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McKinney to be honored for service on city Design Commission

Thursday, August 19, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

At today’s City Council meeting, Mayor Lee Leffingwell will be presenting the Distinguished Service Award to Eleanor McKinney, who recently retired from the Design Commission after 13 years. During her tenure on the commission, McKinney helped write the Downtown Design Guidelines, which started the process of transforming downtown into a more pedestrian-friendly area, and the Interim Density Bonus Ordinance.


McKinney, a landscape architect who specializes in sustainable development, was appointed to the Design Commission in 1997 and served as its chair from 2005-06. She resigned on July 26 and heard a day later that she would be honored by the Council.


She told In Fact Daily that the reason she left the commission was simply a matter of time constraints. Last year, she was appointed chair of the Council-initiated Green Roofs Advisory Group (GRAG), whose charge, she said, is to “pursue incentives and credits for green roofs and to promote and encourage their development.”


The group is currently producing their final report and requesting that Council extend its mandate for another year so that its members can help implement their policy recommendations. “The first draft of the report will be on the street a day or two after Labor Day,” McKinney said, “then we’ll be going around to various boards and commissions before taking it to City Council in late October.”


“The volunteer-time commitment was too much to do both,” she said.


Looking back 13 years after her appointment, McKinney still says that the biggest contribution she and her colleagues on the commission made to the city was the first task she took on as a commissioner: the Downtown Design Guidelines.


In 1997, Council requested that the commission prepare a set of design guidelines for new construction in the city center. According to the city’s Web site, “The purpose of the Downtown Design Guidelines was to coordinate and orchestrate the overall development of the city core, so that projects help each other succeed and result in a better, livable downtown.”


That may sound unremarkable now, but according to McKinney, at the time the idea that developers would take into consideration the overall development of a neighborhood when drawing up plans was a foreign one.


“When we started, property owners and developers were not used to their drawings and proposals being reviewed,” McKinney said. “They weren’t used to their projects being part of the whole of downtown and contributing to the whole of downtown. They were looking at each development as a singular piece. Now they understand the benefit for it to contribute to the whole. Now everybody understands that the recommendations we give are actually going to make their developments better as well.”


McKinney believes this understanding signaled a fundamental shift in the way the city, its developers, and it citizens looked at urban development. “In 1997, there were no guidelines for how to create pedestrian-friendly streetscapes,” she said. “Now, in 2010, it’s the way everybody knows how to work. All the amenities that you see downtown in the streetscapes — particularly in the Second Street District, where you have Taverna, Jo’s Coffee Shop, all the street trees — are the result of those guidelines.”


In 2008, by Council request, McKinney and the commission expanded the Downtown Design Guidelines into the Urban Design Guidelines in an effort to bring design values such as density, sustainability, and diversity to the entire city.


“That was our big contribution,” she said.


In addition to chairing the Green Roofs Advisory Group, McKinney said that she will now be focusing on her landscape design firm and looking to add public involvement to its list of services. “I’m really interested in participatory designs and getting the public more involved” through public-input sessions, she said. “In the Comprehensive Plan, one of the goals that the community has requested is more public involvement in planning and design, so we would be facilitating that.”


Leffingwell will be presenting McKinney her award at about 5:30pm.

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