Friday, July 1, 2011

The Fourth of July

As an urban and community planner I’m continually surprised and, yes, amazed at the goings-on at planning commissions and city councils. While often ridiculed and derided in the press and other media, these people spend a lot of their own time trying very hard to help make their communities better. For most, outside of Bell, California and a few others, it’s all volunteer service and a small per diem. And, contrary to opinion, it’s not some fulfillment of a deep seeded need to be loved or for power. With all the crap they put up with, the unconditional love from a dog would be more satisfying. What drives them? It is their strong desire to help move their city forward.

Often this is at great odds with my clients. Each comes to the negotiation with a different agenda, though both profess to support the other. On one hand is the project with its impacts, on the other is that this project will stay in the city long after the developer is gone. A balance and understanding is struck between the two, the project moves forward. Over the years I have watched appointed and elected public officials learn and grow in their positions, and I have watched clients become more understanding of a community’s problems and try to help. In good arrangements the result is a successful project, in great partnerships, the community changes direction, for the better.

Today’s blog is not going to list successes and failures, there has been far little of one and far too much of the latter these past three years, but I will offer an example. Earlier this week, we presented a dense urban project to a Bay Area city council for final approval. It had been through staff review and planning commission and now was in front of the council. A sticking point is the undergrounding of power-lines on one street frontage. It has been the policy of this city to underground all overhead lines. The wanted my client to pay for this even though these lines provided no services to the site. The cost would have raised the price of each house a minimum of $5,000. He objected, council understood but it was policy, client offered to split the cost, it is now under discussion. A final decision was put off for two weeks. Different goals by each side, yet an understanding by both that a solution could be reached. And much of this came from the council members themselves, they need the project but they need to support the underground policy. It will pass.

I know this is a mundane story. These processes happen thousands, if not millions of times in city chambers across America every year, it is not autocratic, it is a negotiated democracy. The failure in some communities to properly govern has thrown these decisions to plebiscites and the rule of the mob vote, which is sad and ultimately destructive.

Well back to the header, the Fourth of July. It is to these politicians, appointees, and volunteers I doff my three-cornered hat, and bow. I also raise my voice in “huzza” to their interest, their commitment, their energy, and their opinion. Yard by square yard, acre by acre, and section by section they have helped to grow America.

I also offer to you a movie tip for the Fourth. Every holiday has its movies, Christmas (the all-time favorite, hundreds of films), Thanksgiving (I think there are a few), Halloween (and please, just stop now with Halloween VII), Columbus Day (the Indians have had a serious issue with this since October, 1492, again hundreds of movies), and Groundhog Day (only one movie I can think of and it is on TV over and over and over). But there are a few movies for the Fourth of July. The first ones that come to mind always star Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, then there’s Independence Day (over and over and over), all the historical movies (The Patriot, Drums Along the Mohawk, etc.), but my all-time favorite and a must see every year in the Randall house (like White Christmas), is 1776.

Done in 1972 and based on the play of the same name, our forefathers sing and dance their way to our independence. Historically correct, outside of the mass signing of the document and some of the delegate’s resumes, it is a fine example of visual history telling, staging and pomp. It also brings to life the greats of freedom, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Dickenson, and even Washington through his letters.

In one poignant conversation in the movie, John Adams and Ben Franklin lay out the fact they are only men:

John Adams: Mark me, Franklin... if we give in on this issue, posterity will never forgive us.
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: That's probably true, but we won't hear a thing, we'll be long gone. Besides, what would posterity think we were? Demi-gods? We're men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed. First things first, John. Independence; America. If we don't secure that, what difference will the rest make?

Again, hats off to those who give their time to our cities, Happy Fourth of July.

Stay tuned . . . .

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