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The "best" plan for downtown
Jack Balshaw 9/18/2002


The best plan for downtown or for anything is always the latest plan. Logically, a plan is only accepted because it's considered to be better than an existing plan. So, plan 20 is always better than plan 19 which was better than plan 18, etc. At least that's the theory.

What really happens is those who want to put their mark on development have to develop a new plan. So they find a reason that the existing plan doesn't measure up and make a "decision" to replace it. There is really no prior evaluation of the old plan, just an action to somehow find it lacking and thereby in need of replacement by the present decision makers. Whenever this happens it's the result of a degree of misplaced arrogance by the new decision makers.

Whatever period we grew up in or whatever year we graduated from architecture or planning school, determines what we "know" to be the latest and best development design. What is interesting is that those who developed the previous plans also used the latest development design from their period be it 20, 40 or 60 years ago. But, of course we now know they didn't understand urban development like we do now or have access to the latest (present) design theories.

The amusing part of this is that planners 20, 40 or 60 years in the future will say the same things about our present planners and use that as their excuse to come up with their own favorite and then current design concept. I don't know whether people need to show off their own creativity or just want to replace what those who came before them have done. Whatever it is, it's normal human behavior.

Our present City Council is trying to take it one step further. They want to enshrine their concept for downtown in legislation and procedures that will make it very difficult for future councils to change. It's not that they only know they have better ideas than those who came before them, they also know they have better ideas than anyone who will come after them. That's arrogance.

The thought struck me that if a previous council (say the one I was on over 12 years ago) had tried to do the same, the present council would be outraged that anyone would have the arrogance to tie the hands of future councils. Councils with new ideas and new understandings.

The present council has already spent over half a million dollars to develop the downtown specific plan to its present state. They are now planning to spend over $80,000, minimum, to have some consultant codify decisions to make this plan more difficult for future planners to modify and for future councils to change. Then, they will spend more to move it through the EIR process, Planning Commission approval and City Council approval.

Councils and planning departments can plan what they want. But unless entrepreneurs believe there is probability of making money by following that plan, the plan will never become reality.

It might seem in the public interest to put down those with "business" interests versus those who "care about the community" but it isn't. Those who "care" can develop any kind of plans based on urban design theory. They're not risking one cent of their own money. But, if any of the plans are to come to fruition, those in the business of making money have to believe the plan represents good economics for them individually.

A good example of good intentions versus practical concepts is the reserved retail spaces at the new affordable housing site on Payran, across from Albertson's. The first floor of the Payran side of the project was reserved for shops but is still vacant. At present, no businessman wants to risk his money opening a shop there. There will eventually be something in those spaces but we should watch and critically evaluate the use of the space.

The recent councils have been superb at developing plans and concepts (at much expense to the taxpayers) but they have little to show in the way of implementation.


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