Monday, May 09, 2005

Designing Downtown

The "Vibrant Downtown" symposium held a couple of weeks ago (see earlier blog entries) and the subsequent discussion about when and how the LDS Church and their design-developer team will reveal their plans for redevelopment of the two downtown malls raises the point of how we design our cities these days.

The current issue of the Harvard Design Magazine discusses this topic in the article "Democracy Takes Command," by John Kaliski.

Kaliski describes how citizens in the Los Angeles area have taken over the process of urban design, turning away from ( or at least relying less on) urban design and planning professionals. Kaliski points to the propensity of ballot box initiatives and referenda in California as evidence of this process, and he opines that this is generally a positive thing, something I don't think I quite agree with.

The problem is that extensive citizen involvement stretches the review and approval process out to an extreme degree, part of the reason why many developers and investors are reluctant to attempt projects in California. But it certainly does make for projects that are more "acceptable" to the public. Kaliski writes, "Decisions and consequent design are debated and crafted by citizens acting as design and planning experts. Ideas, indeed design ideas, mutate and coalesce through either the threat of a direct vote or a pending vote (the infamous ballot box planning). Democracy, in which 'the people form a master that must be obeyed,' once again takes command of the design of neighborhoods, streets, the city, and the region."

"Los Angeles has also created a stew of public planning checks and balances. Dozens of advisory boards oversee specific plans, historic preservation zones, community design districts, and specialized overlay zones throughout the city. Where these plans are in effect, all but the smallest projects are reviewed at open meetings for a wide array of use, bulk, and general design criteria."

While such an arrangement involves the public (at least those who want to be involved), it also takes a long time, and in the financial and development world, time is money. And what a process! Kaliski notes, "...this most recent downtown renaissance involved twenty years of hard work and endless conversations, dialogues with developers and property owners, occasional lawsuits by preservationists, and the input of politicians and public officials who believed that the premise of downtown redevelopment focused too heavily on the new."

Somewhere there must be a balance between developer-driven and citizen-led design processes. Where do we want to go in the process of redeveloping downtown Salt Lake City, or any city, for that matter? Designing completely "close to the vest" will virtually guarantee criticism and opposition from citizens, but completely open, citizen-driven planning is costly and time consuming, not to mention hard to conduct effectively (like trying to herd cats).

Somewhere between the process now currently underway by the LDS Church development team, and that advocated by Mayor Rocky Anderson, may be the way to go.


At 8:03 AM, Blogger Planner Perplexed said...

Ballot box planning is just as silly as ballot box accounting or police policy. Democracy can be suffocated by too much interference as well.

Public input has its place and often proves to make a project better, however, good design and planning can also be destroyed by too much meddling by amatuers.

The biggest problem here is the concept of time and money. Ballot box planning will result in driving up the cost of real estate and development; the last thing SoCal needs.

Leave planning to the appointed officials with proper inspection and comment by the public. To do otherwise is to court unintended problems that may be even more difficult to solve.

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