One of the pleasures of an extended business trip is the chance to get to know a city well and to see it from angles that tourists driving through will miss. In the course of trudging around town, I notice good places--healthy neighborhoods, vital commercial districts, places that work, new construction that reinforces and enhances a neighborhood's character--and then ask around to learn about the history and policy that made a difference.
I spent a week in St. Paul, capital city of Minnesota, covering the 39th quadrennial Republican National Convention for Urban Tulsa Weekly and my blog, BatesLine.com. While the Oklahoma delegation was stuck in a hotel in an industrial park, I was cozily ensconced at the 1906 home of a college fraternity brother and his family, just a couple of miles west of the the main convention venue in St. Paul's Summit Hill neighborhood.
Staying in St. Paul gave me more time to get to know the smaller of the Twin Cities.
St. Paul is about 40 years older than Tulsa and packs two-thirds of our population into a quarter of our size. That extra age and extra density give St. Paul many more walkable neighborhoods with mixtures of single-family and multi-family homes, offices, and shops.
Despite the differences, St. Paul has some lessons to teach Tulsa, particularly when it comes to bridging the gap between citizens and city government.
Reviewing her survey of 1,000 Tulsans, Collective Strength's Robin Rather called attention to the absence of a "community infrastructure"--institutions that mediate between the individual citizen and city government. It's an issue that needs to be addressed to enable effective follow-up and ongoing citizen/government communication after the completion of the PLANiTULSA comprehensive plan effort.
Tulsa's planning districts were set up in the 1970s as part of Vision 2000, but Mayor Susan Savage ended city-sponsored planning district elections in the '90s, citing low levels of participation in the choice of volunteer neighborhood advocates.
Savage promoted the creation of neighborhood associations as the connection between City Hall and residents, but neighborhood associations strengthen as crises develop and then dissipate as crises resolve.
Volunteer leaders burn out, and neighborhood associations fail to develop new leaders to replace them. Neighborhood associations don't come close to covering all of Tulsa's land area. Communications between neighborhood leaders and residents become sporadic or die off completely between crises. Contact lists of neighborhood leaders quickly go out of date.
Tulsa's nine City Council districts are too large in size and population to mediate directly between government and homeowners, and most councilors rely on neighborhood associations, where they exist, to keep them informed about the neighborhood concerns and to spread the word about issues that will affect residents.
St. Paul's solution is worth considering: District planning councils, each including about 15,000 residents, supported by paid staffers.
In 1968, the City of St. Paul divided itself into 19 planning districts. Residents in each district then established a district planning council as a non-profit corporation. District boundaries have remained nearly constant since then. The city's seven city council districts are redrawn after each census, so most planning districts are represented by more than one city councilor.
Tait Danielson-Castillo, executive director of the District 7 planning council, told me that the councils are independent of city government, each with its own by-laws. Rules vary, but most district councils allow homeowners, property owners, renters, business owners, and others who work in the district to participate in meetings and the election of officers.
Councils hold an annual election meeting and a monthly community meeting (often accompanied by potluck suppers), plus a special meeting when an urgent issue demands it. In District 7, about 150 people show up for the annual meeting.
District councils receive some funding from the city. Federal Community Development Block Grant money funds councils in disadvantaged areas, in support of CDBG's crime prevention and citizen participation goals. Grants from the city's general fund underwrite other councils, based on a funding formula. Other funding comes from local philanthropies, such as the McKnight Foundation, the Otto Bremer Foundation, and the St. Paul Travelers Foundation.
Funds allow the districts to hire staff. Each council has between one half-time and three full-time staffers. Funds are also used to pursue neighborhood improvement projects.
Tulsa's neighborhood associations are led by volunteers, who have to balance neighborhood leadership with work and family obligations. But each St. Paul district has someone whose job it is to keep an eye on city government decisions affecting the area.
An Alteration of Attitude
Danielson-Castillo told me that the City Council looks to the district councils to find out what residents are thinking. Part of his job is to solicit opinions from district members on controversial city issues. Once the residents decide, he becomes an advocate for their position at City Hall, the County Courthouse, and, if necessary, the State Capitol.
Because the district boundaries were established by the city, the district councils have special standing when they address city boards and authorities about issues like land use, zoning, and licensing.
District councils don't seek to be adversarial with government bodies, but their independence allows them to put their residents' interests first.
Staffers also work with residents to keep the district plan up to date.
While Tulsa's comprehensive plan is driven by city government and the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, St. Paul's plan is driven from the grassroots up. Each district creates its own area plan; the City Council reviews and incorporates the area plans into the city's comprehensive plan.
While the comprehensive plan isn't binding, the City Council is very hesitant to approve anything out of accord with a plan that has been developed and maintained with considerable community support.
The presence of full-time staff creates a permanence and continuity for the district that enables other neighborhood improvement efforts.
The Greater Frogtown Community Development Corporation, whose service boundaries match District 7, helps residents finance home repairs and improvements with grants and loans, rehabs and sells vacant homes in conjunction with the Minnesota Urban Homesteaders program, and builds compatible infill homes.
The GFCDC also encourages mixed-use developments, sponsors a façade improvement program to help small businesses spruce up, recruits new retail, and seeks to market the district's eclectic ethnic mix -- African-American, Latino, Hmong, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian -- as a "World Cultural Heritage District."
Danielson-Castillo said that his role as a district planning council director is to work with city, county, and state government to resolve neighborhood concerns before they reach the point of confrontation and anger.
A St. Paul district planning council, independent of city hall, backed by a full-time advocate it has hired to advance its interests, gives residents a voice more powerful than the individual voice at City Hall.
Small district planning councils, independently governed and funded, might give Tulsa neighborhoods the ability to balance the influence of the development lobby's hired advocates. It's something to consider as we seek to turn our new comprehensive plan from vision to reality.
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