Monday, September 18, 2023

What is Missing from City Hall Discussions?

 On August 21, 2023, the Richardson City Council received an update on the City Hall design process. The meeting primarily focused on presenting two choices for the new City Hall's site plan layout. Tonight, September 18, 2023, they will give an approval to a site plan.

Much can be said about what was presented, what wasn't presented, how public input was gathered (or not), what was said about various aspects, and the cost of different options. However, I want to concentrate on one notable omission that was missing from both the City Management's presentation and the architectural team's input, as well as from the Council's discussion. Can you guess what it was?

But before delving into that, let's review what transpired in the meeting. The Council ultimately selected one of the two presented site plans. During the meeting, Council members, staff, and consultants discussed various aspects such as parking, trees, the fountain, a potential road in front of the fountain (note: more on that in a minute), costs, the building's height, its visibility, the view of the fountain from City Hall, and many other details.

However, conspicuously absent from the discussion were any comments addressing the project as a whole, examining it from a broader perspective, describing what City Hall represents or the values it embodies. It seems that the most crucial aspect of the project, which can be encapsulated in a single word, was overlooked:


The building and the surrounding campus encompassing the library, City Hall, and green space epitomize the concept of civic. This purpose stands above all other considerations. This is no minor detail; it lies at the core of the Richardson Public Library and City Hall projects. If it was mentioned in the discussion, I must have missed it. These buildings and spaces are undeniably civic.

Civic. City. Civil. Civilized. Citizen. Civilization.

If you delve into the origins of these words, you'll find that they trace back to Latin, with their roots deeply embedded in ancient Rome and the Roman Republic. Some of the Founders of the U.S. held great admiration for the ideals of the Roman Republic. These words, and more importantly, the ideals they represent, have a profound history within our culture, with a lineage extending back thousands of years.

That "City" and "Citizen" being related should influence the perspective of everyone, from the City Manager and elected officials to the "ordinary" citizen. All parts are necessary and crucial.

To me, this marks the beginning and the heart of all discussions regarding City Hall and the surrounding areas and buildings. We even call the area the Civic Center, and it's situated on Civic Center Dr! However, any mention of this connection seemed to be absent (as far as I could tell) during the discussions on that evening.

Above all, these two buildings and their public spaces are intended to embody the highest values of the community. City Hall is not simply an office building for city workers (though it serves that purpose); it represents something more profound. The public library is not merely a convenient feature for checking out books and media; it is the intellectual heart and expression of the community. The plaza between the buildings, while eventually serving as an event space, is not just another gathering place.

The public library serves everyone, from children learning to read to the average adult seeking a current novel to older, non-computer-savvy adults learning how to navigate online job applications. It is genuinely a public institution.

City Hall stands as the civic heart of the community, where the City Council, chosen with the consent of the public, exercises decision-making authority. They conduct their business in public, often with direct input from the public.

The same holds true for the fountain plaza. These buildings and spaces exemplify the community's highest ideals more than any other structures or areas. They are distinct from a fire station, a recreation center, a school, or a park.

These spaces are undeniably CIVIC.

Both you and I have the right to address the City Council, a right that cannot be denied. You can stand before them during a meeting, be given the floor, and have their undivided attention. These interactions occur on a human scale, where the Council faces you in physical space, and the distance between you and them is measured in feet, not in hundreds of feet or through Zoom. These interactions, perhaps, represent the most genuine civic expressions of governance that a citizen can experience. We can't have direct conversations with the U.S. Congress or either body of the Texas State Legislature.

I intentionally included the image of the Roman Senate above to emphasize the enduring ideals encapsulated in these facts. The painting depicts the Roman citizen Cicero ("citizen" being one of those important words) addressing the Senate. The physical expressions of citizen interactions today are such that we can completely comprehend this ancient Roman painting.

Now, regarding the site plan designs for City Hall and the surrounding areas, let's start with the most crucial comment, which involves the space between what will become City Hall and the Library. That space is CIVIC, and it is meant for humans. The idea of introducing automobiles into it is an abomination.

Allow me to present a somewhat sarcastic argument in favor of the road. (And let's be clear, it's a road; calling it a "drive" is a euphemism to hide its true nature.) Since World War II, American cities have adopted the idea that cars are as important as people in city planning. Prior to the end of WWII and for thousands of years in various independent cultures, cities were designed for people. However, after World War II, American cities, without substantial evidence or justification, embraced the concept of building cities for cars. In fact, we sacrificed people's property and livelihoods in the name of "progress" to make way for automobiles.

Richardson has, at times, made decisions that prioritize cars over people. So, perhaps, a road in front of City Hall is an appropriate reflection of our values. Or is it?

A road cutting through the City Hall plaza would genuinely reflect the idea that a human being, whether a citizen, property owner, business owner, or resident, is merely equal to or sometimes subservient to an automobile. If this truly reflects our city's values, then by all means, let's plow a road through the plaza in front of City Hall.

However, I believe that's not the case, and we should explicitly state otherwise. That plaza is a space for humans, citizens, and civic expression. The City Council has the opportunity to assert this distinction with conviction and authority.

The architectural consultant inadvertently highlighted this conflict between humans and automobiles during the City Council meeting. Although not her intention, she stated that if the Council is concerned with “safety,” then let us discuss the inclusion of bollards and “traffic pillows.”  This situation aptly exemplified the notion of "How to tell me an idea is bad without saying an idea is bad." If we have to discuss mitigations in the name of safety then, inherently, the initial proposal is unsafe.

Councilperson Jennifer Justice was not deceived (A+ kudos to her!). She openly criticized the idea as "terrible" and opposed the invasion of bollards into the space. The rest of the City Council could learn from her level of commitment to our values.

If one needs proof of the civic nature of that space, one need only look at its history. It has hosted a memorial service for fallen Richardson Police Officer Sherrard, a Christian group praying for the city's well-being, and a march and rally after the murder of George Floyd, with then Mayor Paul Voelker addressing the crowd.

This place is not merely another event venue in Richardson. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution encompasses five rights: press, speech, religion, the right to assemble, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The events mentioned above collectively embody all five of these rights. It is a sacred space in the civil religion of America.

If we genuinely believe that all of these values matter, the Richardson City Council should keep automobiles out and firmly declare that this is a place for people.

The Richardson City Council knows what to do. All that remains is that they do it.


Q: How does the Richardson City Council prevent nefarious forces from messing with that civic space between City Hall and the Library? 

A: Declare it a park. Declaring it a park gives it certain protections under state law. The Council does not need anyone's permission to do this. They simply can ask for a vote on that topic and declare it so.

City Council update,
Civic values must prevail,
Cars don't define us.
-- h/t ChatGPT

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