Three winners at the table last night at city council: John Shoaff, the citizens of Fort Wayne and Tom Henry.
The issue at hand was a multi-million dollar sheaf of dramatic changes to State Boulevard proposed by the State of Indiana and endorsed by the Henry Administration. Roadbeds would be shifted, lanes added and enough dirt trucked in to raise a considerable length of roadbed some nine feet, second story-height. Some homes would be rendered useless with buyouts and additional costs to the neighborhoods and taxpayers.
Over the past two years Councilman Shoaff has worked against many of those specific changes, but moreover he has argued for a fundamental shift in the way citizens and their government interact. It came to a head lat night, the Resolution on the Transportation Planning Process, sent down to the table by the administration and essentially a go ahead to spend many more millions of dollars on a project that has deeply divided the near north side, was tabled for two weeks.
What Mr. Shoaff objected to is the current patriarchal planning process in which professional planners hiding behind thick notebooks of rules and regulations determine what is best for the community and then work to impose their will on those affected through presentations, community gatherings and sham hearings. Mr. Shoaff explained that this process led to anger, frustration and distrust of government by the very citizens it was supposedly there to serve, and, he added, forced traffic planners to spend a great deal of time and money defending their rigid positions against community calls for modification.
Instead, Mr. Shoaff presented a page from the planners own handbook, literally from the Federal Highway Administration, which calls for substantive public participation from the git-go where all involved, stakeholders, would be given time for assessment and input, and that would involve many types of planners, not just the traffic engineers. In other words, Mr. Shoaff was arguing for a holistic approach. Apparently, this was a page that had not yet reached or sunk in with our own local and state transportation planners because they, in the person of city engineer Shan Gunawardeena, had made it a personal matter to defend each and every line on their drawings against heart-felt neighborhood concerns. That rigidity, that patriarchal approach led to last night’s confrontation. It was more than two years in the making.
Last week on the same matter neighbor after neighbor came to the table to comment on the plans. They were deeply divided and scared of what the project would mean to their lives and homes. Many pleaded to council for help.
Again last night the house was packed with many of the same neighbors and more. A show of hands got the attention of all the councilmen at the table; nearly everybody in the room was concerned about the project. Councilman Russ Jehl later noted he had tallied his citizen comments and they had been running hard against moving the project forward in its current state.
In fact, after the nine to nothing vote in favor of tabling the Resolution for two weeks, councilman after councilman applauded Mr. Shoaff. Councilman Crawford looked back in recent history and declaimed that had the Shoaff Planning Process been in place during the discussion concerning changes to Ardmore the city, we taxpayers, would have saved significant costs and much time. Councilman Mitch Harper tossed laurels to Mr. Shoaff, as did Mr. Council President Tom Smith and Councilman Tom Didier. They all, apparently, saw the wisdom of a public planning process that involves the very people who said project is supposed to help, rather than a project envisioned in some cubical and imposed upon the rest of us.
Mayor Tom Henry should also get kudos for acknowledging the Shoaff Planning Process, or at least for recognizing he was going to lose last night’s vote. In conversations with Shoaff and other councilmen Mayor Henry let it be known that he was open to the new path in planning. Instead of trying hard to ram the Resolution through council he accepted the numbers were against him and graciously yielded, a bit.
The question is, however, whether Mr. Henry was just conceding a battle in a larger war or whether he really believes in a planning process where aesthetics, property values and livability have equal billing with moving more trucks at faster speeds through our neighborhoods. That has been the rule: transportation planning has been paramount, all else has taken a back seat.
We will see in the next two weeks. The question will be whether Mr. Gunawardeena will continue to hide behind his notebooks of rules or whether the Henry Administration will lead toward an open and balanced planning process.
There is a sentiment on council to move forward with the State Project in some form. There is also a strong desire in the affected neighborhoods to resolve the nasty traffic problems they have been handed by previous bad planning. The neighbors are deeply divided on a resolution. That is the question Mr. Henry and Mr. Shoaff must wrestle with in the coming two weeks: is our city a patriarchy or a participatory democracy, will imposition rule or will everyone go back to the drawing board to redefine their part of Fort Wayne?
Shoaff, who grew up in the affected neighborhood, is a student of the great urban designers, including George Kessler, who thought the beauty and livability of neighborhoods are part and parcel of economic development. This concept should be right up Tom Henry’s alley.