‘Gimme Shelter’ with Daniel Gehman: Doo Process

Some time ago I wrote about a new senior housing community that was being proposed in my neighborhood. Since this is a product type that my company also designs, I was quite interested in who was proposing just what, so I followed the process. I can’t recall exactly how it

Some time ago I wrote about a new senior housing community that was being proposed in my neighborhood. Since this is a product type that my company also designs, I was quite interested in who was proposing just what, so I followed the process. I can’t recall exactly how it happened, but I ended up on the mailing list of the association that represents my neighborhood, and is called upon to review proposed projects for design consistency.

(As a curious aside, when I first moved here about fifteen years ago, I attended a couple of meetings in an attempt to gain familiarity and perhaps even make some connections. At that time the majority of projects being reviewed were cell phone tower installations, and this committee was tough, tough, tough! I believe it was partly due to the great hurdles they put in front of the companies proposing these installations that the coverage at my house is abominable. Seriously, there’s one place I can stand in my driveway to take calls on my work phone. But I digress.)

It quickly became clear to me that the association was, shall we say, vehemently opposed to the project. I took the bait and looked up the drawings myself, and, frankly, saw what I believed to be a sensitively designed community that proposed a modest 150-some units on just over seven acres, which is quite a bit less dense even than the three-story walk-up communities we’ve been doing forever—around 20 DU/AC. I wondered how they made it pencil at such a low number then learned the land had been donated to a religious organization so they could develop retirement homes for their maturing clergy, which I thought was a marvelous gesture.

Because of my inclusion on the mailing list, I got to witness the battle over the proposal, which, due mostly I think to its proposed zone change, engendered so much ire you would have thought it was the President’s new health care proposal. This to me would all have been fine and well, except when the discussion started to distort the facts. The project was called “extremely dense”, “commercial”, “enormous”, and worse. I didn’t think it was any of those things, so, because the connections were provided to me, I contacted the county planner, and even my county Supervisor (who had already been drawn into the fray) to express my support for the project and go on record as such. Finally, I contacted the developer to deliver the same message.

I heard nothing for several months, then received a Notice of Preparation for the required Environmental Impact Report. This involves a public meeting (not a hearing—it is just intended to collect resident concerns about what should be included in the study.) I figured that to be consistent to my position I should show up and see what might unfold.

Well, the meeting was last Tuesday. I got tied up in a client meeting and arrived 45 minutes late, so I missed the presentation by the developer. The room was filled to literally overflowing, with a few brave souls standing outside with their heads stuck through the door, hoping to catch the gist of things. A speaker, who I learned to be an attorney, was pontificating against the development. “Hmmm,” I thought, “I guess I better follow through fully and register to speak.” When I handed in my speaker card, there was a pile nearly an inch thick. How merciful that each speaker was limited to three minutes.

OK, before I get to the punch line here, I must say that in fairness, I heard several issues that evening that had not occurred to me, which I believed were reasonable, and which should be considered in the EIR. This is the essence of a scoping meeting—to uncover the salient issues for analysis, and I look forward to seeing what answers are conveyed in the draft.

I’m not sure how many of the other 150 plus citizens understood that process. Speaker after speaker railed against the project, some reasonably, and some more viscerally. Often the remarks were prefaced with “I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 40 years,” or something along that line. I felt inferior for only having resided here for fourteen. I believe I listened to 20 or more residents before my turn came.

Now, I speak in public all the time, so I’m a pretty good manager of my own nerves. However, I’m usually speaking in the role of the developer’s consultant, and I precede the outpouring of public opinion. I took a breath, and attempted to present my thoughts, about design, precedent and process. I congratulated my neighbors for their willingness to engage in public discourse, observing that the NOP process was precisely for that purpose. I opined that this single zone change would not necessarily topple the first domino in an unstoppable juggernaut, and that this process was accomplishing exactly what it was supposed to do. Perhaps if had more sense, I would not have added that I believe it is important to separate the dry, rational facts of the case from the loaded, visceral reactions.

I concluded in just under the allotted three minutes. A millisecond after uttering my “thank you,” and somewhat to my surprise, the crowd erupted in booing. Seriously. One attendee even shouted out, “How much are they paying you?” I returned to my seat (on the floor) a little shaken, but incredibly energized. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” I thought. Though I was briefly tempted to leave, I realized I had to stay till the end to see what else might happen.

As I was leaving, I did receive one greeting from another (against) speaker, an attorney. He warmly smiled and shook my hand and thanked me for participating in the process. That was good to hear. What a great place we inhabit. What a fascinating experience for me to be on the other side of the podium for a change. How proud I am of my neighbors, even if I don’t agree with them, for taking their time to come out and exercise their rights. How fortunate I am I wasn’t beaten to a pulp in the parking lot by a gang of restive septuagenarians!

As John Mellencamp might say, “Ain’t that America? Home of the Free. Little pink houses for you and me.” Just no “monstrosities” (another speaker’s term) for our aging parents, and yours, too.

I’ll keep you posted.

(Daniel Gehman is principal at Thomas Cox Architects. He can be reached at DanielG@tca-arch.com)