POSTED ON FEBRUARY 10, 2010:
How's it hanging, Fayetteville?
Tulsa needs to learn about neighbor's city planning as PLANiTULSA develops
The population of Fayetteville will increase by about 45,000 in the next 20 years, a 50 percent increase. Where should all these people live?
There are those who think it's not the business of government to plan for growth--that cities will bloom like the petals of a crocus if the garden is largely left alone. It's the worldview of Chauncey Gardner, the simpleton hero of "Being There" destined to be our next president. (Peter Sellers is terrific in the movie, and I highly recommend).
In the case of Fayetteville, Chauncey's self-organizing principles have some resonance.
The city sits on a teardrop plateau with Springdale to the north, guarded to the south and east by hard rock braids of the Ozarks, erosion barriers to road construction and related infrastructure.
From Google Map's satellite view, these land etchings look like the burrowing of moles. It's as if the tunnels of the blind have charted, by their own invisible hand, the predominant westerly growth of Fayetteville.
And so, given the nature of things, why plan at all? That's certainly the preference of some city planning opponents. They believe municipal interference with land use is a form of rationing that drives up housing costs and violates basic private property rights. Heavy-handed social engineering, coercion, naïve utopianism ... these are their broadsides.
But where and how we make use of the space we have imposes costs that cannot be adequately borne by free market principles. There's not a functioning allocation principle to account for traffic congestion; loss of green space; services for water and sewer and trash; costs for expanding capacity for use of roads, schools and recreational facilities--all of which are shaped by the presence of new residents. How is the cost of added growth absorbed and could that aggregate expense be minimized with regional planning?
Cities within close proximity face a separate concern. Can they cooperate or will they compete for growth in the area and the attendant tax base?
In northwest Arkansas, if Springdale attracts the lion share of population increase, Fayetteville could face the same difficulty Tulsa currently does, loss of sales tax market share and fewer citizens to pay for municipal service. And, for Fayetteville, haphazard growth within its existing boundary will magnify existing traffic congestion if new residents to locate south.
For these reasons, the city of Fayetteville embraced comprehensive city planning. They completed their plan in 2004. Priorities include: downtown revitalization, the preservation of the traditional town as the standard form, the discouragement of sprawl and growth within existing corridors.
I wanted to know how things were going, and so in late January of this year, on an icy gray morning, I traveled to Fayetteville to meet with the planning department and a home developer who concentrates on downtown.
Fayetteville has worked hard to encourage local developers and builders. Inspectors respond to permit and review requests the same day. The same inspector stays with the same property to promote consistency and ease of communication. Since there was tremendous community involvement with the City Plan, much of it in a five-day charrette (a series of intense citizen-led planning conclaves that charted preferences for future growth), most homeowners support infill and lot splits. On my drive with the developer, I saw about a dozen remodeled homes and lot split homes, all in the downtown corridor.
Fayetteville adopted form-based codes for their downtown only, which, though more restrictive than conventional zoning codes, brought greater predictability. This has encouraged investment. The term "form-based" is eponymous; there is greater flexibility in the use of property but exacting standards as to the form--more regulation against certain building materials, requirements to locate buildings nearer the street, limitations on parking, provision of wider sidewalks.
Although more restrictive on the front-end, form-based codes are more flexible for the life of the property--they allow adaptive reuse throughout time and perhaps higher future value given the flexibility. The tradeoff is greater predictability and consistency. That's critical because builders are not going to invest in an infill project unless they can be sure their development plans will be permitted by the city.
I also visited with Jeremy Pate, Fayetteville's director of development services, the department that oversees zoning and planning. He identified administrative approval for properties that are included within the form-based code as an added incentive for downtown investment.
The administrative forum is much preferred to a public review process, a more charged atmosphere sometimes spinning on the emotions of impacted homeowners and the mousy apprehensions of elected officials.
As Director Pate observed:
"By establishing architectural and site design standards that create a desirable product on the front end, we can assure a neighborhood of the consistency of the application of these standards and thereby see a certain level of predictability for the public. We can also assure a prospective developer of the same, in addition to a shortened and less subjective review of the project. The developer is more restricted in what he/she is able to produce--theoretically the standards create a higher quality product--but the overall cost and risk associated with the project is less."
In "Being There," Chauncey Gardner never left his home until his mid-50s. His understanding of things has been shaped by the interior gardens he tends and the daily programs he watches on television. When his benefactor dies, he is cast to the outside world armed with only a television clicker and the ease of mind that he can change the canvas with the press of a thumb. But he can't change things. He's stuck in an urban wasteland that looks as if a plague of locusts, creatures of nature, had their feast.
Fayetteville isn't leaving the future of its city to chance.
It's a story Tulsans should keep in mind as work continues to unfold on our own city plan--PLANiTULSA.
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