PDC Disbands Lents Citizen Advisory Committee

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_2PDC staffer Justin Douglas talked to me about what led up to the change in policy.

“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.

 

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6 Comments

  1. I completely identify with the lack of meaningful participation of the URAC as a whole. With the exception of two large discussions (baseball and transportation) there weren’t many opportunities for significant conversation unless you joined a sub-committee. However, I think those meaningful conversations could have been, and it’s a shame that the multiple perspectives in such a large area will not be heard in an official forum. If Lents is not at the table directly (which remains to be seen who is recruited for the NED group) and PDC is employing a city-wide approach, my fear is that no progress will come. I hope I’m wrong. Or maybe with the developers and bankers at the table, we’ll get that stadium after all.

    • I agree Rachel. One thing that Justin and I touched on was the fact that the state law governing urban renewal requires a couple of things: that tax-increment financing (TIF) be spent only on brick-and-mortar projects (not programs), and that it only be spent within the boundaries of a URA.

      So any TIF spending is inherently tied to the built environment. That, to me, means that local voices should be at the table.

  2. John, I have to correct you – the Lents Neighborhood Association held at least 3 public meetings on the baseball stadium, as I recall (I wasn’t on the board at the time)… including the only general public vote on the stadium.

    • Thanks Nick. I made a note in the article.

      I’m interested in your take on the underlying point –that is, do you think that there may have been occasions when the URAC was a useful tool for citizens? What do you think of that venue going away?

      • I think the decision to abandon the URACs sucked. It was a great forum for representatives from all of the key groups to be briefed at the same time – and get on the same page, and send the same message. Additionally, the presence of the URAC provided additional advocacy support at city hall. It’s one thing for the LNA or MSANA or FPNA chair to go to city hall and ask for change, or help, or financing. It’s another thing for one of us, joined by URAC reps who are not bound by geography, to have those discussions.

        I don’t see things getting better on the citizen involvement and local advocacy end. I see it getting harder for outer eastside advocates to have their voices heard… maybe not right now, but later.

  3. To me, the real issue is PDC’s overall strategy. They’re now narrowly focused on job creation, which sounds good but doesn’t allow for a realistic, holistic look at the unique issues facing each Urban Renewal Area. I’m afraid this strategy is driven by people who have very little knowledge of real conditions on the ground in the areas they’re trying to help. They haven’t been interested in what the URAC has had to say for some time, which is why in some ways it’s a non-issue to see it go. I think it also undercuts the concept of TIF as a way of diverting today’s tax revenues to improve conditions on the ground and increase future revenues. The creation and retention of jobs is a very nice symptom of a successful, thriving community.

    To make a gardening analogy, I feel like they’re paying attention to the flowers at the top of the plant, pruning and spraying them to keep the buds coming on, because that’s what everybody wants to see. Meanwhile, the bush is still growing in the same crappy soil it was before they started…

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