Planning: Yes, Please

urban-planning-1“In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.” Benjamin Disraeli

What is Downers Grove?

Yellow=Single Family Residential

Yellow=Single Family Residential

We are bordered by interstate highways and dissected by rail lines. By mostly timing and luck, we’re kind of in the middle of things. No Yorktown or Woodfield Mall, but we do okay. We have industrial areas, and several large scale business and commercial areas. We have apartment complexes and condos and townhomes, and senior complexes of all kinds. Our borders are pretty much set because we’re in the midst of the suburbs, surrounded by other communities.

At the core of Downers Grove, there is the majority of what we are, and it is what defines us. It’s what caused us, or our parents, or grandparents to move here, and it makes us a place more people like us also want, so they move here. The majority are single families living in individual homes, willing to ensure our children get a good education, willing to ensure we have a place that looks after our health, safety, and welfare, and willing to try and keep that going; to try and continue to be a desirable place to live.

Downers Grove is a progressive community, and change has been a constant since before it was officially founded. As Disraeli said, that change is inevitable, it’s part of what we are. When it comes to comprehensive or master planning for the community, is that change in deference to the people who make this such a bedrock community, or is it in deference to the principles and general doctrines that helped create the physical state of the community? The easy answer is, some of both, but in unknown amounts; and amounts that can vary depending on many variables.

Plans infer looking forward, shining a light down the road so we can see where we might want to go. There’s two ways you can look at plans: as being carved in stone and never changing or as a freeze frame snapshot of where we are now. While the plans for, say, a building project must be the former (heaven forbid walls and wiring were in constant flux), plans for the community must lean towards the later, because change in a progressive community like ours is constant, and we must think now about what we might want in the future, and look down the road to see where we might best plan that change, so we get there in good shape.

43 years ago, in 1965, the village put together that snapshot, and made some plans for where we wanted to go. That plan, that freeze frame snapshot, served our village well for over 10 years. For the last 30 or so years, however, it has not helped much at all because it was not dynamically and periodically updated. It no longer provided the periodic freeze frame snapshots of the now, so that we might redirect or recalibrate the path forward; it contained freeze frame snapshots of what became carvings in stone; an unchanging and unhelping historical record rather than a living document that provides guidance and direction and rationale for the community moving forward.

Back then the contributors to that plan pointed their light down the road. Since then the village has not done anything to change that direction of light, much less see if there is a different road worth taking. But despite the static nature, and despite its age, the Comprehensive Plan still holds weight, and still commands deference. If you disagree with that plan, let’s see yours; until then, this plan is valid, and better than no plan at all, and so has weight.

Commissioner Tully was one of the first to sound the alarm. He correctly recognized that the Comprehensive Plan was critical to the continued health of the village, and that the old plan, while it had weight and provides guidance to this day, does not even come close to doing so in a contemporary fashion. It needs updating.

To feed that updating the village laid out three distinct steps: first, take a pulse of the gestalt of the village with the one shot citizen input session several months ago. That would feed the Strategic Plan, a general guidance document that doesn’t specifically deal with comprehensive or master planning. The next step is the Total Community Discussion Three, or TCD3. If you haven’t heard about that yet, you can find out about it here. All of those feed into an updated Comprehensive or Master Plan. Light redirected if needed, paths chosen and marked out, forward progress now with pertinent guidance and rational weight. Oh, and once that is all done, it’ll probably be time to start over again.

The economy has precluded the village paying someone else to pull all of these threads together and weave a single cloth. The $200,000 that was budgeted is needed elsewhere so trucks will plow, streets and sewers will be fixed, and bills will be paid. So the easy path is not an option anymore, but there are harder paths that can be taken. As a village, Downers Grove now has the heavier load of shouldering the groundwork that previously a simpler “Here’s money, you do it” took care of.

But it can be done. There are elements of business and commerce in DG that can be brought to bear on issues like branding, there are also resources for creating information portals to gather input from all the diverse elements that make up our community-most importantly that majority of single families that have made Downers Grove the great community we are. There are mechanisms that can be created to make sure we don’t find ourselves again in the future with a carved in stone plan, when what we need is that series of freeze frame snapshots along the way.

The old builders triangle Good/Fast/Cheap (you can have any two at the expense of the third) has some bearing. We have to do it cheap(er) now, and it still needs to be good, so it probably won’t be fast. But that’s okay, this is a situation where good (and slower) process is better than fast (and bad). What we could do, and when we could do it, are open for discussion.

We have zoning issues building up, producing stress cracks the old Comprehensive Plan can’t quite address, and in light of the need for deliberate good process, we’d better get going.

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