Are We Strangling Economic Development?

Recently I wrote an article for an on-line magazine geared toward planners, primarily citizen planners like me.  We are the ones with lots of passion – usually – for our cities and towns.  We may have some experience with development, real estate, engineering, law, water, business, local government or we may simply have passion.  The article was circulated among several groups on LinkedIn and surprisingly generated quite a bit of comment from planners and economic development folks across the country.

What follows is a condensed version, but I am interested to know what the residents of Glenwood and Garfield County think.   

strangling-cartoon-imageOver a year ago, the Glenwood Springs (Colorado) Community Development Department and the Planning and Zoning Commission were directed by City Council to review and recommend changes to the planning and entitlement process. Several Council members expressed concern and frustration over the complexity and ambiguity of the process and the level of risk that potential developers were taking in order to complete a project.

Does the approval process require such an extensive knowledge of code, rules, regulations and procedures that it requires the assistance of an attorney or other professional to guide an applicant? Is it the process strangling economic development?

In 2003, similar sentiments were expressed by a group of architects in Denver calling them selves Citizens to Streamline Our Permitting Process (STOPP). Their report entitled “Denver’s Development Review Process: Can It Be Fixed?” to then Mayor John Hickenlooper outlining issues that needed to be addressed.  1

As the introduction to the report stated, “… it only take a few reversals of agreements or approvals, a few lengthy delays in review, a few conflicts between agency requirements, to turn the process into a nightmare.”

I have a fair understanding of the process that community planners and development departments must complete to ensure compliance with code and comprehensive plans. It is necessary that due diligence has been exercised in review of a project.

However, are developers being forced to jump through costly, time consuming, and, at least in their viewpoint, unnecessary hoops by planning officials, department heads, and, in some cases, by planning commissioners as well? Does the approval process require such an extensive knowledge of code, rules, regulations, and procedures that it requires the assistance of an attorney or other professional to guide an applicant, effectively making the entire process too costly for smaller developers?

Some of the issues and concerns identified by our Glenwood Springs city council members included:

  • Reduce inequity of the review process by treating everyone equally and fairly
  • Enhance lines of communication between council, staff, and the planning commissioners. (Our municipal code does not allow city council members to appear personally before the City Council or any Board or Commission).
  • Reduce some risk to the applicant by increasing clarity in what is expected.
  • Lengthen the process if necessary to gain “buy-in” and entitlements prior to the end of the process. 2
  • Confusing and often conflicting codes lead to inconsistent and subjective application by staff, misunderstanding by the applicant and uncertainty by the planning commission. This was by no means the entire list but the direction was clear. Applicants needed to know what was expected of them and, in turn, what they could expect as the outcome of the process.

Denver’s STOPP Report

In Denver’s STOPP report, some of the same issues were identified:

  • The system promotes inequities. Those with more resources achieve success, often eliminating the “little guy”.
  • Too much emphasis is placed on quantified standards and not enough on reasonably meeting the objectives the standards address.
  • Lack of coordinated, comprehensive response from reviewing agencies.
  • Additional details being required late in the process.
  • Inconsistent review team. Department personnel assigned to review a project varies and with them interpretation of requirements.
  • Excessive up-front detail and engineering required for conceptual review and to achieve basic entitlements. 3 To be fair to Denver, their development code has and is continuing to undergo revision public hearings taking place now. According to the Denver Community Planning and Development website, 4 adoption is expected to take two to three months.

Slow & Careful Progress

As with most things, the wheels of progress move slowly. In November 2013, the Glenwood Springs City Council passed several changes to our development code. One was a provision to allow City Council to remand an application back to the Planning and Zoning Commission if the applicant is including new information that has not been vetted by the Commission.

Probably the most significant change so far has been to the process timeframe. The application process has been lengthened by two weeks (to allow time for a pre-application meeting between the applicant and staff and representatives from other city departmentschecklist-green-check-mark-square2.

Additionally, the Community Development Department has created flow charts to better clarify how the application moves through the system. Check-lists have also been developed to ensure that all necessary information is included in the application. The checklists will be reviewed and adopted by city council by resolution to allow for easier revision.

While these changes move toward the goals city council set, they do not , as several council members observed,  provide the applicant with earlier entitlements or vesting.

Items that are in process, but incomplete, include a specification manual that will clearly spell out goals and objectives, necessary elements, and what items — if not in compliance by the applicant — will require a variance or will simply not allow the project to move forward.

Glenwood Is Not Denver

Glenwood Spring is not the City and County of Denver – not even close.  But it became apparent to me after reading comments from throughout the country that Glenwood – and Denver – are not alone in their desire to create a more user-friendly atmosphere.

This comment on LinkedIn  from Paula Daneluk, with enCode 360, summed up the thoughts that were expressed by many people:

“Developers and the average citizen alike benefit when the regulations are clear and easy to understand. If it takes a degree in statistics or biology to understand the regulations, no one is going to be able to move through the process easily. Consistency is the key though. How a regulation is interpreted is important. It should be applied the same whether the community likes who is applying or not.

The attitude of the agency’s staff towards development is also key. If there is an attitude of service and working in cooperation to move projects through the process, then projects get approved and economic development occurs. If the overall attitude is more akin a gatekeeper where the planners in the organization are looking for things to use as a rejection or reason to delay the project, then the whole experience becomes a drawn out adversarial battle.

A majority of applicants, professional developers and the average citizens alike never read a jurisdiction’s regulations before deciding what they want to do. They draw up their dream and submit it, hoping that it will be a smooth process. An agency where the planners are able to keep a priority on assisting people through the process and educating them about the requirements will be successful.”

Are we strangling economic development through too onerous of processes? There is no question that some level of standards must be maintained. However, it is important to look at and understand the objectives of those standards and determine whether, in this economy, in this place, at this time, the requirements we place on developers are beneficial to the community.

It is certainly true, as our Community Development Director, Andrew McGregor, has stated, it is easier to loosen regulations than to tighten them. And we all want a beautiful vibrant community that speaks to who we are. But have local governments tightened regulations and processes to the point that it is simply not feasible for developers to move even traditional projects forward, let alone ones that might be innovative and a bit out of the ordinary … ones that might be a catalyst for further economic growth for our communities?

What do you think?  Does the same apply to Garfield County?  How about Rifle or Carbondale?  Let’s talk about it!  

Notes:

 1. Architects outline problems with city review process” (Denver Business Journal, Nov. 23, 2003).

2. This can be a complex and confusing point. Most commonly used in land development, entitlements are the right to develop a property for the desired use. “Buy-in,” from the view of some city council members, is not an entitlement but more of an educated guess, based on reasonable assumptions staff could provide to an applicant. This would be based on the broad view of a project and include major issues like building footprint, height, setbacks, required parking, and landscaping requirements. It could also include utility connections, stormwater mitigation, vehicle and pedestrian access, and architectural style, among others. Also at this point, probable variances could be identified. If there were non-negotiable items required by the city, then those could be identified to allow the applicant to decide early on whether the project was feasible as proposed. As the project progresses and more detail is provided, along with further review and analysis (unless the original assumptions were proven to be incorrect ), staff would stand by their original buy-in and not reverse or significantly change it without justification.

3. Developers often create a Sketch Plan which is an early first draft of the proposed development. The Sketch Plan does not show engineering detail. Often developers are being required to present a more extensive plan, showing engineering detail, design detail, landscaping and other components, prior to coming before the Planning Commission or City Council for a conceptual review or to proceed with the application.

4. Denver Community Planning and Development website

 

 

 

Getting to YES on 7th Street!

YES!In the early 1980’s Roger Fischer & William Ury authored the best-selling book, “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.”  It has been used in countless negotiations, from those at Camp David to those in the bedroom.  The main concept is “bargain over interests rather than position.”   Interests can be defined at the “why” while position is the “what”.  

Interest vs. Position

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) website designed to explain the art of negotiations to students explains this very clearly with an illustration I will paraphrase. Two chefs were arguing over the last orange. Both needed the orange to complete their recipe.  As a compromise, the chefs agreed to cut the orange in half.  One chef squeezed the juice from his half of the orange into his recipe.  It was not enough, but it would have to do.  The other used the orange zest from her half in her recipe.  It was not as much as the recipe called for, but again, it would have to do.  orange

http://web.mit.edu/negotiation/www/NBivsp.html  

Clearly, if the chefs had talked about their interest – why they needed the orange, rather than the orange itself, both would have had a much more satisfactory result.

Yes to Vitality

Last Thursday evening the negotiations and discussion ran quite late regarding the proposed outdoor seating policy and the 7th Street Sidewalk Expansion.  In the end, City Council got to “Yes” and gave their blessing for the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) to move forward with plans to widen the sidewalks on the south side of 7th Street between Blake and Grand to 18 feet.  This will allow restaurants along 7th to provide the option of outdoor seating for their customers.

Juicy Lucys 6-15-13 with roof deck - smaller

I do not think there was a person in that room who had an issue with the “why” of this project.   Glenwood needs to do whatever it possibly can to continue to create a vibrant, active downtown, which will benefit the entire community.  Wider sidewalks that create a pedestrian friendly district, further enhanced by landscaping and appropriate lighting will serve to bring people into the downtown. The outdoor dining will make them want to stay and linger.   The sticking point was the “what.”    The what, in this case, was the raised patio that may be needed by the Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company, as well as others, to create a level seating area as this concept is expanded.

Due to the severity ofBrew Pub expanded sidewalk the slope, it is possible that at least one of these patios would need to be permanent which is causing City staff as well as at least one council member some heartburn. The issue became whether public funds should be used to create an amenity that is used by a private business.   In the end, it was the “why” – the need for an energetic downtown that was the priority over the “what” for Council.  The vote was six to one, with Mayor Leo McKinney casting the only dissenting vote.

Caution and Assurance

Only one person, Jon Zalinski, owner of TreadZ, cautioned council members that a line should be drawn and all business owners given a similar opportunity.  From comments that were part of the public meeting,  as well as discussions during breaks and after, it was clear that the intent of both the DDA and City Council is to continue to make improvements throughout the downtown area to help those businesses attract customers. To paraphrase what several council members said;   benefits to the businesses in the downtown would benefit all of Glenwood Springs.   Areas that were specifically discussed were Cooper Avenue, 6th Street and the areas along 8th and 9th, east and west of Grand Avenue. 

As Leslie Bethel clarified in her response to my previous post, approximately half of the $800,000 from the county will still be used for improvements to the parking area south of the fire station as well as streetscaping along Cooper from the new parking structure to the library building.  

Trust Issues?

In an article on Forbes.com, Keld Jensen, a Forbes contributor who “writes about negotiation, behavioral economics and trust” maintains that in spite of 30 years of using the “Getting to Yes” theory, negotiations and collaboration flounder.  

 http://www.forbes.com/sites/keldjensen/2013/02/05/why-negotiators-still-arent-getting-to-yes/

He states that our biggest problem in negotiations and collaboration is a lack of trust in other people.   The citizens of Glenwood Springs as well as the business owners must now trust the DDA and Council to do the right thing and continue their work to make downtown Glenwood the crown jewel of the city.  Don’t let us down!

What else can be done?

Café_de_Flore jpg

 

Cafe de Flore, Paris. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Let me know what you think of this decision.  Besides relocating SH 82, what else would you like to see done in the downtown area to improve vitality: Street vendors, more street markets?  Do you think the current Street Design Standards of an eight foot pedestrian walkway are excessive?  Could sidewalks that are eight to nine feet also serve additional uses, like outdoor seating or merchandise display without truly creating a safety issue? Would Glenwood be wise to lose additional on-street parking to widen sidewalks in other areas?  Keep the discussion going to make sure your voice is heard!

7th Street Sidewalk Expansion – Is It Wise?

 

7th Street Sidewalk Expansion 2Who would not want a more beautiful streetscape?   Picture it; outdoor dining on a summer evening;  folks strolling leisurely along  beautiful wide sidewalks while wonderful aromas entice their senses.    That is the publicly funded Downtown Development Authority’s (DDA) plan for 7th Street.   It seems to be a lovely plan designed to bring people into the downtown area and make 7th Street a showcase for Glenwood Springs.   This is the concept being considered at the City Council meeting this Thursday – tomorrow, by the time this blog is up.   It seems the perfect concept!

As many of you know, I get really excited at the mention of economic development and anything that will improve the business climate of the community.  But as I am so fond of doing, let me play devil’s advocate for a moment about this particular project.

7th Street Background

According to an article in the Glenwood Post Independent on December 21, 2012, http://www.postindependent.com/article/20121221/VALLEYNEWS/121229980  Garfield County agreed to kick in $800,000 for “ . . .off-site street and pedestrian improvements associated with the Cooper Avenue redevelopment projects . . .” – namely the parking garage at 9th and Cooper and the Library/Colorado Mountain College building/parking at 8th and Cooper.   The money was also earmarked for improvements to the surface parking area between the fire station and Methodist church along Cooper. 

However, according to a presentation Leslie Bethel, the Director of the DDA made to the Planning and Zoning Commission December 17, the funding intended for those Cooper Street improvements have been reallocated to the 7th Street project – with the County’s blessing.  According to Bethel, the DDA Board also set aside $200,000 in contingencies in 2014 for this project.

The plan is to widen the sidewalk along the south side of 7th street to 18 feet, which would allow the restaurants along 7th, including Glenwood Canyon Brew Pub, Pullman, Juicy Lucy’s, Peppo Nino, and the Riviera to expand their dining to the sidewalk.  There has been discussion that the outdoor area would be owned and managed by the City of Glenwood, but leased back to the businesses.  At the December 17th meeting Bethel stated that the details regarding lease rates were not finalized.   She indicated that this revenue might be used to offset some of the ongoing operation and maintenance of the pedestrian bridge elevator.

7th Street Questions

My first set of questions revolve around how and why was the focus so swiftly switched from Cooper Street to 7th Street with seemingly little input from businesses other than those along 7th Street?  I realize that this concept has been discussed for a bit, but I wonder what the rush is to get it completed this year, particularly since that area is likely to be undergoing some significant construction for the Grand Avenue Bridge and pedestrian bridge.  The Grand Avenue Bridge is moving into the design phase.  Would it be wise to tie the design of this project into the design of the bridge and pedestrian bridge? I also have a difficult time believing that this area will be widely used during that construction period.  Would the city be better served to finish one project completely before running after the next shiny object?

My second set of questions focuses on whether this gives particular businesses an unfair advantage over others.  Is the City of Glenwood essentially subsidizing those businesses by footing the bill to increase their serving area?   Assuming there would be five to seven businesses primarily benefiting from this expansion, does the increased sales tax revenue generated, along with any lease payment justify the cost of nearly one million dollars for this project?  How long will it take for the city and DDA to recoup even the $200,000 that could be invested by the DDA?  Can a similar option be made available to businesses along Grand Avenue, 8th Street and Cooper Avenue as well as those on west 7th Street?   The City does address unfair advantage in municipal code relating to signage.  When considering a variance to the sign code, one criterion for approval is “Variances should not be granted which would allow any business use an unfair advertising advantage over any other business use.”  (§070.060.040(b) (4) (h) )

My third question is whether this is the best use for taxpayer money.  Yes, this is being largely funded by a grant, but it is a grant from Garfield County, and from the Garfield County Oil and Gas Mitigation Fund.  The DDA is funded through property taxes and through Tax Increment Financing (TIF) from the City Sales and Use Tax (more on that in a future blog).  Is sales tax being collected by other businesses in downtown Glenwood being used to subsidize this two block area? 

My fourth question is whether the City really wants to get into the business of being a landlord, which is essentially what they would be doing with the property that is being leased back to the business owners.

Thoughtful Consideration

I would love to see a wonderful promenade along 7th Street.   It would be wonderful to see all of the buildings in the downtown well maintained with clean windows, clean sidewalks, flowers and benches.  Beautiful streetscapes throughout the downtown entice locals and tourists to stay, shop and linger.  I applaud the DDA for making things happen in the downtown area.  At times, it seems like Leslie Bethel and her board are the only ones able to get things off dead center.  I love almost any idea that will bring additional vibrancy, people, and revenue into the downtown and into Glenwood and give businesses a fighting chance to succeed.  However, I would urge the city fathers to take some time and think this decision through thorough.  It would be wise to consider this not only from the angle of the businesses on 7th Street but from the angle of the taxpayers and those businesses who  will simply never have this same option in their current location.