2015, December 14 | Monday 5:06 am

by Peter Samuel
Ms Grimes: I’d like to offer myself as a candidate for a position on the Planning Commission. As my accompanying Bio would indicate I have some familiarity and interest in city planning but no professional qualification. My familiarity and interest is as follows. In my teens at high school in the mid-1950s in Melbourne Australia I read newspaper accounts of different views about a draft longterm plan for the metro area and got hold of a copy of the inch and a half thick report with lots of fold-out, multi-colored maps. At university I started architecture and town & regional planning but moved over to economics in which I graduated and got my first job teaching. I also did evening classes in landscape design and worked at that as a sideline business.
Cities I’ve lived in and got to know include the University town Cambridge England, Australia’s second city Melbourne and Canberra in Australia where I became a journalist. Canberra the Australian national capital is located between the country’s two largest cities and is very much a planned city having been established in 1901 as part of the formation of a national government or federation of the six states. Canberra as a totally new planned city early in the 20th century was principally the work of an American, the Chicago trained architect Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937) who worked for Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1911 Griffin’s design of a city built around huge artificial lakes in grazing land won over 136 other entries in an international competition held by the young federal government of Australia to design a new national capital. Mid-20th century planning was applied to new areas outside the Griffin plan.  During 14 years in Canberra I saw at close hand a century of idealized city planning in action – its accomplishments and failures.
I lived and worked in New York for just over two years, and in NW Washington DC for ten years – both great cities to observe city planning issues and the history of development.
After I moved to Frederick County in 1992 I became secretary of the Libertytown Civic Association and was actively involved in attempts to lay out a right of way for bypass routes of MD26 and MD75 to take through traffic, especially heavy trucks out of historic residential streets. The plan had general local support and was enthusiastically received by the director of planning at the State Highway Administration, but ran into classic NIMBY resistance from an influential established family, and was not advanced further.
For about the last 20 years I’ve lived and worked in the City of Frederick, mostly worked on road financing issues mostly outside of Frederick and Maryland. So I claim 50 years of following planning issues.
Many of the planning issues of the past 50 years have stayed the same:
- the search for a balance or at least a compromise between development and conservation,
- the effort to coordinate public services (transportation, utilities, public schools etc) with development, and to get developers to build or finance some of those complementary services
- land use zoning to segregate or separate supposedly incompatible uses
Some issues have changed dramatically in the 50 years:
- the move to ‘densify’ cities as part of ‘smart growth’ has destroyed a previous consensus that dense cities were unhealthy
- the abandonment of slum clearance and project housing for displaced slum-dwellers and other low-income folks in favor of integrating them into normal housing developments
- appreciation for the value of organic as opposed to planned redevelopment of cities and mixing of land uses following the writings of Jane Jacobs in the 1960s
- concern about a ‘new ice age’ has given way to worry about global warming, aka climate change
The fundamental problems of city planning remain:
(1) the forecasts’ dependence on a set of highly uncertain assumptions – likely future population, incomes, housing preferences, jobs, kinds of jobs, technology… the list of uncertainties is long, so that in the upshot the realized future often mocks the old plans
(2) the tension between planning as an exercise in tidying up market based development and the notion that planning can go much further and over-ride markets in real estate and reshape cities to fit a separate ‘vision.’
A city Planning Commission has a settled role in administering the ‘law’ as written in regulatory codes (in Frederick the Land Management Code as approved by elected representatives.) That means applying judgment in cases where the the Code leaves room for discretion, but otherwise “going by the (Code) book.”
My judgment would be directed by these thoughts:
- that forecasting efforts (modeling) while valuable in quantifying what-if scenarios are often badly wrong in the upshot and should not be given much credence as predictions
- ’visions’ of the City Beautiful are fine but not A (single) vision, because our diversity requires us to accommodate a variety of visions and patterns of development at the scale of the City
- that the move to denser walkable inner city living and mixed uses has great virtue and should be facilitated (I live downtown and wouldn’t live anywhere else,) but it isn’t for everyone and planners must allow a diversity of development including medium and low density and ‘unmixed’ use
- that people’s resources are limited and planning must be conducted with a light hand in order to minimize the costs it imposes, and with humility about what planning can deliver
- government has an important role in avoiding blight by removing barriers to reuse and repurposing of buildings
- that the great charm of downtown Frederick is precisely that it was NOT planned, gaining its character before land use zoning and historic preservation regulation, instead growing organically and catering to a variety of tastes and needs by market-determined adjustment and spontaneous neighborly accommodations
- however outside the historic downtown the City has always been planned according to the tenets of land use zoning, so residents’ expectations are different and a different approach is needed
- growth boundaries, green or otherwise, are a very bad idea since they drive up costs, make housing and other development unaffordable, and only encourage leap-frog more scattered and inefficient development
- the PC could do more than adjudicate development applications, it could be more pro-active in generating advice to elected officials on how to improve the planning process and the quality of development
- the PC should for example encourage rear alley networks for cars and more ‘walk-through’ walkways in the downtown, and should promote removal of ugly aerial cables and poles from streets especially whenever water and sewer mains are being renewed
- in place of clumsy quantitative parking mandates and forecasts based on dubious trip generation data the City should encourage a market-based response whereby parkers are offered a variety of parking places with differentiated parking fees and new parking provision reflecting the demand for parking and the costs of providing those spaces
- under-rated in Frederick is the need for building resilience to natural disasters and terrorist attack with hardened facilities and some redundancy in city infrastructure
- while we have a degree of self-sufficiency and many can both live and work within Frederick this city is destined to remain a part of the greater Washington DC/Baltimore metropolis and so relies heavily on quality connections south and east via improved regional roads, transit, freight, telecom
- while public hearings are vital for raising issues and allowing transparency of process in public comment time they tend to attract enthusiasts and zealots and the views expressed are rarely representative of community opinion
Peter Samuel 2015-12-01
My chances of appointment: similar odds to those of ex-Gov Martin O’Malley for Democrat presidential nominee, namely about 200 to one against.

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