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Thread: Is it just my situation or same every place?

  1. #1
    Sep 2003
    The East

    Is it just my situation or same every place?


    I rattled off this list the other day after a frustrating day of dealing with repeat bad behavior from another agency I regularly work, or attempt, to work with.

    I'm almost 3 years into my first job out of grad school, so I'm wondering how much of what I'm experiencing is endemic to Nashville, TN vs. fill-in-the-blank govt. agency city planning job. I'm especially curious to hear compare/contrast between my impression/experience of Nashville and that of those in the Denver and Charlotte metro areas. So, without further ado, here's my Top 20 Questions so far.

    Questions to Keep in Mind for Next Job/Place to Live Interview

    1. How much transparency is there in local government, development process? ( My experience here has been lots of pettiness, arbitrary decisions, overall smoke and mirrors)

    2. How much predictability and professionalism is there amongst departments, development process? (I'm a PLANNER working in a planning dept., caught between the gears of a hip, New Urbanist/Sustainability-focused Planning Dept. and old-school Public Works Dept. that's keen to keep a low profile. Overall, planning has a younger, more progressive staff (plus leadership, which promotes questioning and innovation) vs. public works (leadership rules by fear, discourages innnovation, staff is generally older and coasting to retirement, wanting as little to do with other departments or the Public as possible)

    3. Are there impact fees, APFO (adequte public facilities ordinances), concurrency? How serious is growth management? (Metro Nashville has no impact fees, and exactions are otherwise done piece-meal with a resulting lack of effectiveness)

    4. How much, or how often, is professional planning considered and/or followed in growth/development decisions? (the 40-member City Council makes the final call on zoning decisions, plus required street connections, the latter of which really grinds on me; you can re-zone anything, but rebuilding a coherent street grid is a real challenge after-the-fact)

    5. How much local leadership exists? Mayor? Council? Is council unwieldy or workable? (see above, 40-member council)

    6. How open are citizens to change?

    7. How important is sustainability here? Economic, Social, Environmental?

    8. How progressive is state legislature? Governor?

    9. How progressive is the DOT?

    10. Based on my experience in Nashville/Middle Tennessee, how does one PLAN in a leadership and funding vacuum? Especially when there’s overall citizen resistance to:
    a. Taxes
    b. Fees
    c. Infrastructure improvements, i.e. basic street connectivity

    11. How firmly is your agency able to make REQUIREMENTS/REGULATIONS vs. RECOMMENDATIONS?

    12. Does your community have Planned Unit Developments (PUDs)? They are the bane of modern, sustainable development in Nashville-Davidson County.

    13. Does your community regularly require and build NEW streets in addition to simply widening existing ones? That’s a real problem when subdivision after subdivision simply tacks on a turn-lane here or there, but otherwise you’ve essentially got 2-lane, farm-to-market roads serving urban levels, speeds of traffic, plus total lack of pedestrian, bicycle, transit infrastructure. – THIS speaks to cowardice on the part of elected officials, plus ineptitude or apathy from reviewing agencies like planning, public works, stormwater, codes, etc.?

    14. How active is the private sector in planning, overall civic life? Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), public-private partnerships?

    15. How savvy are citizens with urban design, urban planning, sustainable development concepts? Do they appreciate and understand the idea that rural/natural and urban are ultimately compatible? i.e. If you’re in a wall-to-wall subdivision, that’s NOT a rural environment.
    i.e. “You’re going to connect RS 7.5 to RS 10?!? Can we get some kind of buffer?" 7,500 sq. ft. single family vs. 10,000 sq. ft. single family; what's the difference?

    16. How heavily is your community affected by social decline?
    a. Gangs
    b. Codes violations
    c. Petty crime
    d. High rental vs. owner rates?

    17. Does every e-mail require a 40-person CC list to ensure good communication between departments, agencies, etc.?
    Ex. MPO-MPW-Planning Dept. on road projects

    18. Is there a clear chain of command for projects? Is there any semblance of consistency regarding agency contacts, etc.?
    Ex. Codes Administrator refuses to put things in writing, MPW is leary of transparency

    19. Is there overall sense of ACCOUNTABILITY from various departments? Professionalism vs. pettiness? Predictability and objectivity vs. pandering or old-boy cronyism?

    20. Is TECHNOLOGY standardized, unified among agencies? Especially for development review, records keeping?
    Ex. Metro-Nashville has:
     KIVA
     LIS
     BuzzSaw
     CityWorks
     LANData
     Register of Deeds
     Scattershot paper records

    That's 7 sources and counting.

    Any thoughts are much appreciated, and yes, I realize no place is perfect, but I'm trying to get a relative sense of much worse or better my work setting could be.

  2. #2
    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
    Aug 2005
    in a meeting
    I would be careful on the questions that "lead the witness" a little - as someone who interviews for hires, I certainly don't want to be grilled if I am worthy or not or if my town is - I do see importance in making sure the fit is right for you and interview the interviewer but just be careful with the tone - some questions elicit to me the interviewee's bad experience somewhere else which could make me leery of that person - questions should always be in the positive

  3. #3
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
    Jun 2005
    NYC area
    Wow, quite a can of worms you've opened here. I can address a couple of these, as several don't apply because the community I work is largely built out.

    1) It's relatively transparent. Our planning staff is small (there's just two of us and a planning/zoning clerk) but highly professional. Big projects are always going to be political and thus intelligent planning can fall by the wayside when not politically expedient. Frankly, I feel some days like litigation and/or the fear of litigation run the show to a ridiculous degree in local planning.

    2) I've found this to be the case pretty much everywhere in my experience. DPWs tend to be conservative. They are the people tasked with implementing many of the ideas we come up with and dealing with conditions in the field as they are, so they tend to be very cautious and do not like to deviate from what they know and are comfortable with. I will say, however, that in this job I'm fortunate that the municipality has a pretty forward thinking engineer who is young and knows his stuff. I've actually found it to be the case that building departments, rather than DPWs, are the more regressive of municipal departments. Ours has some great guys on staff but we can't even get most of them to use email.

    8) It's NY State, I don't even think I need to go there. Suffice it to say that the state government's reputation for gridlock is well deserved.

    10) You don't. You can't be proactive without funding and leadership. You can conduct development review/current planning, but long range planning tends to be so contentious and litigation-prone that without strong leadership, you go nowhere.

    15) Citizens are not savvy about anything. They tend to be reactionary until you take time to explain things to them, then they will usually come around if they're reasonable.

  4. #4

    Dec 2007
    Front Range, CO
    Denver Front Range IMHO:

    1) Same everywhere. Some here, little there, a lot there, that place, not so much.
    2) Same everywhere. Some here, little there, a lot there, that place, not so much.
    3) Are there impact fees yes, APFO (adequte public facilities ordinances) if we're lucky, concurrency is that some fancy plannin' word? How serious is growth management? who's in power at the moment : Some here, little there, a lot there, that place, not so much
    5) [remember, you asked about a metro area] How much local leadership exists? Same everywhere. Some here, little there, a lot there, that place, not so much. Mayor? only a couple mayors are strong mayors.
    6) Same everywhere. Some here, little there, a lot there, that place, not so much.
    7) How important is sustainability here? It will be real soon when the water gets real expensive. Economic reeeeal important, Social not so much, Environmental usually it like our history - the virmint is for makin money, but a lot of folks move here for the environment and want to keep it that way, but can't figger out how.

    12) Don't move here if'n you don't like PUDs.

  5. #5
    I've only been in Baltimore for a year, but here are some of my impressions. Granted I haven't been "beaten in and burned out" yet, but I'm pretty happy about how things operate so far.

    1. Transparency is relatively good except when it is abused. Neighborhood groups are often vocal and work with the city to mold development/transportation projects. You can research the Red Line Compact or Westside project as examples. Sometimes residents have too much power in the planning process - google the Tide Point project for more on this.

    2. One of the things I've been impressed with here is the professionalism and cooperation between departments. The Mayor's Office is very involved with plan implementation, and there have been several neighborhood plans completed during my tenure which are already being used as guides for the capital budget. Having a lot of inter-departmental meetings also helps - everyone seems to be at the table.

    7. We're in the process of drafting a Sustainability Plan for the city. We've gotten good support from agencies and the public. Again, the Mayor's Office has taken the lead on this.

    9. Though Baltimore DOT is mostly known for roads, we are making progress in implementing more ped/bike/transit projects. The biggest problem is our branding - there is a disconnect between what we do and what people think we do. This needs to change.

    12. We have PUDs. Almost all the new TOD projects I'm involved in use them and they're becoming pretty common. All of them include new grid road networks as well.

    19. Accountability is actually pretty good here. Citistat runs all the numbers and agencies get drilled on problems by the mayor's staff. This filters down to departmental projectstats where mangers are grilled by department heads monthly. I sense a lot of long-term people take this process for granted, but it works and is worlds better than the apathetic, anything goes management I've worked for in the past.

    Though residents like to complain about city services and how long everything takes, I've been really impressed with how things run from the inside. Most of the agencies are cooperative and running on all 4 cylinders with the unified purpose (as directed by the mayor) of massive neighborhood and economic improvement. Every agency decision is scrutinized with the question, "How does this fit into the larger plan?" It also seems the city is recruiting more well-qualified people and not just those who are looking for a place to hang out until their next gig.

    I sense that when a neighborhood plan is drafted, everything possible will be done to implement that plan. I'd say the city and state are fairly progressive - maybe a step behind Portland/NYC, but getting there.

  6. #6
    Apr 2008
    American South
    Sounds like a frustrating experience, but you'll find similarities in most planning departments.

    Take heart, though, because you get to work for Rick Bernhardt, one of the most innovative (and under-appreciated) leaders in our profession.

  7. #7
    Sep 2003
    The East

    Thanks for thoughts

    Southern Yank, I suspect I know you .. : ) Anwway, thanks for your thoughts.

    Regarding citizen input/control of planning process, I'm with you on that, in that citizens should give their opinions, but they should always be balanced with professional planning practice.

    As for our Mayor's Office, well, they're a bit removed from the planning process, or at least that's my impression in regard to the capital budget. As for staff at all departments asking "How does this fit into the larger plan?," that sounds VERY encouraging. The main issue I seem to run into is inter-departmental turf wars, ego-posturing and ego-stroking, and general pettiness or inertia. My main thought when working with public works, stormwater, etc. is "We're all supposedly working toward to same end, serving the public welfare of this city's 688,000 people, yes?"

    MacheteJames (nice name!), you're spot-on about public works and codes/building departments; I understand that they're responsible for carrying out planning's crazy ideas, but often times they won't even hear you out on something. And you're right about generational differences, i.e. young, open-minded engineers vs. the old-school guys they work for.

    On question 10 ("How does one PLAN in a leadership and funding vacuum?"), you're spot-on as well. My frustration is that I work in LONG-RANGE planning, yet I sometimes get blank stares from development review/current planning staff when mentioning a subdivsion's disconnected street network on VMT generation, etc.

    Back to Southern Yank, you're spot-on about "people who are looking for a place to hang out until their next gig," i.e. RETIREMENT Overall, there seems to be a generational split here, both in city department staff and in the larger community (I notice this at community meetings when older, native Nashvillians bristle at the city changing, whereas younger, and generally transplants, already bring a range of urban/cultural/social experiences with them).

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