July 15, 2010

Perception is Reality?

[This is the "before" shot]

There’s a popular ad on TV that asks the question, “if you could have this (and they show video illustrating a luxurious experience of some kind) for the same price as this (a far less-than luxury—even a rather negative—experience), wouldn’t you prefer the first choice?” The obvious answer is “yes.” Even so, is the answer always so obvious? I’d like to ask you the same thing today. And this is from a real situation here in Maryland that took on a rather personal meaning for me.

Here’s the question. Suppose you were told that there was limited funding for a new university building (in this case a “regional center” where a number of institutions would share space an offer courses and degree programs), but that you had two choices.

The first was a heavily dilapidated and weather-damaged building (and old hotel over 100 years old), full of hazardous building materials (lead paint, asbestos) in a rather cramped downtown street in a mid-sized, older industrial city with a reputation that included crime, traffic problems, etc.

The cost estimates that were coming back to you were staggering—even exceeding a new building—and you were told that it would require significant hazmat remediation, rebuilding, restoration, and an addition just to help hold the thing together and provide basic amenities like elevators and restrooms. (Rain fell through open holes in the roof. One state inspector had fallen through a dry rotted floor and caught himself by his arms while on the way to the next level. He had to be rescued by the fire department. Yes, it was that bad!) The downtown site had the support of the City itself (obviously), but few others in the general community.

The second was a donation of 20 acres of pristine open land, right off a brand-new freeway interchange, still quite close to the City, but convenient for commuters and county residents to access.

A new building on this site could be constructed for roughly the same cost (some even estimated less cost) as the downtown renovation option, but the building would be brand new and designed especially for the university function. This location had the support of the county, many in the local business community, and the advisory panel working with the university system to plan the new center. This was clearly the majority winner, in terms of popularity.

So which would you choose?

For the record, we (the University System) pushed for the “new building” option primarily because we were convinced that we’d get more building for what we expected to see in the capital budget.

Let me say that the ensuing discussion was rather heated on both sides. Local and state elected officials weighed-in on the argument and there were some rather frustrating public hearings held near the downtown site. At one point, I gave a review of the cost comparison of the two choices that we had received from a third-party construction management group. The facts were clearly in our favor.

Even so, I was shouted down (literally) by a few vocal activists and even received an angry letter (copied to everyone from my boss to the Governor’s office) calling me an obstructionist, questioning my personal ethics and professional qualifications, and then adding a few derogatory terms sprinkled-in for good measure. (Yes, those are the kinds of things you have to face sometimes in this Town/Gown game.) Regardless, I could not in good conscience recommend we pay more for less of a facility because those were the facts. That was reality. Right? Not exactly.

As it turns out, a very far-sighted governor stepped-in to make a difficult decision. And his action was, at the time, rather frustrating for us because he issued an executive order saying, “Whereas... etc.... Therefore, the center will be housed in the renovated hotel building downtown.” End of discussion. End of debate.

Then, to his credit, the Governor offered us the full funding we felt we needed to renovate and add-to the old building. So we went ahead with his choice, hired an architect and moved on with hazmat remediation. The architects came up with an ingenious plan that restored both wings of the old building and used a new addition to tie (structurally and logistically—with elevators and ramps) the whole complex together.

Little-by-little, I and those with whom I worked became convinced that the building could be renovated in a way that would work well for our center.

And since my name had personally become synonymous with opposition to the downtown choice, I started publicly retracting that objection. I began speaking to City council meetings and to the Chamber of Commerce, looking like a sort-of “convert,” if you will, to the cause. My face (and my supportive statements), as well as those of others who had shared my initial reaction appeared in the paper and I even went on TV as a talking head (opposite sound bites from the Governor) extolling the virtues of the new facility.

So what happened? I'll tell you what happened. A lot of really great things began to happen. People started “coming out the woodwork” in support of the project. The community became galvanized in their support.

[This is the "after" shot]

As the project was under construction, the local business community joined with the City and the county and petitioned the State for grant funding to tear down some smaller buildings in the area and landscape a new plaza adjacent to the facility. The project began winning awards from historic preservation and architecture organizations. Retailers like cafes and bookstores began filtering back to the City to take advantage of the new-found student clientele.

And then just 3 years after the new Center opened for its first classes, a Statewide preservation conference was held in the new facility. The conveners of the conference brought together many of us who once stood at opposite sides of the site selection battle (if you will) and we jointly celebrated the project as one of the most successful historic preservation and downtown revitalization efforts in recent memory.

So why share this lengthy story?

People see things differently. Answers are not necessarily right or wrong; but we see them as right for us, wrong for them, etc. There are really an infinite set of solutions to any problem (just like infinite set of different opinions possible in perception exercise above). And sometimes, as strongly as we believe in our point-of-view, we may quickly find ourselves looking at the world from a new direction.

How does this apply to the subject of "Reaching Common Ground?"

When it comes to community response to planning, perception becomes reality. It’s the basis of most conflicts (in general) and the often deep-set community issues we face are no exception. Planning (with a “capital P”) is often defined as the successful resolution of multiple, competing—and in many cases, conflicting—priorities. That's it in a nutshell. That's the definition of consensus and the most successful pathway to that common ground we so desperately seek.

Oh, and one more thing I learned from this experience: I'm not always right. And sometimes when I'm wrong, I admit it.

No comments:

Post a Comment