Monday, February 18, 2013

Where Does Vision for Development Start


Catherine Johnson, downtown resident, architect and former member of the Planning and Zoning Commission reacts to the debate about how zoning changes ought to be made in Middletown.  This commentary first appeared as a comment to a previous post.

According to an anonymous commenter on this site, "City planners and zoning boards set the vision for the City. Restrictions and zones are designated to protect ... neighborhoods, and to prevent ... sprawl."

First, what a DREAM it would be if our P&Z and planning department did, in fact, reinforce good urbanism and minimize conventional suburban development (sprawl). What a dream it would be to have residents recognize where we have a good thing going, and ask the P&Z to make sure these areas are protected. Middletown would finally have some self-awareness about its strengths and its competitive edge over other places, and emerge as The City in Connecticut.

I would argue that the best of what we have here in Middletown, right now, is not protected. This proposed zoning change has exposed the glaring omissions to our regulations. As the commenter states, "it does not fit."

Well, if others share that opinion, as I do, we need to make it crystal clear to the P&Z what does fit. And we need to make sure those specifications are put into the zoning code to guide the next proposal for development here.

Who does creates the "vision" for a city?

I'm afraid it is the rare exception that administrative planners and P&Z's have a vision. Statewide and nationwide, P&Z commissioners are terrifically undereducated when it comes to the vision part of the job. Outside of a 2-hr intro session on how to read a site plan, and what state statutes are required to review applications when they are first elected or appointed, no education is offered to commissioners. Vision for a city comes from whoever steps forward with a specific vision for development.

This step, creating a vision of what our city can and should be,  was skipped in the latest re-do of the city Plan of Development, and now we are seeing the price we'll have to pay. The question is: will we, in the absence of our own vision, accept this developer's vision of what Middletown should look like?

I hope we use this opportunity to offer the P&Z commission a VISION for downtown and South Main St neighborhoods, no matter what zone it's labeled at present.

This Vision guides POLICY (written into the city Plan of Development), will then be translated into REGULATIONS (a proper form-based code) for those parcels.

This is the real protection for those sites: an actual code that describes the size of parcels, building footprints, building placement on lot, how to build on a corner lot, parking location, parking space cap, lawn requirement, lighting, drive-thru's, enclosure walls where commercial and residential uses abut, dampening A/C condenser sound transmission, etc. A clear and concise description of the physical form the neighborhood wants to see is the best way to get desired development, and to preserve the integrity of what's already there.


William Warner said...

The vision for Middletown began in 1931 when Middletown was the second city in CT to establish a planning commission. Middletown, I am told, was also the first city in CT to hire a professional planner. If one were to evaluate, as I have, over 80 years of master planning for the city one would conclude - Middletown has been very well planned. The plans are remarkably similar with very little deviation. I submit - the best plan for a city is a plan that sets a consistent vision of where it wants to go over the next 100 years, not a new plan every 10 years.

Whether it be decades of not allowing retail sprawl in order to protect the downtown, to open space preservation to prevent suburban sprawl, to providing housing to serve the full range of incomes from homeless to high end, to planning industrial areas to expand the grand list, to planning for its water supply, which is now one of the best and most abundant in the state, and controlling the spread of sewer lines to preserve rural character, Middletown is very well planned.

There certainly will be, as there always has been, disagreements about the uses for particular zones or a particular piece of property. But, at the end of the day after all is said and done, residents of Middletown should rest assured knowing that the plan for Middletown, as embodied in the zoning, is a good one that has survived the test of time and created this vibrant and healthy city.

William Warner, AICP
Director of Planning

Tim said...

How do self-serving statements by public officials enhance the planning process? A history of generally good planning is not enhanced by instances of the opposite such as the one(s) proposed.

Tim said...

Where in your study of the prior plans did you learn that self-serving statements by public officials somehow enhance the process? A history of generally good planning is too easily upset by even a single instance of the opposite, such as the one(s) proposed. Destruction of a nicely planned residential neightborhood to allow for incompatible retail services doesn't appear to fit the mold of 'good' planning.