Ban the Plans!

A battle cry for the city's next century

The crowded field for mayor isn't saying much of interest yet, so I humbly submit a proposal that would almost certainly guarantee the election of the first combatant who embraces it:

Enact a 100-year ban on plans.

This statesmanlike measure would include prohibitions on the forming of task forces, blue-ribbon committees, special advisory panels and any entity with the phrase "long-range" in its name. It would forbid the use of outside "consultants" for any purpose other than hard labor. Violators could be sentenced to up to 100 hours in solitary confinement watching tapes of ex-Post-Dispatch editor Cole Campbell discussing the Peirce Report.

These lofty thoughts came to mind Sunday while I was wading through the Post's coverage of the upcoming mayoral election. In it, one of the three major contenders for the office, ex-Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., mentioned that the city ought to "dust off" a 1994 riverfront-development plan.

The Post described it as "an ambitious, 6-year-old riverfront development plan for parks, a marina, an aquarium, other attractions and improvements. It was completed, at a cost of more than $200,000, while Bosley was mayor. Cooper, Robertson & Partners in New York City drafted it after a series of public meetings."

Now for the interesting part. Mayor Clarence Harmon told the Post he wasn't familiar with the plan but that "it probably ought to be dusted off and looked at." Aldermanic President Francis Slay also reportedly "wasn't familiar with the 1994 plan."

Wait a minute. Two of the city's most powerful and prominent officials -- the mayor and the aldermanic president -- weren't familiar with a major development plan for which the city shelled out $200,000 less than seven years ago, when one (Harmon) was police chief and the other (Slay) was an alderman?

The city spent more than half of what it customarily spends not to have a marketing campaign developed, yet the "plan" did nothing but "gather dust." This is no trifling sum: If the taxpayers get bilked into buying the Cardinals a new stadium, we're talking six or seven innings from a free-agent pitcher here.

Under normal circumstances, Bosley wouldn't have wanted to bring up the subject, seeing as how nothing happened with the plan in the ensuing two-plus years of his administration. But at least he had something of an explanation -- that things were on hold while the city waited for gambling revenues that never materialized -- and at least he was familiar with it.

This is oh-so-typical of the city's recent decades. Rather than face problems with simple, direct commonsense solutions, city officials spend large sums on the presumed wisdom of out-of-town "experts" and then -- apparently satisfied that the challenges have been addressed -- set the findings on a shelf and move on to the next experts and the next "plan."

The chief partner in this process is the Post. Not only does the newspaper cover each new "plan" with unquestioning deference, it also accommodates the politicians by expecting no accountability for their previous claims and actions.

The 1994 riverfront-development plan is a perfect example. When it was unveiled on March 15, 1994, the plan was considered prominent enough to merit front-page coverage in the city's only major daily newspaper. Here's what the story, written by Charlene Prost, reported:

"After months of debate, city planners and their consultants have settled on a plan to expand the riverfront to accommodate gamblers and convention goers and add parks, a marina, an aquarium and other attractions. The plan, being made public today, will be the city's official guide for riverfront development for years to come."

Little did Prost know at the time that two mayoral elections later -- in a story again carrying her byline -- two of the city's top officials wouldn't be "familiar" with the "official guide for riverfront development." Especially because her 1994 story reported that city officials expected the $250 million project to be funded by gaming boats and private developers "over the next eight years or so."

Shouldn't the Post have reminded the public officials (and its readers) that the "unfamiliar" plan now "gathering dust" was front-page news not so long ago?

Granted, it's not the media's fault when city officials drop the ball on one set of grandiose pronouncements after another. But by ignoring its own prior reporting -- even by the same writer -- the Post abets the sort of runaway process by which the disastrous convention-center-hotel project morphed from a potential commitment of about $42 million in 1990 to the more-than-a-quarter-billion-dollar boondoggle that it is today ["Hotel from Hell," RFT, Nov. 29, 2000].

Hence the need for a ban on plans. They never work, and no one (but the taxpayer) ever pays for their failure. And no one even cares when they become "unfamiliar" overnight.

For those who insist on studying plans, the city still has Visions for the Future from 1987, so valuable that the city paid $130,000 to "experts" from Minneapolis, so worthless that it was never even presented to the Board of Aldermen. It still has the plan to create parks over Memorial Drive, the one to save St. Louis Centre, the one to "complete" the mother of all downtown disasters, the Gateway Mall.

It even has a comprehensive plan of plans, the $1.4 billion Downtown Now plan that is arguably within $1.3 billion of reality. Coming soon: the marketplace-defying Ballpark Village plan.

But that's it for the city. No more experts, no more committees, no more task forces, no more studies. Just action.

That's a plan.

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