AdaptBN's Full Interview with RPC Director Vasudha Pinnamaraju
Vasudha Pinnamaraju is the Executive Director of the McLean County Regional Planning Commission. She sat down with AdaptBN in January to talk about what the organization does and how their work can help Bloomington-Normal transition through the coming technology revolution. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What draws you to this line of work?
"Before I became a planner I was an architect. What drew me in at first was the urban design aspect. My first job out of college was at the City of Decatur. I worked with the Iowa National Heritage Foundation and completed my Master’s degree at Iowa State University. During my internship I worked on sustainable efforts such as bike trails and planning.
During my graduate work I shifted to a focus on urban design. I’m a people person so I enjoy learning about people’s needs within the community. As a planner for the City of Decatur, being able to address those needs was very rewarding.
Planning as a profession is evolving. Back in the 1900s when planning was first founded, it was more about public health. It was people-focused. For example, how can we make sure people don’t get sick? Eventually we started to get those systems in place like sanitary systems, clean water and so on. With all these systems taking more time and effort for planners, public health then became its own field. Now we somehow put less focus on people and more focus on systems.
I am glad we are finally realizing how important it is for us to get back to why we are planning--to make sure people in the community are able to enjoy the community and feel a sense of belonging. That is going to be the focus of our efforts: people-focused plans, people-centered planning."
What work did you do in Decatur?
"My first couple of years I focused on making sure our data is more accessible and we as a department are functioning more efficiently. My initial work was technology-oriented--dealing with zoning and variance issues.
I remember my senior planner at that time giving me this specific instruction: when people call and ask about their property zone, the response should be, ‘We’ll get back to you in three business days.’ This was in 2004. It was like I stepped back in time, like, ‘You must be kidding me.’
I had a Master’s in urban and regional planning with a certificate in GIS (geographic information systems), so I went to my boss and said, ‘This system is inefficient. We need to work on this.’
He was thrilled to hear that I wanted to work on it. “[The job] is yours. How much money do you need? What do we need to do?’ I led the project for Decatur’s GIS efforts--digitizing everything and working with the IT department to make everything available online.
After that I was a neighborhood planner. My role then was to identify the needs of neighborhood groups and make sure the city programs are being crafted to respond to those needs."
So you are actually in the field when you're working?
"Oh, yes. I am everywhere. My staff hardly can reach me here in my office. I don’t believe we can sit in front of a computer and learn the community’s needs. There are sentiments associated with the way people deliver a message. The more you interact with the community, the sentiments come through in your plans.
We need to get to know people, especially neighborhood groups who are trying to do good work. When it comes to tackling community issues, local governments are increasingly tasked with doing a lot more with a lot less.
That is a challenge and an opportunity. It’s a challenge if you want to address these critical urban issues with the same tools. You have to shift your mindset and ask, ‘How can we start solving these issues with the tools we have today?’
This year, we are celebrating our 50th anniversary. We have been in existence since 1968. We are very excited about all the great work that happened over the last 50 years. I am pulling out all the old annual reports we have published. It’s exciting because RPC is the designated MPO (metropolitan planning organization) for the urbanized area of Bloomington-Normal."
So what does that mean?
"When Bloomington-Normal’s population hit 50,000, we became eligible for federal transportation dollars. Think of an MPO as a conduit to federal transportation dollars between feds and locals. The role of an MPO is to make sure the planning and infrastructure investments are serious investments. They wanted to make sure that we had a process in place that is comprehensive, coordinated and continuing. We call it a 'Three C process.'
Transportation interacts with land uses, which is why it’s not just an MPO but also a regional planning commission. Our job is to consider all the comprehensive needs and how they interact with the infrastructure needs. That’s how we were originally created. The purpose we had was to be the planning arm for both of the municipalities and the county. Eventually, planning evolves as communities grow and Bloomington-Normal grew quite a bit since then. They both had their own planning departments--so did the county. In 1993 RPC was restructured to focus more on long-range planning, which has been our focus ever since.
This long range planning arm is outside of the cities and county. It isn’t influenced by any one local government. This helps us to be more objective and true to what the community needs are and where we see the communities are going."
So that’s why these comprehensive plans are not as politicized; there’s not as much public reaction?
"It is. We’d like to think it’s partly because we have done a good job engaging [community members] throughout the process, not just handing them a thick document and saying, ‘Hey, we came up with a plan for you.’ We want to create the plans with them, not for them. Our outreach efforts were extensive both in Bloomington and Normal.
And when I say ‘outreach,’ we don’t just put out a survey and say, ‘Hey, here it is, just fill it out.’ We actually attend meetings with anyone who would want to talk to us. You will see that component to any plans coming out of this office. If we are making plans for the community and not with the community, those plans are not reflective of the true need.
If you look at the Bloomington comprehensive plan and the Normal comprehensive plan, it’s one community. Many aspects are similar, especially from an economic development perspective. However, they are still two different cities influenced by different aspects.
For example, Normal has a huge university that has a significant presence. It has both positive and negative impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods. We heard that quite extensively. So Normal’s plan has an entire section on Town & Gown relationships.
In Bloomington’s case, because of District 87 and its landlocked character, we heard quite a bit of concern about perception issues both from the school district and its neighborhoods. You cannot expect the city to solve it alone nor can the school district solve it alone. If you look at Bloomington’s plan there is an extensive chapter on education because the community wanted us to address that."
How do you take into account public comment?
"I think it is very important for us to look at the sentiment first. Looking at Bloomington’s plan, we heard quite a bit about arts, culture and history. People felt very strongly about protecting those. In Normal we heard about changing technologies and finding ways to address those in this new economy.
The west side was another big issue that came up in Bloomington. The City does not have unlimited resources and there was some concern that a majority of the resources are being invested in new infrastructure on the east side rather than maintenance and improvement on the west side.
And that sentiment is big. We didn’t just hear it from one or two people. West Bloomington really suffered a lot of disinvestment over many decades and it needs a lot of effort to get back to its past glory.
We felt a strong need to do a fiscal impact analysis to see whether building new neighborhoods on the east and south sides will help the City’s bottom line. The analysis clearly showed there are certain neighborhoods where the City invested millions of dollars and only recouped 1.5% so far in eight years. Fiscally it is not a sustainable way to grow.
I am very impressed with how the City Council’s has been talking about the problem with these sprawling developments. They talk about how the plan really recommends densification. Becoming more dense and creating mixed-use spaces, that’s a smart way to grow. Cities cannot continue to afford to sprawl. This is not the first document that has raised that conclusion but this is the first council that really is trying to curb the sprawl."
So Bloomington won't get left behind while Normal moves ahead?
“Oh, no. For example, Bloomington's plan has a chapter called 'Neighborhoods and Housing.' When various groups were working on those aspects, developers said, ‘We cannot address housing in Bloomington without addressing it in Normal and vice versa. We have to address these items regionally.’
When it was time to update Normal’s plan, I approached city manager Mark Peterson and said, ‘How would you guys feel about just doing a regional housing study, not just for a chapter in Normal’s plan?’ He said, ‘That’s exactly how we want it done. Yes, let’s do this.’
How do you address changing technology?
"We use community sentiments to identify the burning issues that absolutely need to be addressed. Then we take it from there and say, ‘What are experts at national and international levels saying about this issue based on research studies, pilot projects, etc?’
Civic technologies are evolving rapidly. A lot of things we thought would be in a somewhat distant future become very close. Autonomous vehicles is a great example. Now we have autonomous Ubers as a pilot project. Yesterday I sat in on a webinar from Urban Land Institute that talked about the transportation revolution, which means a lot of changes for cities. We don’t expect people to know how autonomous cars are going to change the landscape.
Today, for people who are 35, 40 and older, most of this is like a sci-fi movie. For anybody 15 years or younger, this is like, ‘Of course this is going to be the future. It should have been here by now.’ Anybody in between asks, ‘What does this mean? How do we adapt?’
Right after we released the first draft of the Normal comprehensive plan there was a WJBC article that Normal plans to reduce parking. Of course, the article was misleading, but people read the headline and said ‘Uptown is a mess. You see all the parking issues there.’
But that’s not what the plan says. It says we need to pay close attention to parking, do studies, and then revise the requirements accordingly. Because for most people, this is a sci-fi movie. They do not believe that car ownership will decrease, partly because it’s not here yet in Bloomington-Normal.
People get in their cars when they want to go somewhere, and they expect to park right at the front door. We have designed our community to be that way for the last 50 years. But if you go to Chicago, New York or places like that, people expect public transportation to be super accessible. They don’t want to own a car. Many can’t own a car because they will not have a space to park it. Yes, we are not New York. We are not Chicago. But the transportation revolution is coming faster than we can even imagine.
Once people understand that they don’t have to own three cars and deal with the maintenance and everything else associated with them, they may be more likely to share cars. I think our challenge will be transitioning from ‘this is how it’s been for the last 50 years’ to accepting autonomous cars. That transition period is going to be different for different communities. So for Chicago and New York, that’s here today. For us, it’s not here today. So this transition period is the time to really think carefully. We should not continue to just accept our old ways. We need to be more critical about looking at it.
So how do we transition through that time?
"I think one of the first things is parking. If we decide we don’t need this much parking in the future, think about all these parking lots throughout the community that could become prime real estate. Curbside spaces would be premium, because your car will drop you off and go park itself.
There are changes coming that we can begin thinking about today. We don’t want to implement anything prematurely, but at the same time, if we are looking at a huge investment like a parking garage, we probably need to pause and think, ‘Is this going to be what we need?’ The transition period is where we apply caution, use flexibility, do pilot projects, and see where we are and where we aren’t. Probably for Central Illinois it will come a little bit slower than if we were a metropolitan area. But it’s coming.
We need to be open to learning and studying this more. We need to continue to have dialogue in the community about this. It’s not going to be, ‘Parking is good or bad.’ There is this vast area that we should all navigate carefully. I heard a quote in the ULI [Urban Land Institute] webinar that I think I’m going to use as my mantra, ‘We need to all be humble in the upcoming transition period, because honestly nobody knows what’s coming down the pike.’
I can tell you that civic innovation is where the majority of conversations are going to happen in the next ten years with transportation changes and smart cities. Imagine everything being able to communicate with everything else. So all the data we’re gathering all of a sudden becomes information and predictive analysis.
What kinds of things could we predict with that?
Well, for example, when lights have sensors, they can detect if there are pedestrians or bicycles underneath them. They can detect the the lighting level or the temperature.
Sewer systems have sensors that are actually able to communicate about certain issues. Water systems are now able to communicate back, so if a homeowner sees a constant usage of water when they’re not home, they know there is a leak.
I think the important thing during this transition is education. We are hoping to bring as much information and knowledge about this here to our community. Our 13th annual information forum is coming up on April 11 at 7:00 a.m. at the Radisson Hotel. Our speaker is Bob Bennett who is the chief information officer for Kansas City. Kansas City is doing some amazing things with smart cities.
And when we say ‘smart cities’ it’s not just about technology. It’s about how technology can help people address community needs. I think the idea of smart cities is about using the technology to serve people and not just disconnecting us further from each other.
The forum is open to the public?
“Yes. [$35 for general admission, $15 for students]. We are going to structure it in a way that it can be accessible to most people. We want to make sure that community members hear this. I think most of us have more questions than answers, and the more we keep this in the forefront, I think it helps us in this transition time.
Typically comprehensive plans have a chapter in community outreach. Outreach has its own binder in Normal’s plan and Bloomington is the same way. The reason for that is we take our outreach very, very seriously. If you look at the surveys we put out for the comprehensive plans, they’re open ended. They don’t ask you to just pick one thing because picking one thing doesn’t tell us the sentiment behind it. To distill all that information down is a lot of work, but we’d rather do that right than do all the work and create a plan that doesn’t reflect community values.
What are the areas of planning your department looks at?
When we talk about comprehensive plans there are aspects of housing, environment, transportation, and economic development. We also address education, arts and culture, historic preservation, neighborhoods, etc. For example, we talked about the need for school districts and cities to communicate more with each other. Coordination with the school districts absolutely needs to happen.
We ask, 'What else can we be doing? How else can we be helping our community?' With the way we are currently structured and funded, a majority of our focus has been on urban areas, but the rural areas need our assistance, too. Agriculture is the number one economic driver in our community. The more we can help our rural communities, McLean County will be better off as a whole. So I have begun conversations on how can we do that better. Of course funding is the limitation, but if we absolutely think it's a priority, we can find ways to make it happen.
Another area of focus will be regional housing issues. We’ve completed this regional housing plan, and there are gaps in our current housing inventory. We want to make sure we are adding diverse housing options. Younger people may not want McMansions. But at the same time not all young people want to live in a downtown area. So what other options are feasible, that are marketable here in Bloomington-Normal? If it is still single family, how can we make sure that our single family homes are not all McMansions? We need to ask some deeper questions so we can make sure our housing is what our community needs.
How are you funded?
Eighty percent of our funding comes from federal highway through the U.S. Department of Transportation. Twenty percent comes from our local governments. The unified work program outlines all the things we are hoping to achieve and hoping to do. These are the broad areas in which we operate.
We are getting ready to redo our website so we want to talk about these things more. Our current website I would rank a one out of ten right now. We’re hoping to revise the website so people can really see what kind of planning is being done, how we are implementing anything that has been planned and how are we going to measure the success of the plans.
When people look at a 250-plus page document, they’re not going to know where to start with it. With some of our newer documents, we have put in a lot of effort to make them look more appealing so people want to actually pick it up and read it. However, we also understand people may not want to read a 250-page document. We are hoping that the new website can distill down the plans into a more accessible format. If you look at our plans there is a lot of data. We want to present that data in a format that people can consume more easily."
What is the timeline for website rollout?
"We’re hoping to roll the new website out by mid-year. We’re in the process of hiring a consultant right now and over the summer we’ll have a makeover. I’m very excited about it. It gives us a lot of opportunity.
We have a very small team here. I have four planners, an office manager and myself. And the amount of work that gets done, we alone couldn’t just do it all. We really rely on our advisory committees and working groups, especially during these planning processes.
The RPC is governed by a commission of 11 members representing the City of Bloomington, Town of Normal, Mclean County, Airport Authority and the two school districts. They are appointed by the county board but recommended by various entities. They are people in the community who have expertise in that field or who are interested in making a difference in that field.
I think it’s very important to recognize the good work that comes out of our advisory committees, who all serve as volunteers. One of those is the Green Ways Advisory Committee, which has been in existence for 20 years. They advocated quite heavily for the Route 66 bike trail and made it happen.
We also have what’s called an intergovernmental staff meeting every Friday. So for as much as people believe there is no coordination going on, there is a ton of coordination going on at staff levels. Engineers, planners, parks department, transit, they’re all there talking about what they’re doing so we can make sure our regulations are in sync.
Right now we’re in the process of establishing bicycle counters in various parts of the community, so this group is helping establish locations along with other groups like Friends of Constitution Trail and Bike BloNo. But that’s just one project where--if it were not for this combined structure--it would be a nightmare to coordinate that among so many different agencies.
When I see all this media suggesting that there’s no coordination, there is a lot more going on. Yes, people have policy disagreements, but I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that staff-level coordination happens everyday. And unless that happens every day this community wouldn’t be running so smoothly. It’s very informal, everybody makes sure the right hand is talking to the left hand."
How do comprehensive plans get enacted?
"A plan is not an ordinance. You absolutely have to abide by an ordinance. A plan is more of a roadmap to say, ‘here are the things we have to address.’ Some of them are big picture ideas. For example, in Bloomington we need the school district, neighborhoods and the City to work together to revitalize the region. Another thing we talked about was the need for zoning ordinances to be revisited and revised, and we also talked about smaller projects like safe routes to school.
We put together what we call a tiered development priority map. It’s like a cheat sheet for local policy makers to say, if it is infill and redevelopment, that should be a high priority. With infrastructure, once you have annexed it, it’s yours to maintain. How you grow outside of current boundaries should depend on whether the current infrastructure will allow for expansion. If it needs to be expanded then it becomes Tier 3. If it has infrastructure already it’s Tier 2, even if it’s not completely annexed. Tier 1 is areas that are already annexed.
We used this tool with the plans in both Bloomington and Normal. If you’ve followed the conversations about Grove in Bloomington Council, they’ve been asking those questions. I think that’s very encouraging from our perspective that the City is using these tools.
I think one of the biggest drawbacks is that the progress on these plans is not being reported. We have been so busy doing the Bloomington plan and Normal plan. I’m going to make that a priority for us to actually report back on how much is happening. Some of this needs to be stated more clearly. You don’t automatically assume this is happening. So when you see a Pantagraph or GLT article about the whole infrastructure in Grove, that is implementation of the plan.
Councils have been advised about what’s in the plans. We have presented it to them many times. They had opportunities to ask questions so that when they stand by it, they stand by it for a reason. Then, when a proposed project contradicts the comprehensive plan, they can point it out. That is important. That’s how you implement a plan. These are fundamental issues for a community. It makes the city that much more fiscally sustainable. Our resources are ever-shrinking, so we need to make sure our resource investments are smarter."
[Bloomington’s plan includes a fiscal impact analysis, showing where the city is gaining and losing money. The -$343 per acre per year inside the city is somewhat expected. This number is derived by weighing the revenue against the costs of services such as fire and police. The inner city has higher density living, meaning revenues from property taxes are lower for the same amount of land. So more people means more expenses with not necessarily more revenue.]
"Something we didn’t expect is Grove and Fox Creek both yielding a negative rate of return. And they’re more expensive. The city spent $16M to make the [Grove] subdivision happen ($11M on infrastructure costs plus $5M to redirect Kickapoo Creek). By 2013 they recouped about $0.5M or 4.5%. That does not include the school district’s investment or Bloomington-Normal water reclamation district’s investment. Expanding outward is costly."
For more information about the efforts of the McLean County Regional Planning Commission, local initiatives and upcoming events, visit the RPC's website.