Time for new directions downtown
Taxpayers for Sensible Downtown Development would like to take this opportunity to thank the 63 percent of voters who supported the effort to keep our downtown locally oriented and utilize public money responsibly. We would also like to extend our appreciation for the hard work of the supporters for the KWG proposal and those who served on the West Broadway Advisory Committee. We respect the passion and sense of purpose they put into their approach. We empathize with their disappointment and want to reassure all involved that we do not intend to rest on our laurels. We all recognize downtown is in need of revitalization and share the goal of making the heart of our town as special and lively as possible.
We optimistically look forward to “doing something” downtown as soon as possible. Fortunately both developers, Beam and Kemper, have maintained publicly that they still wanted to build their original, incremental proposals, if the ballot measure failed. The Beam proposal would reclaim the Centre Court building, including constructing a building on the adjacent Aster pit, and renovate the Washburne building. The Kemper proposal would construct 106 units of housing with 5,000 sq. ft. of neighborhood scale retail on the Sears pit. The Sears pit development has the potential to be reconfigured to accommodate a park across from the library. Both of these proposals can be paid for with funds already on hand. There is plenty of room for flexibility if specifics of these projects need to be adjusted to respond to emerging circumstances. We hope the strength of the election mandate will keep the city’s actions in line with what the community is willing to support.
The next logical step would be to convene “charrettes” (independently facilitated public design forums) to determine the community’s vision for revitalizing downtown. An important aspect of this process would be to identify community values, such as local economies; small businesses; dense housing; and the look and function of downtown. Given the passionate feelings about downtown, it is sensible to seriously seek out meaningful public participation this way.
Urban renewal money may have benefited the library, but it is atypical for urban renewal money to result in a public project. In either case it is more honest to give voters an up or down choice by offering a bond measure for expensive projects. In the spirit of a truly participatory city government, citizens need to be empowered to decide on large expenditures by voting — especially given the current budget climate, where there is not enough revenue to pay for basic government services. With the involvement of the taxpayers and the ability to scrutinize the costs and benefits of specific proposals, the city can generate democratically driven visions, leading to community supported projects.
In order to help promote accountability and eliminate costly and destructive speculation, it would be prudent to immediately adopt a revised “sunset” date for the Downtown Urban Renewal District (URD). December 2009 is date of the last library payment and the original ending date for the district. Council should amend the plan to reinstate that ending date. It was only in 2004 that the council majority voted to extend the ending date from 2009 out to 2024. If the district remains intact throughout that period, taxes are still being diverted from the impacted jurisdictions and will accumulate in the district account. A portion of that money can still be spent, without voter approval, on a limited list of eligible expenses. The rest of the diverted tax dollars will simply wait in the account for voters to forget this election and a new council majority to approve an increased spending limit. In light of the election mandate, that would be inappropriate.
Once the “promise” of a massive URD subsidy is eliminated, those property owners who have refused to sell or lease their properties can no longer profit from that approach. Waiting for the public pot of gold while properties deteriorate and values decline, won’t pay off anymore. That alone will have a positive impact on revitalization. When vacant buildings and properties that have been kept off the market are offered for lease or sale, entrepreneurs will be able to bring new and varied investment into downtown.
The most obvious, forehead-slapping revelation of this election defeat is the degree to which city officials are out of touch with the folks who actually pay the bills. Hopefully, that message will finally resonate with our city’s bureaucracy, which has an established track record of embracing public relations instead of accountability and reform. It is time to commit to true reform, starting with creating an incremental and affordable approach to downtown revitalization and ending the URD, including shutting down the URD account. That will be a greatly appreciated and positive gesture towards creating trust with the voting community. There is a lot of work ahead, and we need to work together.
Contributing to this letter were Gavin McComas, Bonny Bettman, George & Melissa Brown, David Monk, Betty Taylor, Lisa Warnes and Paul Nicholson for Taxpayers for Sensible Downtown Development.