I Look at what Planning has Wrought.

IOne of my peeves is the primacy that we humans put on our thoughts and of how we manage to ignore, willfully misinterpret or embrace what happens as a result of those thoughts. If we deem something good, it must be good and “Please don’t bother me with details!” We humans suffer from an arrogance that encourages follow through with plans and, damn the results.

Nevertheless, in nature innumerable feed back loops have evolved over the eons that constrain extreme deviations from the physiologic in health and when these are lost, the organism or system disintegrates. We can enthuse about hiking the North Country trail, but we have to watch constantly for roots and rocks, else risk falls and broken bones. We must constantly monitor our projects to be sure that messy realities don’t intrude.

I hoped to get some primal feedback  and so dragged my drooping buttocks over to Wildflower Creek Planned Urban Development last week. It was Friday and I had the Planning  Commission recommendation in hand.

To summarize for those not in the loop, this parcel of land has been in play since 2003. In 2006, approval was granted for 107 homes to be built in an architectural style called “Neotradtional.” This is an attempt to recapture the small town feel of a hundred years ago as imagined by New Urbanists. Garages should be behind the house, porches where residents sit and meet informally with neighbors promenading on the sidewalks. Construction was started, but then the Great Recession…….A new builder has resurrected the project and “Phase 2” is in play.

The area was quiet and I managed to talk to one young man who was shoveling his driveway. He was happy with his house.

Most of the sidewalks were snow clogged. A few houses were in construction and two had the phone number of the builder, Chris VD Hoff, so I called. He was nearby and, much to my pleasure and instruction, came over, showed me the inside of the places he was building (quality I could tell, with copper pipes, stone floors, closets, solid doors,) other houses built 5-6 years ago by the now bankrupt builder (the front porch roof of one was visibly sagging, an early slum?) and the overall scheme of things.


Home with front entrance garage and another with long driveway and rear garage.

I focused on several issues;

  1. The demand that a tree stand on the property be preserved at all costs; is this our allotment of some pagan Teutonic worship of the mighty Oak?
  2. Driveways that have to stretch around the back to the rear garages for 40% of the new houses and sidewalks that are expensive to build. This extra cement sheds water directly into nearby streams; not environmentally sentient. They also demand that the owner face a lifetime of shoveling these expanses, and where will he deposit the extra snow? Also, the drive between two story houses gets less sun and that part remains cooler during snowmelts. Water is right at the freezing point when it flows onto the shaded concrete where it freezes. See my pictures above. The ice lurks under the snow waiting to mug the next  passing osteoporotic oldster.
  3. As Chris pointed out, it’s difficult to make the turn to get into or out of the garage behind the house, and so owners tend to park their cars serially in the drive causing even more hassle.
  4. Houses with rear garages sell less well.
  5. The neotraditional style demands 2 floors with a front entrance through the porch. Almost all of the houses had several to many steps up to the front door. The one that I visited had an estimated 7 concrete steps with a net elevation of 5 feet to the porch and then the door. It was snow covered. As I gingerly mounted the steps I wondered who would want to shovel this rock pile? And, of course, how does this fit in with the need that the disabled to have for wheelchair and other easy access to housing? The side door accesses a series of short stairwells, hard to use with the traditional stair climbers.This two story approach accommodates young people, but one day, they too will become senile, and then who will be able to use these homes?

Chris told me that the houses are selling well and that there have been only a few secondary sales. I’d counter that private homes in Kentwood sell well during a good economy and as folks flee Grand Rapids. Even turkeys can soar in a rising wind. He would like to build more contemporary style houses as have been built on the adjacent Breezewood, but trying to change the existing plan is too much bother; it’s been 12 years to get this far.

I noted some troublesome issues where the existing plans will cause permanent problems for the hundred year lifespan of this neighborhood. The major policy issues are obscured in the 12 years during which this planning has evolved, so I find it hard to pinpoint responsibility.

Is the Neotraditional style locked in by some understanding with the existing neighbors? If so, is there some mechanism for them to agree to alter this?

Some of the houses in Wildflower Creek were built cheaply and are already showing the deterioration that will impair the prices of the other homes. There are at least 2 different styles of building easily discernible along the one street.  Is there some building standard that will make construction in any one area more consistent? BTW, I do not view a monotonous design favorably; I would not feel bad if every house were different from the next. However, the inconsistency of the current styles might irritate aesthetes who care about these things.

Who and what body wanted or demanded the neotraditional style? Did the original developer propose this style? Or is it tied in with some pet ideology  of the zoning and planning commissions, eg., “smart growth?”

Why does it take so long and so much effort to get plans through the planning and approval?

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