December 19, 2006 > Editorial
The chicken or the egg
The debate continues to rage over which came first. I cannot solve that one for you since either side of the controversy strikes a note of truth. After all, if the chicken is not around to lay the egg, there is no egg, but if there is no egg, where did the chicken come from? Leaving such weighty matters to philosophers and astrophysicists or whoever wants to tackle this ontological problem, I find a similar dilemma proposed by the Fremont Redevelopment Agency as it once again asks for permission to issue a RFQ (Request for Qualifications) from developers for the Centerville Unified Site.
Previous development proposals included markets, residential and commercial units. We are now back to the drawing board, but the RFQ is no further refined than when it was initially issued years ago. The contents of the RFQ notes the usual redevelopment goals: elimination of blight, stimulate private development in surrounding properties and increase pedestrian circulation and enhancement of the commercial district along with advancing the Centerville Specific Plan and incorporating building designs that fit into the neighborhood character of Centerville. This is all well and good, but in the last two tries, this lack of visionary thinking has brought a grand total of nothing. Maybe it is time to ask our staff to become creative. After all, people hired for redevelopment agency positions should have some expertise in the area of development and a modicum at least of visionary thinking. The way this proposal is outlined, it appears redevelopment is open to anything without any concrete guidelines.
Redevelopment should be moving on all fronts to reclaim Centerville from "slumdom." Those retailers who have made a commitment to improving facades and stimulating business in accordance with the specific plan including promoting pedestrian traffic in a safe neighborhood should be rewarded by a redevelopment agency that looks on both sides of the street as well as to the right and left. I am in danger of sounding like a broken record, but a key element for Centerville is the Center Theater and its environs. Any development of the Unified Site should be in concert with the purchase and revitalization of the theater. This should be a major part of the RFQ and the plan of action. With this provision, developers will have a clear understanding of what can and will be accomplished in this commercial zone. Without a comprehensive plan including the theater, the Unified Site becomes a restrictive development with the potential of exclusion rather than inclusion.
Urban designer, Jonathan Barnett wrote in his book, The Fractured Metropolis, "Urban renewal in city centers is not just the removal of blighted buildings and unproductive ownership patterns, but a strategy for reorganizing the downtown." He added, "Making decisions blindly does not exonerate government from responsibility for the results." If that gives pause to our esteemed councilpersons, they should also pay heed as he notes that, "Design of built-up areas begins with what exists, just as design in unbuilt areas begins with the natural landscape." And on design guidelines, "The most important consideration in preparing design guidelines is that they be put on the table in advance of the design of individual projects, so that investors and architect are on notice about what is expected and have time to assimilate them into the list of factors that determine the design." For those on council that would rather concentrate on "downtown" or Pacific Commons or a major league ballpark, Mr. Barnett gives a warning with the final paragraph of his book: "Improving the new city and restoring the old deal with two parts of the same problem and need to go forward simultaneously. The sooner these issues are faced, the less costly their solution will be in both money and social conflict."
The city council, acting as Redevelopment Agency Board, has not only the right, but the obligation to make this debacle come out right this time. It is time to make the redevelopment agency earn its keep and create as well as simply manage whatever comes along. It is time for the agency to craft a vision that is proactive and demands the best from developers interested in creating a Centerville that will be a beacon of hope for all districts and the entire city. This is a moment when business as usual will just not do any more and the council needs to show some fortitude by leading staff rather than being docile followers. There are bright people on staff, but just as in any organization, leadership is essential at all levels, especially by those responsible for demanding the best from employees. Why not ask the redevelopment agency to create a comprehensive vision for downtown Centerville before asking sending out an RFQ? Informal discussions with developers and others interested in the well-being of Centerville may take a bit more time initially, but save another construction failure or even worse, a completed construction that fails!