VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Protestors shouldn't control community development

February 25, 2008

N e i g h b o r h o o d activists in Pittsburgh are fighting a development that would bring a grocery store, job training center, youth programs and other social services to the area of the Pittsburgh Penguins' $290 million arena. The Pittsburgh group was planning a march in protest. Is retail and commercial development next to a sports arena a bad idea?

A Cambridge, Mass., neighborhood group was opposed to the development of three townhomes, arguing that the parcel of land is only big enough for two-even though city planners had studied and approved the designs and site layout, and the developer offered to donate part of the property to the city for a park expansion. What is wrong with one additional dwelling unit in exchange for park land?

Increasing power

What do these groups have in common? Their underlying assumption is that development is inherently bad (unless, of course, it brings a Target store close, but not too close, to home.) And why does this matter? Because groups like these have gained increasing power, and, at a time when we need less government, they've effectively created an additional unelected layer of government from which communities and developers undertaking projects must seek approval.

It wasn't always like this. Neighborhood associations were created to tackle issues close to home, such as beautification projects, crime-watch programs and sidewalk maintenance, and to ensure that homeowners didn't neglect their properties. They looked out for common interests, and worked with communities to make sure they received appropriate services.

In that role, these groups traditionally have provided invaluable insights to leaders and developers. Often planners meet with neighborhood groups to get input and share information before completing a design. This offers the best opportunity for everyone to share visions and concerns, for residents to ask questions and for developers to provide factual information.

While this still is the function of many neighborhood groups, it's not the case for all of them. Instead, groups passing as neighborhood organizations are being formed with the sole purpose of anti-development activism. Increasingly, these organizations-some ad hoc groups with just a few self-appointed members-wield inordinate power under the guise of representing neighborhoods. Meetings that used to offer opportunities for discussion turn into hostile debates.

In addition to the ad hoc organizations, some existing long-standing neighborhood organizations have been hijacked by a few anti-development activists who put their personal agendas above the good of the neighborhood. And, while neighborhood organizations need to be involved when a change is proposed for their communities, it's imperative that all residents get factual information in order to formulate a collective opinion, not the opinion of a few.

System already in place

Municipalities such as Marion County have planning and development departments that review all aspects of proposed development. Staffed by trained professionals, these departments have the background and skills necessary to determine whether projects meet specific guidelines, such as zoning and utility requirements. Residents elect a City-County Council as their voice, giving the council final say about whether a project is in the best interest of the community at-large.

These officials consider several factors before making a decision on specific projects: Does the project meet the long-range plan of the community? Is it economically viable? Will it improve or not impair the quality of life for residents? Is it meeting a community need or demand? Will the project help spur additional economic development of an area? What are the tax implications? How will the project impact roads and sewers? They're able to make these decisions because of input they get from professional city engineers and planners.

For the ad hoc groups, however, this representative approach isn't good enough. They demand that their untrained opinions carry equal or more weight than that of the battery of experts that the city employs. And unlike government boards and agencies, which operate under strict rules of procedure, and which require competent evidence to support their conclusions, many of these groups too often make assumptions without all the facts.

No one wants to squelch public input. Public participation is vital to communities in order to improve, develop and revitalize neighborhoods. But there must be a balance between the voice of small groups and the role of elected officials to represent their constituents. All too often the same few people show up to oppose development, regardless of geography or apparent personal impact, claiming to represent a broad constituency that they do not.

Public dialogue is positive. It needs to continue and be encouraged. But when special-interest groups are allowed to skew public opinion and assume the role of elected representatives, we all lose opportunities to improve neighborhoods and communities, provide services and jobs, and give residents choices for housing and shopping and dining.

If Indianapolis is to continue building a world-class city, we must thoughtfully move forward using good planning principles as our guide. We must balance the desires of a vocal few with those of the greater community. We must elect leaders we trust to act in our best interests. And we must not allow a few loud or persistent citizens to block the development of services and conveniences expected of a great city.



Mann is managing partner of Mann Properties, an Indianapolis-based real estate development company. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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