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Kalamazoo Comprehensive Plan

Kalamazoo’s Comprehensive Plan:
A Vision for our Future or, Yet Another Shelf-Sitting Plan?

Dr.Hannah McKinney Kalamazoo College
May 19, 1997


Thank you, Kimberly, for such a warm introduction. And thank you, Rotary Club members, for the opportunity to speak to you today about Kalamazoo’s comprehensive plan. When I think about the series of talks that your group has hosted this spring, I divide the messages that you’ve heard into several categories. What’s right with our community; what’s wrong with it; what are the challenges facing us in the future; and, finally, what can we do to meet them. It’s been a wonderful series.

 I plan to address three basic topics today. First, I want to describe the comprehensive planning process currently underway in the city. Second, I want to talk about threats that I see to the successful implementation of our plan and, by extension, to any serious planning effort—some of the reasons why plans end up on the shelf. And finally, I want to suggest some roles that you, as a service club, and as individuals can take to help this community mature into the next century—ways to ensure that our plans become blueprints for action, the vision for our future.

First, let me define a comprehensive plan. We’ve heard in recent weeks about the need for long range planning. That’s what Kalamazoo’s comprehensive plan is: a policy document intended to guide the growth, development, and redevelopment of the city for the next 10 to 20 years. It examines and defines goals and objectives for land use which is a catch all phrase for everything and anything concerning the use of land. Some of the specific topics we examine include transportation issues—roads, highways, non-motorized transportation such as bike and pedestrian ways; parks and recreation; open space preservation; historical preservation; housing; brownfield redevelopment; economic development; zoning; community gateways; and utilities.

Use of a comprehensive plan is a pro-active approach to the city’s development and in some sense, it gives us a business plan to follow. It will be an important policy document for the city government. It will act as the legal foundation for zoning decisions; will help with budget decisions and prioritize public projects; it will keep us eligible for parks and recreation grants, and it also protects property values by planning for compatible land uses. City projects, such as large road improvements or new parks, identified as needed in the plan will be placed in the capital improvements budget for eventual funding.

 As most of you know, Kalamazoo has made a lot of plans in the past. The city’s last comprehensive plan was completed in 1977 and has not been updated since. That plan was funded in large part by federal dollars and was accomplished by the city planning department staff. State law gives local Planning Commissions authority to create comprehensive plans. But unlike other states, Michigan doesn’t mandate that cities plan, nor does it mandate that plans be updated.

In recent years, many controversial development projects have been proposed within our community (such as Arboretum project, the research/business park; Woods Lake condominiums). The furor over these projects showed us that we needed better planning within the city. We need to know what the community’s vision is for itself and for the future. What kind of development should be encouraged within the community…and where. I’m not saying that we can stop all conflicts of interest through planning; I am saying, however, that I believe that we will work through them more efficiently as a community when we have an up to date plan for our future development. I also believe that the planning process itself is beneficial because through it we learn to talk in terms of what is possible and to think of inventive ways to bring about constructive changes.

 When the Planning Commission began to talk about having this new comprehensive plan, none of us understood the magnitude of the task we were undertaking. We began serious work on this project in the early spring of 1995. In June of 1995, we adopted a mission statement for the plan which stressed the need for a "citizen inclusive process" that "examined the physical, social, and cultural structures of Kalamazoo and its environs" and that would "build consensus of the community’s vision for its future." We developed our planning process and our expectations for the plan throughout 1996. Beginning in the late summer of 1995, a group of us—planning commissioners and city staff members—began meeting weekly to work on the plan. We still meet weekly to guide the planning process.

 In recent weeks, we’ve heard a lot about the downtown plan and Project Downtown. This plan is related to the Comprehensive Plan but it has a different focus. The downtown plan—developed jointly by the DDA and the City of Kalamazoo—is fundamentally a redevelopment plan—full of specific actions and strategies. By next summer, construction on public projects detailed in the downtown plan particularly a gateway to the downtown and the mall access road will have begun. But already, you can look around the downtown and see redevelopment happening. Last week’s paper told us about a partnership between the Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services and First of America to build 13 apartments on the Kalamazoo Mall. The city’s department of economic development and planning has been instrumental in facilitating this development. We need more such projects.

 Another recent planning initiative undertaken by the City was has been brownfield redevelopment. Consider the recent announcement that Alumilite is moving to the former Fisher Graff Iron and Metal Co. site. This is the first transfer of a city-owned brownfield back to private ownership and was made possible by planning efforts first begun in 1994 and which have involved many people and agencies since. Planning works.

In comparison to these planning efforts, the City’s Comprehensive Plan is primarily a policy document meant to verbalize the vision of what we want Kalamazoo to be in the future. We will set development standards, develop a new land use map to guide development and redevelopment, will will identify areas for new parks, will propose improvements to our street network, develop an overall set of goals and opjectives to guide our future decision making; and we will also create an implementation strategy to help us prioritize the needed improvements and projects as identified in the new comprehensive plan.

Individual developers, city agencies, and other groups within the community can look at this document and see where their plans fit into this citywide vision for future development. In some ways, the comprehensive plan is the umbrella under which other plans operate. It provides for consistency, linkages, and information flows.

 In 1977, there were 7 full time planners on staff within the city. They wrote the bulk of the plan. Today, we have 1 full time planner. So, we hired consultants to do the technical work, data collection, and report writing. The planning commission and city staff have concentrated our efforts on community involvement. We hold neighborhood meetings and city wide town forums meant to gather input from the community and to allow us to present our planning work to citizens. We also have five standing committees which help to write the plan. In fact, as I look around this audience today, I see some of our committee members as well as Planning Commissioners and our City Planner.

 Four of the committees are what we call topical committees. These provide local expertise in various policy areas. One does land use; another parks and recreation and livability issues; another examines economic development issues; and the last looks at infrastructure and transportation.. We also have a steering committee which is responsible for developing the final plan and forwarding it to the Planning commission. About 80 people are involved in these committees altogether.

 The planning process itself consists of 5 public phases: data collection and issue identification—which led to the community profile report released a few months ago; development of goals and objectives through community wide visioning; development of plan alternatives based on the goals and objectives; development of recommendations—basically choosing the alternatives that we like the best; and finally implementation. We began data collection in September of last year and we are just finishing the development of our goals and objectives. Over the summer months, we will examine different alternatives. We expect to finish with the recommendations by the end of the year and hope to have the plan approved by the planning commission and the city commission by this time next year.

 The goals and objectives of the plan are based on visions of the future that we solicited at 6 neighborhood based meetings and a town forum which we held here in the Radisson ballroom. Most of the goals that form the basis for the comprehensive plan have been identified before and in fact, many have been discussed by various speakers during this series of talks that Rotary has sponsored. They include the following:

  • Protecting natural resources and important open spaces within our community
  • Developing more parks including a linear park system along Arcadia creek, Portage Creek, and the Kalamazoo River, and other creeks
  • Maintaining our status as the cultural event center for the region
  • Promoting compatible land uses
  • Improving gateways throughout the city and into neighborhoods
  • Promoting self-sufficient neighborhoods and encouraging local commercial development
  • Working cooperatively with surrounding communities in service provision, planning efforts, and economic development
  • Protecting and enhancing the housing stock
  • Protecting and respecting Kalamazoo’s historical heritage
  • Promoting a growing economy with new businesses locating within the city
  • Maintaining a vibrant downtown with a mix of office and commercial uses including restaurants, entertainment, and residences.
  • Upgrading streets and infrastructure
  • Promoting non-motorized transportation options throughout the city

How are we going to achieve these goals? What will be our recommended policies? I don’t know yet because "we" as a community haven’t decided. That’s what we will be working on during the summer and fall of this year at our public meetings and at our committee meetings. You can be part of this process. And I hope that you will help us with this long range vision of what Kalamazoo can be—if we all work together.

I’ve discussed Kalamazoo’s comprehensive plan. Other communities in our county are also writing or updating their plans. Oshtemo township has just completed a comprehensive plan as has the city of Portage. The townships of Richland, Ross, cooper, and Charleston are all involved in long range planning efforts right new. We are all thinking about the same issues; dealing with the same problems.

 This could be a time of great change. We could use these planning processes to help build what Randy Eberts called "the ongoing collaborative infrastructure in which people and organizations can come together to exchange ideas, solve problems, or form partnerships." Or, all of these plans could end up on the shelf. Just as have many good plans in our recent past. I’d like to talk about some of challenges that I see in this community to creative planning.

Remember, community-wide planning, comprehensive planning, is really the process of coming to an agreement about the steps we’re taking toward our future. As one of our consultants always says, "planning is not rocket science." What kinds of businesses we want to encourage and how; what kinds of homes we want and how we get them built. A few weeks ago, Ley Smith defined the very same thing for you as "vision". He described vision as what we want to be as a community … a vision of where we want to go .. and importantly, a vision that includes everyone.

 First and foremost, and in the words of Walt Kelly, from the Pogo comic strip

"We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Our biggest challenge lies in including everyone who wants to have a voice or who should have a voice. Most people who hear about our plan will not come to our meetings or ever try to understand what we are trying to do. Too many other things are going on in their lives. Economists and political scientists call non-involvement in political action "rational ignorance." The costs of participating in public processes are much larger to the individual in terms of time and trouble than are the perceived benefits. What this means though, is that people often only get involved at the end when they see costs accruing to them from specific recommendations. That’s when we get , what a colleague of mine at Kalamazoo College calls, "veto groups" forming; that’s when entire plans are shot down; and immense ill-will generated.

 Those of us working on the city’s comprehensive plan are spending a lot of energy and resources trying to get people involved in the early steps. We need your help, we need your involvement.

 The second challenge is that very few of us know how to work productively with others. We know how to compete, we can lead, we can follow; but collaboration and cooperation are much more difficult. We don’t understand how to weigh competing visions and needs; we tend to think in terms of winners and losers. I can’t tell you the number of times I have worked with planning groups recently where we have had to define the word "consensus." I.e., come to consensus about what a consensus is.

 We have to learn to work together. The days of large federal grants to local governments are gone. The days of large continuing contributions by companies or foundations are gone. They aren’t going to set our public agendas, implement our plans, or solve our community problems. If we are going to implement the comprehensive plan or any of the other major planning activities currently being undertaken in this area, we have to do it ourselves. Together.

 The world has changed. We can’t look to the traditional leaders of the community to take care of our problems for us while we go about our private lives. Timothy Light said it very well a few weeks ago: "Locally, the story was that we fooled ourselves into thinking that we could be comfortably safe with increasing dependence upon one company and governmental entities or heavily governmentally supported entities, and therefore we did not need to do the hard thinking that would result in our making ourselves attractive to potential investors and owners."

 The third challenge is that we have grown very cynical. About government, about institutions, and about our fellow citizens. We don’t trust each other’s motivations. We don’t think planning or any public action will make a difference because we believe the other guy is out to foster his interests at the expense of our own. A bit of faith or hope would be much more productive.

 The fourth challenge and again quoting Randy Eberts, is that "there is no silver bullet for economic success." I recently wrote a book about urban economic development during the nineteenth century. I want to tell you a very brief story about Middletown, Connecticut. I don’t know if you ever heard of the town; but, before the Revolutionary War period, it was the major commercial seaport in New England. In the early 1830’s, at the beginning of the railroad era, some outside investors wanted to build a railroad between Hartford and New Haven through the town. Town-based investors were heavily into steamboats and turnpikes and did not want the competition. In 1836, the town’s economic and political leadership decided against the railroad; of course by the early 1840’s, they needed a branch line to connect the town to the highly successful railroad. A quote from the editor of a 1844 newspaper, the Sentinel and Witness is appropriate. Remember as you listen, that no one knew in 1844 about the extent of the transportation revolution that was heralded by the coming of the railroads in the United States. The editor wrote:

"Every attempt to promote public good, whether successful or not, should receive due credit. It is kindly suggested that some who are always found in the opposition, if they have never a scheme for pubic advantage, they would endeavor to treat with respect those who have. Gentlemen, if you can not speed, do not impede."

Middletown went into a period of economic decline after 1836 from which it has never recovered.

 The lesson for us is that we have to encourage all types of development and businesses. We don’t know what the future will look like. We need to be open to new ideas. We have to try new things.

 The fifth challenge: in recent weeks, we’ve heard about the turn-around "success" stories of Cleveland and Battle Creek. Both of those communities hit bottom in terms of job losses before getting their collective acts together, before putting together innovative public-private partnerships, before putting aside long-standing grudges and competing interests to work together for the greater good. Randy Eberts said Kalamazoo was in a middling position—not anywhere near rock bottom. One of my biggest fears is that we will procrastinate and bicker until we move further and further from what Randy Eberts called Kalamazoo’s middling position in terms of economic success into the future that Ley Smith calls "bleak" where we fall further and further behind the national average in terms of economic and population growth.

 None of the changes that we could make will be easy. We can talk about the need for intergovernmental cooperation. The reality is that each of Kalamazoo County’s 15 townships, 4 cities, and 5 villages have their own laws, traditions, political, social, and economic institutions. Cooperation has to take place on many levels and by many groups. Charles Shaw told us that we need to be thinking 10 to 15 years out even though we live in a society that wants results immediately. The little steps today lead to big changes in the future. We have to learn to trust each other and to recognize the areas in which we can achieve common goals. Just because we can’t consolidate governments today or attract a major new business or get our MEAP scores up tomorrow, doesn’t mean it can’t happen or won’t happen. But we have to work together on a lot of complex interrelated issues to do any of it. Ley Smith talked about "little steps." Even "baby steps" lead us in the right direction.

 What can you do to make Kalamazoo a better place to live and work? First, support the city’s comprehensive planning effort. Come to meetings, get on the mailing list, give feedback on the recommendations as they evolve. If you live in one of the adjoining towns or cities, get involved in their planning activities as well. Help to create some of those public/private partnerships we’ve heard so much about in the past few weeks. Seek out and realize profit opportunities within the community. Help to create some for others. Together, we can all make a difference.

I want to leave you with a quote from Margaret Mead. She said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak today and for sponsoring this series of talks.