Wednesday, September 16, 2015

As Long as We Can Do Reasonable and Open Balancing, It’s Okay to Want Both Cake and Pie

Perhaps it’s the scientific bent in my soul, but he weighing of land-use proposals versus land-use goals has always felt forced and contrived to me.  Hand-waving intended to make a land-use project seem to conform to a goal, even when most observers would agree that it doesn’t, makes me uncomfortable, even if I’m the one doing the hand-waving.

However, some recent reading has given me new insights into the balancing of land-use projects versus land-use goals.  A Petaluma Planning Commission hearing can serve as an example.

The subject of the hearing was a proposed apartment complex, three stories in height.  The surrounding neighborhood was largely single-family homes, with an existing two-story apartment complex and a couple of single-story commercial uses.

Given the height of the proposed apartment buildings, many neighbors argued that the proposal failed to meet the Petaluma General Plan goal calling for new projects to be compatible with existing neighborhoods.  The neighbors further argued that the failure to meet this goal required the Planning Commission to reject the project or at least to substantially modify it.

Although the Commission hasn’t yet rendered a decision on the project, it’s possible that the decision will include a contrived observation that the project, even with its three stories, meets the neighborhood compatibility goal, a result that leaves me unsatisfied, not because I dislike the project, but because the explanation seems a facile dismissal of a legitimate issue. 

Luckily for my state of puzzlement, in her book “The Trouble with City Planning”, Kristina Ford offers a different way of looking at land-use goals.  She suggests that cities should have a wide range of goals, even if those goals might sometimes be in conflict, and that planning staffs and planning commission should be charged with balancing these multiple goals during their review of a particular project.  She even suggests that goals can be sometimes ignored because of the greater importance of other, contradictory goals.

Ford offers several examples including a casino along Canal Street in New Orleans that violated goals about building massing and expected uses on the thoroughfare but met other goals for economic development and employment.  Another example was a snow cone shop that met goals for neighborhood retail but, through the potential for sale of illicit substances out the back door, might later undermine goals about neighborhood safety and peacefulness.

Ford suggests that goals needn’t present a single coherent and limited vision, but should represent a broad range of desirable outcomes, even if the sorting through and weighting of the goals in regard to specific land-use projects may be difficult and the public explanation uncomfortable.

Please understand that I suspect that most planning departments already do this difficult balancing of goals, although only as an internal function.  Instead, I’m suggesting that the external results are often presented in sugar-coated words implying that all goals were met, words that are designed to soothe feelings, but that I find unsatisfactory and that I fear may ultimately undermine faith in the land-use process.

Circling back to the Petaluma apartment hearing, I’ll offer two possible responses to the neighborhood on the question of neighborhood compatibility.  The first would be “Even though the apartment buildings are taller and have greater volumes that the surrounding buildings, we find that architectural detailing is sufficient to meet the goal of neighborhood compatibility.”  This is the general model that the explanations of most land-use decisions seem to follow.

The alternative response would be “The apartment buildings don’t meet the goal of neighborhood compatibility, but for this site we judge that the competing goals of supplying local housing needs and providing sufficient density to support transit are sufficiently important that the architectural non-compatibility can be disregarded.”

I suspect that many land-use decisions are made on the latter basis, but are presented to the public with the former argument.  And furthermore, I fear that the smarminess of the former argument undermines public faith in the planning process.  In the moment, people may not like the unvarnished truth, but ultimately they respect the truth-teller.

Or perhaps it’s just that I favor intellectual honesty over political correctness, which I’ll acknowledge as a character flaw.

In my next post, I’ll focus more directly the book noted above, “The Trouble with City Planning”.  I find the book an odd amalgam, but nonetheless a book with philosophical insights worth consuming.

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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