The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

City Hall’s neighborhood planning off and running, though one neighborhood leader says the approach is all top-down

In City Hall, Floods, Neighborhoods on January 12, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Saturday’s kick-off of City Hall’s four-month-long, post-flood Neighborhood Planning Process was a nice affair.

Some 200 to 250 or so citizens — among them owners of flood-damaged homes and businesses and an assortment of community leaders — turned out on a lousy winter day for the first of eight planning sessions between now and early May.

Saturday’s event stretched from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., was held in the Grand Ballroom at the U.S. Cellular Center and came with a lunch free to those in attendance.

By the accounts of participants Amy Wyss, Greg Stokesberry and Martin Smith, the day was short on complaints about what was not being done in flood recovery and long on constructive discussion about what the future might hold for the city’s flood-damaged neighborhoods, including downtown.

At some level, the entire exercise has an element of orchestrated inclusion.

It’s a reminder that the professional management of a city is really a science with its own formulas and strategies that seem designed, in part, to make some progress while controlling any mayhem that might surface along the way.

Michael Richards, president of the Oakhill Jackson Neighborhood Association, is not one to shy away from mixing it up a bit with City Hall from the grass-roots level.

Richards says Saturday planning event succeeded well enough. But, generally, he says the endeavor has been defined by City Hall and has intentionally excluded the leadership of the established neighborhood associations in the process.

It is a top-down operation, Richard says.

“By setting up a new and untested Neighborhood Planning Process that supersedes and all but ignores the existing structure of established neighborhood associations is a very clear and grave error,” Richards says.

Richards’ wants quick action to lingering questions. He wants the city to figure out a way to buy out property owners now; he wants the government to get state and federal Jumpstart and Community Development Block Grant money to flood victims faster; and he wants the state and city to help landlords repair flood-damaged homes so renters have affordable places to rent.

In truth, the city’s established neighborhood associations by and large have been small in number and small in participation, though the June flood has changed that to a degree.

For whatever reason, in its new Neighborhood Planning Process, City Hall has created a new geography, breaking the 10 square miles of flood-damaged neighborhoods into three areas, north, central and south. The North Area includes Time Check, Ellis Park and Taylor areas; the Central Area, the downtown and the area between the hospitals; and the South Area, Oakhill Jackson/New Bohemia, Czech Village and Cedar Valley/Rompot.

City Hall has appointed a seven-member citizen steering committe, none of whose members are neighborhood presidents. Richards applied, but didn’t get named.

Even with what Richards’ says are the setup’s flaws, he says he wouldn’t miss participating for anything. You can’t improve anything standing on the sidelines, he says.

On balance, the Neighborhood Planning Event on Saturday had some good citizen input, he says, even if says it had too many city staff in the mix and not enough neighbors from the city’s flood-impacted neighborhoods.

“Now the crucial thing is to stay involved so that this process becomes more and more citizen-directed, neighborhood-directed,” Richards says.

Saturday’s event broke the 250 or so in attendance into discussion groups of 10 or so with city employees trained as facilitators to help focus the conversations.

Seven city-appointed steering committee members and two alternates also helped oversee the effort.

A team of city-hired consultants conducted the workshop.

Sasaki Associates Inc., of Watertown, Mass., is the principal consultant and has the help of a team of 11 sub-consultants advising the city on its flood recovery.

Sasaki led what City Hall called Phase 1 of the recovery effort, which resulted in the City Council approving a new flood protection system for the city in November that will take U.S. Army Corps of Engineers support, eight to 15 years and $1 billion of mostly federal dollars to put in place.

Sasaki was first hired by the council shortly before the June 2008 flood for $150,000 with the idea that it would help design a riverfront improvement plan. The flood changed much and expanded what the council has wanted from Sasaki.

The council now has upped what it intends to pay Sasaki and its sub-consultants to $3.943 million, according to a council resolution passed on Dec. 10.

Cassie Willis, the city’s communications liaison, says $1.944 million of the total is for the Phase 2 of the recovery, the Neighborhood Planning Process.



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