Why Good Leaders Want to Hear What You Want
Good leadership for our community requires that we actively reach out to residents on the front end, soliciting residents’ opinions and input on a project prior even to the design stage. In this way, projects can be selected, designed and constructed in the ways that most benefit the community as a whole and most clearly reflect residents’ desires. This requires more than the passive function of simply holding public meetings, which may or may not reach residents, even those most directly affected by a proposed project. Indeed, saying that “we had a public meeting” is often the equivalent of derisively saying “didn’t you get the memo,” once a project has moved far enough to reach the design stage.
We have numerous examples of how this works in West U’s recent history. On the good side of the ledger, the Buffalo Speedway project benefitted greatly from the multiple proactive engagement efforts that the City undertook with homeowners along Buffalo in late 2019 and 2020, resulting in changes to design and construction phasing that both reduced the impact on residents and greatly improved the overall result.
Unfortunately, the bad side of the ledger has several entries, including the following instances of projects where residents’ input was solicited, if at all, only at a very late stage:
- The “Super Block” (2014 – 2015). This was a proposed land swap between the City and the West U Baptist Church to create a contiguous municipal campus between the current Community Center/Library and the Public Works Maintenance facility on College. Following considerable opposition, the Council, on 11/10/14, with then-Mayor Pro Tem Susan Sample presiding, tabled this idea without actually rejecting it. After that meeting, resident Heidi Dugan’s reaction was quoted by Channel 13 News: “They back-pedaled tonight … What they were proposing and said they never proposed — that’s just not true.” Opposition to the “Super Block” would ultimately result in the election in May 2015 of an anti-block slate that included former Mayor Bob Kelly, who successfully pushed for the dismissal of the long-time City Manager, Michael Ross, in August of that same year.
- AT&T Rezoning Application (2018). AT&T sought to have several lots along Ruskin, which are zoned residential but had been historically used for parking for AT&T’s facility on Academy pursuant to a variance granted in the 1970s, rezoned as fully commercial lots, broadening their authorized uses. Residents along Ruskin, who had long resented the increasing traffic generated in recent years by AT&T’s use of the property as a distribution center for its U-Verse products, were not meaningfully brought into the process until January 2019, and then only by AT&T itself, by which time, per then-Mayor Sample in her January 21, 2019, letter to residents, “[t]he City [had] completed five (5) of the six (6) steps in the review of the AT&T rezone request.” The City was only spared further conflict because AT&T unilaterally decided to withdraw its application on February 7, 2019, which, for the time being, ended both the discussion and the accompanying litigation.
Which brings me to the Facilities Master Plan (FMP). In full disclosure, I voted for the FMP, as did the rest of the current council. The FMP is a high-level concept plan that does not, in and of itself, commit the City to any action or expenditure, and with the understanding that, prior to committing to design or build each of the proposed facilities, a separate pro-active effort is necessary to engage residents. The City did conduct two town halls last April, though these were attended by less than one-third of one percent of residents, and they did not address any specifics of design or construction as to any particular building contemplated by the FMP.
Fast forward to the present, the City is now in the design phase of the first building under the FMP: a replacement for the existing Public Works Maintenance facility (PWM) on College with a new one outside the City on Westpark. The next phase of the FMP after construction of the new PWM would involve the demolition of the existing Community Center/Senior Center and County Library on Auden, relocating these to new facilities to be constructed on the old site of the PWM. In my conversations with residents since the approval of the FMP, many have expressed concerns about this particular aspect, comparing it to the “Super Block” of earlier years.
With that in mind, and in keeping with my commitment to proactively seek your input and be guided by it, please respond to this and let me know what you want to happen with respect to the community/senior center and library. Send me an email or reply directly to this with your thoughts.
John P. Barnes