Thursday, June 28, 2012

Still "no" . . . .

Recently I had lunch with a local attorney who remarked that I had done everything but stand on my head to encourage a planning process for West Lafayette's near campus neighborhoods. I took that as a compliment.
Of course, I've failed.  Three years and no land use plan. Two years and no historic districts. One year and no joint redevelopment study with the Purdue Research Foundation.
I don't know why this is. People offer suggestions that cluster around three themes.
First, that we may lack the skills. We are a class three city. Our staff is small. Perhaps we don't know how. We ought not to be embarrassed by this. It's a real possibility. Let's use the Wang Hall experience as an example. No one locally seemed able to help the neighborhood and the Purdue Research Foundation come to some agreement on Wang Hall. Then Carl Griffin wrote a good letter. Joe Hornett had a good idea. CSO Architecture's Jim Schellinger arrived and moved the negotiations.
The building changed for the better. Parking? Councilor Hunt and I concluded that PRF was right on parking. But PRF came up with a plan for what could happen if they were wrong.
Perhaps we have been unable to repeat that work because we lack the skill.
Second, that we may lack the will. A story circulates around Purdue about the time a senior Purdue administrator made her or his first trip to the state capital to lobby the legislature. The person went armed with the language of excellence that we have grown accustomed to. They argued that in order to maintain such excellence we would need to do "x" or "y" for "z" dollars.  As the tale goes on, a legislator famously interrupted the Purdue leader. "You know", he said, "let me tell you, we'd all just settle for good."
We have done some good things in city development. But to move to another level would take time, money, energy; and in the end  most folks will settle for good. A racing metaphor was suggested to me; as long as we lap the slower moving cars, it will feel like we're winning.  So why push it.
Finally, someone with a history in county government told me I'm just not experienced enough to recognize a "slow no" when I get one. The political and commercial insiders here are doing just fine under the current arrangement, they suggest. So they will say the right things; but drag the process out until it dies. 
We had a similar conversation at the time of the Wang Hall discussions. As part of the Wang Hall process a Memorandum of Understanding was drafted between the city and the research foundation to undertake a targeted redevelopment study of the near campus neighborhoods. I said, "that won't work, because it is in nobody's self-interest to invite in outsiders and their money to compete with local interests." Others said, "no, you're wrong; we can show them how everybody can make money and stabilize the neighborhoods too." So far, I am winning that argument.
The 720 Northwestern project is not compatible with current zoning. It is too tall. Even the architect and the APC thought so; that's why the top floor is wearing that bland camouflage. "See," says the building, "I am really much shorter and smaller than you think."
I think this is best described as a high density mixed use building on what ought to be a medium density mixed use site.
If the neighbors want  a high density mixed use building; fine. But they don't seem to. If they would be willing to trade high density for other zoning considerations, that would be okay. But they have yet to be involved in the particular language of land use. So they are left with saying simply, "Its too big, I don't like it."  With the media and the politicians and the developers then painting them as neanderthals; anti-progress, anti-student. Baloney. The process can and should be better than this.
Until it is, we should not approve this zoning change. It will, de facto, change all land use in sight of this building's fifth floor, from Meridian to Grant, without any further discussion. To be followed by an administrative shrug, and a "golly gee," I have no idea how that happened. Just look south of State St.
We should vote this down until there is a plan.

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