Wednesday, December 12, 2012

GreenVUE: A Case Study in Muddleocracy

I've been thrashing around on the subject of efficient local governance. For example, in "Mayor John Marshall", I suggested that maybe a strong personality in the mayor's office can bring leadership and direction to the Richardson City Council. It's a start. Today, I want to review a recent example of the council at work to suggest that the muddled process on display Monday nights at city hall might be only part of the problem.

After the jump, analyzing the second council hearing on the GreenVUE apartment application.

GreenVUE is a proposed apartment complex bounded by Greenville Ave, Collins Blvd and Alma Rd., just north of the Arapaho DART station. The first hearing on the application was held September 25, 2012. As I said afterwards,
Now, I don't know what everyone else's idea of [transit-oriented development] is, but to me it requires an urban, mixed-use composition. Something more than apartments and a club pool and surface parking and a fence around the whole property. The developer conceded this isn't an urban development, it isn't a mixed-use development, but tried to insist it is an incremental step, a catalyst for such development.
Source: The Wheel.
The council voted to table the application until a future meeting. I finally got around to watching that second hearing (November 12, 2012). It wasn't pretty. The developers really didn't have clear guidance from the first hearing as to what would be needed to obtain council approval. It showed. They shuffled some of the buildings around, added some space that could be converted to retail sometime in the undetermined future, and argued that the market just wouldn't support higher density development.

How did the meeting go wrong? Amir Omar tried to cobble together a deal that four of the council members could sign on to, but never expressed his own requirements. Steve Mitchell consistently and clearly wanted higher density, and got a few murmurs of support from a couple of the other council members, but nothing like a firm consensus. Kendal Hartley started to offer his own viewpoint, but meekly gave up when Mayor Townsend interrupted and called on another council member. Laura Maczka sounded like she might be willing to give in to the developers, despairing of ever getting anything better. Scott Dunn seemed to be in the same camp. Mark Solomon was off in the weeds again, like at the first hearing, treating the whole thing like an eyesore that he could approve anyway if they just shielded the parking from view of passing cars. Mayor Townsend never did express his opinion and never did steer the discussion towards any consensus: pro, con, or the conditions that would have to be met to win approval.

Steve Mitchell held out for a straight up-or-down vote on the application. I inferred he felt that the council's on-the-fly, design-by-committee process had gotten derailed with too many, too significant changes, and the developers should go back to the City Plan Commission with a new application. But, by a 6-1 vote, the council tabled the application, again sending the developers off to divine the council's requirements (Texas donut, anyone?) and come back in January with another guess at minimum compliance.

Why did this process go so horribly wrong? They dived into the details without having a high level plan. Instead of reviewing whether the developer's application conforms to the city's requirements for transit-oriented development, the council acted as if they were urban planning experts themselves. It was as if the council were quibbling over cup holders, paint color, and alloy wheels, without understanding that they don't really want a car at all. Just what is the plan for these transit-oriented development areas? It didn't appear that anyone knew. City staff could state authoritatively that the application met or exceeded the minimum number of parking spaces required, but no one seemed to think it strange that there is no minimum density requirement for an area targeted for transit-oriented development. If there is, shouldn't someone on staff, the city plan commission, or the council have brought it up? If there isn't, shouldn't a city trying to promote transit-oriented development around its DART stations have something in the zoning ordinances for that?

I'm not sure whether fixing the council meetings is going to be enough, or whether we need to fix the whole process end to end (zoning ordinances, city plan commission, city council, and how the city staff works with all of these), but the right elected mayor can at least do something about those Monday night meetings. It would be a start anyway. And maybe a strong-willed mayor can lead the rest of the council and the city staff to improve the rest of the process as well. I'm beginning to think that the right person can make progress, even with the structural constraints the council must operate under. Do the voters understand what's at stake?

No comments: