In a move that surprised many, the Geneva City Council failed to adopt the city’s Comprehensive Plan and Community Decision-Making Guide on Wednesday night (August 3rd) after a last-minute request from Councilor Ken Camera. Camera asked for another round of revisions to provide more clarity to environmental concerns, as well as to look more closely at issues that were brought up during the public comment segment of the meeting.
In a Finger Lakes Times interview published on Wednesday prior to the anticipated adoption of the Comprehensive Plan final draft, City Manager Matt Horn and the director of Geneva’s Office of Neighborhood Initiatives Sage Gerling spoke about the history and wide-ranging facets of the plan. The article emphasized the City’s commitment to “attacking poverty,” which prompted me to comment at that evening’s council meeting about the lack of any recommended funding for the Economic Opportunity Task Force, one of the five primary stated ‘Initiatives’ of the Plan. Although it was only briefly noted in the Finger Lakes Times, Camera stated that my comments should be considered when he proposed the resolution to table the Plan’s adoption.
Many Genevans, including Horn, Geneva Mayor Ron Alcock, current Ward 3 Councilor Steve Valentino and former City Councilor Jackie Augustine (in her August 9th “Doing The Write Thing” column in the Finger Lakes Times) have expressed disappointment in the failure to adopt the Plan, citing the months of hard work of everyone involved in creating the Plan. I’d like to take the opportunity to respond and clarify my primary objection to the current Comprehensive Plan.
No Skin in the Game
From the standpoint of addressing poverty and economic inequality, there are numerous reasons to like this Comprehensive Plan. If one carefully reads the entire document, it’s apparent that the Steering Committee listened to those in the community who said that addressing inequality should be a central tenet of every decision the city makes in the future. As a complete statement, the Plan places a high value on these issues, and the Steering Committee should be thanked, congratulated and celebrated for this.
Still, perhaps the single most significant piece of the Plan is the section entitled “Initiatives.” While the Plan is designed as a fifteen-year blueprint for decision-making in the city and not a list of “promises,” the “Initiatives” section explicitly details the most far-reaching and specific goals of the entire Plan, and is the closest thing to a “to-do” list in the entire document.
These five Initiatives are:
- Downtown Critical Mass
- Exchange Street and Hamilton Street Gateway Corridors
- Great Geneva Amenities (Lakefront, etc.)
- Castle Street Residential Corridor
- Economic Opportunity Task Force
Each of these Initiatives are described in great detail in the Plan.
Under the “Getting Started” section, readers are provided with information on how each of these initiatives will be achieved, including time frames, anticipated participants (City departments, community organizations, etc.), and how much money the city can be expected to spend for each action.
For these initiatives, the Plan recommends that the City invest at five cost ranges:
- $$$$: $5m+,
- $$$: $1m-5m,
- $$: $0.25m-$1m,
- $: Under 0.25m
- C: Marginal coordination costs.
For the first four Initiatives, there is a minimum of at least one action under each Initiative listed at the $: Under 0.25m cost range.
The final Initiative, the Economic Opportunity Task Force, is listed at the C: Marginal coordination costs level.
Why is this a concern? It would appear that the city plans to provide at least marginal funding for the Economic Opportunity Task Force.
Let’s look more closely at what this Economic Opportunity Task Force will entail.
Here’s the description of the responsibilities of the Economic Opportunity Task Force from the Plan:
To address the City’s high poverty levels in a more coordinated manner, an Economic Opportunity Task Force should be established with a dedicated person responsible for overseeing implementation, coordination, and collaboration between local government agencies, service providers, employers and educational institutions.
The task force, unlike any previous effort in Geneva, will take a very comprehensive view of economic opportunity and the factors that promote or diminish upward mobility — education, transportation, housing, and workforce development. The Task Force should be charged with guiding the implementation of programs and initiatives that provide economic opportunity for low-income residents and meet current economic development efforts and needs in Geneva and the surrounding area.
It is evident that the work of the Task Force will require a great deal of unwavering attention because it will ensure that all of the inclusive and progressive concepts throughout the entire Plan will be followed and implemented.
Without the Task Force, the claim that the Plan will “attack” or even “address” poverty becomes little more than a slogan.
It’s proposed that the Task Force will have a “dedicated” person with an enormous obligation to see that all the great ideas in the Plan are more than just great ideas. It is also stated that the responsibilities of the Task Force will be handled by a “community coalition,” presumably without any actual work being done by any specific city agencies.
Anyone who takes the poverty rate and the state of inequality in the city seriously should feel extremely apprehensive about the phrase “marginal coordination costs.”
The City of Geneva doesn’t necessarily need to create any new positions within city government for this Task Force, but to recommend the lowest possible level of investment is unjustifiable.
By making a very simple change in the Plan, replacing the letter “C” with a “$” in the cost column for the Task Force, the Steering Committee and city will show that they truly believe that the Task Force is as important an Initiative as creating “green space” on upper Castle Street or funding “Healthy Neighborhoods” projects.
It’s unclear whether or not City Council will be engaging in a work session this month to review the Comprehensive Plan a final time. According to the Finger Lakes Times, City Manager Horn publicly “suggested another work session at Wednesday’s meeting” but “had decided against recommending that Thursday.”
No (Easy) Answers?
Other reaction from last week’s article about the Comprehensive Plan centered around my analysis of czb, llc and the “Healthy Neighborhoods” philosophy of urban planning. After all, czb, llc was responsible for the neighborhood study that led to eleven neighborhood associations being created in Geneva, an effort that many residents (including myself) feel has been a success. It’s been questioned why I would choose to look at czb, llc and their work through such a critical lens.
During at least three separate public discussions of the Comprehensive Plan, I directed pointed questions to people on the Steering Committee about the successes and failures of czb, llc’s planning strategies, and asked why we shouldn’t expect gentrification and increased concentrations of low-income residents with this particular methodology.
Each time I asked these questions, the response was very immediate and even curt. I was told each time that my concerns were appreciated and insightful but that I didn’t really understand the whole picture. I was invited, each time, to speak with committee members outside of the public forum. I sensed anxiety from each person who responded, and they gave the impression that they wanted to quickly change the subject. Peter Lombardi of czb, llc actually did provide an answer when I asked him for examples of cities where this philosophy was successful and didn’t result in gentrification, and he cited Pittsburgh and Chattanooga.
Mr. Lombardi’s response obviously didn’t ease my concerns.
Perhaps the people that I queried didn’t have a concise and encouraging answer to my questions. However, I spoke with genuine concern for my city and its future, and I did not receive an honest, transparent answer to my questions. Inviting me to a private discussion at a later time only nurtured suspicion and mistrust.
Here is what I think a candid and truthful answer may have looked like:
“Issues of income inequality and concentrated poverty are complex and probably can’t be solved on a city-wide level. It’s impossible for any urban planning method to undo the structural barriers to equality that are in place. There are no guarantees that gentrification will not occur. There are no specific examples with evidence to show that the “Healthy Neighborhoods” planning philosophy is more successful in preventing economic and social woes for low-income residents than other philosophies. However, we can still do our very best to encode some positive and novel ideas and solutions into the Comprehensive Plan in hopes that we won’t end up isolating and further hurting a significant portion of our community.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t get this kind of answer, so I had to find the answers for myself and my community.
Editor’s Note: Charles Buki of czb, llc reached out to Geneva Believer and made an offer to discuss urban planning and other issues privately, in person or by telephone, which was declined.
Geneva Believer presented an invitation to Mr. Buki to participate in an interview, either via email or recorded conversation, that would be published on this blog, which was declined.