Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Formula

Do we have something to be thankful about today in the Parker-Gray neighborhood?

Certainly. We're done with the flawed, dopey and rigged Braddock Road Metro and Braddock East planning process. It's over.

So permit the Growler a touch of schadenfreude this morning when the Cranky One observes that Alexandria citizens beyond our neighborhood — who wrote us off as a bunch of malcontents and anti-development Luddites — are becoming increasingly alarmed because the City is now applying the same screws to them over Potomac Yard, Landmark and the waterfront.

The City's formula appears to be this: first, hire a consultant to do private stakeholder interviews. By not discussing these issues in public the City is given inside knowledge of where each player stands and can develop a strategy to divide and conquer. Old Town activitists shuddered when they heard that one of the Braddock Road consultants was going to be recycled to do this on the waterfront plan.

The next step is that in lieu of widespread neighborhood participation, have the Mayor and Council appoint an advisory group heavily stacked with those who are known to sympathize with the City's already predetermined outcome. To further protect the City's interests, strip the Advisory Group of any ability to deliberate or vote among themselves on the issues, even though this practice is common in other communities and leads to compromise and buy-in.

The formula now being deployed with the new Potomac Yard Advisory Group has been lifted straight from Braddock East, much to the chagrin of Del Ray and the Federation of Civic Associations (which planned to send a strong letter to City Hall recently on this very issue).

Next, run bogus community meetings dominated by expensive, out of town "experts" (like David Dixon and Goody Clancy) who charge the City an arm and a leg to help march step the entire discussion toward the City's desired conclusion. Their role is to create the agenda, shape the discussions and cut off dissent or meaningful dialogue that does not trend toward what the City wants.

Old Town Civic Association conducted its own rigorous planning effort regarding the waterfront that gained support not just from its own residents but also other stakeholders such as the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. But apparently this is being put aside by the City: the effort is invalid unless it's a process tightly controlled and managed by the City itself.

Finally, issue draft reports composed by the consultants and for an extra twist inform the community about the draft over a holiday week. The E-mail announcement that the Landmark report was available for comment was sent last Saturday, November 22, around noon, with the warning that "although public comments are welcome anytime until adoption, comments received after December 1 may be too late to consider for inclusion in the final draft, which is expected to be released the week of December 8."

The City is advising citizens to make their comments in just one week over a major holiday, when many people are away or preoccupied. And what's the rush? With the financial markets in upheaval, housing in the toilet and Landmark's owner General Growth Properties in straits, this major West End mixed-use redevelopment isn't likely to happen for years. Many civic leaders, too, are still dissatisfied with the scope of the study.

And another twist: "Because this is a preliminary draft, the document is not yet complete and contains some sections where additional text is still being prepared." Shades of the 2007 Braddock Road plan meetings! Do readers remember the "final" community meeting in the spring of 2007 that was held before the entire report was released — most significantly omitting a potentially controversial chapter on public housing?

So there you have it: Formula One. Forgive the Growler for a giggle or two. But in a more serious mode, the remaining questions are these:

First, who at City Hall is pushing planning efforts that are staged to look like they are citizen-driven when they are anything but that?

Second, where is the money coming from for these gigantic consultant-rich charades (ooops, charettes)? Isn't the City financially strapped right now?

And lastly, are the Mayor, Council and City Manager apparently afraid of honest dialogue and unfiltered input from the community?