Norristown Council had a chance last night to do something extraordinary. At least, extraordinary for them. Otherwise, the action would be perfectly normal in any democratic government working the way it should.
Council had the chance to compromise. By doing so, they would have shown respect for both residents' concerns and Planning's recommendations, and would have brought much more reasonable development to the corner of Dekalb and Basin. But what they did was, in my opinion, worse than a simple vote.
First, the developer stated how her Arbor Heights development had changed the area around Dekalb and Elm. She said the neighborhood was "starting to turn," implying that it was now safer and saying the values of the surrounding houses have gone up, all because of Arbor Heights. No sources given for this information. She went on to say that the 1202 project would save not only that immediate neighborhood, but the entire hospital district. (I'm surprised she didn't promise it would improve the weather, too.)
She said she wasn't in it "just for the dollar," but wanted to help Norristown.
Next, Councilwoman Linda Christian read a very moving statement, expressing her concerns about the project, and about how she believed the rest of the Council members weren't listening to the residents in this matter.
The Planning Director, Jayne Musonye, gave her recommendations: Her department would approve the project but asked that the number of units be reduced to 18. The developer was willing to consider this, if Norristown would help her find additional funding. A rather interesting discussion followed regarding where funding might be available. It looked like common sense might prevail.
Councilman Marlon Millner, instead of contributing to the solution, went off on a long tirade about how he was "deeply offended" by Ms. Christian's statement. He blamed the residents of Green Street, calling them "argumentative" (despite their having offered a compromise on the number of units and placement of the driveways). He said Dekalb Street's architecture was "diverse" enough for the development to fit in (showing a complete lack of architectural knowledge, or even a grade school student's ability to choose in games of "Which of these things is not like the others?")
Ms. Christian tried to respond and apologize. Mr. Millner cut her off, saying to Mr. Simpson that she was out of order unless recognized by the President.
Mr. Simpson, to his credit, tried to restore sanity, turning back to Ms. Musonye, who mentioned another source of funding that could be used. Ms. Christian was finally allowed to get a word in edgewise, apologizing to Mr. Millner, and saying she would support a reduction to 18 units. Things looked hopeful.
Then Councilwoman DeSouza raised her hand and asked for an immediate vote on the 24-unit proposal. In less than a minute, a motion was made. In less than two, a vote was taken. Only Mr. Simpson and Ms. Christian voted "No." Mr. Millner and Ms. DeSouza were obviously vehemently in favor (if either would care to tell me why, I'll quote them right here). As for the rest (Cathy Lawrence, Cy Burke, Bill Caldwell), I couldn't tell. Perhaps they simply didn't realize that a No vote would have put the compromise back on the table.
Even the developer didn't seem to realize what had happened. She said she was still willing to voluntarily try to reduce the number of units. Mr. Simpson pointed out that they'd just approved her 24-unit plan so there was no need. She went away looking like she'd lost instead of won. In a way, she did lose, because her overcrowded development will never be popular in that neighborhood. She'll never be a hero to those residents. And she COULD have been, and so could all of Council, if the compromise had been worked out.
So, as I said, Council had a chance to shine last night. And they blew it. Remember that when you go into the voting booth.