Denver Direct: Is Neighborhood Opinion Obstructive and Uninformed?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Is Neighborhood Opinion Obstructive and Uninformed?

From Larry Ambrose, INC President

“No, not enough credit given to community”

At the Saturday March 21 meeting at the Denver Zoo, where Parks Manager Laurie Dannemiller finally lopped the City Loop from City Park, I ran into an old friend who, to my surprise (and disappointment), was actually there in support of this much and deservedly maligned “regional, multi-generational playground” project. Turns out, he had somehow been on a junket to Philadelphia with head honcho, Park Planner, Gordon Robertson, and had seen all kinds of cutting edge and “modern” park development amenities which he angrily said, “would obviously never see the light of day in Denver because of the unreasonable and stupid neighborhood people who are against everything”. That this reasonably intelligent, former hippie who lived in a commune in his youth could be so vitriolic against what he perceived as pervasive NIMBY-like opposition shocked me.

The week before this episode, I had the privilege of being invited to participate as a panelist with Roger Armstrong of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods (CHUN) in the recent Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute Conference at the University of Denver. The Conference, sponsored by the law firm of Otten Johnson Robinson Neff & Ragonetti brings together real estate developers and urban planners from around the state and the nation to learn about the the most recent development trends.

Roger and I followed a presentation by lobbyist Sean Maley from one of Denver’s most prominent lobbying firms, CRL Associates. Lobbyists like CRL make a lot of their money getting Denver’s Planning Office, Planning Board and City Council to do what their clients need and want. Perhaps Mr. Maley didn’t know that a couple of neighborhood activists would be listening when he revealed his strategies for dealing with what he also portrayed as consistently difficult, negative and vocal neighborhood groups who, incidentally he said, really only represent a very small percentage of the actual number of households in any particular area.

Mr. Maley pointed out that key to getting what his client wants is working behind the scenes with City and Planning Office officials and Council members most of whom he knows personally. Important too, is packaging what is wanted in a way that neighborhoods will buy it and, he told the planners and developers, as a rule, he never identifies himself to neighborhood groups as a lobbyist. No surprises here but when his presentation, replete with photos of no Walmart signs, was over, what struck me is how much to the financial advantage of such consultants is perpetuating the culture of conflict between developers, the City and neighborhoods.

The sort of tag team presentation which Roger and I made to this room full of developers, was basically this: Don’t wait until after you put pencil to the paper to come talk to the neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are not against development, just poor development. There is such a thing as a bad development plan. The Community is the marketplace. Successful development plans are market driven. Gathering input from RNOs and communities at the outset will save time, money and the need for lobbyists.

It is so easy to portray neighborhood people as against everything – any more density, any more height, any more traffic, any more people, any more salary increases, any more events, any less dog poop, you name it. Demonizing concerned community opinion leaders is unfair and fails to recognize the fact that people in the neighborhood movement are much more discerning and creative than that for which they are given credit. Being able to discern is a good thing. However, the most common injustice is the assumption that that one is against the whole thing when when merely citicizing an aspect of a proposal. Here’s the upshot and what those who cast aspersions should remember: It is not drawing a line that is important, it is if or where a line should be drawn.