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Should Projects Get Trials By Jury?

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Last year shopping mall giant Westfield floated a proposal for a 49-story tower in Century City, part of a master plan to reinvent one of the great prototypical edge cities. The problem, though, is that Century City is no longer on the edge of anything. It's smack in the middle of some of the most congested streets and expensive residential real estate east of the Ginza District. The city Planning Department liked the project. But, naturally, the neighbors got involved, and some, you know, hemming and hawing ensued. When the metaphorical dust settled and the City Council approved the $800 million project, the building had lost ten floors and four local homeowners associations called off their lawyers. Of course, the "project" existed only on paper in the first place; critics say that the developer drew the extra ten stories only so they could be lopped off as an expendable peace offering. A triumph for the little guy? Not so much. Borderline extortion and bribery? Perhaps. Several of the four homeowners associations paid for their petitions with war chests won from agreements with other developers; no word on whether Westfield paid them off in this case. A distortion of the democratic process of the sort that happen every day across the country? If you ask Andres Duany, principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. architects and co-founder of the Congress of New Urbanism, the answer is yes. Duany spoke yesterday at the Journalists Forum on Land and the Built Environment, sponsored by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in collaboration with the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. As arguably the most influential living urbanist, Duany does not hide is opinions, and he held forth on everything from Haiti to backyard-dwelling fowl, but he reserved some of his most scathing criticism for the process that passes for local democracy in many parts of the United States. To hear Duany describe it -- and he does so with all the swagger and spirit you'd hope for from one of the field's superstars -- those homeowners in the shadow of Century City are not an oppressed minority -- they are special interest like any other. They amount to a lobbying group seeking rent according to the project that, in this case, the Los Angeles Planning Commission and City Council are or are not willing to approve. Obviously their claim on their immediate surroundings -- though legitimate -- should not trump all other considerations. Duany contends, however, that most public processes, no matter how sophisticated and complex, end up privileging this one group over all others. Duany identifies three groups involved with contested developments: the developers, the immediate neighbors, and everyone else in the city. We don't need to worry about the developers, who advocate for themselves and whose interests are more or less transparent. Conversely, neighbors may expend serious efforts, but they basically want one thing: nothing. As any planner knows, it's the third group that's tricky. The silent majority typically remains true to its name. Duany proposes that cities adopt a hybrid of a grand jury and an electorate: 200 (or however many) ordinary citizens randomly sampled and empanelled to learn about, deliberate on, and render a decision on proposed projects. He notes that the wisdom of democracy does not lie in participation -- which depends simply on who shows up -- but rather on sampling. The recommendation of that random sample would stand for the interests of the entire community and be balanced against those of the other two parties. Though public officials would typically have the final say, the panel would give them cover to make decisions that might enrage the neighbors. Whether this system would fly anywhere in California remains to be seen, although it's a good bet that plenty of planners would jump for joy. According to Duany, it has worked elsewhere. He cited an example of a public beach club built in Perth, Australia, on a beach roughly equivalent to Malibu. Duany says that the homeowners with million-dollar views hate the place, but the panel of citizens thought it was swell -- and now so do its patrons. Even if Duany's beach club story is apocryphal, it still makes perfect sense. What might not make sense is going to the trouble and expense of empaneling hundreds of ordinary citizens to decide how tall a building should be or whether it creates too much traffic. Then again, it could hardly be more cumbersome, unpredictable, or expensive than the current process. With a panel, a city could prescribe a set number of meetings, reserve options for developers to respond to questions and suggestions, and then that's it: the process is short, predictable, and less expensive in several ways. Most obviously, it would eliminate the interminable ad hoc meetings that plague many projects. It would also eliminate the potential for graft, by which developers can essentially buy off homeowners. And it could cost literally millions less if you factor in the cost of delaying projects ad infinitum. Whether this process would yield 100-story towers with rooftop chicken coops or cap everything at three stories and two parking spaces per 1,000 feet I don't know. But that's Duany's point: we don't know what the public wants until planners identify who "the public" -- as opposed to the stakeholders -- actually are and discern their interests in a reasonable way. * * * Duany and his fellow presenters this weekend discussed a great deal more tha the public process, some of which (measuring density and infill) pertains to California and some of which (urban population loss; greenfield development in Madagascar) does not. Most of it was fascinating and I, along with many of my colleagues (including Planetizen's Tim Halbur) will be sharing more of what we learned in Cambridge over the next few days. Many thanks to Anthony Flint and his colleagues at the Lincoln Institute and Harvard for convening a fantastic group. - Josh Stephens