Downtown Plans and Balanced Communities

John Sarvay has published Part II of his series about Richmond’s downtown master plan: “What’s a Downtown Plan?” The plan, as it turns out, is not a tool for control freaks and social engineers. It is a guide. As Sarvay quotes from the plan itself:

Its purpose is to serve as a guide to assist in public and private decision-making relative to a wide variety of issues affecting the future of Downtown Richmond. It is intended to be used by the City as a guide for making public capital investment decisions and establishing land use policies and regulations. Of equal importance is the role of the Plan as a tool providing guidance to Downtown stakeholders and potential investors in making decisions affecting Downtown’s future.

That seems entirely appropriate. The plan provides a roadmap for local government to use in planning its public capital investments. It also provides the private sector guidance in what kind of re-zoning requests the locality is likely to approve and where it will be most willing to make public capital investment. Actual execution of the plan is another issue entirely. Circumstances change. Unexpected opportunities arise. Politics intervenes. Nothing is carved in stone — but the plan, which represents a consensus of opinion, carries a certain moral force. It is not deviated from lightly.

Which brings us to an issue of much contention in the comments sections of this blog: Ed Risse’s concept of the “Balanced Community” and how it might be achieved. EMR is in the process of developing his thoughts fully, which he will publish in book form in the near future. Until then, we have to rely upon the fragmentary hints he provides on this blog. The controversy to this point revolves around the suspicion that “planning” for a Balanced Community will be some kind of top-down process imposed by social engineers upon an unwilling public.

Here’s how I see it: “Planning” for a Balanced Community — a community with a balance of jobs, housing, retail and amenities and a transportation system to fit — needs be no more top-down than the process of creating Richmond’s downtown plan. The idea is to provide a roadmap (1) for future public capital improvements, and (2) for future rezoning decisions. Where the process would differ is in recognizing that the organic components of Balanced Communities often overlap political jurisdictions, thus planning is not something that can be undertaken by a single locality. Some Balanced Communities might overlap two or even three jurisdictions, thus requiring genuine coordination and cooperation between local governments, or more logically (and politically difficult) a rewriting of local government boundaries to reflect the economic-social realities on the ground.

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8 responses to “Downtown Plans and Balanced Communities”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Someone would have to say how a Downtown Plan is different than a Comprehensive Plan.

    A Comp Plan is pretty flexible also. Basically it deals with some realities like what is the current built infrastructure – roads, schools, water/sewer… and some planning for future infrastructure along with (not always) CIPs.

    Plans without CIPs are not plans. They are ideas no matter whether it is called a downtown plan or a comp plan.

    Comp Plans are general guides and ANY developer can bring ANY proposal in front of the elected and they can accept the proposal even if it means updating the comp plan also.

    This is done not infrequently.

    The phrase to remember is that “any developer can bring ANY proposal”… no one is prevented from doing this.

    What some folks in this Blog advocate, in essence, is that Comp Plans themselves along with the CIPs are .. “impediments” and “restrictions” that get in the way of and prevent good and innovative private sector solutions.

    To that, I say Bull Dip.

    SOMEBODY has to say WHERE they would like to invest taxpayer money in for infrastructure like roads and water/sewer.

    Most developers who cry “restrictions”.. what they want is taxpayer-supplied infrastructure to be supplied WHERE they want to develop which if we did this…

    why have a Comp Plan (or downtown plan) in the first place?

    With regard to Balanced Communities – what is needed (in my opinion) is Regional Comp Plans – at the scale suggested perhaps by EMR but in any event – we already have MPOs for our MSAs as well as Planning Districts and if case anyone is paying attention.. quite a few Regional Authorities already in existence.

    The 600lb fly in the ointment – no matter what scale planning is done at is where the jobs are verses where people want to live

    .. and if we just stood back out of the way and let developers build where-ever they wished – you can bet – that their highest level priorities would not be “balanced communities” but rather.. good ole capitalism.

    So.. we need to stop sneaking around with phrases like “no top-down planning” and “free the market”.

    Infrastructure costs money and it takes years to plan it out and it serves far more than one developer or even a bunch of developers

    and .. like I said… anytime, anywher – whether in downtown Richmond or outer Cookamunga, a bunch of developers could band together into a Public-Private consortium and propose to a local government (or multiple local governments) a massive turn-key “Balanced Community” that cost existing taxpayers no dollars and if they did – why would it be turned down – ala Reston or Columbia.

    And localities are free to say no, no, no, and NO until and unless the right development at the right time in the right place comes along.

    This is not repressing the free market – this is fiscal responsibility – the supposed bellwether of Conservatives… you know.. the low tax mantra and all that rot.

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Okay.. so tell me what it says in the Downtown Richmond Plan with respect to Balanced Communities?

    Does the plan establish a Balanced Community standard?

    I looked in the glossary and sure as heck.. not a word about it. Imagine that.

    Does the Richmond Plan say that only proposals that meet a Balanced Community standard will be seriously considered?

    How about we put a standard in that plan that states that only development proposals that provide a balance of jobs and housing will be given serious consideration?

    what would happen.. if a developer offered a new business in the downtown area and they proffered residential mixed-use in Chestfield as part of their project “balance”?

    Don’t laugh. This is the essential concept with TDRs and PDRs – right?

    So.. if we can “balance” development with set-aside land, why not “balance” it with jobs and residential?

  3. rodger provo Avatar
    rodger provo

    To All-

    Arlington County in the 1970s and
    the City of Norfolk in the 1980s
    created good, solid comp-master
    plans for their urbanization that
    has created two of the best examples
    of urban renewal in the

    Both communties had a
    vision of what they wanted for
    their future and they stayed the
    course to make their plans to
    become a reality and work.

  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I am all for what Rodger suggests – with one major caveat that I think is a fatal flaw if not delt with.

    You can have the best “appearing” plan in the world that is acceptable to the business community and local leader luminaries but if that plan is not understood and supported by citizens – it is doomed to fail.

    engaging citizens is a messy, difficult process and you’ll never get them all to agree but if you diss them… process-wise, you are planting potent seeds of opposition.

    when I see a “visualization” process full of buzzwords and PR phrases – the next thing I want to see is the list of particpants.

  5. rodger provo Avatar
    rodger provo

    Larry –

    Portland, Oregon has a wonderful
    process of involving residents in
    a community based planning process,
    not often found in Virginia.

    That city has made a wonderful, positive transformation over the
    last 30 years with a great deal of
    collaboration between the business
    community, citizens and political
    leadership of that metopolitan area.

    Arlington and Norfolk have also had good citizen support during that same period for what they have accomplished.

    The problem many communities have
    in Virginia is they do not have a
    sense of what they want their city
    or county to become 20 or 30 years
    out nor the political will to make
    their plans work.

    It took Norfolk more than 30 years
    to land the MacArthur Center, a
    high fashion mall for their downtown which has caused the
    revitalization of an old CBD and the stimuation of additional residential development.

    Now they are building a light rail-
    street car line from Virginia Beach
    into the CBD and out to their
    medical center which attracting more commercial, hotel and residential development.

    I think it is a little trite to
    write off these success stories, as
    “a visualization process full of
    buzzwords and PR phrases …”

    Larry, it could be your are guilty
    of the sins you accuse others of

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “Larry, it could be your are guilty
    of the sins you accuse others of

    Perhaps. I AM a skeptic where I’ve seen the “visualization” advertising NOT accompanied by meaningful attempts at citizen involvement.

    I note that the ONLY direct-elected MPO in the entire USA is – quess where – Portland!

    I’m reactive to buzzwords because it’s been my experience that the excessive presence of buzzwords and PR phrases – again – in my experience – betrays a participation process in Va and Fredericksburg that seeks to minimize citizen involvement while claiming the exact opposite.

    and I think it is a huge mistake that leads to failure… if your goal is truly to strive for a collaborative framework that leads to not only a consensus but energy and momentum.

    Positive ideas?

    Yes. Let’s work for a direct-elected Transportation Authority in the Fredericksburg Region.

    Let’s make sure that citizen members are heavily represented on any groups – formal or ad hoc that seek to engage in “visualization” of the future.

    Let’s have agreement of the work products AND accountability with regard to results…

  7. rodger provo Avatar
    rodger provo

    Larry –

    Virginia needs to revamp our 39 year old planning district commission system to be more like
    the Portland, Oregon regional
    elected planning governing model.

    Planning district commissions, MPO’s
    and the two new regional transportation authorities, enabled
    in the 2007 transportation bill
    for Hampton Roads and Northern
    Virginia need to be merged – we need a statewide system of elected
    regional planning-transportation

    We need a planning-transportation
    agency at the state level, as well.

  8. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    We hope to have time for a post on this topic soon.


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