Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Council Recap: Comprehensive Plan

Source: City of Richardson

The City Council and City Plan Commission (CPC) held a joint worksession February 5, 2024, to review progress on updating the City's Comprehensive Plan. Regular readers know just how much importance I place on this opportunity to reform Richardson's outdated regulations that limit a denser built environment, mixed-use developments, transit-oriented developments, missing-middle and affordable housing, and safe streets for bicycles and pedestrians.

The update covered three topics. The first was a review of the community meetings held in October and November of 2023. Those are old news. The City didn't show their hand at those meetings. They mostly just showed pretty pictures and asked the public what they liked and didn't like. There's no need to review that here. Go back and read old issues of The Wheel.

The second topic was the consultants' summary of what they think the City and the public want. They presented a draft Vision Statement, Guiding Principles, and Preferred Land Use Scenario.

Draft Vision Statement:

Richardson is a dynamic, diverse, and inclusive community,
with a small-town feel and big-city amenities,
where people are connected and engaged*,
decision-making is collaborative and innovative,
and fiscal, social, and natural resources are managed sustainably.
It is a safe, livable, and attractive place
with opportunity for people and businesses to grow.

Nothing wrong with any of this, but it's buzzwords, something that any City in America could draw up, even without dropping a lot of money to hire consultants to do it. And it says nothing to answer a question like, "Where should duplexes be allowed to be built?" or even if we should allow duplexes at all.

Nevertheless, the City Council and CPC were drawn into a long, distracting wordsmithing exercise. For example, the Vision statement says, "decision-making is collaborative and innovative." Councilmember Ken Hutchenrider had a problem with the adjective "collaborative" to describe decision-making. He said, in part, "We get a lot of input before we come to this meeting. But we don't turn to the audience to collaborate over decisions. So I think sometimes it's a little hard to think about collaboration when you're talking about decision making, but I thought if we maybe, with a little bit of wordsmithing, with 'innovative decision-making based on input and collaboration,' that that might work more what we're trying to say there." Parsing that, I hear Hutchenrider's wordsmithing turning the sentiment on its head. Hutchenrider is saying that decision-making is not collaborative, it's the City Council's sole prerogative. Input is still in, but collaboration is out. Hutchenrider goes on, "We [hear from] a very, very, very small slice out [of the total population]...You know, my neighbors live across the street from me. They're never going to be in the audience. They're not going to watch City Council...I think a lot of people do feel that we're innovating, that we do innovative decision-making, that we do get input. We do collaboratively. We're always going to have those naysayers." Parsing that, I hear Hutchenrider saying that he knows what the people who are not politically engaged are thinking, and the people who think differently are "naysayers" on social media. In other words, not a problem.

All of that was about one word: collaborative. CPC Chair Bryan Marsh had a problem with a different word: "innovative." He said, "I think of innovation as more of our history of entrepreneurship and businesses being founded here...I think the innovation idea or being innovative is a little out in this place with decision-making." Councilmember Jennifer Justice saw exactly why innovative decision-making is needed in the City's Comprehensive Plan. "We have very little land left and then when we're renovating or repurposing property, we do want to be innovative in the decisions we make."

The most interesting part of this for me wasn't the Vision statement itself, but the survey indicating which of the seven clauses people agreed with the most. The clause receiving most agreement was "Richardson is a dynamic, diverse, and inclusive community," with 83.6% agreement. The clause receiving the least agreement was that decision-making clause: "Decision-making is collaborative and innovative," with only 53.3% agreement. I think the City Council (and I) have trouble knowing what this tells us because it's not clear whether people were agreeing with these as descriptive of Richardson as it is today ("Richardson is...") or are agreeing with attributes in an imagined future Richardson ("Richardson should be..."). I don't think people who disagreed with any particular trait were indicating that they do not want Richardson to have that trait. In other words, I think Richardson residents are saying the City needs improvement in making decision-making more collaborative and innovative.

Appointing a "Community Inclusion and Engagement Commission" is a good step, but it won't be enough to solve that problem (and I do see 53% as a problem). The City Council shouldn't wait for others to tell them how to fix themselves. As the Bob Dylan lyrics go, "You don’t need a weatherman/To know which way the wind blows." City Council ought to do some self-reflection.

The City Council spent entirely too much time on the Vision statement, and now I am falling into the same trap. Moving on...

Of the 59 "Guiding Principles" the consultants asked the public for feedback on, only one received less than 70% agreement. "Promote Richardson’s identity at entry points, along major corridors, and at key views into the city" received 65% agreement. Thirty eight of the principles were considered important by over 90% of the public. I don't see anything useful in those findings, nor in the City Council's more limited discussion of this.

The consultants moved on (and so do I) to what they call Place Types, which map onto the traditional zoning types: commercial, industrial, single-family housing, multi-family housing, parks, etc. This culminated in the draft map above. It's basically an update to the "Future Land Use" map in the 2009 Comprehensive Plan. But the changes they made were never adequately explained and no one on the City Council or CPC asked for a detailed explanation of what had changed. No one had any requests for changes to what's been done already in the Land Use Scenario. It was just accepted like a fait accompli.

Here's how the Kimley-Horn consultant summarized the draft land use map:

The land use scenario...was based upon either what's on the ground today, or those things that have come out of these previous studies in our vision. And where we're going with that is we will be taking that forward and adding all kinds of layers of richness to it. There's a lot of questions out there about missing middle housing. Where should that occur? What type of missing middle should be in each place type at us, which we've kind of lumped with the missing middle housing and secondary place types. All of that work is still to be done.

"All of that work is still to be done." The City Council spent so much time wordsmithing the Vision statement that they had little time for providing guidance for answering the "lot of questions out there." The City Council is leaving the work on "all the layers of richness" for the consultants to come up with on their own while the City Council wordsmiths the platitudes in the Vision statement. That's not collaborative decision-making. It's an abdication of responsibility for leadership.

"Wordsmiths in debate,
Innovate? Collaborate?
Buzzwords fill the air."

—h/t ChatGPT


Mark Steger said...

A reader offers this mission statement:
"We're landlocked!
Enjoy our cozy, friendly, neighborhoods!
Oodles of economic innovation and chicken drive-thrus packed into a small tier one suburb.
Theatre, education, parks, Target, coffee shops--- we have it all.
Moving steadily but slowly to a sustainable environment and fewer emissions.
Make this your home, everyone is welcome."

Matt Havener said...

Great recap. I enjoy the blog. Thank you