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Master plan process

I write to respond to Ms. Devereaux’s “Endnote editorial off base” letter from Incoming, January 2019. I served as chairperson of the Ad Hoc Master Plan Selection Committee mentioned in her letter.

First, I commend her detailed interest in Birmingham’s master plan update process and I much appreciate Downtown’s willingness to use its publication to facilitate public dialogue on planning issues too often ignored in the press.

Although Ms. Devereaux is critical of the city’s notification of the ad hoc committee meeting I can assure her, and your readers, that transparency was baked into the consultant selection process as we knew all along that our recommendation would be reviewed, in public, at a commission meeting later in the fall. As this may not be public knowledge, each member of the committee (and staff) was required to submit a “Master Plan Update Proposal Evaluation Sheet” for the each of the final submissions. (I wish we had more!) These data were based on our (individual) initial reading of the submissions. Our final “votes” were, however, also influenced by the interviews with the two finalists held on July 30. Speaking for myself, my recommendation changed that day we met with and questioned the two teams involved.

Let me take this opportunity to clarify two aspects of the process that I believe have been misrepresented in the printed letter and in the deliberations of the city commission. Concerning the community engagement processes presented in the submissions, we, the ad hoc committee, had no doubt that both teams – MKSK and DPZ – were more than qualified to effectively design and implement this critical aspect of the master plan process. Members of the committee, the planning board (who designed the RFP) and city staff were very well acquainted with the work of both teams and, indeed, were confident that either team would commit the necessary time and staff resources to fully complete this task.

The issue of the budget allocation to community engagement was a red herring. Those familiar with contemporary plan making know that it is very hard to separate out a fixed amount for “engagement.” Working with the public, with stakeholders, with interested parties is at the very core of contemporary planning and touches each and every aspect of the process. But, again, this aspect of the selection process was not the factor that ultimately resulted in the recommendation (6:1) that went from the committee to the commission.

It is my opinion, as chair of the committee, that our recommendation was firmly based on the nature of the consultant’s plan making experience. What swayed my thinking – and others on the committee – was the connection that DPZ made between plan making and the implementation process, including but not restricted to zoning and other forms of land use and development regulation. DPZ made it clear that their team had extensive experience in this aspect of planning. MKSK, on this occasion, presented us with exceptional development experience but was less convincing in terms of forging detailed planning policy recommendations.

This may sound rather technical, and indeed it is, but this is exactly why the city asked for recommendations from an Ad Hoc Master Plan Selection Committee. The committee did its job.

Let me conclude with a plea to Ms. Devereaux, to this publication and to your readers. 2019 will be a crucial year in the city of Birmingham. You all have the opportunity to shape the direction of the city through the master plan review process. Please get “engaged”: go on-line and post comments and ideas, attend the charettes, come out to the public meetings, speak up at the planning board and the commission meetings. Get involved.

Robin Boyle

Planning Board Member

City of Birmingham

(Robin Boyle is also Professor Emeritus, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Wayne State University)

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