The recent community conversation about bike paths in the Depot District is quickly turning into a case study in how a city can get stuck in the past. We’re at a crossroads, and we need to take a step back to avoid going the wrong way.
In case you’ve been out of The Loop (ha ha?), for decades now the City of Richmond has been working on improving transportation options here. When we ask strategic planners and economic development experts to tell us what kinds of things we could do to make Richmond more appealing to employers, investors and residents, transportation infrastructure updates that make Richmond a more walkable, bike-able city are always high on the list.
Our 2006 Comprehensive Plan had an entire section on Transportation that includes recommendations like, “create an interconnected street system that facilitates safe travel throughout the city for pedestrians, bicyclists, and automobiles” along with “the greater use of alternatives to single-occupancy automobile travel.” There weren’t “nice to have” items; they were identified as important to Richmond’s long-term success. In 2013 we built on that plan in our project proposals to leverage Stellar Communities dollars, proposing things like pedestrian/bicycle paths on 7th and 10th street that would “create a safe walkable/bike-able community to encourage wellness, fitness and as another unique asset that the downtown living offers.”
In the last few months a small group of people have expressed concern about the progress that’s been made on these longstanding goals. There seem to be two main claims in their opposition: 1) that they weren’t given a chance to offer input on the plan, and 2) that the plan won’t work if it doesn’t preserve all existing parking.
Let’s take a look at those one at a time.
“We weren’t consulted”
If you’ve ever tried to update a commercial building, make a change to a public thoroughfare like a sidewalk, or get something relatively simple done like have bike parking racks installed, you know that these things can’t happen overnight. They require extensive filings with various local and state agencies, approval from various departments and inspectors, and often just lots of waiting. (I suppose it is good that change is slow when it comes to maintaining safety and the public interest in building codes, accessibility and more, but it does make some kinds of community improvement hard.)
When a government entity like the City of Richmond decides to make changes to the landscape of our community, even if they didn’t say a peep about it in public they would still be subject to all of these very public processes of approval and comment. In the case of the 2006 Comprehensive Plan and the subsequent Stellar Communities planning, the City went far above and beyond the minimum requirements.
They had meetings upon meetings to make sure that anyone who might want to be a part of that process would have an opportunity. The meetings were held at the lunch hour, in the evenings and on the weekends. They were held in Richmond and in surrounding locations. They had open houses where people could just come in and browse the plans and ask questions, without the pressure of speaking at a public meeting. The meetings were advertised in the newspaper, on local TV and radio stations, in flyers and emails, on social media and more. The Palladium-Item ran several in-depth articles about the plans and the impact they would have on the community. Hundreds and hundreds of people turned out for the conversations to give their input.
Here are some of the dates of the Stellar Streets project planning meetings: March 12, 2012, January 6, 2013, July 2, 2013, August 19, 2013, December 2, 2013 (Common Council meeting), December 11, 2013, December 18, 2013, April 9, 2014 (at 10:30 AM, 1:30 PM, 3:30 PM and 6:30 PM), February 11 (at 3 PM, 6 PM), April 23, 2015, April 30, 2015. Over the years there were 26 presentations given to local community groups including the Downtown Business Group, the Depot District group, the Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis and others. Every project proposal had a public comment period, and in some cases that period was extended to allow more time.
A lot of this planning happened prior to Dave Snow’s tenure as Mayor, but he may have drawn as much attention to it as anyone. Over his 18 month campaign, Snow held infrastructure improvements as a centerpiece to his plans for revitalizing and improving Richmond’s economy. I didn’t see a debate, presentation or Q&A session where he didn’t discuss his ideas and plans for making Richmond a more accessible, bike-able and walkable city. No, he wasn’t necessarily holding up construction drawings, but his command of the details increased throughout the campaign and as he took office, and I know he was excited to share those with anyone who expressed interest. He’s since discussed them in his State of the City addresses each year, done interviews with local radio and TV stations, and made multiple additional presentations to community groups.
Update on September 7th: The Palladium-Item has published a detailed history of this process.
So how is it that a group of folks including some business owners in the Depot District could have missed out on all of that? We can give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’re just really busy people who did’t have or make time to show up at these community planning meetings. Or maybe they did early on and the plans weren’t far enough along for them to raise specific concerns.
If that’s what happened, it’s an important lesson learned: civic engagement is important well beyond voting at election time. Decisions that affect us all are made by others on a regular basis, and if we want a say in the outcome, we need to show up. We especially need to show up when we’re invited by elected leaders, lest they come to think that their constituents just don’t care.
The Mayor has talked recently about missed opportunities for better communication between his administration and the people who live here. Yes, there have been challenges that need to be addressed. But we also live in a world where some people feel free to spread rumors and misinformation on social media all day long. In order to get just one factual, useful piece of information to “stick” out in the world, the Mayor’s staff probably has to communicate it 50 times more often and more emphatically than the Facebook user who can just click “share” on one misleading comment.
I worry that there’s also a creeping sense of entitlement among people objecting to bike path plans that’s leading to expectations of preferential treatment. Should we celebrate the private investments that have been made in the Depot District? Absolutely! There are a lot of wonderful success stories there. The Depot folks know that they’ve made it into one of Richmond’s most thriving retail areas, believing in those streets and buildings when no one else would. It’s easy to see how they might come to see themselves as deserving of some special accommodations.
But for better or worse, that’s not how it works. The bureaucracy of city government does not permit proactively giving individual residents and business owners a call or a visit every time there’s a change that affects their block. And late objections don’t mean that we throw away the input given by hundreds and hundreds of other people who have said, “we want this.” I think we all want a process that is inclusive, broadly consultative and fair, and that puts business owners and individual residents on an even playing field.
We also have our representatives on Richmond’s Common Council, who apart from the employees who work in the City, probably have the most insight and access to the inner workings of local government activities. Unfortunately Council seems to be in some disarray around this conversation, approaching their own awkward “I voted for it before I voted against it” moment as at least one member wants to end Council support for Stellar-funded projects altogether.
In doing so, they’re toying with introducing a ridiculous standard for a project that has always been transparently designed to make our city more bike-able and walkable: “no parking lost.”
“No parking lost”
For decades, Richmond has been a city designed to accommodate one person in a vehicle driving around town, and any other form of transportation is considered second class.
Despite right-of-way laws and human decency that would suggest otherwise, all over town pedestrians and cyclists anxiously scamper out of the way of cars and trucks zipping along our roads. Many of our neighborhoods and main thoroughfares don’t have sidewalks at all; this is a failure of municipal codes and city planning, and every day it fails anyone who might have to walk to work along US-40 or who wants to explore what Richmond has to offer by foot.
Maybe in an ideal world we might not even have to think about having pedestrian bike paths or special bike lanes. But it would require being surround by motorists who were cautious of and respectful to walkers and cyclists instead of yielding just enough distance not to kill them outright, while sometimes yelling or honking at them too. As a whole, Richmond is not a city that is attractive to bike or walk through.
And yet young people who are deciding whether to stay in or move to a particular city are thinking about bike-ability and walkability. They want a quality of life that includes diverse transportation options and ease of navigation. They ask, “can I easily step outside my door and meet up with friends, grab a bite to eat, or do some shopping?”
Yes, there are people who want to be able to park right in front of to the store they’re going to shop at or the restaurant they’re going to eat at. At some level we’re all lazy creatures and we like convenience.
But if we optimize for convenience over all else in community planning, we miss the point. Followed to its natural conclusion, accommodating our laziest instincts gets us a world where sandwiches, furniture and everything else shows up to our doors in an Amazon box as we never leave the house or apartment again. It means the end of public squares and casual conversation from encountering each other on the street, or having landscapes that are beautiful and green just for the sake of beauty and greenness. It means the end of experiencing our world as citizens and neighbors, and a focus on experiencing it as consumers.
I don’t think Richmond does well in that world. It doesn’t matter how great the Depot District is doing today, there is no one thriving retail neighborhood that can prop up a city experiencing serious decline in population, disposable income, education levels or workforce readiness. In the past it was the Promenade or the new shopping center or the mall or the highway tourist traffic that was going to save us. But we know the truth: no one part of town, no one business ever can.
The future Richmond that thrives as a whole is the one that plans for the long term. It’s one that builds neighborhoods, infrastructure and culture that are inviting to new people and new ways of thinking. It’s one that creates diverse uses of space block-by-block so that if one particular store goes out of business, a whole area doesn’t suffer. It’s one that accepts an automobile dominated, fossil-fuel powered world as a thing of the past, and makes changes accordingly.
The great news is that when we do this, everyone benefits! Even people who will only ever drive a car.
It’s painful to see people who have often otherwise been progressive, forward-thinking contributors to revitalizing the landscapes of Richmond be so stuck on parking. They are drawing hard lines in the sand to say that anything short of saving all the parking spaces we have today is unacceptable. In doing so, it feels like they are effectively saying that they will not be a part of a future version of Richmond that is more bike-able and walkable. It feels like they’re saying they want to put what works for their businesses over what works for the whole community in the long run.
I don’t think this adversarial, zero-sum approach is necessary. Where there are frustrations about the current plan or designs, we can come together to figure out solutions. Where there are short term growing pains, we can encounter those together in the spirit of collaboration and patience. And where confidence in leadership or communication has been shaken, we can find our way to steady ground.
Haven’t we been stuck on the car-centric version of Richmond long enough? If the answer to all of our woes was, “more roads and more on-street parking,” don’t you think we would have gotten there by now?
Isn’t it time to try something new?