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  • By Lisa Brody

After discord, master plan decision postponed

Birmingham city commissioners, presented with two qualified groups which had submitted request for proposals (RFPs) to update the city's comprehensive master plan, disagreed at their meeting on Monday, October 8, over which group best met their vision of working with constituents, and with mayor Andy Harris absent, postponed a vote until the commission has all seven commissioners in attendance.

Commissioners had previously postponed making a decision on approving a contract for the city's master plan update at their meeting on September 17, for a group helmed by DPZ of Miami, which created the city's 2016 Plan. The group led by DPZ was recommended to the commission by the ad hoc master plan selection committee after interviewing and hearing formal presentations from DPZ, formerly known as Duany Plater-Zybeck, and MKSK of Columbus.

At the September meeting, some commissioners were concerned reading the materials provided that DPZ, formerly known as Duany Plater-Zybeck, which created the city's 2016 Plan, was overly focused on the city's retail area, and were not looking to incorporate the neighborhoods and other subplans, and requested the ability to question MKSK. Both groups came before commissioners at the October 8 meeting.

MKSK team leaders emphasized that community involvement is critical, with stakeholder meetings taking place early in the process, followed up by week-long charettes. Meg O'Hara, from a Pittsburgh firm, said, “We spend a lot of time in established neighborhoods. We have an authentic way of spending time listening to your residents, and reflecting back the plans. There is a great authenticity to our process. We have different ways to approach the population of Birmingham. We take it and filter it through our experienced lens.”

Commissioner Rackeline Hoff and mayor pro tem Patty Bordman, who was leading the meeting, were fans of the MKSK team. But other commissioners preferred the DPZ presentation, as well that the ad hoc committee had recommended them.

“We just worked with you on Old Woodward, and our frustration was that you repeatedly told us what couldn't be done – and then there were revisions, and they could be done, and then another thing came up, and it couldn't be done, and the cycle repeated,” commissioner Stuart Sherman challenged the MKSK team.

“One of the issues we have – you mention urban design and downtown and the overall city, and how you look at that,” commissioner Mark Nickita said to MKSK, “but our planning in the last 20 years has been much less like traditional planning and more like urban planning. Can you embellish on how your team would address that?”

“We understand that; it's clear in knitting together the areas of downtown and the neighborhoods,” said Chris Herman, principal of MKSK.

Andres Duany, partner at DPZ, spoke to the commission, and was there along with Bob Gibbs of Gibbs Planning Group, and Sarah Traxler, Phillip McKenna and John Jackson of McKenna. Duany explained how “We are expecting to make different reports for each neighborhood. If one plan had to work for all neighborhoods, it would be too generalized. We need a plan for each neighborhood.”

He said during the charrette process, they work to seek out a cross section of the population, and not just rely on volunteers. “The first answer in charettes is always 'no – I don't want to change. I don't want apartments, I don't want mixed use, I don't want traffic.' And it tends to be age – it's the old who don't want to change,” Duany pointed out. “If the young show up and they say yes – and then the old go along. The process is for the young. It's for the future – for 30, 40 years – it's not for now.

“Also, it cannot be a self-selected group, because they become self-selected mobs. That's what makes it accurate.”

Bordman publicly attacked Duany, telling him she felt his RFP ignored some aspects she felt was important, believing that MKSK answered it to her interpretation. “You will do what you want, not what we want. You may be a big deal, or think you are, but here you are not. This RFP is crystal clear in real language – not planning language,” she said.

But she was not speaking for the entire commission. After a room wide pause, when Duany said, “I am so sorry,” Sherman spoke up and said, “I can see how someone can interpret the RFP from either direction. While we drafted the RFP carefully, maybe it wasn't as clear. This is supposed to be about clarification.”

Nickita agreed. “There's some comfort in both teams coming up with about the same budget, even if one allocates it one way or another. It's clear they know how to do things. It comes down to the overall experience of both teams.”

“We've had a recommendation from the ad hoc committee to go with DPZ. We appointed a very credible committee. DPZ did a great job, and with the presence of Gibbs and McKenna being here, in our backyard, I feel total confidence in DPZ, and I make a motion to award the contract to them,” commissioner Pierre Boutros said.

“I feel the opposite,” commissioner Rackeline Hoff said. “Tonight, MKSK had so much more community involvement – which was our concern.”

Bordman and Hoff insisted the commission hold off voting until Harris would be in attendance, despite his stated preference for DPZ at the previous meeting, and the voted was delayed until the next commission meeting when all seven commissioners are in attendance.

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