David Rodeback's Blog

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Friday, April 13, 2007

This post has undergone substantial revision. This original version is therefore deprecated as of 4/13/07. The revised version is available here.

Last Evening's Meeting

The American Fork City Council, the city's Planning Commission, and some staff met together last evening to hear and discuss a proposal for future development at The Meadows, the large retail development on the city's west side. It includes a J C Penney store and some multistory, mixed use (retail, office, and residential) development. I wasn't at the meeting, but I heard enough before the meeting to know that I like the idea quite a lot.

As a shopper, lately, I only infrequently have to go further than the relatively new Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target stores in American Fork. Just a few years ago, I had to cross town for a Wal-Mart -- not even a Super Wal-Mart -- and drive to Orem/Lindon for a Home Depot. Target wasn't even on the radar screen; it wasn't convenient enough in central Orem to be useful to me at all. So American Fork's ongoing retail boom is good for my schedule, because it saves me time. And it is good for my wallet, the environment, and national security, because I don't have to burn as much gasoline to do my shopping. Since I buy at least two-thirds of my wardrobe at J C Penney on an ongoing basis, I'm delighted at the prospect of doing that, too, close to home, rather than driving to south Provo or to Sandy.

It's a compelling proposal. A retail mecca here in suburbia tends to be in some other ways a wasteland. The current mixed-use proposal strikes me as a sensible and promising way to create an actual community -- even a walkable community -- which I consider a good thing. I've been watching for years the rise of a similar mixed-use development in north Provo at Riverwood, including what is now a sizable, attractive neighborhood of upscale condos or apartments just northwest of Borders.

The purpose of tonight's meeting was not any kind of final approval. The developers wanted to know what level of cooperation they might expect from the City Council and Planning Commission. Reportedly, the City Council was perceptibly more enthusiastic than the Planning Commission, with City staff being somewhat divided. Of course, it's only the City Council which actually votes in a binding way, but the matter wasn't there for a vote on this occasion.

My Little Primer

I wasn't at last evening's meeting, as I said, though I've been present for such discussions before. But knowing what to expect from one's local officials seems like a useful thing. So without any specific reference to last night's meeting, and without quoting precisely what anyone said there, I feel to offer you, my fellow citizens, a bit of an introduction to prepare you for your visit to a Planning Commission meeting in any of a number of small cities and towns in the great state of Utah. I do not suggest that everyone who serves on any such municipality's planning commission will exhibit the attitudes here described, but you're very likely to encounter some who do. Whether they will be in the majority or not, and whether the attitude will spill over into the city council in question, I cannot say.

I suppose I should first intrude these disclaimers:

  • Though LDS (Mormon) myself, I don't view non-Mormons in my city as an aberration or as less than completely welcome.
  • I like big cities, at least some of them. New York, Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Chicago come to mind.
  • If more people want to live or do business in your city than it can presently accommodate, I think it makes sense to build buildings, even some that are taller than a couple of stories.
  • I also favor sensible planning, zoning, etc.

Here follows a list of likely objections to your project, with my translation and some additional commentary in each case. Other objections are possible, of course, but I'm mostly trying to illustrate an attitude, not be exhautive.

Planning Commissioner Objection: You haven't planned for families of six, and there's nowhere nearby to put an LDS church.
My Translation: Don't you know everyone's Mormon here, and every Mormon adult has one spouse and four kids?
My Further Commentary: Dorothy, we're not Panguitch any more. (I'm not even certain that Panguitch is Panguitch any more, or ever was, in the sense of everyone being LDS and having a large, intact family.) We're not Manhattan, either, but we're more urban and cosmopolitan than some folks are willing to realize, and the trend is clearly away from, not toward, the 1860s. By the way, the housing proposed in the aforementioned mixed-use development in American Fork doesn't tend to attract families of six. One or two, yes, but not six.

Planning Commissioner Objection: After [insert the occasionally-congested traffic pattern of your choice here], we will never trust your company's traffic engineers again.
My Translation: We approved that development. We said it was fine. But it's your fault, not ours, if no one foresaw that it would be a lot busier than anyone anticipated.
My Further Commentary: Generally, in traffic and similar matters, you don't engineer to accommodate the absolute peak, anyway. Think I-15 at rush hour on a weeknight with a BYU football game beginning within the hour. Instead, you engineer to a somewhat lower level, say, eight lanes of freeway instead of 20, and try to keep the absolute peak from being an absolute disaster.

Planning Commissioner Objection: We don't have fire trucks with tall enough ladders for the multistory buildings you propose.
My Translation: Here in [insert your city here] we like to put the cart before the horse. Rather than acquiring and employing fire equipment to suit our growing city, we like to limit what you can do in our city in the future to what our present fire equipment can handle.
My Further Commentary: I wasn't alive then, I assume, but did someone object to electricity coming to [insert my city here] because we didn't already have the power poles to accommodate the cables?

That's probably enough to illustrate one attitude you'll likely encounter if you try to build anything that doesn't fit a small, quiet, mid-twentieth-century Mormon town's antiquated self-image, insofar as that self-image is determined by a handful of critics with nameplates, who wish most of the horse pastures hadn't become housing tracts. But I'll add one more, in case the municipality which interests you has a Mormon temple in it.

Planning Commissioner Objection: How dare you suggest building anything that might in any way yield you a greater profit because there is an LDS temple nearby! I don't care if it would enhance the neighborhood. I don't care that the LDS Church actually supports what you propose. It's our job to protect the temple from profiteers, and the temple we will protect!
My Translation: It's okay for residential developers and homeowners to reap enormous profits near and because of an LDS temple, and for a city and other taxing authorities to cash in on the increased property values it creates. It's just not okay for you, because you . . .
My Further Commentary: I actually have no idea how to finish that translation. I'm funny that way. If it doesn't make sense to me, I can't provide a translation that makes sense to you.

To conclude, I repeat: Not every local official in Utah exhibits this attitude. Many don't. And I'm not naming names where [insert my city here] is concerned.

Sometimes provincialism in public office gets under my skin, that's all.

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