A few weeks ago, the PDC quietly disbanded the Urban Renewal Advisory Committees –the citizen committees that advise the agency in its urban renewal areas. That includes the Lents Town Center Urban Renewal Advisory Committee, which has guided our 9-neighborhood, $245 million urban renewal area since 1998.
According to the PDC, the URACs are intended “to involve citizens, urban renewal area (URA) stakeholders and/or project partners more directly in planning, program development and decision making.” Agency policy is that the PDC “believes that meaningful, timely, effective public participation is essential to successfully implement PDC policies and projects.”
“PDC has been undergoing significant downsizing as an agency. We’re just as committed to public participation as we were before –but due to financial constraints, the URAC system just isn’t a sustainable model for us.” He said that due to budget cuts, the five full-time public participation staffers the agency had a few years ago are now down to one.
I also spoke with John Notis, the now-former Chair of the LTCURAC. He told me that the URAC has become ineffectual and that it “just doesn’t do what it used to do, for many reasons.”
Former Foster-Powell Chair Tracy Gratto has represented Fo-po on the URAC for the last three years. She agreed that the PDC has rendered URAC participation a largely meaningless exercise. “They haven’t asked us to make a decision in months,” she says.
I asked Tracy how she was notified of the change in policy, and she said that due to a recent illness she was unable to attend the June URAC meeting. Although she had an inkling that a change in PDC’s policy on public participation was being discussed, she had no idea such a drastic change was imminent.
“I didn’t imagine that the June meeting would be a ‘decide and announce’ kind of thing,” she says. As it turns out, the June meeting would be the group’s last.
In John’s view, the biggest loss is that the area no longer has “a forum where representatives from the entire URA could come, meet, and discuss their interests.” He says that the value of the URAC in recent years is that it has helped break down the “tunnel vision” that can sometimes arise within the neighborhood associations. “It’s a long way from 122nd and Harold to 52nd and Foster,” he says, and the URAC has been the vehicle for dispelling the “perceived (rarely real) competition for resources between neighborhoods.”
The PDC has a history of capriciousness with regard to its advisory committees. The Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood was never given representation on the Lents URAC, despite having dozens of businesses fronting Foster and within the URA. At one point PDC kept Mt. Scott-Arleta’s URAC seat vacant for almost a year while revising their public participation policy.
Then two years ago the PDC changed its already-broad authority to limit URAC membership. The result required every committee member to be reappointed each year, and was seen by many as a way to purge the committees of people critical of the agency.
Having spent three years on the URAC myself, many of the criticisms of PDC’s public participation system ring true to me. Meetings were stage-managed to seemingly avoid subjects relevant to the community, and committee members were not permitted to bring issues to the group or to ask for specific topics to be agendized. Substantive questions from committee members regarding important issues like spending levels and future plans –and even about the decisionmaking process itself –went endlessly unanswered, and it was easy to conclude that the whole exercise was a farcical waste of time.
Thus it’s perhaps not surprising that their ultimate elimination garners a collective shrug from some of the people most intimately involved with them.
Still, the URACs were the venue through which the community could (on occasion) have an impact. The failed attempt to site a baseball stadium in Lents Park came to us through the Lents URAC, which held the only local public meetings on the subject. [Correction: the Lents Neighborhood Association also held public meetings on the stadium. -JM]
Likewise, pressure to hold the PDC to its “moral obligation” (in the words of one PDC staffer) to fund the Foster Streetscape came through the URAC. The current citizen committee that’s planning the streetscape implementation would likely not exist if not for neighborhood pressure to allocate urban renewal dollars to the project. One key mechanism for that pressure was the URAC.
As frustrating as the experience of serving on the URAC could be for the dozens of citizens who have done a stint on the committee, eliminating it still seems to be a step backward, both for the local community and for the City as a whole.
But with the new policy now implemented, Justin Douglas offered a suggestion for interested community members going forward. He told me that PDC has been changing its focus toward a more holistic, citywide approach to economic development, and that the agency’s main venue for public participation would now be its citywide Neighborhood Economic Development Leadership Group.
“We’ve changed from focusing on buildings and real estate,” he said. “Real estate without clear economic benefit, we just don’t do that any more.”
He conceded that there’s a perception that the NED Leadership Group is all “bankers and real estate developers,” but said that the agency is working to bring in community members.
Justin told me that next month the PDC will begin recruiting for seats on the NED Leadership Group that are specifically set aside for people with a background in “community leadership and engagement,” and he stressed that the PDC “needs to have voices” from the former URACs in those positions. We’ll post more information when it’s available.