Sunday, August 14, 2011

Open Mike Night: Goals

The Visitors Section of the Richardson City Council meeting sometimes is the best part of the show. Sometimes that is because of the amusement it offers, but sometimes because of the thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas offered. Monday night's lineup included some of the latter.

Andrew Laska offered his suggestions for the Statement of Goals for the 2011-2013 council term. You know the routine for such documents -- Vision, Mission, Priorities, Goals and Action Items liberally sprinkled throughout with Snooze. Even the best of these efforts are often painful to read. Worse, Richardson's past efforts weren't among the best of these efforts.

After the jump, my own rant about Richardson's past efforts and Andrew Laska's recommendations.

Have a look at the 2009-2011 edition of Richardson's Goals. I dare you. After a bearable four pages, you are fooled into thinking it's over by a page full of John Hancocks of the then current council. But a feeling of dread comes over you as you wonder what the 24 pages behind those signatures are all about. Turn the page and you find yourself right back down the rabbit hole, in a warren full of goals, priorities, principles, whatever, a list for every department and service the city conceivably provides. Page after page of vague, non-controversial and obvious goals such as "Create a positive City image" and "Encourage the redevelopment of property".

If you care about exactly what this city council might actually do in the next two years, eventually you skip to the last four pages, the "Near Term Action Items." That's where you'll learn, for example, that someone on city staff will look at the feasibility of a dog park. OK, it's not the Roman Colosseum, but at least it's something specific. But even here in the action items the generic dominates: "Be proactive in promoting Richardson."

What should you do if you are on the city council? Toss it and start over. Twenty eight pages of goals is hubris. No one's going to even read it all, to say nothing about achieving it all. Limit yourself to one page. Combine your goals and action items so they relate to each other. Use verbs for your action items -- active verbs, things an observer can see you doing. Keep it simple. If it fits on the back of a shampoo bottle, so much the better.

Goal: Clean hair.
Action items:
1. Lather.
2. Rinse.
3. Repeat.

With all that in mind, let's look at Andrew Laska's effort. He was helped by the format of Visitors Section of city council meetings. Speakers are limited to five minutes, so he had to keep his suggestions short. He also came prepared, something that the council members themselves seemed to have overlooked when the city council itself discussed goals at their "retreat" in July.

Laska had four goals and four action items. I don't think he meant for these to be exclusive, but the city council could do worse than focus attention on just four priorities for the coming term. Everything else will get someone's attention anyway, whether it's in the council's 28 page goal statement or not. Trying to include everything just risks losing focus on what the council thinks needs their personal attention. Here are Laska's inputs and my initial reactions:

  • Goal: Support neighborhood revitalization efforts.

    If paired with some measurable action items, this is a worthy goal. If there's one thing that Richardson's future prosperity depends on (in fact, there are more than one), it would be neighborhood vitality.

  • Goal: Encourage retail branding of neighborhoods

    Not a Big Idea™, but a good one. How did we overlook this? The city is blanketed with residential branding. (Greenwood Hills, anyone? Northrich? Creek Hollow? Wyndsor Estates?) What does Richardson have in the way of retail branding like Dallas has Deep Ellum, Uptown, Bishop-Arts? OK, you might say that we need to develop attractive commercial neighborhoods first and the naming will come naturally, but naming first could give us a way to talk about the area we *want* to develop.

  • Goal: Explore mechanisms for city participation in redevelopment and adaptive reuse.

    This reads like Laska has something specific in mind. When we come to the action items, we'll find out.

  • Goal: Explore city support for flagging retail base, especially in the south.

    More tax abatements? Creative zoning? Street/alley repair? Tree the Town? I don't know what Laska has in mind here. Maybe the action items (coming up) hold the key.

  • Action item: Form a community development corporation that can hold land and engage in other economic development transactions in redevelopment zones

    This one is huge. It's one thing for the city to use zoning and tax abatements to encourage economic development. It's something else entirely for the city to buy and develop land itself for commercial purposes. The City of Dallas has its convention center hotel. Something tells me that's not going to turn out well. Maybe Laska has less ambitious projects in mind; maybe he envisions the city redeveloping a property and quickly flipping it back into the private sector. Or maybe he envisions the city providing financing or guaranteeing financing for private development. In any case, this is the kind of Big Idea™ that the city council should be focusing their attention on. Let the Parks Department handle the dog park.

  • Action item: Update comprehensive plan to fill gap in the area between Spring Valley DART Station and US 75.

    Amen. The City has (rightfully) hitched its wagon to transit-oriented development. It has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get Brick Row straightened out. It shouldn't neglect that gap on the other side of the DART station. One of my dreams for Richardson is "punching holes" in Central Expressway to knit east and west Richardson together (see here and here). Spring Valley Rd all the way from Coit Rd. to Greenville Ave. should be looked at as a whole, not as two separate redevelopment needs.

  • Action item: Aggressively target other zones for redevelopment.

    Amen again. Laska mentioned downtown. "Downtown." The word conjures images of stores, restaurants, offices, pedestrians. Richardson's problem isn't one of revitalizing an aging downtown. Richardson never had a proper downtown in the first place. That gives us options. Imagine extending "downtown" north and south along Greenville Ave, integrating everything from Brick Row to the Asian shopping center at Jackson Street. Or doing something east-west at Central Expressway and Belt Line, boosting commercial activity on both sides. The city council should increase its development bandwidth without dropping out of the efforts in other areas (West Spring Valley and US75/PGBT especially).

  • Action item: Update home improvement incentive program.

    Laska suggests that lowering the threshold might not be the best way to improve the program. He wants to base the benefits not just on increased tax value but on improved sales price, too, to reward interior renovation. Good intention, but the idea is probably impractical. Assessing tax value is hard enough, but at least it's a well established system. Creating another measure (potential sales price when there's no sale yet) is just asking for headaches.
OK, I've already spent more time talking about Laska's ideas than Laska himself spent pitching them. Bottom line? There is a lot of good food for thought here. Or maybe I'm just influenced by the fact that there is significant overlap with my own wish list for the Goals statement. In any case, I'm thinking it would be a good idea if the council members themselves pitched their own ideas in five minute presentations from the open mike during Visitors Section. It might force them to think about what they really, really want to accomplish in the next two years.

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