Getting to the bottom of Richmond consultation

Note: This column and the one below it were published as “Digging Deep” columns in the Richmond Review. I’m adding them here in the “2014 Richmond election” category because consultation is an issue.

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Get to the bottom of the puzzles of the Garden City Lands, consultation and “the city.” Find paths from the north side. For solutions, see the end of the article..

Get to the bottom of the puzzles of the Garden City Lands, consultation and “the city.” Find paths from the north side. For solutions, see the end of the article..

Richmond’s civic parties like engagement. Good. But we need to aim higher too: we need valid consultation.

Our central park, the Garden City Lands, keeps prompting engagement, so let’s use it as an example. In this context, “the city” will mean council and upper staff.

Quick review: The park is an open space that had panoramic views and other natural legacies. In March 2010, it went from federal to city title via the federal land disposer.

The property, which had been confirmed as ALR, was bought as parkland, with intent to enhance. So far, there’s little net progress. Why? One factor is failure to consult well.

There had been years of immense engagement by the citizens who saved the Garden City Lands from the dense development the city championed. After losing that battle—but gaining ownership—the city could have turned the engagement into consultation by drawing on it. In effect, the city refused.

Instead, it catered to the few who still wanted contra-ALR uses for the park. Yet the community had already rejected such uses when citizens overwhelmingly told the Agricultural Land Commission the lands could best serve agricultural, ecological and open-land recreation uses for community wellness.

Still, citizens kept engaging where possible with the city’s Garden City Lands planning. What’s more, city events like the Ideas Fair in the park and the open house in a mall were outstanding in several ways. There just wasn’t enough valid consultation.

With the Ideas Fair, the faulty premise was that the lands are a blank canvas. That ignored nature’s legacies, the ALR status and common sense.

With the open house, engaged citizens found ways to be heard about getting the perimeter trail built, but mostly the survey design prevented clear results. I tried every means to inform council about it, even going prepared to explain at the proper time at the most appropriate meeting. I got silenced, not even allowed to say why it was relevant.

Now, 4.5 years after buying the Garden City Lands, the city’s concept is slowly getting better, and I wish I could say it’s wonderful. However, I see basic gaps in understanding, and there’s no real plan.

Meanwhile, the costs keep growing, largely with city salaries. In another sense, there’ve been costs in wasted input, diminished legacies and limited use of the park’s potential.

One more perspective: The opportunity cost for the property has been $7 million so far. (It’s like the city’s income if it had kept the purchase sum invested: almost $60 million for 4.5 years at 2.6%.)

To conclude, the Garden City Lands experience confirms the value of building from engagement to effective consultation, which has been lacking. To wrap up, I’ll suggest a few simple ways to think and act for progress.

We’ve seen how the Garden City Lands puzzle ties in with the consultation puzzle. We can also see the challenges as signs of the city’s systemic problems, a broader puzzle.

It seems that finding paths through mazes is a useful skill to serve on council or advise it. As a rule, a timely start is a step to success, so I’ve provided some mazes (above) for practice.

Another step is to elect citizens with firsthand knowledge. For the Garden City Lands, Michael Wolfe’s next free eco-tour is on Sunday, Oct. 12 at 2:00 p.m. It begins at the west entrance, south of Lansdowne Road on Garden City Road.

So far, at least seven candidates have taken part in the eco-tours. Besides Michael, they include Richard Lee, Harold Steves, Chak Au and Carol Day for council plus Eric Yung and Norm Goldstein for school board.

Getting to the bottom of the Garden City Lands, consultation and “the city.” For the unsolved mazes, go to top.

Getting to the bottom of the Garden City Lands, consultation and “the city.” For the unsolved mazes, go to top.

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