GEORGE KENNEDY: Columbia Imagined could be for naught without real participation

Thursday, June 7, 2012 | 4:51 p.m. CDT; updated 11:38 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 11, 2012

COLUMBIA — Not many of us would disagree with this as a goal for making Columbia a more livable community: “Development standards will encourage compact, contiguous neighborhoods within reach of workplaces.”

Or this, as an objective aimed at reaching that goal: “Form-based zoning and other tools such as design guidelines, smart growth and mixed use will be considered.”

Very nice, I hear you saying; but how do we get there from here?

That’s the key question. It hung over Wednesday night’s pleasant and positive discussion of Columbia Imagined, the lengthy process that is intended to conclude some time next year with a new comprehensive plan. If imagination becomes reality, the plan will guide the city’s development over the next 20 years.

In case you dozed off when reports in the newspapers and an occasional essay by yours truly have examined this subject in months past, here’s a quick refresher.

Wednesday’s session was part of the fourth of six steps toward creation of a replacement for the Metro 2020 plan that has supposedly guided growth for the past decade. (Just look around and you’ll see how well that has worked. Our sprawling reality certainly illustrates the need for a guide that’s both more desirable and more enforceable.)

This step is called “Where are we headed?” Previous public sessions involving several hundred citizens identified seven general themes and produced about 500 possible goals with 1,000 or so accompanying objectives. The city’s planning staff and consultants from the university have boiled those down to 35 goals, each with two attached objectives.

The example I began with is in fact Goal 1 of the livable and sustainable community theme. The other themes are accessibility, mobility and connectivity; economic development; environmental management; infrastructure; intergovernmental cooperation; land use and growth management. (You can find all the goals and objectives on the city’s website. It’ll take a little searching, but look under Comprehensive Plan Task Force and the agenda for Wednesday’s public hearing.)

Journalists have a term for this sort of material: Dull but important.

The first of those adjectives is probably self-evident. Just how important it turns out to be will be determined by the next two steps in the process. After at least one more public discussion, this one dealing with scenarios for growth, the planning staff will come up with proposed strategies for achieving the objectives and reaching the goals. Then the whole package goes to the Planning and Zoning Commission for more public discussion. Finally, the City Council will consider it. With luck, that will take place in early 2013.

After John Clark had delivered the benediction to close the meeting Wednesday, a member of the task force caught my attention. He’d read a piece I wrote last month and detected some skepticism about the power of all our public planning, he said. He’s only been in town a few years, so he doesn’t have much local history to rely on.

“Am I wasting my time?” he wondered. Is all this expenditure of time and energy, all this imagining, actually going to produce anything worthwhile?

I thought of the guidance I was offered years ago by a friend who was the Missourian’s attorney. All legal advice, he said, can be summed up in two words: It depends.

In this case, it depends on those next two steps. It depends on the regulations that will implement the strategies to achieve the objectives and the goals. It depends on the enforcement of those regulations.

It really depends, one of the city planners told me a few minutes later, on political will. The best plan in the world is nothing more than words on paper or brightly colored maps unless we and our elected leaders have the will to mean what we say we want.

Politics has become a dirty word these days. That’s too bad because beyond the name calling and the game playing, politics is the way a community or a nation expresses its will.

Do we in Columbia have the political wisdom and courage to decide what kind of community we want and then to translate that vision into the reality of zoning codes, street layouts, development fees and the rest of actual governance?

We’ll find out the answers in the months ahead. Meanwhile, there’ll be another planning discussion in the next week or two. You won’t want to miss it. See the newspaper for time and place.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Mike Martin June 8, 2012 | 8:50 a.m.

George asks: "Do we in Columbia have the political wisdom and courage to decide what kind of community we want...?"

We -- the People -- may have the political wisdom and courage, but we clearly don't have the political capital, an all-important missing ingredient. Want proof? Just look around. Then ask yourself these questions:

Is the application of a giant Blight Decree across the city evidence of Columbia Imagined?

Was the construction of Garagezilla and the pending constructions of Garagezilla, Jr. and the Odle's Garagezilla, III evidence of Columbia Imagined?

Is the construction of over 1,000 units of poorly-built student housing -- with more pending -- evidence of Columbia Imagined?

Are comments last year by public works director John Glascock -- that City Hall shouldn't bother restoring long decayed stormwater systems in North Central, but rather, just buy up the homes around there and tear them down -- evidence of Columbia Imagined?

Is rampant rezoning and the tension it creates all around town evidence of Columbia Imagined?

Is the tension around St. Joseph Street demolitions and Boone County Family Resources evidence of Columbia Imagined?

Other than some new trails and parks -- which I certainly like -- the only evidence of Columbia Imagined I see has come from individual private sector endeavors -- the North Village Arts District, for instance.

I'm not seeing much contribution from city government. In fact, I see hindrance from the city that only serves to discourage -- not encourage -- public participation. All these planning meets strike many people as nothing more than a ruse.

So, we end up with a hindrance and a ruse. A planning process, in other words, that favors the powerful, those with political capital, but without the People's courage or wisdom.

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