Long on dreams. Short on details. That’s our impression of the $200,000 overhaul of Payson’s General Plan.
The discussion of Payson’s future road system provides a case in point.
The document rightly acknowledges Payson’s love-hate relationship with the state highway.
On the one hand, the commercial growth patterns dictated by the highway have created a host of problems. Many residents express frustration with the accidents, traffic jams and congestion. But the more important impact has been the way in which the highway has turned the town into one long, strip mall — with few places to browse, get out of the car and savor the shopping. A handful of businesses have created such social and cultural spaces, but they usually must succeed in spite of the infrastructure on hand.
On the other hand, the highway also provides a rush of traffic and visitors that sustains every business in town. We may well wish for a stroll up San Francisco Street faced with century-old sandstone buildings in the heart of Flagstaff, but what we have is the Beeline and a long, string of all-too-often barren parking lots. One can spin redevelopment fantasies, but in the meanwhile the highway and the businesses fronting it remain our commercial artery. Those businesses generate the sales tax that provides around 50 percent of the town’s budget, which means they provide police and fire protection for everyone who lives in this town.
The General Plan draft acknowledges this inescapable reality. It contains a vague and inoffensive discussion of some of the tenants of the new urbanism, which attempts to cluster development and cope with cars in a way that creates spaces in which people can live and interact. That may mean moving parking to the rear, landscaping the right-of-way fronting on the highway, clustering shops and outdoor dining, embracing multi-story developments and mingling residential and commercial uses in creative ways. This can create developments that encourage meandering — and lure people off the highway for more than a tank of gas and a bag of tacos.
Unfortunately, the discussion in the draft plan seems more like an exercise in building dream castles than planning the future. The town has precious few opportunities to revamp the city scape created in the past half century. The long, frustrating effort to create a tourist and commercial district along the straggle of Main Street provides a case in point. We’ve gone through one glittering master plan after another, without coming close to creating the space we need. The effort has largely banished blight and crime — but hasn’t created a walkable commercial district.
Of course, the task remains daunting — and largely dependent on market forces. History should make us leery of a sweeping plan that’s not solidly based on the foundation of existing businesses — and realistic markets.
But we’re convinced that Payson will have a precious opportunity to lay the foundation of its future in the next five to 10 years — the period this update of the General Plan is supposed to address. The flush of development that will come with the construction of a university campus and the long-delayed recovery of the housing market will provide vital opportunities. We hope that before the council and its consultants finalize this crucial draft of the plan that they’ll include more specific proposals, timelines and choices. Much depends on the flux of development, but the plan offers opportunities to direct and channel that development. In truth, a General Plan addresses itself to those mid-range opportunities, rather than the problems of the moment.
But in the meantime, we hope Payson will continue to find ways to help local businesses survive in the short run and take advantage of the turn when it comes. That means paying a lot more attention to reducing the delays and cost of opening a new business or expanding an existing one. It also means paying a lot more attention to helping businesses develop signage and other tricks to draw customers in off the highway.
The current town council has long insisted that it’s determined to change the town’s reputation for delay and bureaucracy — to make it friendly to business. That’s exactly the right goal — but we still hear far too many horror stories of businesses faced with expensive delays in the struggle to comply with town codes.
In the meantime, we hope that the citizens will take this opportunity to weigh in. We understand that the plan as it stands contains such a sheen of dreams that it’s hard to get a grip on the hard choices and inevitable costs. We understand that citizens may shrug and shake their heads, remembering the shelf full of plans gathering dust. We understand that the rent is due at the end of the month — and the future’s a long ways off.
But sometimes you must leave the dreams to the angels and roll up your sleeves — knowing the devil’s in the details.