As I reported earlier, and as readers of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner may may have read, the Vision Fairbanks downtown revitalization plan passed the Borough Assembly 8-0. While this seems like a stunning coup, I have worries.
First, some highlights (or at least points of interest):
Dozens of citizens testified — and just about all in favor. In fact, nobody said, “I think this is a bad plan and will result in nothing but a waste of money.” I believe that as many as five people may have had negative or challenging things to say about it:
- Carl Benson, a long-time member of the Borough’s Transportation Advisory Commission, questioned the wisdom of tearing down the existing bus station, which was completed only a few years ago, to build the public square at the center of Vision Fairbanks’s “retail hot spot”.
- Jerry Colp, a City engineer who built his house several years ago in an area designated by the plan as the site for a grocery store, said that the plan would have to be flexible enough to accommodate existing land-owners who did not want to move.
- Another man suggested that we should have some major private investors lined up to support this before making it law; he was not aware of any private parties that had committed money to this project.
- Two (apparently) mentally handicapped women voiced their concern about the proposed removal of the bus station. They were worried about losing their only means to reach their jobs, their shopping, and their health care.
As far as I could tell, everybody else loved it. Even people who had seen other downtown improvement efforts in Fairbanks fail, said, “I’ve been against scads of half-baked city improvement schemes, and I don’t have much regard for planners generally. But these Crandall Arambula folks are the real deal. This plan is the most exciting prospect I’ve seen for Fairbanks in decades.”
(A sound recording of the hearing, in mp3 format, can be found on the Borough’s Assembly Meetings page, under August 21. The hearing on the Vision Fairbanks ordinance starts on Track 2 at 6:55. My testimony starts at 19:24.)
Here’s where I have reservations about what was passed. Mayor Jim Whitaker introduced the winning ordinance (no. 2008-30), which specified, unfortunately, that the Vision Fairbanks amendment was advisory only and should not have the force of law:
The Vision Fairbanks Downtown Plan may be modified in the course of implementation decisions and it should not be interpreted as restricting the Assembly’s ability to accommodate the actual development of the downtown core area and the changing needs of the community. It is a set of recommendations that should be considered in future land use determinations including requests for future zoning changes, development, and public investments in infrastructure inthe downtown core area.
(Ordinance No. 2008 – 30, Attachment 3)
Assembly member Luke Hopkins proposed a substitute ordinance, which struck the language saying that the Borough was under no obligation to follow it, and replaced it with much stronger language:
Rather, the Vision Fairbanks Downtown Plan will, however, require that future proposals relating to land use in the downtown core area be analyzed for consistency with the Vision Fairbanks Downtown Plan.
(Proposed Substitute Attachment 3 to Ordinance No. 2008-30)
The Hopkins version also specified that the plan would have to be regularly reviewed and updated. It said that the plan could be changed as necessary.
To my mind, the Hopkins version would have been much preferable. The plan would have had the force of law, and any projects determined not to conform to it would have had to go through a more rigorous public process to be approved. This is something I suspect the Assembly didn’t fully understand: while a “codified” (binding) ordinance would have made it harder for changes to be made, they could still be made — just with a more deliberative process. It would have given private investors a kind of security: the knowledge that the conditions that existed and helped them prosper today would very likely be in effect and help them prosper tomorrow.
Unfortunately, the Hopkins version failed, 2-6. (And the only person besides Hopkins to vote for the substitute was Bill Stringer, who seemed to have a fuzzy understanding of the proposed ordinance.) So we have an “advisory” plan.
A few Assembly members took their turns to speak about the Hopkins version. But when Bernardo Hernandez, Director of Community Planning, was called, he got an awkward public silencing. Mayor Whitaker took the floor instead and said, essentially, “While you’re welcome to ask Mr. Hernandez any questions you need to, I will represent the position of this administration, and I have already done so.”
As Chad Roberts commented a few days ago, there’s nothing technically out of order for the mayor to speak for the administration, or to dictate who may speak. But it seemed plain that Mr. Hernandez intended to advocate for the passage of a codified ordinance. This was confirmed for me by someone who went to the Assembly work sessions prior to the public hearing: Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Whitaker openly disagreed about the need for a binding amendment. The Assembly knew full well what Mr. Hernandez thought; he was just not allowed to voice those thoughts at a public hearing. Too bad. Their disagreement raises the question, Why is the mayor advocating for something his expert staff tell him is a bad idea?
I’m disheartened about the plan’s future, not only because of the language of the approved ordinance, but because of who supported it.
During the Assembly’s discussion, Assembly member Randy Frank recalled his recent visits to Duluth and Minneapolis, in whose downtown streets he could not see anything interesting going on. He had to be directed indoors, to where the (evidently secret) fun was. (This off-street, indoor fun was called something like the “Minnesota Underground”.) He seemed to think that this lack of street life was praiseworthy. He said it made those places unique, and he’d like Fairbanks to be unique, too.
To me, that suggests that Mr. Frank is hostile (or at least indifferent) to the idea of active street life, which is central to the spirit of Vision Fairbanks. The fact that he would vote to approve the mayor’s ordinance, when he shows so little regard for one of the plan’s central virtues, suggests to me that he is not threatened by this non-binding ordinance, and is confident that the Assembly could disregard it when convenient.
I could be wrong about Mr. Frank. Maybe he only meant that Duluth and Minneapolis had one kind of distinctiveness, and he was for distinctiveness in general. Maybe he was really enthusiastic about Vision Fairbanks, and had a very subtle way of expressing it. But it seemed like the subtlety of a person who has to seem supportive of something he doesn’t care for, and it worried me.
So, fellow downtown-loving Fairbanksans: we’re going to have to be vigilant. We’ll have to have somebody at every meeting of the Planning Commission, every meeting of the Assembly, watching for potential corruption of the plan. We’ll need to keep each other informed when something comes up. And we’ll have to keep the pressure on, always reminding the commissioners and Assembly members: This was unanimously approved! This was the overwhelming will of the people! Be faithful to it!