Arial view of downtown Rochester, MN

The Consolidation Problem

downtown-rochesterIt came as no shock to me to read the Stantec report recommending major changes to the Rochester Planning Department.

Rochester doesn’t have a planning department.

When it comes to planning for Rochester, we have zoomed out and presently view the growth issues of our city through a countywide lens. Lost is the fine-grained detail of our urban fabric. It only takes a viewing of the Rochester-Olmsted Council of Governments maps to fully grasp this distortion. They show integrated transportation systems including roads, bike paths, trails, and much more. But the lines representing 55th Street Northwest and Third Street Southwest are the same width. Consequently, parking dimensions, lane widths and boulevard depths for historic Third Street are not represented at that scale.

This is not an indictment of the planning staff, which works extremely hard to achieve successful outcomes for Rochester and Olmsted County. They are forced to navigate the unfortunate circumstances that created this reality. The consolidation has forced two jobs onto one department, and there is no way the staff can be expected to complete both satisfactorily. We should view consolidation not as a cost-savings measure but rather as a cost-cutting measure.

As if this expansive view within planning wasn’t detrimental enough, without a Rochester planning department, we are not actually planning. By that I mean small-scale, long-range planning. As it is currently configured, the city of Rochester doesn’t pay a dime for long-range planning services. The Rochester-Olmsted Planning Department is funded 100 percent through zoning administration fees. This system incentivizes development, which requires fees paid for zoning administration, and disincentivizes planning.

So we get out of consolidation the same amount of money we put into it: almost nothing. Rochester has outsourced this essential function of our city (in this case planning) while considering it a successful model. Thus, we haven’t bothered to establish our own Housing and Redevelopment Authority or Economic Development Organization or Community Development Department.

A lot has changed since 1975. With a population of about 55,000 people, Rochester was officially half the size it is today. More auspiciously, it was in 1975 that the Rochester Planning Department was effectively eliminated, being combined with the Olmsted County Department of Development to create the Rochester-Olmsted Planning Department.

At the time, the pervasive view was toward a consolidation model for local governments. In fact still today it is a common suggestion to consolidate services in an effort to gain “efficiency” either by not duplicating services or gaining greater economies of scale. The problem is that this partial view of the situation ignores fundamental realities of their inherent differences and complexities.

It ignores the “holon.” This term coined by Arthur Koestler posits that everything exists simultaneously as an independent whole made up of parts and as parts of a larger whole. Thus, as Tom Fisher, Director of the Metropolitan Design Center describes, “a ‘holonistic’ view of the world recognizes the distinction between parts — between individuals in a society, details in a composition, components of a system — and doesn’t lose sight of them by overemphasizing the whole.”

We have failed to conceptualize the holon in regard to planning in Rochester and Olmsted County.

Maybe as a town of 55,000 people we didn’t need a planning department. But as a burgeoning town of 110,000 I see this as an imperative. Destination Medical Center’s planning documents are being acted upon, and we are expected to execute on this far-reaching, long-range vision of our community (not to mention a long overdue update to our comprehensive plan). Sadly, we are not designed to absorb that kind of scope, and we have nowhere near the amount of resources at our disposal needed to implement it.

I believe it is time to zoom back in to our city and invest in a better design of our local government, starting with planning.

Adam Ferrari

About Adam Ferrari

Adam Ferrari is an Architect living and working in Rochester, MN. He is a passionate advocate for quality design of the built environment and promotes the power of design as a tool to help individuals, organizations, and neighborhoods develop a shared vision of a sustainable future. Adam has a breadth of experience with architecture, urban planning, community engagement, community development, affordable housing development, urban design, economic development, and process design. His firm, 9.SQUARE Community Design, is an outgrowth of his years of work performed in Rochester's neighborhoods, with colleges and universities, as a volunteer with the Minnesota Design Team, and his years with the Rochester Area Foundation. 9.SQUARE was recently recognized as a recipient of the Mayor's Medal of Honor for Industry and has been driving force behind adaptive reuse of historic buildings in downtown Rochester, Minnesota.