Not surprisingly, site design is more complicated in an urban setting than at the urban fringes. Existing conditions and the need to maintain traffic and utility service during construction are often significant constraints. And those challenges can’t be solved in silos, but require broad coordination and cooperation.
Two months ago, I wrote about how effective urbanism relies on effective teamwork between the city, development team, and public. Two posts ago, I gave an example of when the city/developer teamwork broke down. I have another example to offer today.
As before, I’ll obscure the city, the project, and the individual involved. There are multiple reasons for this decision, but the most important one is that the individual was a fundamentally good person responding to a flawed collective mindset. And my goal is to improve the mindset, not to castigate the individuals who were seduced by it.
This is a different project than my last example, but is again a medium-sized mixed-use project in an urban setting.
But it was in a part of the city that wasn’t expected to be urban. Although only a few blocks from downtown, the site had been industrial for nearly a century. And consistent with the industrial use, earlier generations of city public work staff had aligned city utilities for maximum industrial utility and minimum construction cost, without considering the possibility of future redevelopment.
As a result, when the development team had to determine an alignment for a public street to front the proposed mixed-use buildings, there was no alignment that would contain all the existing utilities. No matter how we looked at it, a major sewer line, serving a large area of the community, would need to be relocated.
The developer was a part of the decision, understood the intractability of the problem, and accepted the realignment as a cost of doing business.
We developed a reasonable conceptual plan for the realignment that was sufficient for the project to be entitled. But one of the conditions of approval forced us to further adjust the alignment. As we moved into the design phase, the question of sewer realignment and resulting adjustments to the other utilities remained an open question.
It was a dense utility setting, with complex storm drainage to be accommodated around the water, sewer, and dry utilities. It was like a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of which only five hundred pieces fit together, with the other five hundred to be carefully inspected and then discarded.
Given the complexity, I proposed to the city engineer that he review the drawings at 50 percent design completion. He initially demurred, noting the city policy only anticipated reviews at design completion. But I persisted, arguing that policy had been developed with greenfields in mind and that urban settings, especially with city utilities already in place and needing relocation, demand a more cooperative process.
The city engineer eventually agreed and reviewed the 50 percent drawings.
He offered relatively few comments, generally concurring with the decision on the sewer realignment, noting a few minor adjustments, and highlighting a couple of points that he wanted resolved as the design moved ahead.
It was an effective and helpful review. I thanked him and the design continued onward to 100 percent completion, which was then submitted to the city engineer for his final review.
And he responded by directing that the realigned sewer be moved to the opposite side of the street, which would in turn force us to realignment the water, storm drainage, and dry utilities and to completely revise the storm drainage report. It was tantamount to throwing away much of the second half of the design effort.
I’m not saying that his solution was wrong. It was a fine solution. It was a solution that I’d seriously considered and went the other direction only on the narrowest of margins. Had we known the city engineer would prefer the other option, we’d have gone that way from the beginning.
But I’ll forever be puzzled by why the city engineer didn’t choose to make his preference known when he reviewed the 50 percent drawings. He didn’t break any laws or city policies when he stayed silent. But he broke a covenant to work cooperatively with developers, particularly on urban projects where the design decisions are multi-faceted and complex.
Perhaps some believe that the covenant doesn’t exist and shouldn’t exist. But I think it’s essential to building better urban communities.
In my previous example of poor coordination, I noted that projects don’t die of a single cause, but instead succumb to a multitude of paper cuts. This project was no different. And the sewer realignment wasn’t even one of the cuts. The project was already teetering before the city engineer made his wishes known. A variety of other factors did in the project. But the failure of the project was a shame. It would have made the city a more vibrant place.
Before closing, it’s only fair to note that these examples of flawed teamwork are the exception. Over three decades of civil engineering, I can point to far more examples of good coordination, although those examples aren’t nearly as entertaining. I still recall a community development director calling me at home several times in one evening to resolve a thorny water pressure issue that resulted from a poorly written development agreement.
My point isn’t that good cooperation never happens. Indeed, poor cooperation is the exception. However, each instance of poor teamwork has a significant cost to the community. The goal shouldn’t be for bad teamwork to be the exception, but for it to not exist at all.
My next blog post will leave my desk on the Fourth of July. My practice is not to take off holidays. However, as I’ve often done before, I’ll use the holiday post to wax philosophical, looking at the bigger picture. And if you don’t choose to read my thoughts until after the holiday, good for you. Have a great long weekend.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)