About Us

Make a Donation
Local • Independent • Essential News

Planning panel seeks unique approach to Riverside plan

Friday, September 18, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The beautiful, but rather sanitized, version of the East Riverside corridor presented in a recent consultant plan does not go far enough to address the social realities of the Riverside area, committee chair Saundra Kirk declared at Wednesday’s meeting of the Planning Commission Neighborhood Plan committee.

Kirk’s comments could signal a new step in the future of the city’s planning process. Here was a commission member who had some bold comments about what planning needed to achieve, and how it should incorporate not only land use and entitlements but also social problems and economic challenges. It wasn’t simply an exercise in zoning tools.

Kirk’s code word was reality – the reality of Riverside Drive is that it’s not like most major corridors. Riverside has challenges that must be recognized.

“It’s smart and it’s necessary to have a vision and to have a plan, something that we want to see recognized and honored and implemented,” Kirk said. “At the same time, and I don’t mean this as a criticism because we have to work together, but I think that our plans have got to vary, place to place. What works on Burnet Road is not going to work on Riverside Drive. We tend to use the same set of tools, without dealing with the reality of various places.”

The reality of Riverside Drive, as residents have pointed out at two recent meetings, is that many of its low-income residents fear being displaced by the gentrification seemingly encouraged in the corridor plan. And while planning staff was ready to define the quid pro quo of development density versus community benefits more clearly, others raised a broader question. It was a question of vision, echoed by local residents, that goes beyond guaranteeing a developer would offer up a park or affordable housing units in exchange for an extra couple of stories.

“What ya’ll are saying is that what’s on the ground needs to be part of the vision of the plan,” staffer Jody Zemel noted in closing comments. “It needs to be about who lives there and what goes on there now, not about people who are not there.”

Zemel was right. That’s exactly what frustrated residents were saying as they looked at the East Riverside corridor plan. And their presence, at both of the last two meetings, was enough to spur plenty of thought amongst the commissioners.

Planner Erica Leak did defend the plan for its benefits, noting the corridor plan would give local residents the opportunity to negotiate from a position of strength. An existing plan would go a long way toward aiding the city and local neighborhoods to negotiate an exchange of benefits between a developer and the city.

Residents however, were far less concerned about tradeoffs. As EROC contact team member Linda Lamb told the committee, the vision was a better, more pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, not a plan to create additional development. The goal of the neighborhood was not higher and taller, with some tradeoffs. It was a neighborhood, with its current residents, that was simply more livable.

“Why do we have to give them anything?” asked Lamb, noting the lure of the Riverside neighborhood to developers who were looking for cheap land for dense development. “We were hoping to come up with a plan, not a bonus system.”

Commissioner Danette Chimenti was sympathetic to that view, noting that a developer’s ability to claim entitlements in exchange for community benefits meant nothing if the neighborhood was sold on limited height. To win over the neighborhood would require defining benefits that would be worth the tradeoff.

“You have a five-story building, and you’re willing to offer 10 story entitlements,” Chimenti said. “If that’s not the community vision, then maybe it’s time to talk about a tradeoff that is the community vision. Maybe it is preserving affordable housing… Let’s talk about benefits. Let’s talk about saving people’s homes.”

Those concerns were not ignored. Planning Commission Chair Dave Sullivan, for instance, offered a list of recommendations that might be used to preserve affordable housing. His suggestions included preserving existing affordable units in the corridor, and development bonuses that might subsidize existing affordable housing. Sullivan also proposed subsidies and relocation assistance for the displacement for significant numbers of low-income residents from existing low-income multi-family housing.

Planner Molly Scarborough did walk through a number of changes city staff was ready to incorporate into the plan. They were ready to incorporate more information about demographics and existing housing units into the future plan, as well as more defined specifics of the density bonus as to what the community should get – rather than what the developer was entitled to – in the final plan.

While some commissioners were fine with this concession, Kirk pushed for more, urging a more complete vision that encompassed far more than land development tools. The dynamics are different on East Riverside, and any change toward high-end high-density development would have a more drastic impact, Kirk said. That needs to be both acknowledged and incorporated into a plan.

Kirk cut off any discussion that the plan would be voted on this week. She wanted an additional meeting to discuss changes to the plan, noting that the stakes were too high to simply pass the plan onto Council without dealing with issues.

Sullivan protested a bit, noting that Kirk had never been dressed down by a City Council member who wanted a plan back by a certain date.

“And it didn’t hurt you, did it?” Kirk quipped.

Her remark won out. Staff will take the commission’s recommendation and return on Oct. 21 with a revised East Riverside corridor plan.

You're a community leader

And we’re honored you look to us for serious, in-depth news. You know a strong community needs local and dedicated watchdog reporting. We’re here for you and that won’t change. Now will you take the powerful next step and support our nonprofit news organization?

Back to Top