December 9, 2016

A Plan for Beautification, Now and in the Future

For the past several years we’ve made it a priority.  But all the while we’ve struggled to identify exactly what “it” is.

The Beautification initiative began with a concern voiced by many of our residents that the City was starting to look a little shabby and rough around the edges, especially in public rights of way and along our commercial corridors.  The examples they cited included worn and faded street markings and signage, busted curbs, tired and lifeless landscaping, neglected utility boxes and trees in need of trimming.  City Councils (past and present) agreed it was time to spruce things up, and formally adopted Beautification as a priority, even going so far as to budget a line item for it.  Yet, that particular allocation has largely gone unspent because a precise definition remained elusive.  City Managers (past and present) were ready, willing and able to get it done, but still needed clarification on the “it” they were being asked to implement.

In the meantime, the City has stepped up maintenance of our public spaces around town, to address the several items residents have brought up, and we’ve added new plantings in esplanades, parks and around city buildings.  The improvement is demonstrable and folks are noticing.  But these near-term efforts were never intended to take the place of a long-term Beautification plan.

A Grassroots Effort With Professional Guidance

We’re now a significant step closer to such a plan, and the process has taken us far beyond fresh paint and flowers.  As the Beautification initiative gained momentum, the grassroots Citizens for a Beautiful Bellaire (CBB) came together and offered itself as a steering committee of sorts, advocating before City Council for its continued commitment to Beautification as a stated priority.  Yet, and perhaps not surprisingly, CBB soon encountered the same difficulty previous Councils had.  It became evident that we all needed some outside guidance to help us put our finger on precisely what it was we were trying to do.

The result of this change in approach has been enlightening.  CBB found a partner in Terrain Studio, a San Francisco- and Houston-based landscape architecture, planning and urban design firm, and made the introduction to City Council.  While admittedly a rather unorthodox way of finding a consultant, Council saw the value of Terrain’s professional expertise and decided to move forward.  In the ensuing approximately five months, through a series of in-depth community input workshops and in close consultation with city staff and with guidance from CBB, Terrain made rapid progress.  The focus of discussion soon evolved from “Beautification” to the much more ambitious “Urban Design.”

At our last Council meeting on Monday night, Terrain presented its conceptual master plan titled “Visioning Bellaire.”  (Click here for a copy of the report.)  Having previously received interim presentations along the way, we knew what to expect.  The question was what to do with it, to ensure it doesn’t just sit on a shelf and gather dust.

Beautification vs. Urban Design; Short-Term vs. Long-Term

The answer we arrived at is grounded in the distinction between Beautification and Urban Design, and the recognition that the former is achievable in the near-term with relatively little additional investment, while the latter represents a very long-term vision—as in decades—at significant cost that will more than likely involve partnerships with other entities and private developers.  The two are clearly related, in that Urban Design will help beautify the City, but not any time soon and not without a lot more work and refinement.  Not to mention that the details of specific projects are still to be determined.  In short, what we decided is that the City will continue to focus on Beautification in the near-term, as we have in recent years, but the Urban Design aspects of Terrain’s proposal will be further developed as a master plan, and through the usual city processes.

That last point is key.  From the outset, the proponents of the Beautification initiative have resisted the governmental framework, in part fearing it would slow things down (no argument there).  In my view, that approach has played a key role in the success of the grassroots effort up to this point.  However, now that we’ve got a more developed and professionally-produced plan, that nonconformance to governmental processes is actually its greatest threat.  For this plan, or some version of it, to become the official policy of the City, then we need to make it so.  Specifically, that the Planning and Zoning Commission evaluate Terrain’s proposal, with public input, and report back to City Council with recommendations for incorporating it into the Comprehensive Plan.  That’s the long-standing process for the conduct of city business, and the best way to keep the proposal from sitting on a shelf.

Even more fundamental, for it to be truly successful the plan needs community buy-in.  That’s not to say it currently has none, or that Terrain’s public workshops don’t count.  Rather, that’s the sort of input that went into developing the plan.  Now it’s time to sell that plan to our broader constituency if we want it to succeed.

And lest we get too carried away, we must keep in perspective that this is but one priority among several competing for resources, now and for the foreseeable future.  We’ve just passed $54 million in new bond propositions for critically necessary infrastructure and facilities improvements.  We’ve reached the end of the road in subsidizing years of artificially low water rates and had no choice but to raise them to ensure the continued solvency of our utility fund.  Against that backdrop, our citizens will help us prioritize our collective needs and wants.  Incorporating the proposal into the Comprehensive Plan through the usual process affords multiple opportunities for public input and buy-in, and by programming it into our future planning the process helps ensure these ideas won’t go stale or be forgotten.

In fact, in some important respects the Terrain proposal is already helping inform current decisions.  For example, City Council previously committed to a decorative street lighting pilot project along Newcastle, but hasn’t yet settled on what the lights will actually look like.  The Terrain report has led us to some consensus on that, which in turn represents progress toward an overall branding standard, to be incorporated into future projects such as traffic poles, wayfinding signage and gateway entrances.  It may also lead to design standards for private development in the commercial zoning districts.

We started out in this initiative trying to define what exactly Beautification is.  Ironically, perhaps, we’ve now answered that question by discovering what it’s not.  Urban Design is a much more expansive and long-term set of concepts.  It’s good, forward-thinking stuff, but realistically it’s years away.  For now, it turns out Beautification is as simple as we first knew it to be.