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Development Review – An Overview

Posted by on July 9, 2013

Person standing on edge of cliff

A quick review of this site’s (re)development:

The (re)development of “North of Prospect” is nearly complete. Joomla is updated, the new theme has been tweaked, all of the old articles have been reuploaded, and I’ve got an email out to Intense Debate to see if I can re-hook up the old comments to the old posts. There’s still some i’s to dot and t’s to cross, but I think the site is now mostly good to go.

DevelopmentProposalBender  

Development Review in Fort Collins:

“North of Prospect” isn’t the only thing going through some developmental changes these days. The city is trying to improve it’s communication skills in terms of getting information out to, and input in from, citizens regarding neighborhood development projects. They’ve developed a “Development Review Center” that includes a “Development Proposals Under Review” page. I think this page is key as it lists all current proposals currently under scrutiny by the city. You can get a quick sense of what the projects are, where they’re taking place, and who is involved by scrolling through the entries. I’m a total noob to the whole development review deal, but even I feel like the page gives me a sense of the scope and direction of development in Fort Collins.

NorthForty News gave a really nice overview of this new online hub. I’d encourage you to go check it out. What I’d like to do is offer more of a critique – what works, what doesn’t, and what some next steps could be to keep improving this new resource.

Let me start off by saying that the city is giving citizens direct access to a whole lotta information. On the one hand, I’m utterly thrilled by this level of transparency on the part of the city. I like being able to look through drawings of proposed buildings, read descriptions of the plans, and see who’s involved in the project. On the other hand, every once in awhile I come across something that wigs me out a bit… (Or is that “whigs”? Where did that phrase come from, anyway?) … a list of citizens present at a meeting (OK with that) and their email addresses and phone numbers (What?!!!). So we’ve got a really good beginning, with some bugs that probably need to be worked out.

Transparency

The transparency this tool offers is really off the charts. Even if all of this information was available before, you probably had to go down to the city offices to view it. If it was online, it was probably a pain in the tuckus to find. Now it’s all listed in one location in a searchable table. In fact, as you enter your search terms, the site automatically starts to narrow down the list. So as long as you’ve remembered enough details (the project number, the street it’s located on, etc.) you’ll probably be able to find your project pretty quickly.

springfielddrivedrawing

This image is an example of what I like about being able to see these online docs. Sometimes a picture helps you understand what’s being proposed more quickly than a bunch of words. (I also have a problem with this particular picture. But I’ll get to that later. Just plan on scrolling back up here in a bit.)

Depth

It seems like the more I use this tool, the more I find it can do. For example, the last time I was using it I got frustrated that I couldn’t enter my address and get a listing of all of the projects within X number of miles from my house. Then I read the NorthForty News article, clicked through to the Ways to Track Development Review page that they linked to, and viola! I found out there’s a map! *Does a little happy dance* It was a pain in the butt to use the first time I tried. I use a MacBook Pro and if you use two fingers on the track pad, that usually tells the computer to move across the page. But when you happen to be hovering over the map and you do the two finger trick, you suddenly either zoom in to the level of a tick on the back of a rodent in someone’s back yard or you’re out circling the globe on a weather satellite. It was insanely frustrating. But once I got into the habit of thinking like PC instead of Mac, I learned to click more and scroll less. Then the frustration of the tool gave way to power. Now I can view all the blocks north of Prospect and know exactly what’s going on here in the north end.  … sorta. (More on the sorta part later.)

Ease of Access

This is essentially the point of the whole project — to provide ease of access. Although I’ve been frustrated by some roadblocks that I’ve hit, I do see a good effort to remove those roadblocks and make this information easily accessible. I really believe that’s the ultimate goal and that the city is making a solid effort. And although I can’t be certain, it seems like some of those roadblocks that I had been hitting before just plain aren’t there any more. So either I’ve learned something and now know how to avoid them or the problems themselves have been removed. I’m guessing it’s the latter.

developmentreviewemail

The A#1 best on ramp to this information, in my opinion, is the weekly development review emails that the city is now sending out. (You can see an example above. This is the first email I received. It’s from mid-May.) You can sign up to receive this email by going to the development review center (or any of the development review pages) and entering your email in the box near the upper right hand corner of the page. There’s also a page on the site that lists the weekly updates — This Week in Development Review. Both the email and the web page give links to more information, details about meetings that citizens can attend, and some explanation about the purpose of the different types of meetings.

Help

In addition to making all of this stuff available, substantial, and accessible, the city has given us a helping hand in the form of Sarah Burnett, the new Neighborhood Development Review Liaison. I think that for most people, there’s a pretty sizable learning curve involved here. First you have to figure out the site and the resources on it, then you have to figure out what the different types of meetings are and what role you can play in terms of giving input, and then you have to sort out what all these documents mean, what current zoning regulations are and how they interact with the proposal, what the next steps are, and so on. It’s a whole lot to learn and since most people don’t get involved until something pops up next door, by the time they get around to learning this stuff they have the added emotional stress of feeling like some stranger is going to be coming into their life and changing their neighborhood forever. Sarah is the person to turn to when you don’t know where to turn. She can explain what’s what, help you figure out what your best avenue for giving input is, and walk you through other possible next steps. My experience so far is that Sarah is very responsive.

Gaps, Roadblocks and Next Steps

I think that this development hub is a ginormous step on the part of the city to connect citizens with what’s going on in terms of the change and growth that seems to suddenly be running on overdrive in Fort Collins. But there are still some things that probably could use some tweaking.

Speak to the People – Having access to all of these documents is really powerful. It puts knowledge in the hands of the people.  But I feel like sometimes it doesn’t put the right knowledge out there. I like having access to the paperwork that builders and developers have to file with the city. But in some instances, what I’d really like to know is:

  • Why this? Why now? Why here? I’d like to know what the developer is thinking. It’s a given that they’re doing it for the money. It’s a job, after all. But they might have put some thought into the project that would be really helpful for the average citizen to know. I attended a variance meeting recently regarding the Stoner Subdivision in Old Town. The developer wants permission to change the layout of two lots and build a new house on Magnolia where there is currently only a back yard. According to the zoning rules, he could raze the house that is currently on that corner and fit two houses on the two lots that are already there. But it turns out he likes the house that’s there and he wants to preserve it. But in order to do that, he has to shift the lot lines from going east-west to going north-south. That will enable the old house to remain but still provide a nice sized lot for a new house. I think if folks in the neighborhood had known the why behind what this developer had in mind, they quite likely would have been championing his cause. But because Old Towners have been boondoggled before, and because there was an inconsistency in the paperwork that came out, people were convinced that the developer was up to no good and was going to pull something sneaky. This led to having to call two variance review meetings and listen to a fair bit of oratory on the neighborhood before the developer even got up to speak. Rather than wasting the time of developers and citizens, let’s add some additional info at the outset that just might help put everyone at ease.
  • What’s there now and is it historic? As I walk through my neighborhood I come across sizable parking lots and buildings from the 60’s and 70’s that I’ve grown used to. But I’ve seen photos of what was there before, or in some cases just heard stories, and I have to admit that it makes quite plain that “growth” and “progress” are not always improvements. What projects are being proposed today that our children will look back on, slap their palms to their foreheads, and exclaim, “What were they thinking?!!” Information about what will be removed to make way for what is coming in is important. Just because there’s a building there right now doesn’t mean we’re all going to run to encircle our arms around it and try to save it. The vacant buildings at the corner of Meldrum and Maple are an eyesore and they’re just crying out to be scraped and remade. But there might be a building that’s worth encircling and singing Kumbaya over. We don’t all live next door to these proposed projects, but we still feel like they’re being made in our neighborhood. Having information about what’s there now could help people emotionally sort through their thoughts on the change. (And let’s just admit that out loud right now – the information the city is giving is administrative and architectural and all that, but it affects people in their gut. Every one of these projects has an emotional component and the more we can do to address that, the smoother discussions should go.)
  • What’s this going to do to the neighbors? These new plans show beautiful new buildings surrounded by lush greenery. If we were to look at just the plans without any context, I suspect most people would think, “That’s great!” (Now’s a good time to scroll back up and glance again at the artists’s rendering of what the Springfield Drive project will look like.) But if we saw those same plans next to what’s going to be right next door once the thing is built, we might suddenly fall down in shock. A four story building can look cute and Craftsmany in a drawing. But when you see that it’s going to be standing right next door to, and across the street from, a bunch of single family Modern style residences the clash in architecture becomes more apparent as does the difference in heights between the buildings. (One of the characterizing features of Modern style housing is that it’s often very low to the ground with a roofline that is either flat or very slightly sloped. This is a common style of architecture in Fort Collins in neighborhoods that were built in the 50s and 60s.) Will the neighbors lose their sunshine? Their ability to park in front of their own house? Their quiet in the evenings? Will they now have a large trash truck careening past their bedroom windows as it goes to empty out the trash from 57 living units (whereas before there were a couple of houses and a few horses)? There are places where growth makes sense and will be low impact. There are other places where growth might still make sense, but it’s going to be much higher impact. These are the situations in which neighbor input needs to be well informed so that it can be well addressed. This goes back to that emotional piece I mentioned earlier. If I’ve been living next to a horse pasture for 30 years, I’m not going to be all fire excited about that changing into four buildings full of students with all their ruckus and activity.

It’s information like this that I don’t think the developers generally deal with, but it’s the stuff that local citizens want to know. I don’t think people are looking for gobs of information on the above items. But if there was just one additional document that touched on the builder’s reasons for the project (hopes, motivation), showed comparison photos of what’s there and what they hope to build, and included drawings that included what the new next to the old buildings would look like side by side, I think that would be well appreciated and might perhaps help calm people’s fears about some of the projects that are going in.

Educate the People – I am not a developer, nor do I ever aspire to be one. The development review hub does have a lot of explanations built into the system and I think that’s really helpful. There are probably a few more ways that it can help to educate people.

  • Who do I talk to when the problem I see is outside the scope of Development Review? With the last example that I gave (Springfield Drive, AKA Carriage House Apartments), the heart of the issue probably has more to do with zoning than with whether or not this particular project is a good one. The apartment complexes might be totally spiffy, but the question might have a lot more to do with whether they make sense in the location that they’re being put into. The developer is just doing what’s possible in the area based on the current zoning rules. Ditto when it comes to putting a microbrewery in the area designated “Downtown.” But how did these places get the designations they have in the first place? How much citizen input went into those decisions. And who do we talk to about re-thinking through those zoning decisions? How much input was given at the time? And how can input be given now for issues like this, or others that might come up, that aren’t really appropriate to address with the developer, but that are coming up as a result of the development that’s happening. When the developer is following all the rules but the neighbors are still all up in arms, then it’s the rules that are probably more the concern than the project.
  • Point me toward the documents that are going to be the most helpful. When you click through to find out more about a project, you can sometimes end up with a pretty large spreadsheet of files to look through. Each one requires clicking on it, letting the file download, opening the file, determining whether it’s got the information you’re looking for or not, and if not, going back and starting all over with the next document. It’s a frustrating process because it could conceivably take you several minutes to do what could have been done in 10 seconds if you’d only known what to click on first. (It would also be nice if the files had names that matched the project they were attached to. That way, when I’m looking over the files on my hard drive, I don’t have to click on 2111174-1373345045.pdf just to see what it’s about. If it said something like CarriageHouseApts-MasterPlan.pdf then I’d know right away whether that’s the file I’m looking for.)

The more educated the citizens, the more empowered we’ll feel. It’s when you feel trapped and don’t know where to turn that you start to feel helpless and victimized. And no matter how much we want to grow, expand, and infill as a city, we don’t want to make people feel beaten up or trodden down. That’s just not what Fort Collins is about. The opportunities are out there for us to get help, have our say, and make sure people know our thoughts. But if we don’t know the appropriate person to talk to, the crux of the issues, or the context behind decisions that are being made, we’re just going to end up either wasting our time and the city employees, or we’re going to blather on to all our friends about horrible the situation is without really getting anything accomplished nor feeling any better about the situation in the end.

I still don’t know where variances and historic reviews fall in all of this. Are they included in the data? The Stoner Subdivision required a variance, but I think what is listed in the hub is more about their plans in general. Are those things going to be linked in more closely in the future? To get answers to these and other questions, I’ll be meeting with Sarah B, Queen of development review, in just a few minutes.

I’m excited to see Fort Collins residents get more involved in talking about who we are as a city, where we’re headed, and how we’re going to get there. I think the development hub is a fantastic beginning to many of those discussions.

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