Thursday, January 4, 2024

Thanks For All the Fish: A Soliloquy

For approximately 20 years, I have been engaged in advocating for what I believe is best for Richardson and its neighborhoods.

It all began with a general interest in the city and my neighborhood after purchasing a house in Richardson Heights over 20 years ago. Like many, I returned after spending some time away. One day, a neighborhood volunteer said, "You know, Andrew, you are the kind of person we need." That set off a chain of events, accelerating my involvement in the community.

As the new year unfolds, it provides an opportune moment for reflection and anticipation. Now it is my turn reflect and look ahead. If you'd like, follow along with me.

This is a story about fish.

I became involved for various reasons. People would ask me, "Why aren't you doing this or that?" or "You have ideas, so you ought to do this or that." I accepted the invitation, and that was that.

Before the Richardson Echo transitioned into this blog, I managed it as a hyper-local news website for a few years around 2009ish. (Probably not as well as I would have liked, but I gave it my best.) It was dark for a long time and then I started it again as this blog.

I became president of my neighborhood association. I became, and still am, deeply immersed in land use and zoning issues. This involvement began with my awakening to the challenges in the West Spring Valley corridor, triggered by (then future) Chair of the Richardson City Plan Commission, Barry Hand, waking me up from my slumber.

In my pursuit of a more comprehensive understanding of issues, I took graduate-level classes at U.T.D. in public policy. I've attended hundreds of city council and City Plan Commission meetings.

I have done this because Richardson is my home. I grew up here, skinned my knees on the sidewalks, and so (literally) my blood is in Richardson. My parents brought me here before men landed on the moon. They passed away here, and they are interred here. I was married in Richardson. My children are being raised here. As a kid, I kicked around in undeveloped fields where people now live. My first professional job was in what was then starting to be called the Telecom Corridor. Growing up here I think of Richardson as my third parent.

In my reflection for the New Year all of that leads to this.

I have decided that my time as a proactive advocate in Richardson has come to an end. It is time to move on, to put my energy elsewhere into such things as my family, different career aspirations, and myself. Many of the things I describe sometimes came at the sacrifice of those. It is time to take stock of what I have done, what was accomplished alongside other dedicated people in Richardson and be proud of it.

As the Persian proverb says, “This, too, shall pass.”

Persian/Farsi Script for
"This, too, shall pass."

“Andrew, you said this was a story about fish. Where are the fish?”

Right! The fish…

The title of this piece draws inspiration from a passage in Douglas Adams’ book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The narrative commences with our hero, Arthur Dent, realizing that his modest home tucked away in a remote corner of Britain is on the brink of obliteration by a bulldozer in order to build a bypass.

Clad in his bathrobe, he courageously positions himself in front of the bulldozer to safeguard his house. Little does our hero know (nor do any bipedal ape descendant humans on Earth know) that the planet itself is on the verge of annihilation to pave the way for a "hyperspace bypass."

The day before finding himself in the mud, Arthur Dent stumbles upon the plans for the house-demolishing bypass at the local city hall. It was in the basement with dilapidated stairs, where he had to use a flashlight because there were no lights, to access a locked file cabinet hidden in a disused bathroom labeled, “Beware of the leopard.”

This author's autographed copy
of that author's book.

Meanwhile, the ill-tempered non-human captain of the galactic demolition fleet hovering above addresses the inhabitants of earth.

There's no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your earth years.... For Heaven's sake, mankind, it's only four light years away... if you can't be bothered to take an interest in local affairs... apathetic bloody planet, I've no sympathy at all.

Then the earth was no more.

That narrative serves as a captivating allegory for the often frustrating encounters with municipal government. While my own experiences didn't mirror this tale, I have had to lie down in front of my share of bulldozers (metaphorically speaking.)

“Andrew, none of this is about fish! What gives?!”

Ah, but it is about fish. Truly, it is. Allow me to explain.

As I move on from proactive advocacy then, I should reflect on what I have accomplished and been involved in. Here is a list of so-called official roles.

With the Richardson Heights Neighborhood Association, I served as President, VP Special Projects, Civic Chair, and Board Member. I served on the Heights Park Public Art Project Committee (i.e. “Rocket”), Sign Control Board, Environmental Advisory Commission, and Heights Park Playground Task Force for the City of Richardson. I was an acknowledged contributor to the City of Richardson’s West Spring Valley Reinvestment Strategy and CNU & Garland’s Old Embree planning strategy. (report). I served on the Facilities and Infrastructure Strategic Planning, Facilities Action, and Bond Steering committees with the Richardson Independent School District. I was an invited speaker discussing, “DART Red Line - The Good, The Bad. – Evolution of Brick Row” for the 23rd Annual Congress for the New Urbanism where I was also Communications Chair for that event. Additionally, I served on the North Texas CNU chapters board for three years informally representing suburban areas like Richardson. For an unnamed Texas State Representative, I served on that Rep’s Neighborhood and Natural Resources Roundtables. (Unnamed because I no longer support that Representative.) With other neighborhood association presidents, I co-created the 2010 Heights Plan for Excellence wherein all or parts of all five goals were implemented by the City of Richardson. Lastly, I was co-chair for the successful Richardson 2010 Vote "YES!" Bond Election effort. These took place over about 16 years.

Yeah, it is a lot of stuff.

In addition to these 'official' contributions, I participated in various successful endeavors, sometimes in collaboration with others, and sometimes led by myself. There are too many to mention and many deserve their own blog piece but alas…

Durham Park

The single achievement I am most proud of is helping bring into existence a park where no park existed before. This was one goal of the Heights Plan for Excellence that myself, Barry Hand, and Janet DePuy envisioned and advocated before the City Council. Let me provide a bullet-point version.

Before Durham Park, there was a failed attempt to donate a housing lot for a pocket park in Richardson Heights. (Durham Park is NOT a pocket park, and I apologize to anyone I have corrected and will correct if they say that it is.) Still, the idea was alive, and Barry Hand introduced it to me. I pushed the goal of new parks for under-served areas into a revision of Richardson’s Parks Master Plan that was being developed at that time. That was a step of officially legitimizing a park in Richardson Heights.

Then the 2010 Bond program came around. When I learned it was possible that the Bond Program might not contain funding for the park, I twisted arms. - and I succeeded! It goes without saying that it wouldn’t have succeeded without council members who were listening and willing to push to get things done.

GDPC Urban Design Award
Durham Park - Honorable Mention

The 2010 Bond passed due to the Vote Yes campaign, which I co-chaired. It felt exhausting and unending with endless calls and work outside of my paying job. One day I came home overwhelmed and mentioned to my wife that I was going to skip some event related to the campaign. She said, "It is probably important and you ought to go." I did, and that would not be the only time Jennifer was supportive of the time I spent.

Eventually, a site was acquired with a City Council and staff that understood the vision.

I had to work the neighborhood to get input that reflected a true park for the neighborhood. The design is amazing, thanks to a Richardson resident designer with the firm StudioOutside and input from our incredible residents. I nominated it for the yearly design awards of the Greater Dallas Planning Council, and we won an honorable mention. I made sure that the citation mentioned not only the City of Richardson, and StudioOutside, but also the Richardson Heights and Cottonwood Heights Neighborhood Associations.

Richardson Restaurant Park

When the notion surfaced that the former Continental Inn could transform into a series of pad restaurants along US-75, I was quite concerned. The plan was 20th century thinking that would become shiny for a while and then quickly grow dim. I met with the future developer long before the proposal emerged, but to no avail.

Eventually, I rallied the neighborhoods to push back against this proposal, and the City Plan Commission unanimously rejected it. The developer could appeal, but that meant we held the cards.

The late, great Richard Ferrara and I sat down at his kitchen table and drew some plans. Those plans became the basis for the Richardson Restaurant Park complete with a plaza. While that drawing was not followed exactly it inspired the current form of the RRP. Ferrara was hired on as a consultant.

Richardson Restaurant Park
Early Conceptual Idea

After the developer proposed drive-thrus (with the excuse that the COVID pandemic demanded them), we were able to limit their impact. Eventually, this pushback resulted in the current biergarten and no drive-thrus.

I admit that, if given the chance to do it over, I would have halted the Richardson Restaurant Park entirely. At the time, we had the votes to do so. We live and learn from those things we wish we had done differently. That said, what we have now is better than the original proposal.

Alamo Drafthouse

I had no role in getting Alamo Drafthouse interested in establishing its first DFW location in Richardson. However, I did receive a call from the owner’s representative, notifying me of the proposal and an upcoming zoning case. The purpose was to drum up support.

“What is Alamo Drafthouse?” I was ignorant. Upon looking it up, I freaked out! After years of urging the City about Heights Shopping Center’s decline, we were not going to let this opportunity slip away.

Alamo Drafthouse Public Hearing
Note: Future Mayor Paul Voelker is visible

I led a lot of folks rallying about 130 people to show up at the city council meeting IN FAVOR of a zoning change. Some of us still believe that it was the largest crowd in Richardson to show up in favor of a zoning change.

The owner, Bill DiGaetano, expressed his thanks and remained aware of the greatness of our neighborhoods. He told me, “We don’t get this kind of support in Austin.”

This support started a great relationship wherein the neighborhood and folks like Reid Robinson and myself helped organize and support Alamo Drafthouse DFW's first Rolling Roadshows in Richardson Heights.

And More

The open market (i.e., Farmer’s market) ordinance. The Parks plan and the 2010 Bond leading to Northrich Park. Issues involving honoring our community's history. I have influenced numerous land use matters in Richardson, and a former employee of the City sent me a note after departing, saying, “You are making a difference.” That was a very gratifying moment.

Shoulder to shoulder with others, we have succeeded, failed, moved the needle, been told, "no" and we have assisted individuals in getting elected (or not). I have been ignored too many times to count. I have been able to mutter to myself, “I told you so” perhaps just as much.

So, that's what I've done, and this list is by no means exhaustive. This piece is long enough as it is! Why did I write about this in such detail?

First: Gratitude. I am grateful to have been a part of these efforts. I am grateful to have seen many succeed. Sometimes I was even grateful after failure because I can say I didn’t sit on the sidelines. I am grateful for all the people all along the way. Friends and relationships that have been made. It goes without saying that much of everything I am discussing came with my spouse Jennifer's understanding and support.

Second: Closure. I penned this list for myself, as a way to take stock of what I've accomplished myself and with others. It's a means to prevent these achievements from slipping into the recesses of my memory. For better, worse or indifferent, there is a lot of institutional knowledge and experience there that I do not feel I can ignore.

Lastly, and most importantly, I'm an ordinary person who applied myself, worked hard, and occasionally got things done. I'm not special, and I possess no extraordinary gifts that make me better than anyone else. Anyone reading this can do it too. I genuinely hope someone does.

A few years into the history described above, when I was the Richardson Heights Neighborhood Association president, a resident would approach me about an issue and I often engaged in conversations like this:

Me: Did you come to me because you believe I know how we can address this?
Resident: Why yes! You know about this stuff.
Me: Want to know a secret?
Resident: Okay, sure.
Me: A few short years ago, I knew absolutely nothing. Nothing. There's nothing special or hard about it. You and any other resident can get involved, learn things, and won't need my help to directly influence and improve the community.

A few times, people did just that. They needed just a tiny push. I hope all of this serves as a push for someone reading now or in the future. Perhaps someone will go from "nothing to something" like I did or from something to something even more significant. I sincerely hope they do.

As I mentioned, I'm stepping back from the role of actively championing causes in Richardson. But what does "proactively advocate" really mean? Most of my involvement detailed above was self-motivated. I could have focused solely on advocating for a park in Richardson Heights rather than expanding that vision to include all underserved areas. I wasn't obligated to set the goal of advocating for moving 6th grade into middle school in RISD (as a group of us did in an RISD committee). I don't have to actively seek out outdated land use policies in Richardson that need 21st-century updates. I pursued these and many other initiatives because I believed they needed advocacy. That's what I mean by "proactively advocate." I could have chosen to react only to things that directly affected me, such as proposed projects or issues near my house. 

If someone aimed a bulldozer my house or neighborhood for a "hyperspace bypass," well then, I will step up. If someone seeks my help or opinion, I will certainly consider it. If someone wants me to join the board of a non-profit or something similar, I will absolutely consider it. Might I occasionally write about something? Maybe. So, I'm still here to some extent but passively.

With that said, I appreciate you if you've managed to read this far. I thank you for having read anything I've written. If I worked with you on any achievements (mentioned or not) or you invited me into yours, then know I am eternally grateful. Overall, I'm thankful to have been fortunate enough to be here in Richardson, to have had the experiences I've had, and to call Richardson home. Thank you.

“So what about the fish, you dingus?”

I mentioned fish? Oh yes. I did.

Continuing on the theme of the destruction of Earth, it later disclosed that dolphins are far more aware than humans. They foresaw the impending doom of Earth and earnestly tried to warn us.

Curiously enough, the dolphins had long known of the impending demolition of Earth and had made many attempts to alert mankind to the danger. But most of their communications were misinterpreted as amusing attempts to punch footballs or whistle for tidbits, so they eventually gave up and left the Earth by their own means—shortly before the [demolition of Earth]. The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double backward somersault through a hoop, while whistling the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’ But, in fact, the message was this: 'So long and thanks for all the fish.'

-- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
You see, I told you it was a story about fish.

So, “So long and thanks for all the fish...”