Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Monday Night Travesty

I'm still not over the travesty I witnessed on television Monday night. No, I'm not talking about the NFL replacement refs and the touchdown that one player (not even involved in the game) called "the worst call in NFL history."

I'm talking about the public hearing before the Richardson City Council over a proposed apartment complex just north of the DART's Arapaho station. The following quote by the developer is perhaps the most irritating.
We've heard a lot of discussions about the look of the proposed community, whether we're going to have structured parking there or not. I think it's something we're willing to consider, take a look at. I think it'll address some of your concerns and some of the other concerns of the council members. Again we'd be willing to take a look at that and what options might be available.
After the jump, what's wrong with that and more.

I'm not going to talk about the apartments themselves. I did that already. No, today, I'm more interested in how the city went about considering this project. The City Plan Commission had reviewed this proposal a few weeks ago and recommended approval 4-3. The three commissioners opposed had raised all the right objections -- no retail/restaurant/office, not enough density, not waiting for results of an upcoming Arapaho/Collins market study. In other words, these apartments are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The four commissioners who voted in favor didn't address any of these objections. They either weren't concerned that this design isn't compatible with transit-oriented development (TOD), or else they have some other, unstated, concept of what TOD is than most people (and by most people I mean me). The CPC approval happened several weeks ago. It was my first irritant.

Monday night, the same proposal (minus privacy gates!) was presented to the city council. To their partial credit, the council, by a 7-0 vote, tabled the application until the October 22 meeting, for many of the same reasons why the three commissioners in the minority on the CPC voted against it.

That brings me to the quote at the top of this article, uttered by one of the developers as it became apparent that the council wasn't going to approve the proposal. How a developer could get this far, past city staff, past the CPC, all the way to a public hearing in front of the city council, without realizing that the city wants TOD near its light rail stations, boggles the mind.

Someone on city staff ought to have advised the developer that a traditional, suburban-style apartment complex would never do this close to a DART station. A majority of the CPC ought to have shot down this proposal. Somehow, the developer didn't learn of it until the public hearing in front of the city council (or at least didn't concede the point until faced with defeat, which raises a more worrisome angle that I won't get into here). Regardless, it took way too long. The excuse wasn't uttered until the very end of the two hour meeting.

Why did it take so long? Maybe because some council members also weren't concerned that this design isn't compatible with TOD, or else they have some other, unstated, concept of what TOD is. By my estimation, the project might have had three council members in favor of it if it came to a vote. One more and the developer would have gotten away with it, despite the design's flaws.

Council member Mark Solomon's attention was fixed on the shrubbery (or lack of it) along Collins Blvd on the north side of the project. I guess he wanted to make sure the cars parked on the surface lots are well screened from view of passing motorists. Instead he ought to have been asking why an urban project would have so much surface parking in the first place. Council member Scott Dunn's attention was fixed on the dog park. I couldn't tell whether he was for it, against it, or only wanted to make sure it was hidden from the public out of fear it might be, you know, popular. In any case, the dog park had his attention, not everything else that's out of place in this project. Mayor Bob Townsend was quiet during the public hearing, but I assume that one reason this public hearing even made it onto the agenda at all was because he was inclined to support it. (What it takes to get something onto the city council's agenda has always been a bit of a black box to me.)

That leads me to believe that there would have been three votes in favor of this project, not the four needed for a majority. In the end, the council voted 7-0 to table the proposal. The developer, between now and then, may revise the plan to include ground-level retail and podium parking and more density. In other words, tear up the original plan and start over. Given the scope of the changes, the process should have to start over at the CPC again. This time, the CPC ought to consider the project in light of Richardson's stated vision of supporting TOD near its light rail stations. It shouldn't let the developer get away with making a few cosmetic changes and calling it TOD.

And the city council ought to find a way to get on the same page as the CPC. The disconnect between how they look at projects is getting noticeable. Doesn't the city have a professional urban planner on staff who can advise both bodies what kinds of projects will promote their vision?


McCalpin said...

"Mayor Bob Townsend was quiet during the public hearing, but I assume that one reason this public hearing even made it onto the agenda at all was because he was inclined to support it. (What it takes to get something onto the city council's agenda has always been a bit of a black box to me.)"

I am a bit surprised that you are still confused about how things get on the agenda. They do NOT get on the agenda because the mayor says so. The mayor in Richardson has zero statutory authority to place items on the agenda; that right belongs to the City Manager and the Council as a whole.

The City Manager, as I have noted elsewhere on your blog, sets most items on the agenda, because his office maintains the calendar of all the things that have to come up through the year. The Council has the final say-so on the agenda, although, since most of the things that the City Manager puts on the calendar are required by law, they're not going to say no.

However, the Council has affected the agenda this way, in that they asked the City Manager at the beginning of their term to place certain items from their goals on the agenda from time to time so that the Council and the public can see them. In fact, this was reported on Monday night - look at and go to slide 83 - you will see that 70% of the top 40 Near Term Action Items have been addressed in some manner - in each case, this item was brought up or is on the calendar to be brought up before the Council.

But there's another reason why Mayor Townsend couldn't place or not place this zoning on the agenda - a zoning file, when approved by the Plan Commission, is automatically (by Charter) placed on the Council agenda. It makes no difference whether the mayor loves it or hates it.

Richardson Code of Ordinances, Article XXIX, Section 5(b):
"Where the city plan commission recommends approval as in (1), (2) or (3) above, the recommendation will be forwarded automatically to the city council and a date for a public hearing will be set."

OK? I think this confusion over the actual powers of the mayor is part of what's driving the desire for Charter change. In fact, the mayor doesn't really have any power, yet people seem to think he does...


Mark Steger said...

Bill, thanks for pointing out the city charter's stipulation that recommendations made by the City Plan Commission automatically go to the city council. I withdraw my assumption about the mayor's inclination to support this project.