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Elitist rezoning plan receives a jolt.

Byline: Paul Conte For The Register-Guard

"The Big One" finally hit Eugene. Not the predicted megathrust earthquake off the Oregon Coast, but an event of seismic proportions nevertheless. A majority of city councilors sundered the city planning staff's Envision Eugene implementation strategy for transit corridor development, which had involved wholesale rezoning (and future redevelopment) of established, single-family neighborhoods.

The council directed the city manager to take areas zoned R-1 - low-density residential - off the table. This means most single-family neighborhoods will no longer be at risk of being sacrificed for future redevelopment as apartments, condos and rowhouses.

Like the ever-increasing pressure between tectonic plates, pressure has been building for years between two forces driving local land use planning.

No, it isn't the tired, worn-out idea that Eugene citizens hate sprawl and density equally - that has never been true.

The opposing forces are a small group of planners, city officials and others that might be called Eugene's "planning elite" on one side, and the majority of ordinary citizens, particularly homeowners, on the other.

The pressure reached the breaking point when staff members presented the City Council with a sweeping plan to consign hundreds of properties - including many modest, single-family homes - to redevelopment as some urbanized fantasy resembling Portland's Pearl District.

When the dust cleared, the one inescapable conclusion was that the public process leading up to the proposed South Willamette Special Area Zone had failed. While the planning elite praised the product they had created, the residents who would be affected hated it. The council majority sided with residents.

This wasn't a vote in favor of sprawl or against sensible density increases; it was a vote to protect single-family neighborhoods against a risky and unnecessary redevelopment scheme.

This cataclysm didn't have to happen. But the process went awry for a number of reasons:

The process was staff-driven, not community-driven.

The city's planning staff scheduled meetings, set the agenda, controlled participant activities and created the reports of meetings. I've reviewed meeting agendas and reports, and I've heard firsthand accounts from residents who participated. The history reveals a steady drumbeat of staff members pushing ahead with a level of densification and dramatic change in residential form that residents didn't support.

The geographic scope was too extensive.

The project was introduced as a pilot "Opportunity Siting" exercise to identify specific sites where high-density housing would be appropriate and welcomed. However, it eventually expanded in all directions to include almost 500 properties. This area proved too large for Eugene's planning staff to fully understand and have robust communication with residents, businesses and property owners.

The planning staff also was (apparently) unable to conduct the necessary studies on housing costs, traffic, property values, public infrastructure and other effects.

The scope wasn't justified by the stated objectives.

The two primary objectives were to increase housing capacity as a means of diminishing pressure to "sprawl," and to create a "pedestrian-friendly" environment along Willamette Street. Neither of these objectives required extending the area boundaries way beyond the lots fronting Willamette Street and the commercial area around the intersection of Willamette Street and West 29th Avenue.

Once the staff lost track of the true objectives, it seemed to drift into imagining some idealized urban environment for "millennials." Meanwhile, existing 1,100-square-foot homes built by the Breeden Brothers weren't appreciated as the irreplaceable on-ramps to affordable home ownership. Instead, trendy "row houses" were to define the future.

Planners never walked with residents or sat in their living rooms.

You can never truly understand people solely through public meetings. Understanding requires lots of individual or small group conversations in the physical context that's being considered.

The public presentations weren't honest.

Planning Director Robin Hos tick's presentations to the public and the City Council did not honestly describe key elements of the proposal. For example, the "transition area" standards have alternatives that allow huge walls only 30 feet from a single-family home. The "design review" provisions grant the planning director almost unlimited power to waive standards for maximum building height, setbacks, density and other crucial items. The proposal has stealth provisions that allow redevelopment on formerly single-family lots to exceed the Eugene-Springfield Metro Plan's maximum density for these areas.

Residents have learned of these deceptions; rightfully, they now distrust the planners.

The "test drive" had the wrong people behind the wheel.

The staff organized a "test drive" of the code by a group of architects. This group didn't look seriously at potential impacts on current residents, but instead mostly pointed out where the code was "too limiting" of their own design freedom.

The process produced the wrong work products.

The conceptual plan was too general and not legally binding, so it wasn't "real" enough to engage residents the way the zoning code has. But the code itself is too complicated to easily understand.

Despite these problems with the process, a constructive way forward can be found. The planning process needs a "reset," and a more effective way to develop proposals that the community supports. Here are some best practices based on the processes that created the Westside Neighborhood Plan and the Jefferson-Westside Special Area Zone. Both documents garnered broad community support and won unanimous council approval.

Trust the neighborhood community.

Most fundamentally, staff and others who belong to the planning elite must let go of their "we know best" attitude. They do not. A neighborhood's residents, business owners and responsible property owners know far more about what's really important - how their neighborhood works, both well and poorly.

With some competent consulting help, community members can produce practical solutions to problems and find the best ways to capitalize on opportunities. This includes ways to welcome more residents - of all economic levels and household types - into their neighborhood.

The South Willamette area has myriad such opportunities that could be pursued with modest changes to the existing commercial zoning.

Charter a community-based planning team.

Members of the planning team should be residents, business owners, property owners and other folks who live, work or otherwise are active in and near the area. Preferably, have the neighborhood associations that encompass some of the plan area nominate members for the council to appoint.

Planning staff should act as consultants to the planning team. The planning team should determine meetings, outreach and other procedural aspects. The planning team should produce a draft refinement plan that would go to the neighborhood associations for review and revision, and then on to the planning commission for a recommendation to the City Council. Code amendments should be developed only after the council adopts legally binding refinement plan policies.

Limit the geographic area.

Multiple-use centers should be clustered in discrete locations, not on long strips. Portland is following this strategy along its Max light rail lines. The commercially zoned area around the intersection of Willamette Street and 29th Avenue would be appropriate.

Have lots of "walk-arounds."

Planting one's feet on the ground, absorbing what's currently there and imagining what could be - good and bad - is by far the best way to contemplate different building forms. Small groups enable deeper discussions that can inform larger community work sessions.

Test policies with worst-case scenarios.

Building heights, massing and setbacks are among the most critical development standards to get right in order to protect adjacent residents. Three-dimensional models, created with Sketchup or similar software, are no substitute for real-life examples. But they can engage people who don't participate in the "walk-arounds."

There are many more best practices for effective community engagement. But none is more important than trusting the neighborhood community.
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Title Annotation:Guest Viewpoint
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 1, 2015
Words:1252
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