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Master Plans: Free Market or Social Engineering?

Hampton, VA – As the council meeting heated up, citizens’ questioned the Mayor’s involvement in the City’s acquisition of Harbor Square apartments. Constituents’ questioned her possibly receiving profits from the sale of this complex to the city. All this accomplished under the strict guidelines of a Comprehensive or Master Plan. With trends of local governments denying businesses, churches and private developers the opportunity to provide services, a good question is whether the city is practicing free market or social engineering?

Master Plans are the center of cities across the nation. City councils use them to steer their city’s vision stretching as far as 2030. They use them to justify keeping citizen’s and businesses in line but when does a plan become counterproductive? How can a constituency turn the direction of their city when unelected bureaucrats are making the decisions? When a plan made by a few is burdened by the whole.

In Hampton, The Richman Group, offered to invest $11 million to rehabilitate Harbor Square Apartments. In March, City Council “voted unanimously not to designate Harbor Square a housing revitalization area.” The reason for the vote was that “the proposal isn’t consistent with a downtown master plan that envisages a time when the apartments at Harbor Square will no longer exist, or the aspirations of some downtown business owners who made their views known.” The city is not trying to change the existing layout, they had changed the zoning to something other than what it is now. The crime ridden, dilapidated apartment complex would remain as is.

After denying the Richman Group the master plan’s revitalization revision, several months later the city voted 4-2 to acquire Harbor Square Apartments for $14.5 million. The plans are that the apartments are to be demolished in 2015. As noted, the Downtown Master Plan was developed with input from more than 300 people. Even though voting against the Richman Group, Councilman Tuck placed reservations in voting against the purchase on the heels of issuing a $38 million bond for the building of a new Courthouse.

While defending the Mayor, the city manager states, “The City decided to pursue the acquisition after hearing from many downtown community members that they did not want to see the property rehabilitated when such an offer was made in March of this year.” As the citizens at the council meeting do not like the city’s acquisition of Harbor Square Apartments, their issues are with the Mayor’s involvement.

While most focus on the Mayor’s personal gain, there are questions that stem much deeper. Who encompasses “the City” and why aren’t elected officials making these decisions? Who exactly does a person vote for, or against, if they feel that elected officials are leading their city in the wrong direction? Who exactly are these “downtown community members”? And most importantly, why are conclusions made outside city council meetings (i.e. discussions held with downtown community members)? The most important question is…how does a citizenry stop “the City” when they appear to be on a suicide mission in pursuit of utopia? Since the Mayor does not pursue…who does? This is about elected officials being accountable to their decisions according to the current circumstances, not holding them accountable to a plan developed by a non-elected bureaucrat.

According to a Case Study conducted by Diana Schor, “Hampton turns every crisis into an opportunity by tapping into its civic base. In 2010, the City had a 5% budget shortfall ($19 million), the worst budget crisis in the last couple of decades. To respond to it, the City has “reinvented itself”…” So, is this how “the City” is responding to this crisis? They move toward the same agenda only changing the players, or reinventing themselves. If there were a crisis last year, why would the city invest $52.5 million into infrastructure this year?

So, the Daily Press quoted a former Downtown Hampton Development Partnership director saying that this was a once in a lifetime chance to change the course of downtown. Is this the downtown community member that determine Harbor Square’s fate?

“The City” took this opportunity to deny a developer from providing a better life for our poor citizens…how is that wrong? So, the Richman Group was not looking for a change in reality which was an apartment complex, they were looking for a change in the plan. For the taxpayers of Hampton, there was a $25.5 million swing, along with the revenue lost in collecting property taxes as the city pursues its dream. But in the end, is this free market or social engineering?

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