The city’s upzoning process has come to its predictable ugly end. It got intense toward the end. And personal.
Planners, pro-density Council members and upzoning fans in the public (as always, a minority among the people who turned out for the meetings) flexed their muscles. They made it clear that conditional use, annual caps and spatial buffering were concessions they would grudgingly make in the interest of unity — but they drew the line there.
They were utterly uninterested in the rationale behind two additional amendments that sought to provide affordability incentives for new duplexes and restore conditional use criteria that would address neighbors’ most universal concern about density (traffic and parking impacts). They made it clear that they distrusted the motives of densification opponents and had, in their minds, done enough to clear the air.
They weren’t listening. They haven’t listened at any point in this debate. In case any of the people who pushed this foolish and tone deaf policy through are interested, here’s how some constituents saw the events of the last few weeks.
This town has its work cut out for it.
I’ve been listening to a lot of rhetoric about the broadening of so-called “housing options” in the core neighborhoods. I’d like to share the following, for context.
When I was fresh out of college, I headed for New York City. I got a starting job as a writer and editor. I couch-surfed for a while before landing in an L-shaped studio which I shared in a shabby old building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. There was a large hole in the bathroom wall, opening into the bathroom of the next apartment; the plumbing had been repaired months earlier and the wall was never fixed. There was a tiny kitchen where we got shocks every time we touched the refrigerator. We had heat in the winter, sometimes. We had hordes of roaches.
Where I really wanted to live was 20 blocks south in a lovely old building called the Ansonia, which was well appointed and just a hop and a skip from Lincoln Center. That was the life I wanted — shopping at Dean & DeLuca’s and living in a two-bedroom with a fireplace in the Ansonia, in the shadow of the Metropolitan Opera. But New York is savagely corrupt and unjust, and there just wasn’t an apartment like that available in my price range, which was in low three figures.
It’s a wonder that I made it out of my 20s.
I’m being facetious, but there’s a serious point here. Bloomington is a resort economy, with a shortage of decent-paying job opportunities, as multiple speakers have reminded us during public comment sessions. Increasingly, the city’s growth depends on an inflow of people from the coasts, including a lot of retirees or near-retirees, for whom housing in Bloomington looks like a bargain. They bring different perspectives from what we homegrow here — perspectives from the real world.
In coming years, when these people hear that the top urban planning priority in Bloomington is to enable low-paid Gen Z-ers to financially burden themselves so they can live in market rate housing walking distance from Hopscotch Coffee, they’re going to wonder what the people who run this town are smoking.
These are not unwelcome interlopers. Bloomington absolutely needs these people to keep moving here, to sustain its tax base growth. Once they recognize what city government seems ready to do to our neighborhoods, and how much harder it’s going to be to buy a house here as a result, they will stop coming. That’s really bad for this town’s future.
We have an election in two years. Dissident Democrats will remember what the administration, its commissioners and its allies on the City Council did here — who put their personal ideological agendas above the interests of their constituents and who didn’t.
Peter Dorfman, Near West Side
The administration, planners, and upzoning zealots on the council had their agenda, and nothing would budge them from it. Not public outcry, not facts, not reason, not expert testimony, not the pleas of pioneering city leaders. The process was profoundly anti-democratic: autocratic, ideologically-driven, and dismissive of the public. I used to be a reluctant proponent of annexation; after this, I would warn everyone the mayor has targeted to fight this to their last breath.
Ramsay Harik, Eastside
This process was undemocratic and pushed through during a pandemic. We were lied to throughout: Affordability was not the goal. Density (development) was. The only thing to do from now on is to (continue) to organize and make sure we have enough votes in the next City Election to throw out those who foisted this upon us. I will not forget. I am all in.
Dave Stewart, Bryan Park
I am a Republican raising a biracial family living in Bloomington since 2001. I get along with my neighbors and although I am a Purdue alum I also have a degree from IUB and root for the Hoosiers. The one constant has been watching and experiencing dysfunctional city government, obviously mostly Democrats, do their best to make a mess out of a pretty nice city. In true Democratic style, no one can be trusted, so we need rules and laws for everything. You love the environment but you spend my tax money to slaughter deer. Never have the collective minds been smart enough to overcome their bias and narcissism. Without true exploration into the failures of similar communities the City Council has now launched upzoning. We all know it will have an impact; we just don’t know what. Even the council has no idea. Hopefully we can elect better representation and cease it before too much damage is done. One would think that you would see the failures from your ideas in ALL Democratic run cities in the US and listen to the logic of your citizens, who are likely over 90% Democrats. But no, the need to look at a very small set of peers and feel like you have intensified your value to society overcomes the obligation you have to the same citizens who elected you. In reality none of this will be remembered; your actions are not special and neither are you with regards to this sham. I consider it shameful. The only benefit is you are turning many away from the Democratic party. “Party of the People?” Right.
Richmond Wells, Hoosier Acres
It’s really hard to say what the impact of the revised UDO will be in the long term. I doubt it will spark huge outside investment as currently written. I’m more concerned about two landlords I know of who own about 40-50 units each, though. If the revised UDO doesn’t have a large impact I’m dead certain proponents will be back, again and again, saying that the sky didn’t fall – until it does.
This was a top down process, not a democratic process. The plan commission hearings were a complete waste of time, with no one other than Commissioner Sandberg being willing to admit that not all undergraduate students make great neighbors.
The City Council hearings were somewhat better, with Council Member Sgambelluri specifically noting in her comments before voting on Amendment One that the student population has a very different effect on neighborhoods than do other populations. Council Member Smith really summed up my take on the whole issue when he said he couldn’t really see why the administration was proposing this, given that it admitted it would have negligible effect on affordability. I also appreciated his comments in defense of responding to constituent input, although I’m dismayed that that was necessary. Council Member Sandberg and Council Member Rollo we’re clearly on board with that notion and I really appreciate the effort they put into writing amendments and challenging the administration’s “logic,” such as it is. But, after the vote on Amendment One making any further public comment seemed to have the same value as speaking to a stone.
Generally, I thought the public behaved well, with exceptions.
The upzoning process demonstrated to those being annexed that ideologues dominate the city council, which is not so great if you don’t share the same ideology.
The upzoning process clearly demonstrates that the Monroe County Democratic Party needs opposition, especially for its own good, not only the good of the residents of Bloomington. We’ve reached the point that due to lack of opposition the party seems to have acquired something like absolute power, and we seem to be heading down a path to something like absolute corruption.
Bill Coulter, Elm Heights
The impact of upzoning will be deleterious. It will not provide a lower carbon footprint or lead to more affordable housing. It will disrupt and, in some cases, destroy existing thriving neighborhoods, while leading to unbridled corporate interests — developing housing complexes that will drive up rentals and the cost of purchasing single family homes.
The process was manifestly undemocratic. The five who voted for the
duplexes did not listen to the vast majority of people who would be affected by their misguided “pie in the sky” policies concerning making housing more affordable in Bloomington.
Mayor Hamilton, as is typical of his decision making process, gets a notion in his head and off he goes like the toad in “Wind in the Willows” on some insane journey.
The process shows the people who live in the areas of Monroe County now targeted for annexation exactly what I have written above the Mayor, the staff he has selected to implement whatever misguided “pie in the sky” he and confederates on the City Council wish to foist on the public.
Bloomington needs a new mayor and more independently minded administrative staff.
Robert Arnove, Elm Heights
I participated in the Zoom Planning Board and Council meetings. My thoughts on the whole process were that it’s a shame we don’t have New England town meetings where the citizens vote directly on the issues after comments are made by the public and questions are answered by the officials making the proposals.
There were so many good points made against upzoning or questions asked about what would be done about the negative consequences. But this kind of set up doesn’t require a response from the Council members and so those members in favor of upzoning were never actually put on the spot. I think they would have had a very difficult time explaining or countering comments made by the public. It was very impressive how carefully researched and well stated many of the arguments against the upzoning were. Maybe the best question of all was the one asking how an experiment can be run without defining the success or failure of the hypothesis. So simple, so obvious, so absent.
It was clear that nothing that was said mattered, minds were made up before the meeting began. One member even admitted that she had heard from more of her constituents against upzoning than for, but, and I’m paraphrasing now, she knew better. The whole thing was shameful.
Karen Kenter, Elm Heights
5 City Council Members.
Voted against the Comprehensive Plan.
V is for Vote. 2023.
Linda Stewart, Bryan Park
My best guess is that properties will continue to be purchased in very competitive bidding wars with escalating prices and that most homes purchased will be converted to student rentals, only now more of them will be duplexed for maximum profits. Low and middle-income families and individuals will find it harder and harder to afford to live in the core of the city.
The UDO process was an example of top-down planning where public input was tolerated because legally required, but not sought during the creation of the plan, when it could have been a meaningful dialog. The only consolation was that we did not get MULTIplexes everywhere by right and that some conditions were reimposed with a cap — too generous a cap, but at least a cap.
I’m not in [planners’ or City Council members’] heads, so I don’t know, but I felt that I and my views were often stereotyped. I certainly did not feel heard by many of the plan commission or City Council members.
Public commenters too often seemed to be ideologically motivated and extremely naive about the likely outcome of an unfettered free real estate market, although I really felt for those who expressed genuine frustration at not being able to afford to live in Bloomington. It’s sad that progressives can be so easily hoodwinked by right-wing big-money interests and end up supporting policy fundamentally against their interests and ideals.
To observers who live in the areas of Monroe County now targeted for annexation: Be afraid, be very afraid.
Sadly, if one espouses the right trendy buzz words, you can get elected. Then you can impose poorly considered policy from on high without consulting your constituents, because there is no meaningful alternative in a one-party city. We have abject idiots running the State who belong to one party, but now it’s not a whole lot better at home with the other party. I always thought that we Boomers failed fundamentally in our “revolution” when we emerged from the 60’s and early 70’s without a meaningful third-party alternative. What a mess.
Richard Durisen, Elm Heights
Here is how it always works:
They collect all of the statements and info from the public.
Then they vote what they had originally made up their minds to do.
I see it again and again.
Larry Robinson, Bryan Park
For those of us who have lived in Bloomington and participated in local government through neighborhood associations or just as citizens in communication with former mayors, department heads, or city employees, this whole process, indeed the last 6 years of this current administration, has been a demoralizing and heartbreaking experience.
For the past several decades, our city government was really a thing of democratic beauty. Citizens were encouraged to be participants. Officials and city employees acted as if they understood that they worked for the citizens.
The city, during several administrations, created the Citizens Academy to help citizens understand how their government worked. Anyone who participated in that program came out of the experience proud of our local government. Vickie Provine in the HAND Department worked tirelessly for decades to encourage, support, and help neighborhoods create associations so that they could effectively organize to communicate with city officials. The Small and Simple Grants and the Neighborhood Improvement Grants were created so that neighbors could come together to decide what they wanted for the good of their neighbors, and the grants funded those dreams. So many wonderful additions to the city neighborhoods were envisioned and brought to life through these citizen- designed improvements.
With the election of this current mayor and his administration, it felt like ice water thrown in the face of formerly involved Bloomingtonians. All of a sudden, it felt like citizens were seen as ignorant annoyances. We were not worth listening to.
The arrogance of a person who had never participated in local city government as a citizen, never was seen at any city council meeting, who had lived mostly in the ivory tower of IU and in Washington, D.C., deciding, for some reason, that he was smarter than the rubes who had created the democracy that was Bloomington’s city government and that he wanted to take it over, was stunning.
So many of the things he has done since he started have been a disaster of arrogance and refusal to listen to citizen input. He has even failed to include other elected county and city officials in his pronouncements. From his original, disastrous annexation fiat, to his purchase of the Bearcat riot vehicle, to his handling of our homeless citizens, to his bullying, taxpayer-funded harassment of a local realtor who refused to knuckle under to his bullying and sell his property to the city, he has alienated whole groups of people.
The nasty, hateful, divisive upzoning plan, a gift to developers and investors, that his administration jammed through, clearly against the majority of citizen input, has done damage that I fear may not be healed for a long, long time. He set citizen against citizen. And the people who work for him in the city and his minions on the city council have disrespected thoughtful, committed citizens in a slanderous way that has left many of us reeling in disbelief and grief for what has been so badly damaged. I think this administration never understood what we had or what they have destroyed.
Veda Stanfield, Near West Side
The majority of city council and the mayor of Bloomington may be feeling that they have won a battle for the up-zoning and building in neighborhoods near the center of town.
I would like to ask: What has been lost here?
I think we have lost a sense of trust, decency and respect and this was felt by many.
Like Mayor Allison, I take heart in the work of Ellie Ostrom, IU professor who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009. She showed how communities can co-operate to share resources. Her ideas drive debates today about the future of the planet.
To me, neighborhoods, growth and green space are sacred resources we must evaluate…and no where more poignantly than on this, our local level.
Ms. Ostrom revolutionized thinking of managing resources by saying:
- Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules and that rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
- Working this way, from the bottom up, is messy and time consuming but leads to the most sustainable of solutions, when all players are respected in the process.
The process we have all just participated in has been the EXACT OPPOSITE of the her suggested methods.
If this process had been handled differently, it could have led to real success with ALL PLAYERS involved feeling heard, understood and even EXCITED about a solution.
Instead, the handling of discussion, by some members of city council and influenced by the mayor, accusingly linked important hot-button political issues to the issue of rezoning, without actually seeing or hearing their audience/constituents genuine concerns, and this strategy has been one with tragic results.
The process framed by some on council has not been about raised awareness and moving to a positive place.
It has been about shaming and getting the upper hand.
Community member who expressed genuine concernS about rapacious real estate development, with developers outspending any middle income families’ affordability agency, were “Called out” on their alleged hidden agenda of racism and classicism!
When we expressed shock and dismay at these allegations – some direct, some implied- we were then ridiculed by some speakers and asked: “Why does being called a racist bother you so much?”
Or “I’d didn’t mean YOU personally, it is just the fact of how it is.”
This has destroyed good-will and above all: TRUST.
One can feel the despair in one’s gut…it is palpable, this destroyed trust.
But, HERE is the most confusing part to me:
By allowing this tone into these discussion, these council members created division from the very people that supported them.
During a pandemic? On Zoom?
But not just on Zoom, but on Zoom with all participants BUT city council’s faces being blocked out black squares?!
NOT allowed to see each other’s faces?
Dozens of hours meeting in this inhumane way?
Talk about a disenfranchising process for every single participant in these meetings.
I for one am going to get down on my knees and pray that there will be some form of openness and willingness in the future to actually listen to the real concerns of your people, your constituents, your worried and open-hearted citizens who are NOT racist or classist or against a multi-cultural community… if you actually looked at us, listened to us, you would see we are the people who WANT to make changes for the better.
You have mislabeled us to your detriment…and to ours…and to our beloved community.
I am, like most of your constituents to who showed up to these meetings, ready to work on climate change.
I am ready to work on affordable housing.
I am ready to work on racial harmony in a world where LOVE and KINDNESS truly rules, NOT POSTURING AND PURITY.
Mary Bess Bohon Lee, Bryan Park