I attended the commission workshop last night on the development agreement for N. Bates. As a student of urban design, I continue to be amazed at the lackadaisical attitude toward the overall program for the site. City Manager Joe Valentine announced that after consultation with residents of surrounding streets, the city and developers are willing to make "accommodations" on the form and density of what they are calling buildings 3 and 4, the ones along the river and at the corner of Bates and Willits. He didn't give any more detail. So if you thought you knew what the project would look like, or thought the developers were working on a thin profit margin, think again.
You might have thought commissioners would have said, "Wait, what?" or some such expression of surprise. I was particularly disappointed in Commissioner Mark Nickita, who used to be a champion of New Urbanism and good, cohesive urban design, but he was uncharacteristically quiet when Valentine dropped his bombshell.
If they weren't surprised by a sudden, vague change in design, they did seem surprised to learn that once the development is built, the team of trusted locals they've chosen could sell it off in an instant to... anyone.
Valentine is talking about taking up to five years to develop the entire site, and suggesting that the city can move forward on the parking deck and hold off for years, if necessary, on the rest of the site. It begs the question: If all we wanted to do was build a $60 million parking deck to replace the existing one, why do we need a public/private partnership? A big part of the idea of getting developers involved, I thought, was to help defray the cost of the deck and other public improvements, but that doesn't seem to be a big part of the thinking at this point, or at least one that's been defined in any way.
Given that the city is ceding authority to the developers on design and land use and the apparent dearth of hard-nosed negotiating skill, I am not hopeful about the economics. The city has hired Jones Lang Lasalle as an adviser. But although it has already committed to spend $575,000 on a deal that might never happen, we have not heard from JLL yet in public. Should we be concerned that the city has committed to spend more than half a million dollars without any economic analysis?
The award for Most Courageous Commissioner last night goes to Carroll Deweese, who was willing to question timing of a potential bond vote. Deweese, saying he has been pressed by constituents, asked several times why the city is moving so quickly toward an Aug. 6 vote. Plans for the site won't even be completed by then, and so voters will have no idea what they are voting on, other than a blank check. Deweese's questions came both before and after Planning Board member (and urban planning professor) Robin Boyle pointed out that community impact studies will be required. Those take months, to say nothing of public hearings on rezoning and preliminary and final site plans. And remember, they are planning to divvy the site into four different parcels, with four separate developments, with potentially four separate sets of hearings. Why the rush? We never got a good answer. "Because" was about the extent of it. Take it from a professional salesman: I suspect the rush has something to do with a false sense of urgency created by those most interested in "selling" the deal. When Deweese pressed the point, he was ruled out of order by Mayor Patricia Bordman.
Out of order? His questioning was absolutely in order, since the discussion focused on a crucial part of a process that seems to be going haywire. Deweese's critical questioning, unfortunately, was in relatively short supply last night. What was not in short supply was a disregard for the public. After almost two hours of presentation, the few members of the public who wanted to comment were told they had two minutes each, and the mayor conspicuously kept a timer in her hand to enforce the rule -- at one point brandishing it embarrassingly to a member of the public who had not yet gone past his allotted time. And while Valentine and the commission saw fit to conduct the workshop without the presence of Planning Director Jana Ecker or City Attorney Tim Currier, he and the mayor made sure Police Chief Mark Clemence was there to sufficiently intimidate anyone who considered breaking Bordman's two-minute rule. This is a commission that clearly is not interested in hearing any criticism.
I don't have to see any more shenanigans to urge a NO vote on the bond -- assuming the commission has the bad sense to rush it onto a ballot -- until professional planners are hired to consult with the community on what is best for us. If an above-ground monster parking deck is deemed best, so be it. But I'll be arguing for underground parking across the entire site, paid for as much as possible by a developer who then would get the right to build something we deem appropriate on top of it.
And by the way, it is no secret that Restoration Hardware is interested in coming to town. According to Dave Stanchak, Chief Real Estate and Development Officer, in addition to the Bates site, they have looked at the Barclay, Peabody and Hunter House sites. Anyone familiar with the kind of spectacular projects RH has executed -- https://www.restorationhardware.com/store-locations/index.jsp -- should drool at the opportunity to have them come here. Take a look at the Chicago store. They have a knack for weaving their galleries into the urban fabric, and a sense of design that could extend easily into the public spaces and down along the river. Given that we have an entire 3.8-acre parcel to work with, why wouldn't the city invite them to get involved in a truly spectacular urban design project? Seems to me that RH and Andres Duany would be a dream team.
We can only hope. Dreams, vision and the courage to have them are what we need about now at City Hall.