Saturday, February 18, 2006

Power to the people...

I’ve been sitting on this for a couple of days, unsure of exactly what I wanted to say. Although I’m still conflicted, I decided to share my thoughts in all their contradictory glory.

First, what I am sure of. The development of downtown Columbia is as important, if not more so, to the success of our community than the development of the rest of Columbia. Given the (almost) tabula rasa and tremendous scale of the Next American City, Jim Rouse and his company had room to make mistakes, which, in the long run, would not adversely impact to any meaningful degree the success of their project. I don’t think it’s too early to say Columbia is a success as a city, albeit one with a few warts. (But, which don't have at least some?)

The situation is completely different for Town Center. Instead of proposing a massive development in a largely unpopulated area, we are faced with a massive development in the middle of the second largest city in Maryland. Unlike the city itself, there is almost no room for error in Town Center. We’ll get pretty much one chance to do it right, but that one chance is not hanging in the balance now. That one chance is not a master plan that takes a few months to develop. Our one chance to get it right is not in the plan itself but in the 30 or more years of development we have before us. Yes, the plan will guide us, but it will not - despite our best intentions - control unpredictable decades of development. It simply cannot.

Which brings me to the current Charrette opposition, which has coalesced recently under the leadership of Delegate Liz Bobo into “Citizens For Sensible, Values-Based Downtown Development in Columbia.” (And now for the cynical Hayduke: Just in case you didn’t know who’s running this show, check out the URL and picture on the top right of the website. I don’t want to go too far into the motivations of someone else, but is it really necessary -- other than for political gain -- to feature oneself so prominently in an endeavor that is ostensibly about “the citizens”? I mean, is an available URL [direct link broken, but you can search for it -- or trust me]. Why not just use that?)

It’s hard to get a feel for the actual stances of those railing against the Charrette. I think it’s a pretty wide spectrum including No Growthers, NIMBYs, Some Growthers, Conspiracy Theorists (DPZ is controlled by General Growth), General Rabble Rousers, and (predominately, I would guess) More Informationists. Despite the widely disparate views of the coalition, the “official” line of CFSVBDDC seems to be pretty well captured by the statement on a petition it is asking members to circulate:

We the undersigned concerned citizens request:
that specific, hard data relating to housing, schools, traffic, roads, water and sewer, environment, fiscal responsibility, as well as phasing and monitoring of the proposed development be studied and made available to the public BEFORE the Draft Master Plan for Downtown Columbia is presented to the Planning Board and the County Council.
(Emphasis in original.)

So what’s wrong with wanting “hard” data? Nothing, except for the fact that much of this information doesn’t exist, and that which does, is not really “hard” but merely projections and guesstimates.

Quite simply, by seeking to micromanage the future of our town, we are asking too much of the plan and the planning process. Instead of creating something that will accommodate the inevitable changes of the next 30 years, many are seeking a plan based on today’s reality, a reality that, come tomorrow, is useless. There are some things we can control and some things we can’t, and when confronted with things out of our power, it’s best to adapt, lest we waste time and energy fighting the wrong battles.

Like the plan that created this great city, the plan that creates a great downtown needs to be responsive to the needs of the community and (yes, even) the market, needs that will inevitably change in just a few years, let alone 30. Moreover, the plan must be able to adapt to a rapidly changing world, as forces outside our control (regional growth, transporation, energy use, etc.) will have major impacts on our lives and the direction of Town Center. So, instead of asking for all the details up front, it seems to me the best approach is to create a framework for development that includes citizen and public oversight throughout the process, rather than trying to cram in all of this oversight now. After all, the only thing that we can say with any real certainty is that our future is uncertain, and exactly what, where, when, how, and why changes occur will remain beyond our understanding.

All that said, I'm as much for sensible, values-based development as anyone. Creating a plan based on this principle, however, does not exclude it from being adaptable, as well.

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