City Planners… Demigods or little Napoleons in Big Capes?

I recently read a stunning article,”The Next Normal: Control the Masses” which can be found here. The article contains an interview with urban planner Andres Duany and in the interview Mr. Duany displays the typical arrogance I find so prevalent when trying to discuss zoning issues with developers, city planners and consultants. For example:

Even 50 years ago, planners were still considered demigods. They had reformed cities to be beautiful, healthier, cleaner, and more stable. Planners had done more for public health than doctors. By making lives much better, they had come to be trusted by the people.

Demigods? Really? City planners did more for public health than the doctors that were out there making house calls in the middle of the night? City planners did more for public health than the doctors that were delivering babies and inoculating children against polio? City planners were trusted by people? I hate to break it to Mr. Duany but most people don’t even know who city planners are, much less trust them. The arrogance of a man that could say that with a straight face amazes me so the next quote wasn’t surprising.

While the New Urbanist system may work well, it is also expensive. To mount a charrette requires those rare, highly skilled professionals that can speak to regular folk, think clearly, and draw quickly. Charrettes can cost $300,000. We need to get the cost down to $50,000.

It is quite interesting that Mr. Duany whines about the need for those “rare, highly skilled professionals that can speak to the regular folk, think clearly and draw quickly”. Apparently Mr. Duany never met an elementary school teacher. I could walk into any school in Alpharetta and find 40 great teachers that meet his criteria and I bet any of them would be glad to organize a “charrette” for less than $300,000.

After reading that interview it was nice to see that not everyone in the development community is so contemptuous of public participation. For a much more encouraging perspective you can read urban planner Della Rucker’s refutation of Mr. Dulany here. Ms. Rucker counters:

Public participation is important not just to try to get people to go along with our vision, to give us a chance to yell loud enough to drown them out, or to allow us to demonstrate the superiority of our Grand Vision over their piddling little concerns…

Understanding the real reasons why people oppose a project requires the willingness to do so, the humility to listen, and the internal fortitude and self-assurance to admit that possibly, oh just possibly, we don’t know everything that there is to know.   That is the real mark of wisdom.

If the people who live around a proposed development oppose a development, chances are those people know something that is important to the health of their neighborhood and the larger community. If we think that we know more than to have to listen to them, then we are no better than little Napoleons in big capes, creating monuments to our hubris that our children and grandchildren will have to clean up. The lessons of the damage caused by our ignorance are all around us.

Local residents may have valuable insight? What a refreshing perspective. Too bad that isn’t the prevailing attitude of the city of Alpharetta lately.

13 thoughts on “City Planners… Demigods or little Napoleons in Big Capes?

  1. City Planners are one thing. Our representative, elected officials are another. The planners can plan away, but the City Council is to be the backstop for these things when citizens say au contraire.

    I’m a relative newbie into following these things, but according to an AJC piece that ran back in 2003, there was a time when there was an ear to the ground:

    Local leaders have a difficult time committing to smart growth, compact and dense developments with a mix of housing types and services to promote fewer car trips, often built around transit. Many endorse the idea — except when it comes up for rezoning in cities and counties.

    “It’s a great theory,” said Alpharetta Mayor Arthur Letchas. “If we had an example of success, then I think we would look more favorably at density.”

    These types of projects are denied, or stripped of their smart-growth elements, because elected officials listen to constituents who fear the projects will bring too many housing units and worsen already congested roads and schools.” ~AJC, Oct. 13, 2003

    They listen to constituents? Hmmm, what a novel idea! Are you also looking for the “example of success?” Me too!

    It is astounding to me when I hear my friends and neighbors tell me that some of these hearings had rooms filled to capacity and overflowing against these things, and yet they vote for them anyway? Especially, when a letter, call, or public appearance by one person must represent a few 100 that won’t get involved.

    Clearly, there is no fear of the electorate. Maybe that is why fewer people choose to be involved. They see it makes no difference. My mind hates to contemplate the alternatives for what else could be motivating these decisions in our community.

  2. Kim,

    Let me address the issue of listening to constituents, particularly when the citizens say, “au contraire”. Let’s the take the current issue that you oppose, the Met Life project. To date, I’ve had exactly six citizens — out of roughly 60,000 — say au contraire.

    What are we to do when 350 Alpharetta residents tell us in public meetings, online forums, phone calls and emails that Mixed Use development is the preferred land use in that area? Then, four residents show up to oppose it (I also received two additional emails against). Granted, you, Jimmy, Tom and Mark are very knowledgeable residents and follow the issues more closely than most, but how can you say that we don’t listen to the citizens when the ratio of residents who have expressed an opinion on the subject runs something like 60-to-1 in support of mixed use along the 400 corridor?

    The point is, your opposition is not in a vacuum. Believe it or not, there ARE some residents — lots of residents — who support this type of development. We hear from you. We hear from them. We listen to you. We listen to them also.

    If you’ll Google “successful mixed use” you’ll find links to dozens of news stories about successful projects. They’re not that hard to find. Some have been hits, some have failed. Some office buildings are filled, others are empty and in foreclosure. Some housing developments are successful, some are ghost towns. If we only considered things that never failed — and we required a 100% percent guarantee against any possible future failure — we would never consider anything. That includes single family homes.

    We can disagree, respectfully, about the merits or drawbacks of a project, but if the vote doesn’t break your way on a particular issue, please don’t assume that your voice is the only voice in the debate.

  3. Actually, I’d like to correct something in my earlier post. I’m a stickler for statistical accuracy.

    I can’t say, with certainty, that ALL 350 or so participants in the North Point LCI meetings a couple of years ago preferred Mixed Use in the 400 corridor. That many people did participate and Mixed Use was the preferred choice, but I’m sure it wasn’t unanimous.

    Still, the fact that it was highly preferred says something.

  4. Mike,

    I refer you again to the
    LCI Study.

    First, how many of the 337 respondents were Alpharetta citizens? Since the survey asks “Number of years you have lived or worked in the North Point area?”, I assume that this survey was given to non-residents who happen to work here. Maybe it is just me but I resent that anyone other than Alpharetta residents would have a say in shaping our city. As a representative of Alpharetta citizens, I would think this should concern you too.

    From looking at the sign-in sheets, assuming those were also some of the respondents, I see many who seem to have a vested interest in these projects rather than your regular off-the-street Joe Citizen. Also, how many of them live in Alpharetta?

    Assuming that we can trust the integrity of the survey, a few more things jump out when looking at the results in aggregate.

    1. Mixed use is preferred… but with “No More Development” a very close second. How do you reconcile two polar opposites being so close together? Does the very close runner-up just get ignored?

    2. Was “mixed use” defined for the LCI participants? Many people like Crabapple and Vickery (myself included) but dislike Atlantic Station. Two very different interpretations of “mixed use.” MetLife = Atlantic Station. Check out their success record. If AS cannot thrive in an area that is more conducive to that type of development, yes, the thought of an Atlantic Station being at all three Alpharetta exits quite frankly scares the daylights out of me.

    3. Were the pictures rank-ordered just according to aesthetic appeal or according to daily-life functional impact? I’m just asking about the methodology because the report doesn’t specify this.

    4. Study the visual examples shown in the LCI study that ranked high. None of the highest-ranking shots have the Atlantic Station look with 12-16 story buildings and/or modern architecture.

    5. Condos and apartments were ranked at the very bottom. Even in an area not suitable for single family homes, they still rank ahead of condos and apartments.

    6. Traffic Congestion was the number 1 issue designated as a problem for the North Point area. Maybe I am really dense but I fail to see how adding 500 condos, retail, restaurants, a 200-room hotel, and office space solves that problem. I know the argument about reducing traffic from the office plan which was already approved, but I only see it reducing peak traffic, not overall traffic. Peak traffic can be avoided with careful planning. Less predictable traffic spread throughout the day, not so much. Also, how many jobs in Alpharetta are killed by taking away the originally planned office space and replacing it with high-density condos?

    Mike, I do recognize that my opinion is not the only one that counts, nor is my voice is the only one in the debate. If you feel this project has been represented fairly and that you have the community’s broad support for these projects, then by all means you should vote in the way you believe most fairly represents the community at-large. I am just one lone voice on a blog expressing my perception of things and pointing out facts as I happen upon them. Really, you don’t have to justify your vote to me. But please likewise allow me to express my viewpoint in an open forum. And please always do feel free to correct me if I have my facts wrong.

  5. Mike,
    You mentioned the opposition numbers. At the public hearing last month, I noticed there was just one resident who spoke in support in contrast to the five opposing voices. (I reject Eric Bosman’s support since he lives in Atlanta and is the person who conducted the LCI Study and advocates for “smart growth.” Hardly objective.)

    All that to say, I would also not assume that silence on an issue equals consent. I know of many neighbors who personally voiced their opposition to me. Of course I realize that this cuts both ways. Apathy is a huge problem and we should work to find out why this is so.

    But it is a logical fallacy to say that 6/60,000 specifically opposed it and 300/60,000 generally support it, therefore, MetLife should be approved. You would have to ask those 300 (assuming they are all Alpharetta citizens) about this specific proposal in order to compare apples to apples.

    “I think [undefined] “mixed use” development belongs in the NP area” + “I like the pretty pictures you showed me” != “I like the MetLife proposal.”

  6. Mike,
    I appreciate you coming by and offering your perspective. Part of my frustration over the MetLife stems from the fact that our city council treats the LCI study as objective, constituent input. It isn’t.

    It is a sales document created by consultants which were paid by MetLife and the other landowners in the area along with organizations that are pushing an agenda.

    MetLife is an international, multi billlion dollar life insurance company for heaven’s sake. Don’t you think they know a little about selling?

    Alpharetta is still a small enough town that our candidates walk door to door to solicit votes. I wish those same people took the time to go door to door asking residents if they want MARTA in Alpharetta and if so are they willing to completely change our city and decimate our schools to get it here.

  7. Yes Jimmy, you can google “charette fraud” and similar sentiments. It is happening all across the country. Why else do you think every city across America (and across the world) would be arriving at the exact same conclusions? Talk about community organizing…. They think we are stupid.

  8. I just noticed Question #15 that asks what should be the highest priority in terms of improving the quality of life in the North Point area.

    Answers are (in order of preference):
    Transportation Improvements
    Create Open Spaces / Parks
    Make the area more walkable
    Enhance the area’s Identity
    Extend MARTA Train Line
    Encourage Mixed Use Development

    Mixed use at the very bottom? With diametrically opposing answers to similar questions, wouldn’t most people question the validity of the entire survey? Obviously there is something very wrong when it comes in first on one question and dead last on another.

    I didn’t participate in this particular study. Did they explain what some of this stuff means like “enhance the identity?” That’s rather nebulous to me.

  9. Kim,

    I didn’t participate in the LCI either, although I live in the area. I’ll go back and re-read those points you referred to.

    I am aware of the sign-in sheets and who participated. The vast majority of the responses were submitted online. I don’t know who those people were.

    Side note: Jimmy, I’m glad you posted on the “Choking Game”. It’s been a sad week for many of us over here in your old neighborhood.

  10. Mike,
    If most of the responses came from online, do we have a way of verifying who those people were? Do we even know if they were Alpharetta citizens? I would think that could be really tricky to track since many people use anonymous gmail and other accounts. Which again calls into question the integrity of the report.

  11. Kim,

    I will see what I can find out about that. I would hope they have those records of the online surveys. The LCI study was done way before I was on council.

    After re-reading the previous posts, Kim, I am reminded of the Canton Street issue that you and Kathy brought to the council last year. I assured you all along that the issue you raised was being taken seriously and investigated.

    In the end, the city attorney was of the opinion that the issue you raised had merit and that the permits in question should be voided.

    Just something to remember when you’re frustrated that no one seems to be listening to you. You are living proof that a well-researched, thoughtfully presented set of facts can get the city’s attention and, ultimately, be acted upon when warranted.

  12. Pingback: I wasn’t nice to the Little Napoleons, but I guess that’s OK. | Wise Economy

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