Last night at City Hall, Dialog consultants presented images and posters of their vision for the North Kingstown area. The problem was, they were out of focus. It was as if they were looking with binoculars from a great distance and hadn’t quite slid that wheel in the middle to the sweet spot. You know how disorienting it is when you can’t quite tell what you’re looking at, where that tree and branch and bird is that you just saw with your naked eye? That’s what it was like.
Dialog presented eight “Emerging Big Moves,” and they wanted to know if people agreed with them. Here they are:
- strengthen connections between the waterfront and a network of public realm destinations
- extend and enhance a finer grain network of streets and blocks
- plan for compact mixed use intensification around nodes and corridors
- cultivate a new hub for entrepreneurial, craft, and knowledge-based employment
- protect Belle Island from development and conserve it as a naturalized area sacred to Indigenous peoples
- shape character areas to guide appropriate growth and change
- continue to intensify the Division Street and Montreal Street corridors
- sustain a vibrant industrial employment area, anchored by greater access and connections
OK, some cool ideas here. But the first thing I would ask is whether these are in fact all “Big Moves.” And the second question would be whether “Big Moves” is what we want. Big Moves are showy, risky, and expensive. They might work, but if they don’t, you’re screwed. Instead of a golden fleece, you might end up with a white elephant. Small Moves, on the other hand, a cluster of them, under the radar, are often what win the game. Small Moves can be agile, responsive, experimental, diverse, reversible, sustainable. I am very skeptical about the Big Move label. Sounds kind of like old-style urban renewal to me, really.
I’m sure we will all look forward to responding to the individual “Big Moves” and the relations between them when the written report is made available within the next month. I am assured by city staff that they really want us to weigh in on which of those moves are most and least attractive, what the priorities should be, and whether the vision and principles the consultants have framed are the right ones. But for now I want to point out how incredibly abstract, how out of focus, these “big moves” are. Other than the specific (and welcome) mention of Belle Island, and the names of a couple of (long) streets, this could come straight out of any planning textbook of our day. So I ask the question, are they really looking at Kingston? Are they looking at where we live and work and play?
If I had to craft a “Vision” for the area — which is what Dialog was asked to do — I would fiddle with that binocular wheel for longer. Or even better, instead of staying that far away I’d ditch the binoculars and look close up. I would say, ok, what specifically are the places we cherish? The places we worry about? The places that could be different or better? The places we don’t want to change at all? This area is not a blank slate, but the map we saw last night kind of made it look that way. The map didn’t for example show the K&P Trail, or the tannery lands as such, or the Outer Station and its trackbed. It showed roads and proposed roads very clearly, but only faint unlabelled shadows of buildings, as if they might not really be there. The consultants didn’t give any specifics or even examples about where the “nodes” suitable for intensification might be or what intensification or “appropriate growth” might look like. Consultant Antonio Gomez-Palacio said that the next phase, the Secondary Plan proper, would “add meat to the bones” of what this first report offers. I don’t know that I see a skeleton here yet. I hope the written report will take us a bit further.
But, you are asking, WHAT ABOUT THE WSE ALREADY!? Well, you could see that alright: a dotted line, all the way from Bay Street to Counter Street. So, what gives? I understand that studies need to be done to assess traffic needs and how to address those, in order to “properly” remove the WSE from planning documents. Fine. But Council explicitly requested investigation of alternatives to the WSE (see here and here). We have been assured time and again by city staff that the Secondary Planning process can result in the removal of the WSE from the City’s plans. In the spoken presentations yesterday we were assured that the consultants do understand there is a lot of opposition to the road — and indeed, there is absolutely no doubt that the large majority of those they heard from oppose it.
Consultants and staff were likely frustrated that so much of the public feedback last night had to do with the WSE and not about the Big Moves. But if this is indeed a “Visioning Exercise,” and it is based on what the consultants heard, and the consultants heard that the WSE is not part of the community’s vision for itself, then why is this line on the map? We’re tired of this topic too, believe me (in fact, this is our 100th blog post on the subject!). But it shouldn’t be surprising that seeing that line on the map — still! — really drew people’s attention, and thus limited our ability to engage with the broader issues we all really do need to discuss.
I look forward to reading the report and coming across a sentence like this, black and white, nice sharp definition:
“The WSE does not form part of our vision for North Kingstown because it endangers waterfront and parkland and entrenches a car-centric view of transportation. We expect that the next stage of planning will a) do a thorough study of multimodal transportation needs in and through the area and b) provide full and transparent rationales for any changes to the road network that may be deemed necessary.”
Then we can all get back to those moves, big or small.
— Laura Murray