Thursday, October 26, 2006

Can good design cure bad development?

Design is important, but it cannot fix all of the problems resulting from bad planning.

The City has gone through a long and detailed process, attempting to determine whether or not a Wal-Mart should be built on the northwest corner of 6th and Wakarusa. Law suits have been filed. Landowners have made claims that it is their “right” to build whatever they want. Planning staff have been battered from all sides. Angry citizens have felt betrayed by their elected officials. Developers have effectively become a political party, attempting to purchase the votes they want on the City Commission.

Now it looks like Commissioner Highberger will switch sides, leaving the progressives, and joining the pro-developer camp. He indicates that if the design of Wal-Mart is improved, he will vote for the development.

An improved design, a few more trees in the parking lot or placing the buildings closer to the street, will do nothing to resolve the market impact. The town is already overbuilt in retail space. Adding a new Wal-Mart to an oversaturated market will only cause other stores to close and become vacant. Finding tenants will be difficult to impossible. It is probable that we will simply add to the already large stock of empty, deteriorating, and blighting vacant retail buildings that already deface our community. The jobs in those stores will be lost. The workers will have the unhappy choice between unemployment or going to work for Wal-Mart.

Good design is not the same as good planning.

No issue galvanized voters in the 2003 election as did the Wal-Mart issue. The voters called for good planning. They did not want sprawl, hurting the older districts of the City. They did not want overbuilding of commercial space, hurting the existing commercial districts, especially the downtown. Unfortunately, the leadership of the City failed to deliver. Sprawl and overbuilding continues unabated. No amount of architectural details can cover this failure.

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