Last fall I attended a community planning meeting in Millvale led by local firm evolveEA. It was around the same time as when international firm BIG was leading its community planning meetings in the Hill District. The two projects differ vastly in scope that it would be unfair to compare them.
I’m going to do it anyway.
I walked into the meeting, filled out a name tag and also picked out two stickers that indicated what I was most interested in. There were several categories with boards set up around the room. Each “station” had a little summary on what had been discussed at previous sessions, and some news clippings of relevant local developments. Then the biggest surprise: they had beer! They started the session while we started into the beer and pizza.
evolveEA has been working in Millvale for 3 years to develop an EcoDistrict plan. That’s given them plenty of time to gather and present data on all the areas of focus, which are Food, Water, Energy, Air, Mobility and Equity. Previous meetings looked at each of these areas to determine problems and opportunities. None of these problems can be addressed fully within the neighborhood; for instance, Girty’s run in Millvale is responsible for the infamous floods in the early 2000’s, but the watershed for Girty’s run extends along McKnight road past Ross Park Mall, where acres of pavement significantly increase the volume of water that Millvale gets in a rainstorm.
After the intro and update, we split off into groups of about 8 or 10 to make “mission statements” regarding our areas of interest. My primary interest is in transit, so my group talked about what worked and didn’t work about transportation in Millvale. After about 20 minutes or so we presented our mission statement to the other groups, then switched tables and did another activity at another area of interest (in my case, energy). This brought a new group together, where we organized building projects and technologies into groups: ones we wanted to see in Millvale, and those that we needed to learn more about.
Like I said at the beginning, it’s not really fair to compare these two processes, but I’m going to try anyway. The process that BIG used for the Civic Arena site is different from the one that evolveEA is using for Millvale in three kinds of ways. The first two are out of the control of the designer.
The first is scale and visibility. The Civic Arena site is huge in area, value and profile. If a project the size of the Civic Arena (28 acres) was being done in Millvale, it would be the equivalent of developing all the properties on both sides of Grant and Lincoln street between Route 28 and North Avenue, which is basically Millvale’s entire business district. Because of the Civic Arena’s proximity to downtown, that land is more valuable than land in Millvale by several orders of magnitude. Combine the two and you can understand why the master plan of the Civic Arena site is drawing national attention, and why this is probably the first you’re hearing of a master plan for Millvale.
Second, they’re different types of projects with different relationships to the community. BIG is working for a developer. The developer is profit-driven, which means that they have an incentive to spend as little time and money as possible in their interactions with the community. Conversely, evolveEA is retained by a community group. This is not to say that evolveEA gets to spend unlimited time, but by spacing out their involvement over a period of years (rather than a period of weeks), they’re able to go more in depth. EvolveEA can gather baseline data and measure progress, and they know intimately what’s going on in the community because they helped to create the conditions for it. This creates an atmosphere of trust when redevelopment occurs (such as the Bennett Station project), rather than the adversarial tone that dominated BIG’s meetings.
The third is structural. BIG basically had the same meeting three times in a row. They presented their work, gave an opportunity to ask questions, and broke to write comments on post-its. EvolveEA had activities at different scales and with different parties. They presented their work. Then individual groups got together to discuss a specific topic, community member to community member. Then each group got to present the results of their discussion and hear the results of other groups, all moderated by evolveEA. The process was then repeated with a different activity and a different group. This structure kept everyone on task and yielded focused, productive comments, something sorely lacking in BIG’s process.
BIG has some huge issues to deal with, namely gentrification, that are brought on by the scale and visibility. They aren’t afforded the time needed to address these issues meaningfully. But I think some structure in the meetings would have gone a long way to dispelling the notion that I’ve heard from architects and community members alike: BIG is just going through the motions on their way to their next portfolio piece.
But you don’t take my word for it! Kai-Uwe Bergmann of BIG is giving a lecture at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and evolveEA is having another community planning meeting. Unfortunately, they’re both on the same night (January 28th), so you’ll just have to go to one and hope that I tweetcap the other.