Deconstructing Kabuki

Update 1: I noticed the format was inconsistent in my original post so I’ve corrected it. No content changes were made.
A few days ago I characterized the drama on zoning as Kabuki in the sense that it struck me as quite bizarre political theatre.
First the Mayor suggests that zoning should be a priority in light of the comprehensive plan and in light of the need to update zoning requirements. From her blog, she states:

It is my hope that all interested parties show support for this initiative and that the Council will proceed to contract with TSA. Implementation of these zoning changes had been identified as warranting immediate action in our Comprehensive Plan of 2003. This project has languished for five years. It is time to achieve this goal.

The same post also states the scope of work performed by TSA to be:

…formation of a working committee comprised of planning, zoning and legislative representatives, along with code enforcement staff and volunteers from the public to ensure a healthy cross-section of participants in this process. Their comprehensive proposal promises deliverables in the way of committee meetings, agendas, public hearings, concepts and completed documents. In addition, they will draft a full environmental assessment in conformance with SEQRA and assist in the preparation of all required forms and other regulatory requirements. They will work with the Council to ensure the final draft is approved and all necessary steps are taken to file the document with the Secretary of State pursuant to State Law. TSA will complete all work in a six (6) month period.

We also learn that this is a $50K project. OK, I get it so far.
Meanwhile Mssrs. Wollman and Going state that they will perform the work for free and in fact deliver their reports to the mayor several days ago . The full reports can be found here. We also learn that the reports were prepared in a ‘few days’. (here) We also learn that they have created their own ad hoc volunteer committee.
And this is where I no longer get it because we’re no longer comparing apples and oranges; I think it’s more like apples and horseshoes.
If you look at the defined scope of the zoning project you will see that the lawyers are on Mars and the Mayor is on Venus with people like me stuck on Earth trying to figure out what is going on. It’s this vast distance in the stated scope and objectives of the project that drive the underlying Kabuki. In fact, we are talking about two vastly different projects–just look at the scope as defined by the mayor and look at the scope as defined by the lawyers (don’t take my word for it). As a result, any financial comparison of these two vastly different projects is utterly meaningless.
From this Recorder article (here), I’m encouraged by several of the Council member’s comments recognizing that in fact they are looking at two vastly different proposals. I think Alderwoman Brumley gets it right by pointing out in the same article (emphasis added):

I think we need to step back and clearly define what needs to be done. I don’t see the need to rush no matter who does it. If there is a cost then we need to go for an RFP because I don’t know if $50,000 is a reasonable dollar amount or if zero is reasonable. And we need to put it in the budget, which it is not,” said Brumley.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about it and we should talk to the planning and zoning boards to see what needs to be addressed,” she said.

Brumley added that the assertion by Wollman and Going that there is no political motive to their offer, doesn’t hold up.

I also think the substance of the prepared report does not hold up to a careful reading or analysis either as it raises significant questions, leaves them unresolved and unanswered and yet in the end, a zoning law resolution is proposed  based upon a few edits in the language of the current zoning law. Huh? Here are some examples of what I mean in ‘unresolved and unanswered’ (emphasis mine):

-As this is a preliminary report, additional downtown issues such as urban design and general architectural forms are not yet addressed, but should be in everyone’s thought processes.

-Some issues which you should consider:
· Should there be a separate “Neighborhood Commercial” district with perhaps different design regulations?
· Should small commercial establishments be once again permitted in R2 and R3 districts?

-The Transect conceptThe Master plan suggests adopting the Transect concept (see Page V-2 and following). The concept is a good one and could be adopted with some tweaking here and there.


We therefore recommend that the Transect concept be studied, but that we maintain our existing formulations.

Stop, stop right there on the subject of ‘Transect’. I could give more examples but the casual introduction of the Transect concept as something to be studied and perhaps implemented while still maintaining existing formulations are wholly incompatible.
Transect is an urban planning framework created by Andrés Duany
of the urban planning firm DPZ. Transect’s or similar frameworks’ adoption by the city as an urban planning model would be a radical departure on many levels not the least of which would be the complete rewrite of current zoning laws. But the larger issue in studying or adopting these new urban models is not just the cost but the significant expertise required, the commitment by community leaders and the participation of the wider community. In short, the opposite of the process advocated and executed by the authors.
Let me say that I would be an enthusiastic supporter for a radical rethink of the urban footprint of the city along the lines of Transect or New Urbanism; I know this revelation comes as a shock to most of you.
Finally, I have established my own ad hoc volunteer committee to advise the mayor, council and the current ad hoc committee. However, I will be billing my time:
Expenses to date: -$245-

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. Robert N G says:

    Well, as co-author of the Wollman/Going proposals I guess I’ll take full responsibility for not being clear enough for you.
    We simply followed the Master Plan and made what was purposely labled a “Preliminary Report”. As the Master Plan made certain specific recommendations which (it stated) should be implemented as soon as possible, we drafted THOSE recommendations for immediate action. We also outlined several areas for further study. These actions are not mutually exclusive, nor were they meant to be.
    One of the problems is that neither the mayor nor TSA nor anybody else has suggested any deeper scope for the project. We were merely demonstrating that some stuff could be done now, that we were capable of understanding the remaining issues, and that much of what remains to be done requires not further reconceptualizing, but rather choices to be made through the ordinary political process.
    If we are asked to undertake this effort (for free), it would involve a continuing series of options for the Common Council to consider.
    But the downtown RB/PB districts needed only the drafting of a local law implementing the Master Plan, something which literally took only 5 1/2 hours and which takes care of most of the Master Plan issues.
    I have written elsewhere that I don’t think it would be politically feasible here to abandon zoning for Transect. I do like the idea of discussing it, however. So far you’re the only person who even knew what I was talking about.
    -Robert N. Going, Volunteer

  1. January 16, 2009

    […] snowplowing (here) to zoning (here) to Web site design. It’s 2009 and we’re debating ‘the Web’ […]

Leave a Reply