Comprehensive Plan: shield or guide?

 

Analysis by Mike Kroll

 

The recent controversy surrounding the proposed retail development by Horne Properties has once again brought Galesburg's oft-forgotten Comprehensive Plan into the public consciousness. Has anyone else noticed that just about the only time this tomb is referenced is when someone wants to buttress objections to a proposed project? Completed in 1999 at the instigation of a Leadership Galesburg class and costing approximately $100,000 this document was initially hailed before being unceremoniously buried on shelves around town. Even the Zephyr's copy has say undisturbed for years on a shelf before we (literally)dusted it off for this story.

As some of the critics have pointed out, while the CP did envision a retail development at the intersection of North Seminary Street and Route 34 it never imagined one the size proposed by Horne Properties. The 140-some acre project being proposed by Horne would completely fill the existing farm field bordered by Seminary Street on the west, Carl Sandburg Drive to the south, Route 34 to the north and the BNSF tracks to the east. In the CP the area immediately adjacent to Carl Sandburg Drive was depicted as a mixture of office and medium-high density residential. Both the west side of Seminary Street facing the proposed retail complex and the south side of Carl Sandburg drive from Seminary Street west was designated to be office as well.

Critics of the Horne Development cite this discrepancy as evidence that the developer is getting “special treatment” (wink, wink) and being permitted to locate a shopping center inappropriately. The thing about “special treatment” is that it is welcomed when you support a project and cursed when you oppose it. The fact is that in as much as this Horne project is being courted by the city the charge of special treatment is accurate but hardly unique or necessarily inappropriate. Any reasonable person has to expect that every accommodation will be accorded projects city officials want to see completed, whether they be commercial, industrial or residential. Excepting NIMBY (not in my back yard) issues such an approach is typically welcomed by most citizens as a means of “encouraging progress.”

So the simplistic question becomes, just what is the value or role of the comprehensive plan in guiding the actions of city officials? A more complicated but undoubtedly more helpful set of questions might include: how does a comprehensive plan attain and maintain legitimacy as a guide to local leaders? used as such a guide how specific and detailed should a comprehensive plan be written? shouldn't a comprehensive plan be a living document that is adjusted over time to accommodate changing conditions within the community? and once established should such a plan be considered inviolable?

The 1999 comprehensive plan was preceded by an earlier attempt dating back to 1967. During the thirty-plus years separating the two plans no effort was made to reconcile the chasm that separated the 1967 CP from any resemblance to reality within just a few years of its unveiling. Both of these involved blue ribbon panels of local citizens who supposedly guided their development but in reality both plans were actually created by well-paid outside consultants who had little understanding or investment in the future of Galesburg but knew well the consultants creed: accountability is easily escaped when you simply tell the client what he wants to hear. By the time the Leadership Galesburg class began considering the promotion of a new comprehensive plan the previous plan had long since become a joke. Galesburg saw tremendous changes few could have anticipated following completion of the 1967 comprehensive plan and the same has already occurred since adoption of the 1999 successor plan. A static comprehensive plan is a waste of time and money. The only way such a plan is useful is if it is treated as a dynamic living document regularly updated to reflect changes in the community and directly overseen by group of knowledgeable and involved citizens.

The assumptions of urban or community planning also need to be taken with a grain of salt. The controversy over the Horne Project's deviation from the 1999 CP is in large part based on the assumption that single-family homeowners are more accepting of low-density office or higher density residential development adjacent to their neighborhood. This concept is referred to as “buffering” and supposedly creates a more gradual transition from single-family homes to commercial development.

In practice the concept of buffering is used to disguise the real goal of blocking an undesirable development. You can look all over Galesburg and in any other small, medium or large city and find single-family residential neighborhoods that immediately abut commercial development or high-density residential development. You can even see many examples of residential homes immediately adjacent to industrial plants both here and elsewhere. The real issue is that many owners of upscale homes want to be treated to a different set of considerations than owners of more modest homes.

Room for conflict always occurs when such homeowners develop adjacent to large tracts of vacant land. In many cases the only universally acceptable neighbor is additional upscale single-family residential development or maintenance of the undeveloped “no man's land.” We have seen this before in Galesburg. A good example was when residents along Lincoln Park Drive objected to a proposed apartment complex in the empty field between their homes and Lowes. No office or higher density residential development short of luxury condominiums would have been welcomed as a buffer in that instance. The issue is much more complicated than simply postulating buffer zoning and in the case of the Horne development the accommodations sought by the Planning Commission seemed to be a reasonable compromise.

The mission of the Planning Commission is far too broad and that breadth results in precious little actual planning taking place. For the most part the existing commission really oversees the spot zoning everyone says doesn't occur in Galesburg and insures that new projects fit within city development rules (unless the project has already been granted special concessions). What is really needed is a separate commission that is truly concerned with planning. This commission should become the custodian of a constantly evolving comprehensive plan that is a openly produced and maintained local product. If a real comprehensive planning process were instituted we would see proactive rezoning of land within the city to accommodate the plan rather than the project by project approach currently instituted that amounts to spot zoning. This same new commission should be actively involved in modifying and updated zoning classifications and related ordinances regulating building design, appearance, parking, community traffic flow, etc.

Additionally, if we had a comprehensive plan that was treated as a valuable document both city administrators and the city council would use it to guide the street plan and development, upgrades and maintenance to utilities. The present CP already specifies a number of street projects that would have a direct bearing on the traffic impact of the proposed new shopping center. The extension of Carl Sandburg Drive east to Farnham Street has long been discussed but not acted upon due to the cost of avoiding a grade crossing with the BNSF tracks. The comprehensive plan also calls for a significant number of grade separation between BNSF tracks and surface streets in Galesburg. Bridging over BNSF tracks within the city would be incredibly costly and have far-reaching impacts on the surrounding neighborhood yet the constant increase in train traffic is becoming more and more of a local traffic nightmare.

Another aspect of the comprehensive plan that has so far received little consideration is planning for economic development beyond blue-collar industrial and retail. The future success of Galesburg depends upon establishment of a more diverse employment economy. We need to include a range of white-collar administrative and professional jobs to our local mix and part of responsible planning would be to properly site potential office parks. It is wrong to simply assume that such development would automatically take place in an industrial park. That type of thinking played a role in the loss of the remaining engineering and sales jobs at Butler-Bluescope. Peoria offered them very nice space in a downtown office tower and reportedly all we offered was space in the former Sears building above the Public Aid office. Sure is hard to imagine how our economic development folks lost those jobs huh?

While Galesburg's downtown is hardly conducive to development of any significant office development there are other areas around town that appear well suited to such future use. For example, the currently empty fields along either side of Linwood Road between Losey and Fremont Streets would make a nice location for a campus-like office complex. Another good location for such a development would seem to be the field north of Fremont Street and bordered on the west by Carl Sandburg Drive and on the east by the high school. No doubt some of the homeowners to the east would object to such a use but they would also likely object to higher density residential use as well. These large farm fields that are in essence agricultural islands (planners call them donuts) surrounded by the city should be annexed in and brought on the city tax rolls.

Believe it or not there are some good ideas buried in the otherwise invisible 1999 comprehensive plan but the value of this static plan is diminishing at a quick pace. Galesburg needs to approach planning as an ongoing activity and planned zoning changes should precede proposed projects. It is also important that the city codify the expectations on responsible developers to not only absorb the cost of infrastructure improvements necessitated by their projects but to contribute to the greater community good either by setting land aside for parks or schools or contributing cash toward such general community improvements. This isn't a new concept, many other forward-looking communities already take this approach. Isn't it time Galesburg live up to the rhetoric contained within the city's mission statement? “...The City Council will play a pro-active role in providing leadership to its citizens, neighborhoods, and other public bodies and enact policies which ensure the existence of a broad based economy.”