Harlan: Dream big and participate, Costa Mesans

The city of Costa Mesa's General Plan update started off recently with a whimper, not a bang.

About 50 interested citizens, including a dozen city staff and consultants, filled the city's Emergency Operations Center for the project's opening workshop May 15.

This foundational effort — updating the city's blueprint for growth over the next 15 to 20 years — drew many of the usual folks who carefully follow the decision-making at City Hall.

But where was everyone else?

Much to my dismay, only one elected city official — Councilwoman Wendy Leece — attended. In my experience running these kinds of planning projects, kick-off events like this are typically launched by the mayor and city council, who give a speech thanking everyone for their interest and rallying the community to get involved.

And none of the city's appointed commissioners, those of the seemingly influential Planning and Parks and Recreation commissions, were present. This was a bit odd because each of the commissions had, over the previous two days, met with the council in joint study sessions to set goals and priorities for the year.

You would think, then, our officials would have a keen interest in hearing directly what the public desires in this comprehensive plan update. I guess not.

Despite these noticeable absences, city staff assured us that the update is a priority for our city leaders, especially collecting input from the community. The outreach component — dubbed "The Great Reach" by the consultant — suggests a wide range and large number of our community will participate in establishing a vision, setting goals and developing elements of the plan. How the outreach plan will live up to its ambitious name has yet to be fully detailed.

What is clear, however, is that everyone has a vested interest in the update process. As I've noted in past columns, the General Plan establishes our community expectations and sets the stage for future development. Taking part in drafting this document gives each and every one of us more investment in ensuring that the plan is followed. And this kind of opportunity, with a significant price tag for the taxpayers, doesn't happen very often.

Despite this unremarkable start, the General Plan update process can be a very valuable endeavor. So how should the city leverage this opportunity? How do we really tap into the energy, creativity and diversity Costa Mesans have to offer?

First, to reach the widest audiences today, the city needs to go to where the people are. The standard sticky-dot-on-a-map workshop in a community room is a model of a past era. While online surveys and web-based programs are increasingly more common, one effective and personal method is to capture people's attention at existing community activities.

The city's 60th anniversary celebration events at the end of June are a perfect opportunity to solicit input from a wide cross section of the community. Similarly, the city can continue outreach on the vision or even test a few ideas while folks enjoy the Costa Mesa Foundation's summer Concerts in the Park series (every Tuesday night in July at Fairview Park).

Second, to engage a diverse population, the city needs to appeal to residents' interests. It must go beyond the usual efforts to merely survey the concerns of the development industry. Seniors, children, families, businesses and our significant Spanish-speaking community have important perspectives and vital concerns to share.

Moreover, the General Plan is a communitywide document that covers more than just land development. It often details circulation (how we move around our city, including biking, walking, public transit), open space and conservation (parks, natural areas, view protection), and economic development (strategies to retain, build and attract businesses). We should have a spirited community conversation about all of these topics, and more, to shape a consensus vision.

Third, the General Plan needs to communicate a homegrown story. The document itself — typically a collection of narrative, goals, policies, maps and illustrative exhibits — should memorialize our values, what is truly important to the community. After collecting what should be a diverse range of ideas and preferences, the city team should distill this input into a few, memorable themes. What are the three or four big ideas that should be driving this update? How can we build on what is authentically Costa Mesa?

It's time for all Costa Mesans to participate and dream big. Remember, South Coast Plaza was once just a bean field.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

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