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A Comedy of Errors 

Hired guns and NIMBYs in Dilworth

All politics are local. This aphorism was acted out in Dilworth recently when people who suddenly found a reason to participate in their local community packed the monthly meeting of the Dilworth Community Development Association. But true to the premise of single-issue politics, these part-time actors and extras fled as soon as their act was over. Exit community, stage left. Only the dedicated core of volunteers were left to continue work on important issues that impact the whole neighborhood, such as traffic calming on East Boulevard. It's a classic drama: sprawl versus infill development. The public generally dislikes both, and right on cue, Dilworth residents came out in force to oppose the new flagship Lowe's store and related housing proposed for a site in SouthEnd. The action was tightly scripted, with both sides declaiming well-worn lines: the developer's representatives spoke of "high quality" development and "investment in the community"; residents supplied the chorus of derision around the themes of "don't build anything near my house" coupled with "I don't want extra traffic on my street." Actors stood on cue and spoke their lines, never deviating from the script that governs melodramas like these. The extras applauded and heckled as specified in the script. People were word perfect. The action was so predictable that walking home after the meeting I knew that I could have written this column without even attending the event.

The Lowe's team presented their project with nice drawings but unreadable figures. In a word, they were underprepared. PowerPoint slides of traffic numbers, a crucial issue, were illegible, and no handouts were provided, a mistake that fueled the plot theme that developers were trying to fool the neighbors. Several angry residents shouted from the wings that the lawyers, planners and designers working for Lowe's were, "lying through (their) teeth." (Cue fervid applause).

At this point in the play, the professionals are always on the defensive. They represent dozens of developers, doing all kinds of work — the good, the bad and the ugly. One week they mouth platitudes about an anonymous low-quality sprawl strip center; the next week they say the same things about a genuinely good and creative development. Hired guns in the legal, planning and design fields always have to overcome a credibility gap since citizens know these professionals often advocate poor development with the same fervor they argue for good design. So when they try to promote a project like Lowe's, which has many attractive features, their words are devalued. Residents simply don't believe them.

One red-faced homeowner, who had just bought into a trendy mixed-use development in a busy urban area, pledged to fight to the end this new trendy mixed-use development in the same busy urban area.

Residents of Olmsted Park in "south" Dilworth played their roles enthusiastically in this comedy of errors. They came prepared, leaving their open minds at home. Instead they brought the standard props of anger, suspicion, sarcasm and bad manners, all specified in the script. When the traffic consultant tried feebly to explain traffic counts under various scenarios, he made the perfectly rational point that current zoning on the properties allowed development that could generate nearly three times as much traffic as the projected Lowe's store. In his mind this was a simple, reasoned argument in favor of the Lowe's development because it increased traffic far less than other possibilities. The audience, if they understood the indecipherable figures, heard it differently: otherwise sane and rational people interpreted this as a "threat": if the neighborhood doesn't agree to the Lowe's development, someone will come along with something far worse.

True to the script, emotion bludgeoned rationality into submission; one red-faced homeowner, who had just bought into the "Village at South End," a trendy mixed-use development in a busy urban area, pledged to fight to the end this new trendy mixed-use development proposed for the same busy urban area. I suspect only a few people in the audience appreciated the irony of this individual's performance. He hammed up his part with vigor and was rewarded with uncritical applause.

Now that people have acted out their anger, and given vent to their spleen, I hope they might calm down. Maybe we could write a new script that examines this proposal rationally. For example, residents could learn new lines: if they've opted to live in a busy, mixed-use inner city neighborhood one or two blocks from a major thoroughfare, they shouldn't act as if they live in some exclusive gated community, trying to keep "other people" off "their" streets.

The Lowe's team also desperately needs some new material. They need to examine and explain the traffic impacts of consumers coming to their store in great detail, not for the local community, who will never believe them, but for City Council, who just might. And we all need to consider the impact of the big box on local businesses. Will this "landmark" store assist or hinder the development of a thriving urban area?

More on this story next week. In the meantime, let's prepare for Act II.

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