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Poor Planning

Syfert resorts to business as usual

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Publishing this column probably means I'll never work professionally as a planner in Charlotte. As an independent academic, though, it falls to me to voice what's on the minds of many design and planning professionals in the city: the appointment of Debra Campbell as Charlotte-Mecklenburg's new Planning Director is a disappointment and a missed opportunity.

Criticism of Campbell's appointment has been muted, as local design and development professionals know they have to work with the new Director, and it's in their interest to keep their thoughts to themselves. Being critical of the hiring process and the decision can be misinterpreted as criticism of Campbell herself.

As a professor responsible for educating and training young architects and planners, it's often my task to provide tough critiques. But such criticisms are always about the work, never about the person. There's a very important difference. My issue isn't with Campbell personally, for I respect her as a hard working professional. My dismay springs from the secrecy that has prevailed in city government around this appointment. Here was a golden opportunity to bring in a new mind with fresh ideas at the cutting edge of urban development, design, and growth management, ideas that Charlotte so desperately needs, but City Manager Pam Syfert was more concerned about "fit" with the existing system. It almost seems, from the outside, as if an internal appointment was a prearranged conclusion.

Questions have been raised about the quality of a "national" search for the best and brightest planners in the country, especially when the finalists were a hand-picked internal candidate and a chap who reportedly applied for the job after seeing a newspaper ad. This doesn't sound as if the headhunters tried very hard, for there are dozens of fine planners in American towns and cities, doing more advanced work than we've seen in Charlotte.

Take one example: the Charlotte region urgently needs a leader to promote regional planning. How hard did the city work to lure someone from Minneapolis/St. Paul, the metropolitan area with the most advanced regional planning in the nation, where a tax-sharing regional council guides growth over a seven-county area? We'll never know. It's a well-kept secret.

There are several other things wrong with planning in Charlotte. First is the fact that developers still call the shots, and the short-term objectives of developers are often antithetical to long-term planning goals for a sustainable and attractive city. This needs to change.

Second, the city badly needs someone of national stature to fight for higher standards, and promote renewed respect for city plans. How many times have we had to listen to mealy-mouthed drivel from elected officials and appointed planning commissioners that plans so carefully wrought by staff and citizens are "only a guide," and each case should be decided "on its merits"? (Translation: "Who cares about the endless hours of meetings, work sessions and citizen input? If the developer doesn't like the plan, throw it away.") This slipshod governance is a moral and ethical denial of grassroots democracy, but it's engrained as business as usual in Charlotte. About the last thing our city needs is a new Planning Director with whom elected officials "feel comfortable."

A third problem is the zoning code: it's a mishmash of concepts -- some good, some bad -- cobbled together in a nightmare format of dull legalese with not a picture in sight. Former Planning Director Martin Cramton used to say that rewriting this tome was too difficult a task for the city to undertake. Perhaps he meant that developers would kick up such a stink that City Council would never have the courage to enact much-needed reforms. Yet other cities do it. Are we so browbeaten and timid that we give in before we've even started? Can a planner from this same school of self-censorship break away from this deadening status quo?

A fourth issue concerns the type of planning that's become established over the last several decades in America. Planners of Campbell's generation have been trained to value process over product; that is, to place more emphasis on the way plans are produced -- public meetings, proper notifications, involvement of citizens and neighborhoods -- than on the quality of the finished product. This has resulted in a lack of interest and expertise by planners in the physical design of our environment, and abstract diagrams of colored blobs have replaced specific design concepts. This diminishes the importance of plans in the minds of elected officials, which in turn reduces the morale of planners and citizens, and establishes a vicious cycle of ever-declining expectations. Only in recent years has a new breed of architect-planners elevated civic design once more to its proper place in planning and established a new paradigm. But whether any of these individuals made the short list, or were even contacted, is another well-kept secret.

Yes, it's still business as usual in Charlotte.

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