given the future predictions for growth in this county (click on Round 6B Cooperative Forecast 2000-2030) placing 20 percent of that forecast in Town Center--the most urbanized location in the county--doesn't seem like a stretch. Ignoring the exogenous, regional problem of growth so that we can preserve Columbia's suburban downtown (oxymoron? Yes!) of low-rise building, expansive parking lots, and undeveloped gravel parking lots strikes me as not a good way to go about planning.

In their efforts to discredit the entire process, the "anti" folks are alienating and insulting the majority of charrette participants who provided honest ideas and input during the week-long event. The belief that the people's plan was hijacked by a New Urbanist, pro-growth cabal of developers, politicians, bureaucrats and planners tangentially intersects the paranoia parabola (and may even follow it for a while). It is unfortunate that before a finished plan has even been presented, many are already calling for it to be scrapped in favor of something else, presumably a plan that is more aligned with the wishes of the loud few.

If the Department of Planning and Zoning releases a plan that is clearly out of step with the input of the majority of charrette participants, than I would hope for strong public resistance during the multi-layered approval process. However, if the plan is released and the same folks preemptively dismissing it now comprise the bulk of the criticism, than I'd say we've got something worthy of approval.

All of this is, naturally, a way of commenting on something that was in the Columbia Flier yesterday. Delegate Liz Bobo is holding a public meeting for the Coalition of the Disgruntled to air concerns many have over the pace of the drafting of the charrette plan--something that I personally agree with. My concern about Bobo's meeting is that charrette details, and not the pace, will take center stage. From the story:

Residents worried that a 30-year master plan for the redevelopment of downtown Columbia is moving too fast will get their say on the matter during a public hearing Jan. 14.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat, has set a hearing from 2 to 4 p.m. to give residents a chance to discuss the pace at which the proposed plan is moving through the county's approval process. The meeting will be held at Slayton House in Wilde Lake.

...Bobo said she is concerned that the plan may not place enough height limits on buildings and does not include enough affordable housing or adequate parking.
Bobo's concerns over height limits and affordable housing are her own, as are the concerns others have with the charrette at this point. Because of the messy nature of democracy (see the last two presidential elections), individual concerns, however right, don't mean squat unless a majority of individuals share these concerns. Perhaps there were two participants wanted tall buildings for every one that wanted short ones. Perhaps two supported no affordable housing, while only one supported it. Perhaps two felt 5,000 units of housing was adequate given the desire for amenities and the growth outlook, while one felt residential growth should be limited more.

Of course, deciphering the outcomes of the charrette is not as easy as counting votes (the last two presidential elections notwithstanding--yes, I'm just wrote that to get a rise out of the Republicans reading this). Without specific yes-or-no, black-or-white answers, much is left to the interpretation of planners and others at the Department of Planning and Zoning, which makes the growing furor over the outcome of the charrette even more dangerous if in fact it is counter to the majority opinions.

Such critiques will be impossible to disprove outright, and with the whole squeaky wheel problem, some grease is likely to applied. Unfortunately, this would be just as bad as if DPZ and other greedy actors--developers, politicians--hijacked the charrette for personal gain or whatever nefarious motivation they may have. In both cases, the will of the majority is discarded in favor of the ideology of the few, and because moderates don't generally get riled up about such things and probably wouldn't set up meetings and e-mail lists to coordinate an attack on the charrette's drift towards the extremes, the majority may once again fall prey to the minority.

My hope is that DPZ really did hijack the charrette and the current crop of critics is bringing it back in line with what most people want. However, my fear is that many regular folks invested a lot of time and energy into a process they thought was fair and receptive, only to find out later it was all a charade.

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