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Loving it More by Doing Less

By Ann Christoph
By Ann Christoph

The downtown has been getting a lot of attention for years now. This beloved heart of our city is considered by many to be the “gold standard” in exemplifying what a small city’s center should be. Yet we are agonizing about how and what to protect in response to a vague uneasiness that we should do “something to be more up-to-date.”

In 2012 the council asked the planning commission to amend the Downtown Specific Plan. The commission worked on it for two years with staff, conducting eight public workshops and a walking tour of downtown.

This comprehensive amendment to the Downtown Specific Plan was “to set forth a long-term vision upon which to implement actions to attain cohesiveness between the downtown districts and abutting areas, and to establish positive design and land use improvements.”

In August 2013 the city issued a request for an urban design consultant to prepare a revised Downtown Specific Plan.

On April 16, 2014, the Downtown Specific Plan Subcommittee (councilmembers Bob Whalen and Steve Dicterow, planning commissioners Anne Johnson and Rob Zur Schmiede) conducted an unusual and very popular public interview demonstration in the council chambers with the three finalist firms. We got to see them in action and hear how they would approach planning for our downtown.

Of the three top firms, one stood out. It featured reknowned urban planner Andres Duany, who made a statement I will never forget.

“This is a place of extraordinary character, of delicate and fragile character, built over time by very unusual people. I recognize and admire what has been achieved here.

And I know what destroys this kind of place.

The role of planners is to figure out what can go wrong with a place like this and vaccinate against it to prevent it from being lost.

This place is very fragile and very, very subject to destruction by the forces of the 21st century.”

Applause broke out in the room as all of us knew he understood our town and our feelings about it.

No, we did not hire this inspiring, insightful man. In July 2014 the city approved a contract with the consulting planning firm of MIG at a fee of nearly $300,000. MIG’s specialty is public outreach. And outreach they did. Conducting a series of events giving the public opportunities to explore and comment on planning ideas. Summaries were made of public comments, followed by 20 planning commission meetings and counting…

At the planning commission meeting last week commissioners went over MIG’s latest draft of the urban design component of the Downtown Specific Plan item by item. It was hard not to feel we have lost our way, that we need clear statements of our overall concern as expressed so well by Duany–and follow-through with ideas that will vaccinate us against succumbing to the trendiness and powers of the 21st century.

The proposed “green street” on Ocean Avenue, which was critiqued by the commission at previous meetings, would involve re-grading the street to drain down the middle, making it two-way completely, with ornamental paving and shared mix of new planting, pedestrians, vehicles and parking. There are proposals to allow higher buildings in large swaths of downtown. Would paving Forest Avenue with brick be an improvement or would we lose the unpretentious simplicity of that iconic street? These and other ideas need to be carefully weighed lest we cross into the sea of trendiness.

The planning commission suggests hiring another consultant to do an overall urban design master plan, but with citizen involvement we can make sound choices. An urban design citizens committee has been organized by Norm Grossman and has been working for the past few weeks. Walking the downtown together, reviewing the suggestions of MIG and the Landscape and Scenic Highways documents, and having follow-up workshops with more involvement of the public we can “make it the same but better,” as councilmember Toni Iseman espouses.

Put another way by former Chamber member Penny King, “We and our visitors will love it more if we do less.”

Ann Christoph is a landscape architect who worked with Bob Borthwick and Greg Vail on the Landscape and Scenic Highways documents. She is also a former councilmember and is involved with several community organizations.

 

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