Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Redevelopment Should Be High Quality

West Spring Valley Corridor
Spring Valley Corridor

Are you surprised that a focus group says they prefer quality? No? Neither am I. The Richardson City Council acted as if this is some big discovery. At the May 24 City Council meeting, city staff presented a progress report on the West Spring Valley Corridor Reinvestment Strategy, specifically a report on the second community meeting that was held May 13, 2010.

My take on the progress report of the first community meeting can be found here. After the jump, my review of the second community meeting.

Let me start by saying that I'm all in favor of redevelopment of the Spring Valley Road corridor. Also, I want the city council and city staff to engage the residents of the city more, so, kudos to the city for holding these community meetings. All that said, I regret that the results of the meeting are so predictable that I have to wonder if the exercise wasn't mainly for show.

In attendance were 60 so-called stakeholders. In the earlier progress report, we learned that in the city staff's opinion, stakeholder means property owner. If you are a just a renter, just an employee or just a shopper, your opinion is not going to be solicited. Judging by the agenda packet for the second community meeting, the same definition of stakeholder still seems to be in force.

"The stakeholders included condominium owners, business and commercial property owners, representatives of apartment complexes and institutions in the study area and homeowners from the single-family neighborhoods nearby."

I doubt that "representatives of apartment complexes" means renters, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong. I doubt that the 60 so-called stakeholders were demographically representative of Richardson, either socio-economically, culturally, ethnically, or in any other way. It didn't appear that the city staff cared. The city staffer making the presentation went so far as to say we have to "change the demographics" in that neighborhood. So, the goal of redevelopment doesn't appear to be to meet the needs and wants of the people in that neighborhood and Richardson as a whole; it's to drive out the unwanted demographic in order to meet the needs and wants of the more desirable demographic that will be allowed to remain.

It wasn't put that way, of course. In fact, it really wasn't discussed at all. Less time was spent on the question of who will benefit from this redevelopment (and who will suffer) than on extolling the keypad polling devices used to survey the focus group. If the focus group was as distracted by the gizmos as the city staff appeared to be, maybe no one noticed the limited value of the survey questions themselves. (By the way, "change the demographics" was not a goal the focus group was asked to rate. It was just assumed to be a self-evident requirement of redevelopment.)

The three highest rated goals were "high quality development," "safer environment," and "updated & improved physical environment." Did anyone putting this survey together seriously think that maybe residents might have wanted a shoddy, crime-ridden, more out-of-date and run-down neighborhood than what's there now? The eighteenth and lowest rated goal (still scoring a respectable 3.4 on a 5 point scale) was "more water features." Was anyone surprised that fountains ranked lower than safe? Really, did this survey do anything at all other than confirm the obvious?

The city council fell all over themselves praising the city staff for this community meeting. No one questioned the meeting's purpose, methodology or the interpretations of the community feedback. Council member Amir Omar did pick up on one non-intuitive result. That was the relatively high rating (4.4) given to the goal of "higher density development." Omar expressed surprise and asked how that goal was positioned to the focus group in order for it to receive a rating of 4.4. This is the verbatim answer:

"It was in the context of higher value as well. In any revitalization effort you're not going to be able to have all the up front expense of, if there's any acquisition, assemblage, even if it's a private sector property owner, let's say they've only been in it for four years and so their basis is pretty high, you're not going to be able to, and hopefully this addresses any concerns of anybody who thinks they are going to get more product that's in the same price band. That comes with such a heavy financial burden up front that the only way you can return new product to the market is with something of a higher value, but you're also, because you're going to have all that up front cost, you're going to have to price, those units are going to have to meet, first the market segment that there's demand for, but it's going to have to be at a higher price point. So, the point there was that they're not afraid of more density. They don't want more of the same thing. You have too much, too much of the same commercial, too much of the same residential, so the idea is, we're not afraid of density but we do want more higher value and more diversity in our value."

Diversity. Higher value. Higher price point. Somehow from that context and the magic of keypad clickers, the city staff divined that the focus group wanted "higher density development." Those must be some amazing clickers. Omar let the answer slide, but I hope he wasn't satisfied. The explanation was enough to cast serious doubt on the polling methodology and how the results were summarized for the city council. The focus group was guided towards the desired response and the city council was guided towards the desired intepretation of that community input.

A worse example came in the second survey that rated the criteria to be used to evaluate alternative redevelopment plans. The facilitator admitted that she dictated to the focus group that they had to rate "fiscally responsible" high. What should be no surprise, the attendees dutifully pushed the right buttons on their keypads to result in "fiscally responsible" coming out as the top-ranked criteria. What do you learn from surveys in which the answers are obvious and the facilitator pencils in the right answer for you?

Bottom line, I still support redevelopment. Some of the concepts shown look attractive. I just don't think highly of the methodology used to get community input, which strikes me as part charade, part gimmick, with preordained conclusions. Still, I give the city staff the benefit of the doubt and trust their sincerity in this effort. I'm confident that they can get better at it with experience. Good community relations require more such interactions. So, as negative as my review of this meeting is, I'd still like to see more of this. Just quit drooling over the clickers, please.

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