Opinion Aisle

Here, on occasion, you’ll find the thoughts of the author. This could relate to a great civic issue…or it might just be a rant. Your comments are welcome!

Here’s the latest, as of January 28, 2011:

Public Meetings…Who are They Really For?

Someone must get some satisfaction from a Public Meeting. After I’ve gone to one, I often feel like I’ve just been frisked. Or duped.

Many agencies and organizations are required to hold Public Meetings as a way to inform, or gather input from, groups of customers or constituents. And, most Public Meetings are positioned as the latter…a chance for the public to express ideas, opinions and formative thought to better the outcome of the subject project. 

Increasingly, though, I have the opinion that it just doesn’t matter. And, too many of our processes are like that. If you go to a Public Meeting and put forth your ideas and listen to all the other ideas that come up, good and bad, you probably don’t expect to read in the next day’s paper that the issue had already been decided…before the meeting took place. And, I think that the Public Meeting process has seen plenty of examples from the corporate world they must be following.

Here’s a real life corporate example. Years ago I worked for the largest advertising agency in Denver. It was bought one day by a larger East Coast agency, BBDO. After one of the early “new management” meetings, one of my favorite copywriters stated succinctly, “I have seen the future. And, it’s a bald guy from New York.” 

Paddington Bear? Here?

Jumping ahead a couple of decades, I was a senior executive in a Denver-based consumer products company. It was bought one day by an East Coast investor who deposited his newly chosen President, a bald guy from New York, in Denver. The new guy promptly gathered the executives into a special session to craft the company’s Mission Statement. A day into the process, he changed all the words to “his own” and declared the task complete. Three days later, I was attending the Aspen Design Conference listening to a presentation by the International Marketing Director for Siemens. He put up their Mission Statement on the screen. Word for word the same as ours. No coincidence. Just the same book.

If you have attended any of the Public Meetings on Mall re-design, or Downtown Development, you may have had similar feelings. People talk, then the consultants check their contracts and present the findings they had already completed. Where do all those ideas go? Were they really any good? Should they be ignored, or are the agencies just filling some obligation to hold a Public Meeting? The presenters seem to enjoy the process. The “facilitators” seem to enjoy them. The people who have done the real work dutifully listen to the public. And, then it is done, announced and built (or, not) with little fanfare. 

Or, another example. When a developer calls a Public or Neighborhood Meeting to discuss an impending major project and seek comment and input, you can bet it’s too late to do anything about it. Typically by that point, permits have been pulled, design reviews have taken place, and that building is going up whether you like it or not. It’s the same in business. If you are a shoe company and you suddenly notice that everyone is wearing lime green shoes, you probably have missed your chance to make and sell lime green shoes. 

"Hopefully" From the North

I’m worried about Union Station. On Wednesday night, January 26, RTD held the “Final Denver Union Station Building Re-use Public Meeting.” All the usual suspects were there. The current status was reviewed, renderings shown, and scenarios presented. Throughout, there were opportunities for the public to offer suggestions, or ask questions, about the best re-use of the historic building. This was all intended to further help the “stakeholders” reach a recommendation that would be presented to the Board of Directors of RTD, the building’s owner. 

Some interesting ideas came out: Food market, retail stores, restaurants, coffee bar, Post Office, Hotel, Visitor’s Center. But, you had the feeling that surely, somewhere, sometime along the process, those had all been discussed. Denver by the Slice even offered some ideas in this article that very likely had not been discussed.

But, as it continued, there were constant reminders of why none of this may matter. Millions must be spent just to get the old building up to Code, really before any improvements or changes can happen. And, RTD is only in possession of about one-third of the money for that at this time. The rest must be generated by surrounding land sales. Those could be years away.

Wynkoop Plaza Design. Is it realistic?

And, there were several references to “how the Wynkoop Plaza will hopefully look” and how those plans keep “changing because of budget issues”. There seemed to be a message there.

Then, as at many Public Meetings, the input tends to become more and more anecdotal. “I saw this in France.” “We need to make it just like Paddington Station in London.” “I think this is the best idea, ever.”

On the following day, at this article in the Denver Post (“Battle Brews over Union Station”), we read about the station. How far along are these proposals? The hotel/retail project proposed is interesting, but won’t fly if RTD decides not to even open a bidding process. They may instead keep the cards close to their chest and give over the re-use project to the Master Developer, Union Station Neighborhood Company.

The only things we know for sure that will be in the “new” station are an information and ticketing facility for RTD; AMTRAK will move back in as before; and DIA will have some presence, perhaps even a remote baggage check service for rail-to-airport passengers. And, because of the funding issues involved, the end result may be no more inviting than the interior of the current Market Street Station…and that would be a shame.

The Facilitator stated at the outset of the meeting that “this would not be the last time to give public input” into this process. But, that process might be dead in its tracks, leaving the public at the platform. Tell me I’m wrong.

One thing I did learn at the meeting. Union Station is really small. Just 76,000 square feet. Compare Kansas City at over 500,000 square feet. Or, Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, an ultimate hub of activity, at over a million. Big decisions to come…for our little train station.

So, are the Public Meetings for us? Or, for them?

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