In principle, we find the continuing battles over Ericksen Avenue deplorable. After no fewer than 11 public forums last year, the City Council approved a design that attempted to balance the neighbors’ desires to preserve the old-timey feel of the street against the needs of walkers and cyclists, who find the street’s narrow, shoulder-less contours nearly unusable.
But then we had elections. And a majority of the new City Council decided to revisit the whole plan. So we are going back, essentially, to the starting point.
We are troubled by those who argue that there was too little public input into last year’s design decision. The fact is that Ericksen design was talked to death last year, and the further fact is that there was considerable public input into the Winslow Master Plan, which specifically calls for curbs, gutters, sidewalks and bike lanes on both sides of Ericksen. Too often, those who argue that the process was flawed really want a re-do only because they didn’t like the outcome.
Having said this, though, we concede that the problem of when and how a decision becomes final is a difficult one, and it crops up frequently. Arguably, the community’s decision to channel half of the island’s future growth into Winslow should end arguments that Winslow projects are too dense. But that basic decision hasn’t quelled objections to virtually every Winslow project on the basis of density.
As we see it, the problem is that policy decisions are made in the abstract, but implemented – sometimes literally – in concrete. It’s all well and good to say that growth should go downtown, or that Ericksen should be bike and pedestrian-friendly; it’s quite another to say that a street should be widened so that the pavement goes to your doorstep.
Part of the disconnect between abstract policies and concrete implementation arises from the fact that public input comes from different people. Bike advocates argue for bike lanes, but the adjoining landowners may not show up. Folks who live in the island’s outlying areas argue for downtown growth; those whose streets might become more crowded don’t raise their voices at that stage.
Predictably, the adversely affected turn out – angrily – at implementation stage, arguing that “nobody told them.” So we start the process again. Time and money are wasted, and too frequently, the guiding policy is compromised.
To close the gap between policy and action, we would like to see the city anticipate the concrete effects of abstract policies, then specifically invite those who might be impacted to come to the table at the policy-making stage.
We envision something analogous to an environmental impact statement – call it a Policy Impact Statement, for lack of a better moniker. When bike lanes on a street are proposed, for example, the street will need to be widened or the travel lanes narrowed. Let’s propose one or the other up front, notify the interested parties (such as adjoining landowners), then debate the whole thing.
The same principle applies in reverse. Reducing a Winslow project’s density may well lead to more building in the outlying areas. Let’s say so, and encourage those who favor in-town density to turn out at decision time.
Not all impacts may be predictable, but a lot of them are, and even a “best guess” would be an improvement over what we have now. And while the process would add costs up front, it might be a way to make decisions only once, instead of doing them again and again.
It’s worth a try. We have nothing to lose but our meetings.