Recent revelations that Kent State University is exploring expansion of the campus via long term contracts with residential developers gives rise to many questions.
Why are we not having a public planning process that brings the residents into the discussion of the future of our community?
Why aren’t previous strategic initiatives regarding planning for our neighborhoods and our elderly neighbors being referenced as new, student-only complexes are being developed?
Why do we have a zoning code anyway?
While the third question is a little bit facetious, it seems as though the city is always a day late and a dollar short when it comes to strategic planning that incorporates a community consensus. Yes, I understand that there are forces beyond our control at work in the world, but with all of the fine effort on the development of the downtown and other projects there has been an anti-planning undercurrent that doesn’t sit well with those of us that have a democratic view of our community.
Having been involved with much of the economic development and visioning that has resulted in the development of the downtown and the new Fairchild Avenue Bridge, I understand that we cannot have open ended design and planning processes if we hope to make progress in getting things done. On the other-hand, failure to include citizens in design and decision making takes away the genius of groups and the wisdom of crowds that is the hallmark of democracy. Enlarging the participation of citizens is what makes us citizens, and it also has been shown, all around the world, to result in better communities. Leaving citizen participation to make minor recommendations after everything of substance has been decided might seem expedient in the short run, but it can only diminish ownership by the community as a whole in the long run.
A few examples might help me make my point. We had a fantastic context- sensitive design process to develop a Fairchild bridge project that protects the Crain Avenue neighborhood, accommodates pedestrians, connects to the bikeway, and reduces the congestion of the intersection. Sidewalks were developed that are wide enough to be plowed with a pick-up truck so that they can, in theory, be plowed at the same time as the bridge. When I went by the construction site the other day, the railroad, against the wishes of our city engineer, placed its crossing gate stanchion almost in the middle of our sidewalk. (So much for making pedestrians a priority.) The railroad, it seems, is not subject to the same democratic rules that the rest of us are. This same railroad also requires that pedestrians traveling on Lake Street west to the new pedestrian bridge take a several hundred foot detour so as to avoid having them cross the tracks on foot, which of course they will do anyway but probably by having to cross some kind of barrier.
A second example is the recent conflict over the loss of senior housing adjacent to the Kent State campus. We all know that living next to campus is very desirable for many reasons, and for seniors this is especially so. The Four Seasons development on Horning Road proves this point. Of course, property contiguous to the Kent State campus is valuable, and there is always a “higher and better” use that can come along and make any property vulnerable to development. The challenge of course is that in our neglect to plan our community to assure that a diversity of neighborhoods and housing types can co-exist with the university, we have conflict over competing interests.
Recent developments of the Silver Oaks property, and a subsequent announcement of a new senior development on the far edge of town, speak to a market-based approach to land use instead of one that is democratically based. While market decisions have their place and planning must incorporate market factors, we all know that not all market based models are good for our community, or region or our nation. The market prefers big, single use mega block projects of a scale that can attract investors, while a neighborhood prefers small, piece meal, mixed use development that have a texture and diversity of peoples and ages. New student complexes designed and built for a narrow population meet a target market but result in mono-age ghettos. The same of course goes for “seniors only” complexes that Silver Oaks once was.
I understand the appeal to this kind of development and I would be a fool to suggest that developers have no right to develop projects if they feel that there is a market for them. What I would suggest is that they are not the only model for creating a college town, and that there is something vital about integrating college students into our community in a way that allows our elders, young families and empty nesters to share the same neighborhood space. Thus far we have not been very successful in doing this, but I would humbly suggest that, as we look to redevelop the older neighborhoods in our community, it is worth a try.
One way that this has happened in new and old communities is through the creation of accessory apartments in larger houses that are owner occupied, and attached or detached elderly or student cottages on lots with single family homes. This is a traditional housing pattern that avoids the pitfalls of single family conversion to rooming and boarding houses and the large single-age complexes. Attached to this blog is an article that describes how this could work.
Regarding my three questions, here are my answers.
- Planning is hard. It is easier for the doers to just do it and so they do. If we fail to involve the public, shame on the city council for falling down on the job, and for the citizens for sitting on our hands.
- We have asked our citizens what they envision for our neighborhoods and mostly we like incremental development and interesting, diverse neighborhoods. It is easy for our city administration and city council to be swayed by big projects with short term benefits. Incremental requires a long view, expediency benefits short term thinking.
- Why do we have a zoning code? Recent developments have shown that it is out dated, used to protect the status quo if people want to pursue progressive ideas, and can be overturned by powerful interests. Why not have a 5 year moratorium on enforcement, eliminate the community development department and let neighbors work it out in court?
Yes I am being facetious — but only a little.