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Citizen participation: blessing turned curse?

The citizens who participate aren’t always representative, and they often don’t consider the greater good — or even what’s in their own long-term interests.

In March, an apartment and theater complex that would have spiffed up the Franklin and Lyndale intersection met with so many objections from the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association that it is off the table, for this year anyway.
City of Minneapolis

Lately, we’ve seen a succession of community groups shoot down developments — or modify them into infeasibility.

In February, the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood association prodded the Minneapolis City Council to veto developer Kelly Doran’s bid to raze an old one-story building in Dinkytown because it might be historic. The decision killed his project — a $25 million five-story boutique hotel.

In March, an apartment and theater complex that would have spiffed up the Franklin and Lyndale intersection met with so many objections from the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association that it is off the table, for this year anyway. Similarly, the Cedar Isles Dean Neighborhood Association has pushed developer Trammell Crowe to reduce an 11-story luxury apartment building to be erected on the site of Tryg’s restaurant site near Lake Calhoun to six stories. Whether developers can charge luxury prices for what will now be nonluxury views is an open question.

And let’s not overlook the mother of them all: the Southwest LRT. The objections of local groups both in Minneapolis and St. Louis Park to various aspects of the route have forced the Met Council into proposing a fix that would raise the cost of the line by about $140 million to $150 million. Even so, they are unappeased, and a major piece of the region’s future transportation network is now teetering on the edge of a cliff.    

Top-down flattening — followed by a rebellion

What a far cry all these goings-on are from how things were in the past. In the olden days, developers, engineers and city officials flattened neighborhoods right and left, literally paving the way for roads, hotels, apartments, stadia and shopping centers — often to serve the commercial interests of local notables. Local groups not only had no say; they barely knew what to say.

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The results were often far from wonderful. And, so, a rebellion against that city-fathers-know-best planning model — in concert with the civil-rights movement — broke out in the 1960s with groups of every stripe arguing their causes. Even city planning, previously a top-down process, had its change agents, and chief among them was Paul Davidoff, a legendary figure who died in 1984. (His major claim to fame was contesting exclusionary zoning regulations that kept minorities out of most suburbs.)

Davidoff’s idea, outlined in a rather famous 1965 essay, was advocacy planning. He argued that city planners couldn’t and shouldn’t view themselves as neutral technocrats but “represent and plead the plans of many interest groups.” In other words, planning should take community views into account.

I suspect that Davidoff viewed the roles of community groups as somewhat passive; they would channel their opinions through the planners and politicians who represented them. But in the 50 years since Davidoff advanced his ideas citizen participation has become a sine qua non in planning. Federal, state and local governments have embedded community outreach (or community engagement as it is now called) into nearly every stage of every kind of development project. These days, government agencies have to ask local groups for their opinions about everything down to the color of each park bench. Even if they’re not asked, most neighborhood groups are bumptious enough to make their views known, and agencies and politicians who ignore them do so at their peril.

My route to a somewhat jaundiced view

That’s all to the good, you say, and I agree. People obviously should have some say in what goes on in their neighborhoods. But early on as a grad student in the urban affairs program that Davidoff founded at Hunter College in New York City, I came to have a somewhat jaundiced view of community groups and what they bring to the table. They aren’t always representative, and they often don’t consider the greater good — or even what’s in their own long-term interests.

The city planning program at Hunter was far different from that of the typical planning school. Its students rarely built balsa-wood models, colored land-use maps or calculated floor area ratios. Instead they discussed how to incorporate into housing, zoning and transport plans the needs of minority groups, the poor and the working class — people whose interests and neighborhoods were most likely to fall under the urban-renewal bulldozer. 

As a former Peace Corps volunteer (Sumpango, Guatemala), I glommed onto this in a big way. Helping to surface the wisdom of the poor, the downtrodden and the overlooked and blending it with the interests of others to create plans that would serve everybody — or most everybody — seemed like a grand notion.

Such idealism foundered on my first in-the-trenches experience. I learned, alas, that the wisdom of crowds is not always so wise, that the voices of local people, down-to-earth though they may be, are not always worth listening to.   

At issue was the South Richmond Plan, which called for a $6.5 billion ($37 billion today) redevelopment of the southern third of Staten Island, New York City’s fifth borough. Previously, the island had been almost inaccessible to New Yorkers, but the 1964 completion of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from Brooklyn opened the floodgates to new residents. The result was explosive and uncontrolled growth: congested roads, inadequate schools, overflowing sewers and ticky-tacky suburban tract housing that developers put up willy-nilly without creating sidewalks, parking or driveways.

‘Cities within the city’ plan

To get it all under some kind of rational control, the City Planning Commission asked the Rouse Corporation, which had developed an award-winning new town in Columbia, Md., to make a development proposal. A very thoughtful plan envisioned 12 new communities — “cities within the city” — for Staten Island that would create denser development that would save more land for parks, improve roads and sewers, expand public transit and add parkland. About 17 percent of the housing units would go to low-income residents.

My class, an advanced seminar on advocacy planning, was to divide itself in groups that would take the case, so to speak, of different entities on Staten Island grappling with the plan. One group was assigned to the Rouse Corporation; another to the office of the borough president. A small group of black students gravitated to the Urban League, which was arguing for more affordable housing, and the tree-huggers among us joined an environmental group claiming that development would destroy oyster beds. My group’s job was to work with the Civic Congress, an amalgam of local taxpayer associations. Although their politics were only slightly more liberal than the Posse Comitatus — the borough had voted for George Wallace the in the previous presidential election — I felt that homeowners had the most dire case: They were fighting to save their homes from condemnation.

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So for weeks on end our group crammed itself into a VW bug for the two-hour trip to the home and basement rumpus room of Dorothy Fitzpatrick, president of the Civic Congress. A tough cookie who smoked like a chimney, she wasn’t about to give any ground. To her and her working-class neighbors who had purchased the cheaply built tract houses, Staten Island was a hard-won piece of suburbia safe from the crime, dirt and chaos of Brooklyn from which most of them had emigrated.

Rouse’s plan was a ground-breaker that would have done Staten Island and New York City a great deal of good. It envisioned neighborhoods of 1,000 dwellings grouped around schools, day-care centers and small shops. With more compact development, akin to gated communities you now see in Florida, the city could fit in more people and reap an extra $2 billion in tax revenues. That would be enough to add all kinds of amenities and services — which, it was hoped, would bring business and jobs to the island. Additionally, the cost of delivering services to homeowners would be rationalized and made more efficient, cutting their annual expenses for utilities, water and sewers in half.

An offer to adjust Rouse’s plan

None of the students in our group wanted to see the Rouse plan founder. But we did think that the city would be acting unfairly if it condemned houses that were maybe ugly, but newly built, up to code and cherished by their owners. Instead of the “blank slate” development proposed by Rouse, which would wipe clean practically everything already constructed, we offered to create a plan that would achieve the same density as the Rouse plan but allow it to be built around the houses that were already there. “It won’t be pretty,” I remember arguing. “But it will achieve the aims of the homeowners and the city.”

But Fitzpatrick didn’t buy the argument. The problem was that the new Rouse developments would bring “undesirables,” as she termed black people, and Staten Island would become just like Brooklyn. (Brooklyn may now be the hipster capital of America, but back then, people, especially people from Staten Island, saw it as a crime- and drug-ridden ghetto.) 

“You can’t argue with the Rouse plan on that basis,” I told her. “The city is not going to kill it because you don’t want blacks on Staten Island.” Tirelessly, our group turned out land-use maps showing Fitzpatrick a housing arrangement that would save their homes but allow for Rouse’s communities. Finally she agreed to have our group present our plan on behalf of the Civic Congress at a spring hearing before state Sen. John Marchi, who was shepherding enabling legislation for the Rouse plan through the state Senate.

The hearing room was jammed with angry homeowners who booed, hissed and sneered whenever anybody said one kind word about the Rouse plan. Scorn met our classmates who had the temerity to speak on behalf of affordable housing or oysters. (“They want to save them so they can eat them,” yelled a man from the back of the hall.) Our group’s testimony, while not cheered, brought forth no strident objections.

When we returned to our seats, however, one of our fellow students brought us a flier that members of the Civic Congress were placing on car windshields in the parking lot. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but the gist was: “The Rouse plan will bring blacks to South Richmond and ruin Staten Island.” I tried to ask Fitzpatrick about it, but she waved me away.

Marchi got the bill through the Senate that spring, but it later died in the House. Practically every group on the island had its own reason to say no to not just Rouse’s plan, but to any modification of it. Environmentalists insisted it would wreck the parks and the oyster beds; the borough president’s office did not want to lose any control over permitting and zoning to the Rouse Corporation; the Urban League termed the plan “racist”; and powerful property owners who worried about getting top dollar for their land from the Rouse Corporation also campaigned against the plan.

Rouse gives up

In the face of such virulent opposition, Rouse gave up on the venture. Zoning regulations were passed to keep housing low-density and to prevent the development of what would have been efficent communities.

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Supposedly everybody won. Landowners made bundles selling at top dollar to housing tract developers; the borough president’s office maintained control over land use; environmentalists kept the oyster beds — for a while, at least. And homeowners managed to maintain the prevalence of suburban tract housing and to keep blacks out (only about 5 percent of the island’s population is African-American).

But today, Staten Island is an even bigger mess — a sprawl of cheaply built and expensive-to-maintain houses — what one regulator called “the most abysmal housing I’ve ever seen.”

Hurricane Sandy easily trashed much of it. Roads remain congested, and traffic is horrible. The lack of transportation and other amenities has kept businesses from locating on the island, and Staten Islanders have among the longest commutes in the nation — and most expensive. To cross the Verazzano Narrows Bridge to Brooklyn now costs $15. Task force after task force has tried to attack the borough’s problems, but retrofitting light rail and denser development now would be costly and politically infeasible, given the island’s low population; its people constitute only 3.8 percent of New York City residents.

So much for the wisdom of local interests. For a brief moment, they had an opportunity to shape a plan that could have provided continuing vitality to their neighborhoods, the city and the entire region. But they let it drop, and they’re now paying a steep price.