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  Livable Community Stimulation
January 31, 2005

One of the great joys and rewards of serving on the Richmond City Council is the opportunity to benefit from the terrific resources of the Local Government Commission (LGC). When I was first elected in 1995, Rosemary Corbin was serving on the LGC board of directors, and she recommend that I get involved.

What I found out about the LGC astounded me. The LGC was a pioneer in the Smart Growth Movement that is now sweeping the land, and the LGC’s Ahwahnee Principles (later adopted by the Richmond City Council on April 10, 2001) became one of the defining visions of New Urbanism. All the members of the Richmond City Council have been members of the LGC for at least a decade, but during that time, only Rosemary and I have been personally involved.

I just returned from a long weekend in Miami Beach at the 4th Annual New Partners for Smart Growth Conference ( a partnership of LGC and Penn State), with the theme “Building Safe, Healthy and Livable Communities.” As with all LGC events, the Miami Beach event featured dozens of presentations from the top experts in the United States on Smart Growth, New Urbanism, Livable Communities, transportation, public health and public safety. The LGC is no fringe organization. It has major backing from the U.S. Environmental protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and dozens of governmental and private organizations including Bank of America, Urban Land Institute, National Association of Realtors, American Institute of Architects and the American Planning Association.

I ran into a number of both Bay Area and Richmond folks there, including Jake Mackenzie, mayor of Rohnert Park and Chair of the LGC, Steve Kinsey, Marin County Supervisor and Chair of MTC, Kathleen Rai, a Marina Bay resident who operates a LEED consulting firm in Foster City and Nancy Baer, a Richmond Annex resident and Manager of Injury Prevention and Physical Activity for the Contra Costa County Department of Health Services. Kathleen Rai is a structural engineer with an MBA degree who believes in and consults in green building. Nancy Baer is particularly interested in pedestrian safety and reminded me that Richmond is the most dangerous city of its size for pedestrians in California.

One of the keynote speakers was Richard Baron, CEO of McCormack Baron Salazar, who discussed how his firm had taken on the challenge of substantially upgrading neighborhood schools as anchors for neighborhood development projects. By understanding the nexus between schools and the attraction for families to live in neighborhoods with good schools, upgrading schools can guarantee the market success of the development. His company makes major investments in neighborhood schools in the areas where they are developing housing. He believes that changing the reputation of an entire school district can be a daunting task, but that schools can be dramatically improved one at a time. Incidentally, McCormack Baron Salazar is the developer of Richmond’s Hope VI project under construction at Easter Hill.

I moderated a breakout session on “Preventing Crime Without Gates, Locks and Alarms” featuring two presenters: Judith Corbett, Executive Director of the Local Government Commission and Al Zelinka, Principal of RBF Consulting Design Studio. Judith, who lives in Davis, CA, spearheaded and edited The Ahwahnee Principles for Livable Communities, serves on the board of directors for the Congress of New Urbanism, was featured as a “Hero for the Planet” in Time magazine and recently received the American Planning Association’s 2005 Distinguished Leadership Award for a Citizen Planner. Al’s planning practice is focused on improving and revitalizing neighborhoods, commercial districts and downtowns by working with community members in highly-engaging, meaningful and results-oriented processes. He is the co-author of Safescape, Creating Safer, More Livable Communities Through Planning and Design, a book published by the American Planning Association.

Victor Dover is one of the high priests of Smart Growth and New Urbanism, and his firm, Dover, Kohl & Partners, has developed General Plans and specific plans for dozens, maybe hundreds, of communities including the City of Hercules, CA, the Pleasant Hill, CA BART station and even the historic downtown of my home town, Fayetteville, AR. In a later breakout session, Dover discussed the importance of community participation in the preparation of general plans and other plans for growth and change. Making the point that enduring plans are touched by many hands, Dover advocated abandoning the usual practice of appointing a small citizens advisory group in favor of encouraging the participation of as many people as possible. Dover, Kohl & Partners typically conducts week long charettes for planning studies.

In another session, Rick Cole, City Manager of Ventura, CA (formerly city manager of Azuza, CA and mayor of Riverside, CA) talked of his experience in Azuza’s new general plan. Azuza is a small city in the San Gabriel Valley that spent twice as much as Richmond intends to on its new general plan, largely promoting intense public participation, but saw it as a great investment. After adoption, the plan was embraced by developers and community equally, and property values zoomed upward.

Andres Duany of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, another new urbanist icon, spoke extensively on form based codes, which are rapidly gaining acceptance across the country as the preferred way to implement smart growth concepts.

After such a great weekend, I was disappointed to return to Richmond and find that the local Saturday morning planning workshop attended by several of my City Council colleagues seemed to reflect a city government that wants to retreat from public participation rather than embrace it.