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Let’s Get This Right

 

Albany is about to embark on its first comprehensive planning process. It is, in many ways, astounding that the capital city of Albany doesn’t have a comprehensive plan yet—and tremendously exciting that it’s going to have one.

If this sounds dull and wonkish, consider: A planning process steps back and asks the big questions about where we want to go as a city. What is our vision? What are our assets, and how do we make the most of them? What are creative solutions to our challenges? Where should development go and not go, and what kind should it be?

Then you align everything else—the zoning code, capital investments, transportation planning, planning-board decisions—with that plan to help coax it into reality. A well-done planning process can energize a community, focus investment, inspire creativity, allow consensus to form around difficult decisions and catalyze change for the better.

Public input and buy-in is essential to a well-done planning process. The Albany Common Council’s planning committee acknowledges this. “This is not going to be a limited effort,” says Dan Herring (Ward 13), the committee’s chair. “Communication will be key,” agrees Cathy Fahey (Ward 7). This is going to be “as open as possible,” says John Rosenzweig (Ward 8).

That is great news. But unfortunately, Albany doesn’t have much experience with running a truly inclusive, transparent process. We’re not alone. Many, many cities and organizations underestimate just what it takes to generate more than token turnout, to have more than the same devoted citizens turning up and then feeling suspicious that they weren’t heard.

Here’s the baseline: A couple newspaper ads and notices to the neighborhood associations is not enough. Both of those things are great. The Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations in particular should be given immense amounts of credit for prompting the city to undertake this planning process in the first place. But there are thousands of residents with a stake in the future of this city who don’t read the papers in detail or participate in a neighborhood association. Notice needs to reach people who aren’t looking for it, and it needs to reach them several times. Think marketing.

For an idea of how to do it right, Albany can look to Youngstown, Ohio, which just won the American Planning Association’s national award for public outreach. “From radio, newspaper and television coverage, to billboards, T-shirts and balloons, city officials left no stone unturned in their public outreach campaign,” says the APA’s press release. In a seriously distressed city somewhat smaller than Albany, 1,400 people came to the initial visioning presentation and 1,300 a year later.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Albany’s efforts should at least include the following: A separate and frequently updated Web site that contains all the relevant information about the process, including current drafts of relevant documents and dates of all meetings open to the public (i.e., all of them) posted well ahead of time. An e-mail announcement list open to any interested person. Hearing announcements sent to all local media, posted on numerous community and library bulletin boards, discussed on the mayor’s radio show, and distributed to constituents (directly) by council members. Hundreds of smaller meetings to supplement the formal public hearings. Partnerships with interested organizations and institutions, large and small.

When in doubt, think of it like running for office, but with everyone who doesn’t show up counted as a vote against you.

(This is not up to the Common Council, but various media outlets might also want to consider partnering with the city to get the word out and committing to cover the process in a regular fashion, as one of Youngstown’s radio stations did.)

Also, though this shouldn’t need to be said, even the appearance of the possibility of any closed, back-room dealing should be assiduously avoided.

Luckily, we’re early in the process: The planning committee is working on the enabling legislation. They hope to pass that at their next meeting, which is April 19, 6 PM, in the mayor’s conference room on the first floor of City Hall. The Common Council is expected to pass it in early May. Then a call for applications to an advisory board will go out. They will be shepherding the process along, hiring consultants and eventually making a recommendation to the Common Council. Serious outreach efforts need to start around the application process at the latest.

Now, let’s acknowledge this upfront: Albany’s politics are ugly. There is a lot of cynicism in the city. Many people distrust the motives and integrity of different parts of city government. Without getting into how right or wrong they are, the fact of that suspicion is still real.

Right now this is playing out in discussions about the size and make-up of the advisory board. It is a tricky dance, trying to include as many different stakeholders as possible, while not making the board so big as to be dysfunctional. Some people are concerned about having city employees on the board (usually assumed, since their buy-in will be essential to successful implementation) or the balance of appointees coming from the Common Council versus the mayor. These are important questions to consider.

I don’t have particular answers to them, but I do have a strong recommendation for all involved in these early decisions: Take the high road, without being naive. Avoid answers that involve power struggles, but instead craft a strong process where a slim majority cannot trample over anyone else in the room. Craft a process where it would be unthinkable for a few members of the board to be acting not in good faith, because all eyes are on them. Make this so public, and so grounded in consensus, that everyone involved must step up to the ideal of trustworthiness. This does not have to be adversarial, even here.

Meanwhile, to everyone with a stake in the city’s future: I look forward to hearing about your vision for Albany. Be there.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

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