Monday, July 27, 2009

Lara Norkus-Crampton: "Part of the Problem"

By now everyone has heard that Lara Norkus-Crampton has resigned her seat on the Planning Commission in protest over the Commission’s support of the project at Lake and Knox. What? You haven’t heard? You haven’t heard of Norkus-Crampton, and didn’t realize that she’s doing this for you, the people of Uptown? That, of course, is part of the problem, and is yet another reason why it’s so frustrating when people like Norkus-Crampton and her merry band of NIMBYs claim to speak for all Uptown residents and stakeholders. While it would be nice if every resident or other Uptown property owner, business owner, employer, visitor, or other Uptown regular was actively involved in discussions about the neighborhood and its future, that’s not the reality. Norkus-Crampton and the NIMBYs are one faction of the neighborhood; a vocal faction, of course, but just one group out of many.

Most of the readers of this blog probably do know Norkus-Crampton and her history, but then again, readers of this blog are, like the NIMBYs, not necessarily a representative cross-section of Uptowners. Norkus-Crampton has been an active figure in local development issues, and is one of the leading proponents of the concept that tall buildings, or even slightly tall buildings, are single-handedly going to destroy Uptown’s “character.” Norkus-Crampton and the NIMBYs have a vision of Uptown as a quieter place, a less-dense neighborhood where they can “see the sky.” And while I certainly think diversity of opinions is a good thing, and value a good community discussion as much as the anyone, the NIMBYs are, to adapt Norkus-Crampton’s description of the Planning Commission (“I have come to the conclusion that the Planning Department, and the Planning Commission, as a whole, are part of the problem”) the real problem facing Uptown today. Norkus-Crampton’s actions sum up the general attitude in a nutshell: my way or the highway.

Norkus-Crampton claims that the Planning Commission’s vote in favor of the Knox development shows a “complete disregard” for the Uptown Small Area Plan. More specifically, she says it destroys what she calls “the Grand Compromise,” a compromise she alleges the USAP allowed for higher density and height in the core of Uptown in return for lower height. The reality is not that simple. Uptown business leader and USAP steering committee member Thatcher Imboden described his view of things in a recent post on the Minneapolis Issues Forum:

“Height was a component, but it was intentionally not elevated to supreme status. Height itself, determined through our planning process, was not the main issue. It was the height’s relationship with people… meaning how it made you feel on the sidewalk and how it impacted other properties…. But, that’s not quite 100% the way everything ended. A pre-draft came out and was distributed to the Steering Committee. It supported a little more height than the adopted plan. But mysteriously, that height was stripped out a week later without any reason given. The official draft had every district recommended for 3-5 stories with potentially a little more between the Greenway and Lake between Dupont and Hennepin. Otherwise it said that height may be increased from time to time and it left the doors open for that discussion…. The public was told very clearly that staff would not make a recommendation on height and that the Planning Commission would resolve it after taking public comments in writing during the draft response phase and during the Planning Commission official proceedings. Lots of people gave feedback, some saying it’s a good plan, some saying less height, and some people saying more height would be fine, and others saying making it clear that the plan is flexible. BUT, the Planning Commission stated after the public hearing that a compromise had already been reached and they didn’t want to reopen the conversation. Except it hadn’t really been resolved.”

Was this the “Grand Compromise?” Does Norkus-Crampton really think that the Commission’s recent vote was a referendum on the USAP? The approved USAP itself even spells out the potential ambiguity of situations such as the Lake and Knox project. “On occasion, variances and conditional use permits within the Shoreland Overlay District may be appropriate,” (47) for example, and “a broader public discussion that evaluates and weights the overall public contributions and merits of an individual project should be expected on occasion in the future in the even that a taller building is proposed.” (74) I find it outrageous that Norkus-Crampton and her allies have the nerve to proclaim the USAP dead. “This kills the compromise,” said Norkus-Crampton in her resignation press release, “how do you say ‘yes’ to one 56 foot high proposal and ‘no’ to others who will follow this new precedent?” Well, Lara, it’s easy. You go with the plan and evaluate each proposal in turn, just like the USAP suggests. Norkus-Crampton calls the Commission’s willingness to follow the USAP’s flexibility as “cavalier;” I call her disregard for the plan and differing views cavalier.

I’m not sure exactly what to think of Norkus-Crampton’s actions. On one hand, I’m tempted to write it off as a childish reaction to not getting her way. The NIMBYs, after all, have enjoyed a great deal of power in recent years. On the other hand, maybe she really does believe in what she says. I’m not sure which is worse. Is it better to set yourself up as a martyr for the cause when you know full well that the plan was designed to be flexible (in a political move designed to further your overall agenda), or is it better to have such tunnel vision that you honestly don’t understand the details of the plan? To put it in a non-Minnesota “nice”way, is she calculating, is she dumb, or is she oblivious? I think it’s the case of well-meaning tunnel vision, myself. I don’t think she’s stupid and I doubt she’s particularly Machiavellian, but I do think she’s not spending enough quality time engaging in meaningful, sometimes uncomfortable, debates (internal or external) about Uptown and its past, present, and future. I think she honestly does believe that her view of Uptown and its potential is shared by the vast majority of local residents, or, if they don’t share it, then they must have somehow sold out to the evil developers who are out to destroy the neighborhood. In any case, I’m glad to see Norkus-Crampton go, but hope that it doesn’t newly energize an already energized bunch of vocal residents who already enjoy a disproportionate amount of political power.

“This proposal was opposed by the East Isles, ECCO, and CARAG neighborhoods,” said Norkus-Crampton in her press release. It’s this disregard for the people of Uptown, or at least for those who don’t share the NIMBY viewpoint, that really gets me steamed. The NIMBYs often claim to speak for entire neighborhoods. The problem, of course, is that the project was opposed by the neighborhood boards (and not all board members), and boards should not be considered the same thing as neighborhoods. The neighborhood boards are not particularly representative of the neighborhood residents, and are easily dominated by small groups of people with special interests. Neighborhood boards have their strengths and weaknesses, and certainly have a role to play in Uptown, but they have a lot of work to do if they want to become true representative bodies. The NIMBYs have nothing to gain, and potentially a lot to lose, by becoming more diverse and encouraging a broader range of opinions, so unless a slate of new neighborhood activists bursts onto the scene in coming years (and are willing to put up with the process and the frustrations of dealing with the current status quo day in and day out) it appears that the NIMBYs will continue to shape the dialogue as the “official” spokesmen and women for Uptown-area neighborhoods.

It remains to be seen what new role Norkus-Crampton will play in the ongoing debate about the future of Uptown, but I, for one, pledge to do my part to place Norkus-Crampton and her allies in their proper context: a group of neighborhood residents who have one concept of what Uptown is and should be, but not a group that has the authority to speak on behalf of all, or even most, Uptown residents and stakeholders. As for Norkus-Crampton herself, I appreciate her love of the neighborhood and her dedication to making it a better place to live (although our opinions differ on the details), but hope for the sake of Uptown that she channels her new free time into bird watching and planning block parties instead of resuming her role of ECCO and Uptown’s Queen NIMBY.

1 comment:

  1. We politely referred to her as 'ol crampy'. A height fear monger if there ever was one.