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A celebrated local architect says the elected groups tasked with reviewing development decisions in their neighborhoods often represent the interests of a handful of outspoken individuals, not the whole community.
I made a mistake last week during an interview with Ted Smith, a celebrated local architect and co-chair of the Master of Real Estate Development program at the Woodbury School of Architecture.
The Golden Hill community, I said, didn’t like a modern condo building at the corner of 26th and B streets, called K Lofts, built by Smith’s long-time colleague Jonathan Segal.
I was regurgitating conventional wisdom, but Smith took exception.
“I’ve heard that a few times, and it’s absolute bullshit,” he said. “That building is loved by so many people.”
The distinction he was drawing: Some members of the Golden Hill community group – one of more than 40 citywide elected groups tasked with reviewing development decisions in their neighborhoods and giving a recommendation to the city – had issues with the project. That doesn’t mean the community as a whole didn’t like it.
“If there’s anything that is good to be said, it’s that community groups do not represent the community,” Smith said. “I don’t care what they think; they represent the private interests of individual people.
“I do not want you to mix up community and community group. A community group is that rare and small group of people, a community is everyone else, and they tend to stay home, live their lives and mind their own business.”
Smith’s view of community planning groups is sure to stoke some controversy, but he made a lot of other provocative comments, too:
The fact that K Lofts has taken a hit in a few conversations I’ve heard, and then has been memorialized as something Golden Hill doesn’t like is a farce. It’s not true at all. How many people actually say that, and the next thing you know people say that’s the truth? The bottom line is — and it’s the same of all community groups — is three people out of thousands who were on the community group didn’t like K Lofts, and they don’t represent that community, and nor do the community groups represent the community.
That’s the sick thing about the system. They don’t represent the community. The people who love architecture and love density and understand that the world is going to hell because of suburban development are a very large group of people at this point. And they don’t necessarily think they need to spend their time going out to fight the battles of their selfish neighbors that are just worried about their own property rights.
And so there’s a million people out there who don’t participate in these community groups. The community groups are just in nature, because of the people who populate them, most often naysayers. So we keep saying ‘the community’ and we make this mistake of saying the community is a community group. And the community group has nothing to do with the community. It represents the 10 people who decided something was going to bother their particular needs and decided to show up and become a community group. And that needs to be said. The community groups are really a farce. They don’t represent the community in any way. They represent private individuals who are thinking about private problems. They’ll couch their argument in all sorts of language that sounds like they’re interested in the community.
Joe LaCava, chair of a citywide group that assists community planning boards, acknowledged that community planning groups may not be totally representative, but said the overwhelming majority of the time, the system works just fine.
“The authority they have is directly tied to how credible they are when they go to Planning Commission or City Council,” he said. “If they’re not credible, they don’t have any authority at all.”
LaCava also said a lack of communication between City Hall and the local groups after the City Council goes against a group’s recommendation instills a sense that groups are on their own, that they need to defend their area because no one else will.
Nonetheless, he said the system is mostly effective.
“Let’s not get caught up in the few projects that go sideways,” he said.
Leo Wilson, chair of Uptown Planners, one of the city’s most well-attended community planning groups, said anyone unhappy with the performance of a particular group is welcome to run for a spot in the group and change its course.
“There’s always this appeal to the hidden majority. Nixon did it,” he said. “But the people who are active on boards are usually active throughout the community.”
One of the best values a community group can bring, Wilson said, is working directly with the applicant of a controversial project to work out any issues before it goes to City Council, so the Council never has to vote on an unresolved issue.