Saturday, August 11, 2007

when there is one orange and two people want a better downtown

First, a story.

There once was a restaurant with two very accomplished and knowledgeable chefs.

One night, it was getting late into the evening and there were only two dishes left to serve. Both required the key ingredient of an orange.

Unfortunately, there was only one orange left in the entire restaurant, and each of the two chefs needed the orange to complete their respective dishes.

Both chefs felt their dish was the superior one, and a fight ensued.

"Mais non!" the one chef screamed. "I need the orange for the topping of my pie."

"Oh, la vache!" the other chef countered. "I need the orange for my mimosas."

Both chefs had taken the positions that their needs reigned supreme, thus a solution was nowhere in sight.

The customers were getting impatient, a shouting match was growing from the kitchen, and the manager knew he had to act.

Now confronting both chefs, the manager implored for a solution, but the chefs said none existed.

But there was a solution.

The manager said to the first chef, "what do you need for your recipe?" and he replied, "I need the orange zest to flavor the cream."

The manager said to the second chef, "what do you need for your recipe?" and he replied, "I need the juice to add to the mimosas."

And so the manager resolved the conflict by taking the orange and giving the zest to one chef and the juice to the other.

The chefs both had the position that they needed the orange, but in reality they had two different interests with the orange. Differentiating between positions and interests led to a compromise.

- - -

Second, our predicament.

There is currently a proposal to redesign a portion of West Federal Street in downtown youngstown. About two years ago, the plan (let's call this version 1.0) was taken to the non-profit organization named CityScape. Many individuals were concerned with the design of version 1.0 and sounded their disapproval. The city's Department of Public Works then worked with a local architecture firm for the next version (let's call this version 2.0), the drawings of which were released to the public at Monday's 3pm meeting at City Hall. The original schedule (now on hold) had the bids for construction going out one week after the release of version 2.0 to the public.

But even before Monday's *offical* release of version 2.0, both version 1.0 and version 2.0 were known to the blogosphere, and the images of the plan were seen by much of the public via the web and sent email. Version 2.0, while different than the first plan, contributed to the loud response that was heard at City Hall.

Various accounts in the media and the internet have objected to two things: the design components of version 2.0, and the planning process by which the plans were released.

Today, the Vindicator ran an update on the whole situation. You can read the article here.

from the writings of reporter David Skolnick:

"The people who complained hadn't seen the project," Conglose [director of public works] said about Monday's meeting. "The whole thing is crazy. My take on the situation is I've been doing capital projects for 31 years. The only thing on Federal Street that's encouraged business growth in recent history is the project completed in 2004 east of this location."

Mr. Conglose is correct that the past project has helped encourage business growth.

However, it may not be the "only thing" that's encouraged growth. Other factors could be contributors as well. These include investments from private businesses like restaurants and coffee shops, investments by local media in their studios, the new convovation center, and investments by federal, state, and county government, for example.

So while diagonal parking may have played an important role in the downtown's continued development, the magintude of it's role relative to all the other factors is unknown.

But as stated in the article, diagonal parking is not the only issue here.

Treating this as a "parking vs. greenspace" conflict is too simplistic. As mentioned, there are many other considerations provided, each of which may be of large importance or marginal importance in the long-run vitality of the downtown.

- - -

Third, how does the story of the orange help us with our predicament?

Mayor Jay Williams wrote on his new blog an excellent post on the subject at hand. It's the kind of post that makes me happy he's our mayor, and it attracted immediate attention in the Cleveland blogosphere. From the post:

"The issue is how to address the deteriorating infrastructure while simultaneously enhancing the downtown experience for the greatest number of stakeholders, (with the realization that there is no perfect solution that will appeal to everyone.)"

So then, are there steps that can be taken to properly reach this solution?

positions vs interests

One approach to achieve a compromise on the design end might include getting all the stakeholders to convey to the city their specific interests on all of version 2.0's design components.

Instead of starting from a position, for example, of the desire to keep or remove the medians (or for one person get the orange), we can start by labeling each party's interests.

Speaking for myself, and no one else, my interests include (in order):
- retaining the physical beauty of the current design
- having flowerbeds in the center of the road
- having mature trees along the center of the road in some capacity
- replacing the dead, dying, or missing trees on the already redesigned parts of federal street

My interests do not include as much:
- a desire to have the trees lit at night
- whether diagonal or parallel parking is chosen

I am one person. And there are many other individuals with many other interests that should be heard from, with interests including short-term parking, security for the courts, etc.

While I don't feel comfortable in doing so, I'm going to list some possible interests of the Department of City Works:
- maintain an inviting area to the public
- maintain parking opportunities for the businesses
- improvements to storm sewers and catch basins
- maintain access to electricity for street function

So is there a solution that can be reached by looking at these interests?

I heard one solution on the radio few days ago that peaked my interest. A claim was made that the electrical conduit that runs under the medians service the lights at the intersections. (I can't verify the engineering of this, however, but will assume for the moment that it's true) It was also said that trees need a space of at least 8 feet to grow, and that the current necessity of salting the roads minimizes the chance for trees to grow properly.

A possible solution includes keeping the medians, leaving the cable in the ground with no power, and installing electrical connections at other places to maintain traffic safety. So while this solution may not be the an exact solution due to some engineering constraints, it's the type of solution that could be explored.

- - -

This post has quickly turned from a short story to an essay, so instead of listing additional possible solutions, we'll shift to the second part of the problem that needs to be addressed at some point, and that is the process which led us to the present situation.

Are there ways to make this process better the next time we have a project like this?

Here's another interesting bit from the Vindicator article:

Conglose said he was disappointed that city planning department officials, who attended Monday's public hearing, didn't speak in favor of the project and played no role in the project's design.

Bill D'Avignon, the city's Community Development Agency director who oversees the planning department, said Conglose never asked planners about the project, and Monday's meeting was to receive input from the public and not other city officials.

So maybe step #1, is to get other departments, other than the Department of Public Works more involved in the planning of other big-time projects.

- -

Another point of contention is that the public did not feel fully aware of the process. Maybe meetings need to be held after 5pm to allow more people to attend. Maybe two years is too long of a time frame before version 1.0 and the release of version 2.0 to the public. Maybe the media can help to promote these meetings in different ways and more often.

Step #2 can be to make the process more transparent that what's even expected. Maybe the city can post these meetings on their website. Maybe they can use RSS feeds to distribute the infomation to the media. Maybe local media can make the meetings a part of their websites, in the goal of providing information.

Perhaps Youngstown can be known as the city in Ohio with the highest level of public engagement.

- -

And a final step, even thought there are others, is to present information in a clear and objective format.

It was mentioned in the meeting at City Hall that the visual plans of version 2.0 did not properly show the retention of the mature trees along the side of the road. As an admission, because of this aspect of the drawings, the white paper that was passed out at the meeting mentioned the removal of those trees, which is now not true.

This shows how physical representations though drawings may create more confusion instead of clarification.

Here are some photos of the preliminary drawings that were distributed over two years ago around the time of version 1.0:

The top is the "before" image, the bottom one is "after".

But look at the drawings. The "after" view displays the trees with green color, where in the "before" picture they are black. The "after" pictures incorporate bold lines and yellow lines, even though the curbs between both plans do not drastically change, and yellow directional lines should appear in the top image as well.

At the glance, one can look at the top photo and think of it as a bland place compared to the bottom one.

Would your reaction be any different if the "before" image used color and the "after" image did not?

This all reminds me of an excellent book by Mark Monmonier titled "How to Lie with Maps". It's great review of the details that are lost in cartography, and it explains how one can manipuate data though its presentation. The title is not suggesting anything malicious on anyone's end. It's just a cool book.

Step #3 is to explain future projects by the most objective means as possible.

- - -

If you made it this far, thanks for reading.

If you have any other ideas on how to make the design a better compromise, or the planning process a more engaging one, please leave a comment.


George Nemeth said...

Seems to me like an opportunity to do some design charrettes like is doing...

Sherry Lee said...

Two comments:
1) I think the idea of separating out the power/infrastructure/parking issues from the landscaping issue is wise. A solution may emerge from shifting the debate from "a choice between" to "how to accommodate both," from either/or to both/and.
2) I appreciate the point about process, but I want to recognize the effectiveness of "our" process. An open-ended network of citizen activists, through electronic word-of-mouth, made a difference. I can imagine processes that would help the City and its agencies work more effectively in collaboration with each other and with citizens, but I also find this episode an encouraging example of grassroots organizing. I'm impressed.

A. said...

This was a well-thought out and informative post. My favorite line was this: "Perhaps Youngstown can be known as the city in Ohio with the highest level of public engagement."

The YBI said...

That was an absolutely fantastic post. And on Friday evening, we will begin figuring out how we can get thoughts like that read by tens of thousands of people. Once we do...this revolution will not be televised.

gattino said...

Excellent writing...I only wish the same could be said for the design standards of the proposed Project West Federal St., "The Modernization."

At this point, the Cheif and the Czar from CDA have their minds and hands in the progress of this design, thus attempts to preserve the median, and seek the highest degree of urban design, greenspace, and civic individuality will be pushed and prioritized.

I'm now a believer, and it is good to see Planning earn a place at the table of engineers and masons. Let the Kent(slash)Cleveland Statization of West Federal St. begin. We're in good hands.


-gattino (Crandall Park, N. Yo!)

The Regional Original: