Monday, December 10, 2012

McCann/Bunder Report on Land Use

On Wednesday, November 28, 2012, the New Chauncey Neighborhood Plan Steering Committee met for the last time to discuss land use. There were six voting members on this committee: two commercial property developers with major holdings and ongoing projects in and around New Chauncey; the owner of a near- campus bookstore; the owner of several student rental houses within the neighborhood, properties that had once been family-occupied; and we two, who represented long-term residents of New Chauncey. 

Membership slots on this committee were determined by the Tippecanoe County Area Plan Commission. Ryan O’Gara of the APC convened meetings of the Steering Committee but did not vote.
Herein we report to NCNA the features of the proposed land use plan that will be most relevant for deliberations at its annual on December 8, 2012, a brief description of how the Steering Committee arrived at its decisions regarding future land use, and suggestions for moving forward towards a more constructive outcome. 

a. Decisions Taken in the November 28 Meeting
The most striking change that is envisioned for New Chauncey is the substantially more dense development in the southern and western portions of the community. Large buildings are anticipated, presumably to serve the student accommodations market. There is the rationale to “step down” in development from the southern and western edges of the neighborhood to the more residential areas, but this transition is quite gradual, so that higher-density developments will extend well into what are now lower-density living areas. 

These changes in land use, if implemented and acted upon, would fundamentally change the impression of much of the neighborhood and the quality of life. The recommendation from the Steering Committee is that the western and southern portions of New Chauncey should no longer be envisioned as family-focused not now, not ever. Rather than seeking to renovate homes, many of which are historically significant, the emphasis would be on tearing down and replacing with dense development. To illustrate, one Steering Committee member who represented commercial interests expressed the desire to see the construction of a mall that is comparable to Wabash Landing along the Northwestern corridor. 

Such development would undoubtedly bring more traffic congestion to the neighborhood and make it more difficult to attract and retain long-term residents. Furthermore, the proposed land use plan would reinforce a model of “balkanization” within the community, i.e., “students belong here but they shouldn’t go members belong there, not here...” Over the long-run, we believe a better vision for the community is an integrated framework, where students who wish to reside off-campus and long-term residents live together in well-maintained and attractive neighborhood blocks, much as it was in the post-war era when many of the historic homes of New Chauncey were built. As it stands now, the proposed APC plan undermines this vision. 

b. How We Got Here
When we agreed to serve on the Steering Committee, we were told that the objective was to create a consensus document, i.e., a vision that enjoyed unanimous support among the voting members. The four other committee members apparently shared this belief. In fact, one of the property developers on the committee announced at the third community forum on November 7, 2012, at the Morton Center that this principle of unanimity would be the basis of our decision-making. One of us (McCann) reinforced this point in a follow-up statement. Unfortunately, at one of the last Steering Committee meetings, the APC announced that decisions would instead be taken through majority vote as needed. This meant that the four committee members with major short-term commercial interests in the neighborhood could form a majority voting bloc. 

This is what happened in the final meeting. 

The anticipated use designations for approximately 20-25% of the blocks in New Chauncey were controversial. These blocks are located in the western and southern parts of the neighborhood. In the final committee deliberations, whenever there was disagreement over land use, committee members with a commercial stake in New Chauncey won, nearly always by a 4-2 margin. 

c. Recommendations for a Way Forward
There will be an opportunity for the public to respond to the APC land use plan. The residents of New Chauncey and surrounding neighborhoods, as well as the NCNA, should take the opportunity to comment on the proposed block designations. 

Furthermore, we encourage NCNA to oversee an alternative plan, one that will offer the “neighborhood community perspective on land use,” as opposed to the APC’s “commercial perspective on land use.”
It would be prudent for the Steering Committee to continue meeting, but with new members. This reconstituted committee should be balanced three participants who are long-term residents plus three members who represent commercial interests strikes us as an appropriate design with a rule of consensus on all outcomes. This new committee could then revisit land use issues with a fresh perspective. Such an exercise need not take years, or even months. With effective leadership and a constructive tone, committee deliberations might last only a few hours. 

We also advise communicating these concerns about neighborhood planning to the residents of other areas of West Lafayette, to Mayor Dennis, and to the City Council. 

On the horizon as well within the neighborhood is an historic preservation initiative. Through Ryan O’Gara, Chandler Poole, Director of Development for West Lafayette, communicated that the city is eager to implement this initiative, which will be an integral part of land use planning. NCNA and neighborhood residents should encourage the Historic Preservation Commission to finalize its business so that this initiative can take effect in a timely manner. 

We should stress that we acknowledge the need for community planning and long-term visioning, not only in New Chauncey but throughout the city. We must also emphasize that we are not opposed to commercial development. All neighborhood residents should take pride in the fact that our community is such a desirable place to live, work, play, study, worship, and invest in. Quite clearly, however, the land use plan that the APC proposes tilts far too heavily in the direction of large-scale commercial interests at the expense of long-range community enrichment. Many of the blocks currently designated for higher density development should instead be reserved for continued low-density homes.

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