OPC: December 12, 2011 Special Planning Commission Meeting (CPU)

Tonight’s meeting agenda is here, and the meeting will begin atypically at 7:00. Tonight’s comprehensive plan briefing topics are:

Transportation Network Connectivity

and

Public Involvement

Question? “Street connectivity is an important comp plan policy area because it helps us meet many transportation objectives: access, safety, efficiency, and mode choice. How can we increase street connectivity and reduce opposition to street connectivity?”

You might consider removing the prohibition of sitting on the sidewalk.

I recall the reasons this was taken up as a white paper subject earlier this year and they focused much more on public transportation rather than building roads so people have an easier time driving through their neighborhoods. Further, while connectivity could be a positive for pedestrians, bikes, and bus stops toward increasing a sense of community as the white paper suggests, that is an abjectly laughable assumption with regard to cars. (“I met someone on the freeway last night–this freeway is such a great neighborhood!”)  I’m not even sure where the idea came from at least in this incarnation and under these assumptions. (Page 96 of the huge Imagine Olympia results .pdf sort of mentions it indirectly. Page 78 actually discusses connectivity, for walking, transit, and bikes, but again the white paper emphasizes cars. Respondents often voiced a desire for a greater sense of community in their neighborhoods–see link below for my response to this concept.) Ironic that I see little more than a disconnect on a white paper about connectivity.

Public Involvement

As is readily noticeable from this white paper, there isn’t a clear understanding of what public involvement means or how it should be incorporated into the comprehensive plan update. There is a nice little summary of some of the governing statutes that everyone who is interested in this should examine. On the other hand, it also leaves sentences like this one hanging like a lonely scarecrow in a harvested field:

A vibrant civic atmosphere that fosters a sense of community and trust, enhances creative problem solving, and fully informs decisions.

This is an object for discussion in tonight’s meeting. I’d prefer a complete sentence but the greater problem is the comprehensive plan is already full of language like this that I believe obscures rather than clarifies objectives. The standards described here are not really actionable because they are so subjective. For example, what if we applied this standard to the pedestrian interference statute? Does it foster a sense of community and trust? Is it creative? What about the alcohol impact zone? It certainly does none of those things at least for the populations that the ordinance would affect. This white paper was a fun creative writing exercise, but I don’t believe there is much value to it otherwise.

There is a strong component of public  participation in the comprehensive plan that this white paper mentions. The question of how we would improve it is paramount, in whatever technological era in which we happen to find ourselves. I’d argue that it starts with looking at the problem through the the citizen model lens, rather than the customer model. (Remember the Citizen Model because I will draw upon it again.)

Under the citizen model, people take personal responsibility for fixing their own problems. If young people burn rubber in the street, they ring the door bell of the young people and work it out. Cost to the city, zero. Under the customer model, these same people ring the council and demand that the city traffic calm their street. Cost to the city, $400,000. Note that the customer model is only viable under conditions of affluence. Outsourcing your civic responsibility is not cheap. Outsourcing civic responsibility also demands ‘community consultation’. Instead of an informal meeting on the doorstep of the offending youth, residents now attend a formal meeting with city authorities to debate where the speed bumps should go. The tragedy is that the real issues, the residents’ psychological retreat from their street and abandoning of their civic duty, is not addressed. The consultation is a smokescreen for avoiding personal responsibility.

Note that this move from the citizen model to the customer model has been a two way street: cities have taken a paternalistic role and residents have abandoned their civic responsibilities. However, the role that cities have adopted is an impossible role. A vibrant civic life is not a ‘product’ that can be delivered by a city bureaucracy. It can only be created by civic-minded citizens working cooperatively. (Emphases added.)

What kind of a white paper would we be reading if we analyzed “public participation” from the Citizen Model? Instead, we plow on with the customer model through which the city staff people are attempting to deliver a product, and I’m underwhelmed. (Although I do want to be clear, the city staff people working on these papers are doing a fine job with the paltry direction they have received from the planning commission.) The more white papers I read, the deeper we get into the comprehensive plan process with them at our side, the more innumerable the storm clouds I see on our horizon….

I hope you attend and enjoy the meeting tonight!

***

By way of repetition, here is a description of these meetings in their context of the overall comprehensive plan update:

These are briefing topics only; they may or may not result in a revision to the comprehensive plan. The primary consideration for updating the comprehensive plan is compliance with the GMA, not the topics that get the most attention in public comments although these considerations would complement each other in an ideal scenario.

The Olympia Planning Commission (OPC) is working with the city staff on the update for the Olympia Comprehensive Plan. The Growth Management Act (GMA) requires that the comprehensive plan contain a public involvement through which the desires of the public in the jurisdiction in question are discovered. The OPC and the city staff decided that the Imagine Olympia meetings and the ten focus meetings that followed would serve as the initial thrust of involving the public in the comprehensive plan’s update. Through these meetings, hundreds of people responded to specific and general questions about their dear Olympia. After these meetings were concluded the city staff reviewed the responses, analyzed and compressed them, and finally published them in large document. That document is (caution huge .pdf) here, but a more manageable summary is here. You  really need to read both if you want a basic comprehension of the responses that the city is working from. If you only read the summary, you will only get a…summary. This is particularly important because the larger document contains the city’s methodology in how they came to terms with the huge amount of data they received from this process.

The city’s analysis of the data from these meetings led them to the conclusion that they should concentrate their efforts into several larger topics that may or may not transcend specific chapters that the GMA mandates in the plan.  Over the summer, the OPC Comprehensive Plan Update Subcommittee (CPU) worked with the city staff coordinated by Stacey Ray and the Subcommittee Chair, Rob Richards to organize a series of briefings (i.e. the city staff giving white papers to the CPU) on these topics. There were at least two meetings during which the CPU decided which topics should be considered, when the briefings should occur, and how much time should be allotted to each particular topic.

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