By Dom Nozzi
When I was a senior planner for Gainesville, Florida, I had the extreme misfortune one day of walking into the planning director’s office to observe a discussion by our city commission at their regular Monday meeting. At this meeting, the commission was discussing a (predictable) funding shortfall for the parking garage being proposed to serve the new county courthouse, and the design of this garage.
Over the years, I had become amused and, at times, horrified by the extreme lack of knowledge or leadership by nearly all of the city commissioners in Gainesville. The commission meetings were painful to watch, given the tragic ignorance of their deliberations. In sum, it had become pure, unadulterated torture to listen to a commission meeting for more than a few seconds.
Given the utter contempt I had come to feel for the commission, during my 20 years as a town planner for Gainesville (and despite the commission often addressing topics I was highly interested in or professionally involved with), I had attended or watched only four or five city commission meetings. And that tiny handful only because my planner job occasionally required me to make a presentation to the city commission.
Despite my better instincts, then, I decided to watch what would surely be another in a long line of commission silliness, largely because a presentation was being made by the consultant designing the garage — a consultant who understands and appreciates quality design. As I watched, I vowed that I would immediately leave the room the moment a city commissioner started uttering a word.
During the consultant presentation, it became brutally obvious to me what the commission would decide about designing the garage, despite there being no commission comments during the presentation, and despite my not having heard anything previously about commission views on this topic.
As is the case with nearly all elected officials faced with funding problems (which regularly includes screams from constituents that a project is “too expensive”), the Gainesville commission would surely be falling all over itself to cut all of the ornamentation and detailing out of the garage. To create, as is almost always done, a lifeless, embarrassing, sterile, dreary box building that would create a dead zone in a town center in desperate need of vibrancy. To continue the sad tradition of disregarding and dishonoring the public realm in yet another American community.
I made a mistake by somehow staying in the room when one of our “leaders” began his comments.
It was immediately obvious that the mad dash toward mediocrity was about to begin.
The commissioner started by insisting that all ornamentation and detailing be stripped from the impressive architectural design. Then, the clincher: His ideological buddy on the commission chimes in by requesting that a first-floor “wrap” of offices and retail around the deadening car storage building be eliminated.
This “wrap” was required by a town center ordinance I had written a few years earlier to try to enliven these deadening auto garages. The town center was suffering from decades of decline, in part created by the many car parking areas spreading like a cancer in this heart of the city. The office and retail “wrap” my regulations called for is used throughout the nation to enhance the walkability of a suffering town center in desperate need of more life.
To my horror, I suddenly realized what my task would be the next day at the office: Either find a way for the commission to evade this “wrap” regulation, or prepare a staff recommendation to dump the regulation. Commissioners have an important advantage over private developers: if commissioners don’t like a regulation for one of their development projects, they simply get rid of it.
“Do as we say, not as we do…”
As the commissioner made his case for dumping the “wrap,” I quickly exited the room. I walked out calmly, but inside I was shrieking in agony and on the verge of vomiting.
An epiphany struck me: Perhaps more so than with private developers, city development regulations are necessary to protect against public officials who are desperate to find any possible way to avoid making anyone unhappy, even if it means substantial design compromise that goes against staff recommendations.
The same holds true for a great many local government staff supervisors. For both commissioners and supervisors, much of life consists of compromising. An important difference, therefore, between leadership and mediocrity is that the leader is uncompromising when it comes to designing for quality of life.
This shameful parking garage debacle clarified, for me, how I would define leadership in the city government pursuit of an improved quality of life. There are four fundamental elements that create a town leader. A city government leader…
…Has courage to not cave in on a proposal that is clearly in the public interest. Courage when faced with bleeding heart or “black hat” pressure to stop the proposal or emasculate it.
…Has wisdom about quality, timeless design in the public realm. Is not susceptible to bogus design arguments.
…Is uncompromising in her or his pursuit of an improved quality of life. Corners are not cut on essentials. When it comes to a town center – the vital heart of a community — it is often not in the public interest to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The thousands of lifeless public buildings built around the nation over the past 50 years are testaments to how few leaders are found in this country. The entirely forgettable, unlovable and embarrassing “modernist” public buildings we’ve built since WWII means that our sense of civic pride is nearly non-existent.
…Is decisive. The leader understands that putting off decisions, or referring decisions to “boards,” or “task forces,” or “committees” (that is, substantially increasing the number of decision makers) inevitably dumbs down the proposal, waters it down to meaningless pabulum, or kills it. The decision-maker knows that momentum to get it done quickly, while the vision is sharp in the minds of the decision-makers, is crucial in avoiding Death by Lowest Common Denominator (the non-decision that offends no one because it does nothing).
I’m sorry to say this, but in my 20 years in Gainesville city government, I did not see a single city commissioner possess these four elements.
Indeed, most Gainesville city commissioners over those 20 years embodied the opposite of these four, to the ultimate and long-lasting ruin of their community.
I’ve gotten glimpses of leadership elsewhere. It does exist on rare occasions, even in America: Nancy Graham in West Palm Beach. Joseph Riley in Charleston. John Norquist in Milwaukee.
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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