Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wichita City Council should listen to residents before moving forward with plans for a Lord's Diner in the Northeast community

Just last week, the Wichita Eagle reported that the City was moving ahead with plans to construct a new Lord's Diner (a free meal center for the poor and/or homeless) on 21st street in the Central Northeast community. The author of the article lamented the fact that many of the neighborhood's residents were opposed to the plan, but then applauded the City's apparent resolve to move forward despite the local opposition.

The author of the article correctly noted that there is a relatively high concentration of lower income families in the Central Northeast and that many lower income families could use a little assistance in these tough economic times. And I have no doubt that a free meal center on 21st street could and would likely be filled with people from all over the city who were appreciative of the help. But in lamenting the neighborhood opposition to the plan, the author negated a very important principle and variable in this debate: That is the obligation of elected officials to actively listen to the communities they represent. Analyzing and understanding GIS and demographic data is terribly important, but so too are the voices of the residents. And this is not a principle often lost upon the Wichita City Council. In fact, the Council has a long history of being responsive to the concerns of its neighborhoods and communities.

For example:

On July 12th, 2004 a Wichita resident walked into the monthly meeting of the Wichita City District 2 Advisory Board. They addressed the DAB board that evening to discuss a Water Department pumping station located just across the street from their well manicured gated community. A number of the communities residents were concerned that the pumping station's newly installed roof was not "architecturally consistent" with the surrounding neighborhoods. You see the roof was blue while the houses in the surrounding communities were all shake shingles…

The City Council listened to the concerns of the residents. And so as not to offend the aesthetic sensibilities of the folks in the neighborhood, the Council spent an additional $78,000.00 to replace the Blue roof with concrete shingles similar in appearance to the shingled roofs on the neighboring houses.

A second example took place in late 2006 when Walmart announced plans to build a Super-Center on the southeast corner of Kellogg and Oliver. The residents of that local neighborhood contacted the City Council and expressed their opposition to the plan. Citing the negative effect it would have on traffic, property values, and local businesses, the citizens asked the City Council to deny the proposed zoning change needed for Walmart to move forward. The City, knowing that rescinding the offer would lead to a legal challenge from the retailer, opted to stand with the local residents and said no to Walmart. It was an act of tremendous political courage. In 2007 Judge Joe Kisner ruled that the City was within their legal rights to reject the zoning change. Walmart appealed and the earlier ruling was upheld just last month...

In both of these instances the City Council showed its willingness to make difficult and even controversial decisions on behalf of the local residents who would be directly affected. That same tact should be taken in this instance.

Wanting to build an additional facility to serve the poor and homeless is laudable and we applaud Mayor Brewer and the City Council's resolve to care for 'the least of these'. But the placement of that facility is not without consequence.

Placing the Lord's Diner in the center of 21st street will negatively impact residential property values. It will also make it increasingly difficult to attract new business and franchises to the area. And it is also wholly inconsistent with the Central Northeast, McAdams, and 21st Neighborhood redevelopment plans that the City has been promoting for the last few years.

For several years now, the City of Wichita has been publicly talking up plans to redevelop the Central Northeast community, particularly along 21st street. Residents, neighborhood associations, and local businesses have all signed on to these plans. When I speak with residents I hear wonderful stories of the way 21st used be when 21st street was a thriving area for businesses and families. They speak fondly of the times when Jabara's and Razooks Grocery Stores were both open for business, when there was an Otasco Department store, a Dairy Queen, strip malls, Barbershops, Burger Stands, schools, and filling stations. Moreover, many looked to the City's 21st street redevelopment as an opportunity to regain some of the vibrance that the community once held.

The City's initial redevelopment investments in the area confirmed those beliefs. The construction of the new state of the art Boys and Girls club, the new Gordon Parks Academy, TOP's and the development of Opportunity Drive were are positive and hopeful signs that the City was seriously moving to reinvest in and reinvigorate this once thriving and vibrant community.

But the City's new plan to place a soup kitchen in the heart of this community is difficult to reconcile with that vision. We are talking about a community who through the strong leadership of people like James Roseborough and Teretha Brown-Foster who head two of the area's neighborhood associations, and business leaders like Bob Alford (owner of the recently constructed MassFord Plaza), have really begun to turn things around for the better. Through their partnerships with the Wichita PD's neighborhood policing initiatives, crime is down in the area. Though the dedicated efforts of Church leaders like Pastor Jeff Enlow of Bibleway Baptist Church and groups like WIN (Wichita Independent Neighborhoods), houses and streets are being cleaned up. And local business leaders such as Bob Alford and others, have been carefully eying opportunities to attract new business and jobs to the area.

Placing the Lord's Diner right in the center of all this activity is a step in the opposite direction. Instead of building a job training facility (as many in the area had suggested) or marketing the real estate to new businesses that might employ more of the area's residents and improve the community's economic profile, the city has decided that this neighborhood would be an ideal place to gather and serve the city's poor and homeless. Instead of looking for ways to attract new businesses and new employment opportunities to the area that might provide a real leg out of poverty (teaching a man to fish), the city has decided to use the community's scarce real estate to build a free meal center that would cater to the City's poor and homeless (giving the man a fish). What does that say about our vision and priorities?

This is when the City should be talking to and listening to the area's residents. The City should be working with and responding to the people in the area who would be directly affected by these plans. The City should not squander its political will to steamroll over the voices and concerns of the community. Rather, the City should engage the residents, the business leaders, the church leaders, and the developers and work to find a "win-win" solution that would provide the assistance to those who need it without it coming at the expense of the property values and business opportunities of those in the community you are purporting to serve.

Now I know some will say that the real issue is one of helping the needy, and they will correctly state that this facility will serve some of the needy people in the immediate area. But in truth, the same could be said of almost any area in the MSA. The same argument could be used for placing the facility in Planeview, South City, 43rd St North, South East, or even Haysville or Park City for that matter.

Some will argue that talking about property values and businesses instead of talking about feeding the poor is heartless. But let's be clear, we are ALL in favor of feeding those in need. And we are all in favor of helping those who need help. But we are ALSO in favor of local communities having a real voice in the affairs and issues that impact them. The City established a precedent in listening and responding to the Aesthetic concerns of Tallgrass residents, even at a cost to taxpayers. They reestablished that precedent when they took on Walmart in the Courts in response to the concerns of Center City residents. We are simply saying that the residents of the Central Northeast community deserve that same level of responsiveness from their City government. We shouldn't deride their concerns and applaud the City's apparent willingness to ignore them; to the contrary, we call upon the City to extend the same ear to these residents and community leaders that you have extended to so many others in the past. Even when the decision was difficult you upheld the principle that the citizen's voices should be heard and respected. Even when the decision was unpopular you upheld the principle that the citizen's voices should be heard and respected. Even when the decision was costly and required political courage you still upheld the principle that the citizen's voices should be heard and respected. We ask that you not abandon that principle now...

And lastly, some will argue that the Central Northeast community is THE community with the greatest need, so this is where the facility should be placed. To them I say two things. First, the postulate that this is the area of the Greatest need is arguable, but even if we took that as a given, it would still prompt the question: What are they in greatest need of - Jobs or Sandwiches?

And second, if you are correct, and this is the area of greatest need, then the City would lose nothing by holding public forum to discuss the issue with residents. If this is the area in greatest need of a soup kitchen, then it stands to reason that it would only be confirmed by talking to the residents. But if the residents are asking for a Job training facility, and the City is responding with a Soup Kitchen, then the City is NOT responding to the needs of the community.

We are confident that this issue can be resolved and that there can be a 'win-win' solution. But the City must be willing to come together with residents, listen to their concerns, and work towards a plan that all can agree on. We are a neighborhood-centric city. We are a city with accessible leadership and a proud legacy of responsiveness to citizen concerns. We have never been a city where the City Council ignores the concerns of its neighborhood associations, community and/or business leaders. And we should not become one today...

Now personally, I don't live in the Central Northeast and my property values will not be affected, so some might argue that I don't have a dog in this fight. But I stand on the principle that the folks in our community should be given the same respect and consideration as the folks in Center City or Tallgrass. The people in our community should not be treated differently. They should not have their concerns derided or diminished. They should not be placated with simplistic arguments that gloss over the fact that their property values are about to be lowered. And they should not be ignored. The Wichita Branch NAACP stands beside James Roseborough, Teretha Brown-Foster, Bob Alford and others as they stand up and speak out on behalf of their neighborhoods. We stand with the residents of Millair, McAdams, Matlock Heights, Northeast Heights, and the surrounding neighborhoods who pay taxes just like the residents of any other area within the city. They have earned the right to speak their concerns, and the City owes it to them to listen...

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