Friday, June 27, 2014

Teamwork: Bad Example #1

Two months ago, I wrote about the need for good teamwork as a requirement for effective urbanism.  Further cogitation led me to realize that I had good examples from my own career of the point I was trying to make.  Or perhaps I should say bad examples as the teamwork element was notably missing in the examples I’ll begin offering today.

In my examples, I’ll obscure the city, the project, and the individuals involved.  There are several reasons for this editorial decision, but the primary one is that I believe the individuals were fundamentally good people responding to a flawed collective mindset.  And my goal is to improve the mindset, not to castigate individuals who were seduced by it.

My first example was a moderate-sized mixed-use urban project.

I’ve often written about my concerns with CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act).  While I’m happy with the environmental improvements that have occurred under CEQA and hope that we can continue along the path set by CEQA, I have discomfort with several aspects of the CEQA process.

Foremost among those is the “completeness” process.  So that a city can have all necessary data in hand to prepare the environmental documents within CEQA timelines, the city can deem a land-use application incomplete until all required data has been submitted.

The process makes complete sense when the missing information is a traffic study or a hazardous material remediation plan.  But it veers into absurdity when the incompleteness item is a question about whether the pilasters are orangeish-pink or pinkish-orange.

Of course, there is a huge amount of grey area between those extremes, which often usually leads to lengthy lists of incompleteness items, developer irritation, and extended negotiation sessions.

This particular project included a pair of intersections.  One was a modification of an existing intersection along a major arterial.  The other, down a slight hill, was a new intersection where much of use was to be pedestrian and transit.  Any car traffic would be strictly local, enroute to nearby parking structures.

Accordingly, I directed that the conceptual design of the downhill intersection lean toward pedestrian safety, with tighter curb radii, sidewalk bulbs, and decorative crosswalks.  For the uphill intersection, I omitted some of those details, recognizing that the automobile would be the primary user.

I would have preferred if both intersections could have been pedestrian-friendly, but believed that my compromise accurately reflected the contemporary development zeitgeist.

Almost everyone in city hall concurred.  But one planner saw it differently and got his concern added to the incompleteness letter.  He thought that the downhill intersection, where most of the users would be pedestrians, should be designed to facilitate cars and that the uphill intersection, where most of the users would be cars, should be designed to facilitate pedestrians.

The intersection item was my biggest issue with the incompleteness letter, but there were a number of other items that irritated the developer.  So we found ourselves in a meeting room with the planner and city engineer reviewing the list.

Several times during the meeting, I returned to the intersection question, finding different ways to phrase the question to the planner, “So you want us to design the pedestrian intersection for cars and the car intersection for pedestrians?”

I had no expectation that the planner would change his mind, but I was hopeful that the city engineer would intervene, saying something like “If this project reaches construction design, I’ll require the original concept, not this revision, so let’s not waste the developer’s time and money.”  But the city engineer only pursed his lips and looked about the room, avoiding eye contact and apparently willing to waste the developer’s time and money to avoid internal conflict.

Some may ask why I tried so hard to save making a small change on the conceptual plans.  But the change wasn’t small.  Even at the initial approval, there must be a comprehensive infrastructure conceptual plan, including water, sewer, storm drainage, other utilities, and landscaping.  Making the requested intersection changes would have touched all of those.

Years removed from the situation, I don’t have good records on the costs that were incurred.  But $2,000 is a good guess.  Most developers would happily spend another $2,000 during the entitlement phase if the result was a better project.  But to spend $2,000 on a flawed concept that would be discarded at the next step?  That was ridiculous.  Nonetheless, that’s what we were forced to do.

When a project fails, the development team often points toward a single cause, such as city intransigence or lack of investors.  It’s a basic human need for a coherent narrative.  But the reality is that most projects die of hundreds of nicks and cuts.  Some of the wounds may be deeper than others, but it’s still a cumulative mortality, not a single fatal blow.

And that was the case with this project.  Bad timing in the marketplace, investors waffling on their commitments, a land ownership dispute.  They all combined to end the project, with the unnecessary intersection redesign only one among many nicks and cuts.  But it was a nick that still rankles years later.  And the reason that it rankles is that the project would have made the city a better and more financially resilient place to live.

I had a second example that I’d planned to share today, but I’ve written long.  My next post will return to the topic of neighborhood block parties that I raised several weeks ago.  After that, I’ll offer my second example of bad teamwork.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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