Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What does Lawrence need in a Director of Planning?

Successful planning is much more than zoning administration.

Lawrence has confronted many difficulties as it seeks to cope with the rapid growth of its population. This led the prior Director of Planning to be overly focused on current planning at the expense of long-range planning and the ability to investigate the implications of public sector participation. Too often, the Director of Planning accepted that keeping developers happy was the measure of successful planning. Rather, the measure of successful planning is guiding the development process toward the successful implementation of the community’s comprehensive plan. The plan does not call for deteriorated neighborhoods and blighted shopping districts, but this is what we are getting. Given this focus on current planning (zoning administration) the staffing of the planning department failed to acquire individuals skilled at long-range planning and real estate development.

A few quick facts demonstrate the problems resulting from this process.

First, from 1990 to 2000, the housing stock grew by 27 percent while the population grew by only 22 percent. This 5 percent surplus corresponds to units and population lost to the City’s older central neighborhoods. The planning staff should have monitored these conditions and advised the Planning Commission and the City Commission as the pace of subdivision approvals began to outpace the population growth. It would have been very easy for the community to slow the pace of subdivision approval, but discussion of this pacing problem was not even raised by the staff and made part of the deliberations. In a growing community, there is no need to accept decline in any neighborhood. Successful growth management can direct some investment into all areas.

Second, from 1990 through 2005, the supply of retail space grew by 4.1 percent per year while retail spending grew by only 1.6 percent per year. Thus, the pace of growth of retail space was about two and one-half times the pace of demand for that space. The outcome has been the many empty shopping centers and strip malls blighting many areas of the City. A further outcome is the many retail buildings being converted into office space, spreading the problems of glutted retail market into the office market. Again, the staff failed to carry out normal planning analysis alerting the Planning Commission and the City Commission on these matters as the development proposals have moved forward.

Under the prior Director of Planning, staff did not evaluate or attempt to correct market analyses submitted by developers. Developers are required to submit a market impact analysis with their development proposals. The simple submission of even a flawed analysis was accepted as meeting the market analysis requirement. This renders the requirement meaningless and misinforms the decision makers.

These problems suggest that the new Director of Planning needs to have skills far beyond zoning administration. While zoning administration is important, it is only a portion of the work that needs to be conducted by the Planning Department.

Smart growth requires skills in market analysis, real estate investment analysis, and economic development analysis.

Skills are needed in:

Long Range Planning. The Director of Planning needs to understand standard procedures of market analysis. One of the key roles of planning is to help keep the pace of growth of supply in balance with the pace of growth of demand. It has long been known that real estate developers are prone to over building various markets, leading to empty and blighted older spaces. It is much easier and less expensive for a city to prevent blight than it is to attempt the redevelopment of blighted space after the available demand has already been satisfied by a glut of new space. The practice of depending upon market analysis from developers leads to poor decisions. Developers will always find a way to twist the numbers to justify their developments. If the City is to make good decisions on its pace of growth, it must receive valid, professional market analysis from its own staff.

Real Estate Development Negotiations. The Director of Planning needs to understand how to negotiate public-private partnerships in real estate. Too many times, the City has entered into a partnership only to have the deal fall well short of its goals. Examples would be the Riverfront Mall and the Downtown 2000 project. In other cases, the Planning Commission or the City Commission asked for input on the financial feasibility of reducing the scale or changing the design of a proposal. The staff failed to answer the questions because they did not know how to address these issues of financial feasibility given their single-minded focus on zoning issues. Examples would be the Border’s Bookstore and the Hobbs-Taylor development. If the City is to make good decisions on its role and participation in developments of this type, it needs to have guidance of planning staff skilled in understanding real estate feasibility analysis and in negotiating the level of public participation needed to bring projects to feasibility.

Economic Development Planning. The Director of Planning needs to understand how to evaluate and implement successful public sector initiatives directed at business development and retention. The community has too long equated business advocacy with local economic development. This has led the City into the embarrassing position that more recipients of tax abatements are in non-compliance than in compliance. This reduces, even eliminates, the City’s capacity to effectively negotiate economic development packages. If the City is to make good decisions on its level of public subsidy to private firms, it needs planning staff informed on current practices in economic development and skilled in these negotiations.

For a Director of Planning to be successful, this person must, at least, be conversant in all of these areas. For the Planning Department to be successful, the staff must possess skills in all of these areas and have the courage to guide the City well, even when this means denial of a developer's proposal. All growth is not good. The Director of Planning and the staff working for this person need to know the difference between growth that is supportive of the City and growth that is harmful and need to guide the City accordingly.

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