Whatever This Is, It Isn’t Democratic

By Peter Dorfman

Bloomington’s Planning & Transportation staffers have been conducting public information sessions to explain and defend the newly proposed zone mapping and UDO amendments. Development Services Manager Jackie Scanlan has led these sessions. She generally has opened by acknowledging a specific criticism, in resident feedback, that the process she is taking us through is “undemocratic.”

I don’t know where the planning staff first encountered this critique, but it’s something I’ve been saying a lot. Apparently the Hamilton Administration feels stung by it. Scanlan counters that the proposal is a draft, and it will have to go through public hearings before the Plan Commission and the City Council before it ever takes effect. But this is a regular part of her pitch; it seems apparent that few Bloomingtonians are mollified by it.

I certainly am not. The administration is reviving upzoning despite the public’s adamant rejection of the idea in City Council deliberations last fall. Nothing in public attitudes toward plexes in the core has changed. What has changed is the politics.

As Scanlan has acknowledged frankly in public “input” sessions, the real difference is the new composition of the Council. In short, the Mayor believes he has the votes to ram upzoning through now, regardless of the public fallout, because neither he nor the Council members have to face voters again for three more years, an eternity in local politics.

I stand by my characterization of the proposal and its launch as undemocratic. At the heart of the new upzoning push is a contention – not yet explicit but wait for it – that the Mayor and at least two new members of the City Council were elected with a mandate to push plexes into the core neighborhoods. They were not.

Allow me to explain why I’m so sure of that.

Alarm at Bloomington’s planning

My wife and I moved to Bloomington five years ago. We love the Near West Side; it’s architecturally charming and it has history that urgently needs saving. But I was a latecomer to historic preservation and local politics generally. I was oblivious, until I got curious about Bloomington’s planning for future growth.

More specifically, I read the 2019 Transportation Plan, which made my hair stand on end. I made a presentation at a City Council meeting at the end of January last year in which I pointed out some bizarrely unrealistic features of the Plan, which I felt were a direct threat to the quality of life in all of the city’s core neighborhoods.

But my alarm at the proposal to shove a broad traffic corridor up through the heart of Prospect Hill and the Near West Side was nothing compared to the experience of listening to the consultants’ presentation, in March 2019, on the UDO. That draft proposed to scrap single family zoning in all but Bloomington’s largest lot, highest income subdivisions.

I personally raised alarms about the zoning aspects of the UDO in April/May 2019, as did our then-Council representative, Chris Sturbaum. I suggested that protecting the Near West Side from the adverse effects of densification was the best reason to support the effort to get the neighborhood historically designated, which was just getting underway at the time.  

In a series of lengthy exchanges on Facebook, starting on March 27 in the Near West Side’s neighborhood group, Chris and his opponents in the Democratic Council District 1 primary (then about five weeks away) jumped in and took differentiating positions on the plexes. Chris condemned the upzoning proposal. Denise Valkyrie aligned with him.

Kate Rosenbarger, who was running a coordinated campaign with at-large Council candidate Matt Flaherty (her brother-in-law), offered a tentative endorsement of the plexes. I say tentative because she limited her support to duplexes. “I am for introducing duplexes into our core neighborhoods, but not necessarily to the extent the UDO describes,” she wrote. “I think we can do this in a way very similar to our introduction of ADUs—maybe we change them to conditional use? ADUs must have 1 unit owner-occupied, and we can make that the case for duplexes, as well.”

Flaherty was not part of our neighborhood conversation, but I sought out some of his concurrent posts online and they offered similar, qualified endorsements of plex development.

Anti-incumbency made the difference

Yes, Mayor Hamilton, Kate Rosenbarger and Matt Flaherty all won their seats by large margins. What people forget, though, is that they weren’t elected in November. They were effectively elected in the May primary – an election with an 8% voter turnout. They were unopposed in November.

Did their victory have anything to do with upzoning? No doubt Rosenbarger and Flaherty expressed support for duplexes in their extensive door-to-door canvassing. But I was deeply and loudly engaged in promoting the historic designation effort at the same time. In April and May 2019, I was having great difficulty getting neighbors to pay attention to the issue. At the time, to the extent people were thinking about the 2019 city election, they were motivated mostly by anger at the money spent on the 4th Street parking garage. Anti-incumbent sentiment was strong.

On April 2, at a candidates’ forum at the Buskirk-Chumley, there were 19 Council hopefuls. Only five expressed anything like coherent positions on the UDO draft. Clearly most candidates had never read it, even though the deadline for public comments was then less than a month away.

By May 1, the public comments were available to read; I suppose we all saw them through our own individual lenses, but what I read was a decent consensus against the zoning changes.

Rosenbarger and Flaherty ran an effective, coordinated campaign – they used the same yard sign graphics and often appeared together. They marshalled numerous young volunteers and knocked on hundreds of doors. Longtime incumbents Chris Sturbaum and Andy Ruff (Flaherty’s principal opponent) barely campaigned at all. Sturbaum never even walked the neighborhoods.

The fall plex debate

The argument over upzoning never really came to life until the fall of 2019, when the Plan Commission and then the Council debated the text and amendments. By November, feelings about the densification proposal in the UDO were intense, and the upzoning proposal had lost its support.

If you have four hours to give it, watch the CATS video of the October 22, 2019 City Council meeting. Sixty-one people gave public comments (far more than the usual turnout). Upzoning opponents outnumbered supporters by a two-to-one margin. (The evening later became notorious when Council member Allison Chopra, frustrated at having to stay late to hear all the comments, threw the bird at Council President Dave Rollo in front of the large audience.)*

Had upzoning been a front-burner issue back in May 2019, or if Rosenbarger and Flaherty had run in contested races in November, it seems at best unclear that they would have prevailed, or won by the large margins they achieved – especially once it became clear that the “plexes” proposed included triplexes and quadplexes, not just the duplexes they’d supported publicly. The remapping of core neighborhoods as R4 zones, where multiunit buildings up to eight-plexes are allowed conditionally, wasn’t even contemplated at the time.

The Hamilton Administration clearly is banking on their presence on the Council (and the departures of Sturbaum and Ruff) to give them the votes to pass the upzoning proposal. That assumption may or may not be well founded; there are other voices on the Council to be heard.

Citizens may offer critical comments, but voters will have no say in the outcome of the upzoning debate except in retrospect, in 2023. Bloomington is a one-party town. What it urgently needs is a dissident faction within its Democratic Party, to counterbalance the cynical clique that’s gathered around Mayor Hamilton. Perhaps the plex debate will be the tipping point that brings that faction to life.

* Update: Former Council Member Allison Chopra has informed this author that, as has been reported elsewhere, it was actually Former Council Member Chris Sturbaum that she was flipping off, not then-Council President Dave Rollo. We stand corrected.

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