Podcast: People Behind the Plans
Rezoning East Harlem, Rethinking One-Size-Fits-All Public Engagement
In this episode of People Behind the Plans, host Courtney Kashima, AICP, catches up with Traci Sanders of WXY Studio in New York. Traci serves as the director of civic impact for the multidisciplinary architecture, design, and planning firm. She and Courtney start off by exploring how Traci discovered the field of urban planning — the seed was planted during high school, when she split her time between the South and North Sides of Chicago and noticed the stark inequities between them.
"Figuring out how to influence policy or influence ... even the built environment to make the city healthier, safer for people who look like me? That's what I got in this for."
—Traci Sanders, director of civic impact, WXY Studio
Traci describes how her work trajectory changed after graduating from NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, eventually leading her to a job with New York City Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito and involvement in the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan. Both Traci and Courtney share their thoughts on how certain urban planning spheres view public versus private backgrounds, and they muse on issues like the public dimension of design and why a community engagement process should be tailored to every client.
[00:00:00.360] Traci Sanders: I feel like it was something we heard all the time, right? Where it was like, people are experts on where they live. There's something to actually really sort of deeply understanding that for yourself. Yes, you might be an expert on exactly how you write the zoning text [laughs], but you should be a listener and you should be the person that is sort of facilitating what the community would like to see versus coming in and swooping in and saying this is how, you know, your community should grow.
[00:00:41.160] Courtney Kashima: Welcome to the American Planning Association podcast. This episode continues our series that takes a look at the people behind the plans, showcasing the work, life, and stories of planners from all across the profession. I'm your host, Courtney Kashima, founder and principal at Muse Community Design, a planning and public engagement studio in Chicago, Illinois. I'm also a longtime member of the American Planning Association. Our guest today is Traci Sanders. Traci is the director of civic impact at WXY Architecture and Urban Design, a multidisciplinary firm based in New York City. Traci has worked in the public, private, and academic sectors of planning, largely in housing and policy issues. Traci, welcome to the podcast.
[00:01:31.230] TS: Thank you for having me.
[00:01:33.190] CK: So tell us a little bit about yourself, where you're from, and what you're working on now.
[00:01:38.330] TS: OK, so I am from Chicago, born and raised. I still live in Woodlawn. Well, I shouldn't say still live in Woodlawn. I grew up in Woodlawn. I am back to Woodlawn. Right now I'm an urban planner. I graduated from NYU Wagner, which is the public policy school. I'm here now working with WXY. I'm the Chicago office, working to expand our work to the Midwest. Yeah, and just excited to be back finally.
[00:02:10.110] CK: So tell us a little bit more about that journey from Chicago to New York and back.
[00:02:15.380] TS: So in undergrad, I was in theater. So I worked at University Theater. After I came out, I worked at the Chicago International Film Festival for a while, so basically I had a background in theater and thought that's what I was going to do for the rest of my life professionally. Decided to move to New York and had worked at a few places like the National Black Theater Festival. So, so was really building my stage-managing resumé. Moved to New York, found a job at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. And we can talk about how previously I'd worked for another think tank, the National Center on Poverty Law, in Chicago. But after being there for a few years and working at the Brennan Center for three years, [I] was making the decision about what I wanted to do professionally and ended up moving into policy. So my journey from Chicago to New York was based in my thinking that I was going to do theater and ended up making a career change about three years after being there to going to planning school, so.
[00:03:25.950] CK: So was it sort of the policy work was the day job that allowed you to build your theater career?
[00:03:31.170] TS: Exactly. So I had mentioned that I worked at the Brennan Center for three years. While I was there, actually, the chief operating officer who I was working for, I was actually the office coordinator basically. In that position, I was doing a lot of, you know, getting to understand how to not-for-profits work. I, I really had this thought that eventually I was going to own my own business. So the funny thing was I just wanted to learn how businesses work and was getting a glimpse into that from a not-for-profit perspective, but also being at the Brennan Center, I got to, you know, indulge that part of my brain that was really interested in policy. They focus on voting rights — or one section of the work is focused on voting rights. So actually, it was an opportune time to be at the Brennan Center because Barack Obama was running for president for the first time. I got to be a volunteer for election protection. So, so I was really sort of feeding that, yes, I get to, you know, do my theater work at night, but I'm still feeding that policy part of me in daytime. And one day, my my boss, who happened to be married to someone who is running for office for the New York City Council, he's Councilmember Brad Lander. She actually asked me what I was interested in. And, you know, was I planning to continue with theater or was I interested in policy? I mean, everyone knew that I had this real interest in policy work. And after talking to her and having a great conversation with Councilmember Lander, I ended up deciding that I should look into urban planning. And in looking into urban planning, I looked at all the schools that were in the area. So one thing I did know is I wanted to stay in New York City. So — and given, given staying in New York City, there were three schools I could possibly choose from — or that I felt were the best choices. That was Pratt, Columbia, and NYU. And it ended up that when I went to the session to like meet people at NYU, that was just the place that I fit in the most. And I still loved working at the Brennan Center. And so it provided me the opportunity to continue to work and sort of start school and figure out if that was the right place. So that's really — was my transition from working, from deciding to, like, it — well, I made a final decision that I wasn't going to continue to do theater and that if I was really going to be all in on something, that I was going to move into this direction. So going back to urban planning was like the first time and really understanding, like, what, what goes into planning, how do you — the thinking behind it, the theory behind it. That was answering all the questions that I had been asking all — really, all of my life growing up in Chicago. So, yeah.
[00:06:35.420] CK: Say a little bit more about that because of course, every planner has a story about their journey to finding out that this is a real thing and not just something you think about. And so growing up in Woodlawn and reflecting back from the time you were in planning school and learning the theories and the history behind the profession, connect those two for me.
[00:06:56.520] TS: So I felt like when I was living in Woodlawn — and I should say my, my parents were divorced. I grew up with my mom on the South Side in Woodlawn, predominantly black neighborhood. And you know, was visiting my dad every other weekend who lived on the North Side on Irving Park and Lake Shore Drive, a few blocks from Wrigley Field in this predominantly white neighborhood. And I rarely saw anyone that looked like me. And that's not to say that, you know — living in Woodlawn, the funny thing about where I live in Woodlawn is that I live on the border of Woodlawn and the southern border of the University of Chicago. So in noticing these worlds that for me were just barely, like, starkly different — right? — you start to notice small things. You notice that the buses look cleaner and run on time on the North Side. The streetlights sometimes on our block would be out for weeks, and I never noticed that on the North Side. The streets would be cleaned in the winter time faster by my dad's place. You know, just like small things, right? The schools when I — so I should say, I actually lived in the suburbs for a little bit with my mom. So we moved back to Woodlawn in 1995, which is right when, I want to say, I was a sophomore in high school. I had started at Hyde Park Academy. Went there for a few months, didn't quite fit in, and had some issues there. Actually the major issue was the curriculum. They were just way behind where we were when I was at the suburban school that I was at. So I basically — I was sort of caught in this like, what do I do? And ended up asking my mom and sitting down with my parents and saying, I'm really, like, I'm going to lose a lot of time if I stay here. We started looking for another high school, and Lincoln Park is in my district where my dad lives. And so we looked into Lincoln Park. They interviewed me. I got in. And really I had to hit the ground running. In some cases, they were a little bit ahead of where I was in the suburbs, right. So all that being said, like, you just notice the difference in the supply of what we would consider public services, right, of public education in, in the — all these different places. In the, and, I should say, I went to public school. I pretty much went to public school almost my entire life, for almost my entire education until college. So. So, yeah. So, and noticing all those differences, I would say when I got to adulthood and ended up on the University of Chicago campus, that is just starkly different [laughs] than going to a Chicago Public School and even Lincoln Park, right. They're definitely — I — the — adjusting to the social atmosphere was actually challenging for me, even though people I — I felt like I grew up on campus. My mom worked at Pritzker. My aunt was assistant dean at Pritzker. So I kind of grew up on campus. I felt comfortable there, like I knew the lay of the land. But in understanding and actually getting to know students, quite different, right. So for the first time in my life, having to defend my blackness, so to speak, to defend that, yes, like, I got in here just like you did. I'm writing my own papers. I'm doing my own work. I'm just as, you know, I'm — to have to, you know, in your, for yourself, sort of, prove like you're just as smart and feel like you have to prove it day after day after day was definitely — it takes a toll. I mean, luckily, I do feel like I found my space when I started at the University Theater, and I joined the Organization of Black Students. I did find my social, social space. But those first two years, I do remember as being really challenging and, like, really an adjustment, right. All that being said, I think, you know, because I found my home in theater, you know, that — and I, I also had, I'd had exposure to theater and dance in my own family. I started to mention this. I, my family produces the Chicago International Salsa Congress, so I had been, like, stage managing and working [laughs] and doing that before college. But, but, yes, it was the space that I felt most comfortable. So when I left the University of Chicago, even though I have this big fancy degree, and, and it was in political science, I came out and my sister gave me this advice, which I remember and I actually continue to give to students today. She basically was like, "You know, you really, you went somewhere that was really challenging and really may have broken you down a little bit, where I think you forgot what it is that you're really good at." And she was like, "But you have some real strengths, so I think you need to find a space that you're gonna be able to shine, you know, and get that back, and get that confidence back." And so I ended up at City Year, actually, after, after the University of Chicago. And that was the space that I remembered. You know, I was like, oh, I do like public service. Like, I am a good leader. I ran the Young Leaders program while I was there. I, you know, I was like, there are these skills that I have that I need to remember, you know? And I'm smart on top of this. You know, so [laughs] you do have a degree on top of this, so. So, yeah. So.
[00:12:55.260] CK: For people who may not be familiar, will you talk a little bit about City Year?
[00:12:58.380] TS: City Year? So it's a program for young adults from, I want to say, ages 18 to 24. It's actually a national program. It's funded by AmeriCorps. The Chicago program is a little bit — or I don't know today how it was. I know then it was a bit different from the rest of the country in that actually the Corps was a lot older, and it did tend to be students that either had just graduated from college or maybe were like midpoint in college and decided to take some time off. It also was one of the only City Years that had like a program that was set that was working in — we were working in Chicago Public Schools, running both a reading, sort of literacy program for kindergarten and first graders during the day. And then there was a Young Heroes program, which was for sixth to eighth graders. So I ended up, I was in the schools at first, and I was running a literacy program, or actually, not running it. I was implementing this literacy program. But after a little while, the Young Heroes coordinator actually had to leave for — I think there was some family issues. And they tapped me. They asked, was I interested in the position? And I ended up moving up into that position. So for the rest of the year, I ended up sort of building the Young Heroes program, which is, was a Saturday program that ended with taking the kids to camp for a week during like the spring break. But basically for the time that I was there, what I loved about it was just having the moment to be able to think like, what do you want to impart on these kids? What's the thing that, you know, what do we want them to be able to take away? And my team was really creative, and there was just a lot of talent on the team. So we ended up teaching them — we had a program where we were teaching in the Microsoft Office suite, but we also were teaching them film production. So we had them like filming, you know, their experience the whole time and filming the camp. And at the end, we, what do you call it, we edited the film, made it like a City Year film, and Apple was one of our sponsors. So they let us, like, premiere it at Apple, at the Apple Store downtown with all the kids. So, yeah, it was like the highlight of that year for me. But yeah. So the rest is history [both laugh], as they say.
[00:15:23.100] CK: Well, there's some interesting themes there around a sense of belonging, the influences on what makes a community, who decides what a community's about, and again, the cues, overt or not, about belonging. So once you found your way to planning, how did those experiences influence how you actually practice?
[00:15:50.650] TS: So I would say — well, OK, I've had some interesting experiences in planning, right. They kind of, they, they run the gamut in that when I graduated from Wagner, I ended up at Kramer Levin, which is this huge land-use law firm. I — it wasn't where I thought I would end up after Wagner. I really was wanting to take all that. You know, you're really like, you have all these ideas after grad school, and you're like, I know the answer. I really wanted to come back to Chicago, but for lots of reasons that didn't work out right away. But I have to say, going in to working at Kramer Levin, it was the best second education I could have gotten after grad school, mostly because even though you feel like you know how everything works by the time you're done with grad school, you really don't, right? I would say, like, planning is really like a practice field. You're constantly learning and practicing every day. You're — in that case, like, I've figured out that there was so much that I didn't understand about regulatory and administrative processes in New York City. So being there, I felt like I just I had hit the lottery in that I had this bird's eye view into how, how are decisions made, who are the major developers, how, how do they work? What's the timeline that they work on, right? Or under? I would have never imagined the depth of knowledge that I got there. When it comes to just the New York City developer land— landscape. But it was also honing my skills in writing and, you know, really understanding the technical side. Like, what is FAR [floor area ratio]? How do you decide, like, how much buildable square feet you have? What is highest and best use? Yeah, so, for me, having that experience, like, really seeing, like, this is how the city works — that, that was great. Then I moved into — and, but, OK. I would say, I was there for three years and realized I could continue to be here and be comfortable and work for our clients that we had. But that wasn't what I intended when I went to school. I really thought that I was going to be more on the ground and working with people. I mean, for me, it's like, I'm never shy about saying I'm black, I'm a woman. I feel like when it comes to planning, that's really important to me and sort of figuring out how to influence policy or influence, from what I understand now, even the built environment to make the city healthier, safer for people who look like me? That's what I got in this for. So, so ended up working for the Speaker of the City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, for a couple of years. That's actually — that was another formative experience because it was the government side. It was really — I, I had been on the private side. Now it was like, oh, I'm completely on the opposite end working for, you know, a politician who I still, I mean, to this day, I do deeply respect. You know, she represented East Harlem. For me, I always felt like I understood where she was coming from, what her priorities were. And it was just so simple to work for someone when you feel like you, you're clear on that, right? I understood that if we are thinking about housing policy and rent regulation, that the people that she cared about and were worried about were the bulk of her constituents — or her constituents who are low-income and cannot afford a thousand dollars a month for rent, you know? And so if I'm writing a policy memo for — or talking points for her to talk about rent regulation or, you know, helping to give, give input on, on an ordinance or legislation or anything, that, that was basically the learning that I got working for the Speaker. There is where I worked on the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan. I got to work a little bit on the Young Women's Initiative. And then — and that was actually my first getting back into working in the community. The East Harlem Neighborhood Plan was a — the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan came about because Mayor Bill de Blasio had announced that there were going to be some rezonings of different neighborhoods based on some policy initiatives around mandatory inclusionary housing and sort of transit-oriented development. And when he made this announcement, basically speculation in, you know, New York City just like took off. That being said, the, the neighborhoods that were slated to be rezoned — so we were one of the neighborhoods. The Speaker's district was one of the neighborhoods that was going to be rezoned. Her — she decided that she wanted to get ahead of the rezoning. She didn't want the city to be the driver of what that rezoning was going to look like. So basically, she was like, I want my staff to think through what is a process that we can implement that would get us to a community-driven vision for how East Harlem should grow over the next 20 to 30 years. So in being there and doing that, we basically, we sat down and we were like, OK, what is this community process look like? It ended up being a huge undertaking, a series of community-visioning forums for, for everything from health and wellness, open space, housing, sustainability, like, anything having to do with the built environment and, you know, that can be impacted by zoning and ameliorated through, you know, funding from either a city council or private spaces or whatever. We basically tried to, to take in all that input and come up with a plan that had a set of recommendations for each bucket. For me, getting into having all of these conversations, being in the community every week, you know, talking to people and really understanding that, I feel like it was something we heard all the time, right? Where it was like, people are experts on where they live. There's something to actually really sort of deeply understanding that for yourself and really getting in there and having conversations with people and making sure that, you know, yes, you might be an expert on exactly how you write the zoning text, but you should be a listener and you should be the person that is sort of facilitating what the community would like to see versus coming in and swooping in and saying this is how, you know, your community should grow based on my expertise, you know. So, so yeah. So that — I did that and moved on to the Furman Center, where I actually — that was really far removed from being in the community. But it was another space where I felt like, here's where you can really impact policy. At least I thought. I learned a lot about how if you're thinking about going into academia and planning, it's just, it's a different space. For me, it was, you know, it's really a — it's more long-term, but it's definitely figuring out how to understand data and how to communicate data in a way that creates the language for the debate that you're having about housing. So, so even though, like, I did — I feel like I became a housing policy expert. I know I'm a weird sort of encyclopedia on policy tools sometimes, where people come and ask me questions like, "How does a community land trust work?" Or, you know, "How do low-income housing tax credits work?" Mostly because I had to spend a lot of time building — I actually did build an inventory for one of our websites at the Furman Center to explain all the housing policy tools. That was definitely, like — that was just a different experience, but it was formative and I think act— and really impacts where I am today.
[00:24:46.400] CK: Well, I'm kind of like you. I've worked in many sectors of planning, and there's people who will have you believe that the circuitous path won't get you anywhere. But I think you learn that it does, and—
[00:24:59.510] TS: Yeah.
[00:24:59.550] CK: — each of those experiences is rich and educational, as you said. I know I've heard from at least two consulting firms who won't hire public-sector planners, people who've come from the public sector because of their assumptions and stereotypes about—
[00:25:17.430] TS: Really?
[00:25:17.840] CK: Yeah. And I, I found it shocking because I've — I could have been, I could have been a person that someone said, "Well, you've worked in the public sector, so you don't belong in the consulting sector." And I think, you know, there's some core aspects or skills that run through—
[00:25:33.240] TS: Yeah.
[00:25:33.610] CK: —not only each of the things I've done, but even when expanded to your entire career that for sure —
[00:25:38.880] TS: Mmhmm.
[00:25:39.590] CK: — build upon each other.
[00:25:41.180] TS: Well, you know, it's an — I would say, that's actually — because people ask me how I ended up at WXY, they — I think they actually really did see the value and the breadth of experience I had. They were really interested in creating a position where they wanted, they were thinking of hiring a new person to leadership, but they wanted someone who could both, I think, help to guide this sort of overarching thinking on our practice, like the, the sort of firm strategy for how we move forward in different projects. But also, like, I do bring a different perspective, right? I do, I do think that it was important that I'm a person of color, that I am a woman, that, you know, I think they recognize all of that as well and saw it as a value. Right? When it comes to the projects that I work on, I — so I'll say there's one project that I'm working on that's the development of 700 units of affordable housing in the Bronx. People ask me as a planner, like, "How did you end up on this project? Why — what's your space there?" For me, it's been working with the developer to talk through — if you're adding that many units, you're, you're basically adding almost a new small neighborhood, right? So, so what are the questions that we're asking? Who are the partners? What's the audience? Who are we building for? Are they seniors? Are they families? Are there, you know, single individuals? What, what does this new community look like and what will they need? So I do end up having those conversations with the developer every once in a while. There's been clients that I actually would assist and go out to client meetings and, you know, talk to different potential partners. But then there's also, like, just looking at — well, I also have a zoning background, so, you know [laughs]. So there is that part of it. I do, I do have some background to be able to assist with, you know, checking work and, you know, all of that and sort of making sure that we're asking all the right questions on whether we're complying. Right? So, so yeah. So having this sort of technical background from Kramer Levin, having my understanding of housing policy tools from the Furman Center, but also being, you know, in government and understanding from the Councilmember's perspective, you know, why is this project important and what is it going to bring to my community and all that? And sort of bring that as well. And so having that sort of well-rounded view, I'm glad that they saw it as valuable. Right? [laughs] So, so, yeah.
[00:28:38.060] CK: Yeah, it doesn't lend itself to an elevator pitch but—
[00:28:41.470] TS: Yeah [laughs], it doesn't.
[00:28:43.310] CK: I have a similar experience, and you have to be able to translate, or code switch if you will, because a developer — and rightfully so — first and foremost, concerned with their pro forma, but they may be thinking of things in terms of a product type —
[00:29:01.850] TS: Yes.
[00:29:01.850] CK: — or an asset, and you're like, "This is a place [Traci laughs] where people are gonna live. And we have to expand the thinking because we live with these buildings or places for 50, 100, or, you know, hopefully even longer term.
[00:29:15.700] TS: Yeah, yeah.
[00:29:17.180] CK: I know there's people who criticize, and I'm air-quoting, planners who don't draw. And it's —
[00:29:22.500] TS: Ah.
[00:29:22.590] CK: And it's a bit of a pejorative. But I think you're living proof of the specialized expertise of a planner in being able to connect the dots, understand context, know that there's a whole bunch of moving parts that go in to creating or maintaining building a great place.
[00:29:44.090] TS: Yes. And I would say there's some value in — because this is what we hear a lot, too, from a lot of different firms that they are multidisciplinary, right? To me, we have to figure out if you truly are multidisciplinary, at WXY, the reason why I think I've been successful is in — is that we, I hope, we have done well at creating an environment where, where people are happy to answer questions and people — and we have our own sort of internal workshops and sort of lunch-and-learns and all that stuff, right? But if I'm sitting down and I'm looking at a set of plans, like, now I understand a lot more how to see, how to read, how to interpret a set of drawings, more so than I knew years ago. Right? I could sit and now mark up plans sometimes because I'm like, is this the proper distance? You know, is is this 15 feet? You know, is the hallway, the proper, you know, width? Is it — I'm starting to see things that — and I'm much more detail-oriented, so sometimes I'm looking and, and I — if I can pick that up, if I can pick up those skills, they are hard skills, right? So I think if more firms are thinking of it as, yes, you might bring in planners that have no drawing skills, but it doesn't mean that they can't pick up the hard skill of being able to read and interpret drawings. Right? And, and actually give good input, you know? I get that all the time. It's like, "Oh, I didn't see that, you know. Yeah [laughs]. It's, it's — I hope it's a value, but yeah [laughs].
[00:31:27.500] CK: Well, in a similar vein, I know very talented designers — we'll call them people who can draw — who can't read code. And once you know how to read code, because I also worked for a land-use attorney, it is a skill that is frequently lacking [both laugh], and you know, there aren't any shortcuts to teaching that. You have to just sit with the thing and flip the pages and all of that.
[00:31:53.060] TS: Same with the New York City Zoning Resolution [laughs]. Over and over and over again.
[00:31:59.630] CK: So I was reading about WXY and saw that the work is described as the public dimension of design. I'm curious what that means and why it's important.
[00:32:11.470] TS: Yes, I've actually, I've spent some time with this, and, and really at its core, I think we're just trying to express that we care about how people experience design, right? I would say that you judge the success of a space on whether there's someone actually interacting with it later. Right? There's lots of spaces that I'm sure we could think of, like great parks that are just beautiful, right?
[00:32:43.630] CK: The kind of place you want to take a picture but —
[00:32:45.570] TS: Right. It's — you want to — it's beautiful. You just don't want to hang out. You don't want to sit there. You don't — and a lot of our work is urban design, right. So we're doing parks. We're doing plazas. We've done bridges, we're — you know, we've done, we're doing train stations. We're doing more architecture, but I think we're historically known for those sorts of spaces, right. So for us, you want to come back later and see that there are people who are really enjoying it. Oh, we also build benches, or design benches. So down to: Is someone using the bench? Is this working in the way that we imagined it? And you'd be surprised the level of detail and the level of thinking that goes into how high a bench should be or how far from a corner and things like that. So. So for us, it's like, yeah, I think years from now on projects that I've worked on, I want to come back and, and see that it's successful and that people love to be there and all of that and really at its core, it's like, it might not be super pretty, but it works for the people that are going to be using it, right? So. So, yeah.
[00:34:07.910] CK: I want to test out an idea I have on you and see if it resonates and see if you have ideas on how to address it. So you and I are both planning consultants, we're in the private sector. And I frequently see that through the procurement process, which most of us have to participate in, it's almost the first misstep in falling short of serving communities well. And what I mean by that is, an RFP hits the street, we see it, we get excited, we respond. We hope to get interviewed. Even better when we get the call that we've won. Then, of course, some — someone or all of us are in a hurry to sign a contract. So you sign a contract with the proposal that you submitted however many months ago with the information you had then. So we get caught up in the inertia because there's very valid reasons for that — wants, needs, desires or mandatory funding requirements [Traci laughs] dictating the timeline. So I say I think it's sometimes the first misstep in failing communities because it may not have much to do with what the community actually needs or wants. And there's a bunch of reasons for that, too. For example, the agency that issued the RFP may not have asked anyone in the community or the community may or may not have been involved in the selection of the team doing a study or a plan. The information a consultant put in a proposal in response to an RFP could bear little —
[00:35:48.010] TS: — resemblance to what the project actually ends up being.
[00:35:51.670] CK: And some of it you can't know. It's, it's actually quite presumptuous to think you know that we're going to need four meetings and three stakeholder interviews — right? — until you get into the thing. But because we operate in this, you know, bureaucratic procurement space and we're, and we're going to stay there. I've had this idea about how do we think beyond the scope. And process is obviously important, but impact is really where it's at.
[00:36:18.130] TS: Yeah.
[00:36:18.150] CK: And so that speaks to what you were saying about well-designed public spaces and the measure being, you know, if you go back a certain amount of time later, are people enjoying it? Has it improved their day-to-day life?
[00:36:29.350] TS: Mmhmm.
[00:36:30.700] CK: So my question is, does this resonate with you and have you figured out any ways to think beyond the scope in order to focus more on impact and let go of some of the prescribed process?
[00:36:44.440] TS: Well, it's interesting. One of the things you just said was that we're not going to get away from the RFP process, right? One thing that I think, if I were to think beyond it, the only way I could — I think that we can get past a lot of the issues that we have is it actually, honestly depends on the client and whether the client is actually open to and understanding that, in every case, you're going to have to design what a — an engagement process looks like. You're never going to know — and this is where sometimes I do really get frustrated. In the RFP, it'll say, "We really want five public meetings and we want this many smaller stakeholder meetings and, you know, all of [that]." And to me, I'm like, "Well, how do you know that?" Right [laughs]? And, and if you want those five meetings, what is it that you're trying — what's the information that you're trying to gather? And is that even the best space or the best kind of tool to use to gather that information? So here's another thing, like, engagement — there are lots of different tools. There's a tool kit for it. I think we've come a long way in that, in development, whether it's a private developer or a public agency, we all understand now that it's important to get input from the community. But in the fact that there are a million different tools to use to get that information from, you know — and when I say tools, I'll give some examples: Focus groups. It could be a big public forum. It could be individual interviews. It could be a pop-up at a store because you really want to get to underrepresented communities. So it could be a lot of different, it could be really creative, right? What I would prefer and what I've noticed in the projects that I felt have turned out — have been the most successful and have been the most interesting and the most fun, I guess, to work on, the client was actually amenable to understanding like, yes, in the RFP, we said we want two public forums, but we know that might not be the case. Right? It might be that we need three or four. I've even noticed now in some cases, I, I — for the first — well, not in some cases. I would say for the first time, in one RFP, I saw a client say, "Here's what we think our responsibility is to you all in helping you get the interviews that you need in planning for, you know, each public forum." Because that's the other thing — sometimes I'm not sure, when you're reading, when we're going after these projects, If the client actually understands what it takes to — and that it's a partnership. Right? Not only is it iterative, it's a partnership. And so we're depending on you in these ways and you're depending on us in these ways. So in defining, you know, at the very beginning when — we just kicked off a project in Davenport, you know. One of the questions that we ask is, what is the impact that you're trying to have? Who are you trying to talk to? You know? And it was — what I love about it, you know, was they were like, we do want to reach communities that we haven't talked to before. We want to understand, in the way that we do things now, are there ways that we can change it in order to, you know, feel like we're getting a more well-rounded sort of vision for the downtown. So, so I guess in, like, thinking about process and the procurement process, I think I've tried to insert — and the funny thing is we've even tried to, I think, in some cases, like, insert in a proposal, "Here's where we think you all [laughs] need to work with us," right? Because we all put in the, you know, "based on our understanding of today," right? But it's like, but no [laughs]. But there's also this, "And here's how we believe you should be working with us as well," right? And if you feel like you can't exactly put that in an RFP, it's definitely, I think, something to sort of bring up in an interview or even bring up once you have the contract, it's, like, do — but I, you know, there's — I think you still have to put nuggets of it along the way. And unfortunately, I think sometimes we have to decide, is this going to be the right client? Right? Like, you could get to the point and it feels good until it doesn't, you know [laughs], so. So, yeah. So definitely I, you know, I hear you and I feel like it's something that — it's our responsibility as, like, planning consultants, you know. I don't know how it is — there's — I think there's a difference between the type of firms that we work with and maybe — and maybe I'm assuming, you know, but when — I think it's different, when it's a bigger firm, when it's like, you know, Gensler or, you know, one of the international firms. I just think they work differently. But for us, we're, like, a lot of our reputation is on, like, the kind of engagement that we do. I think we, it's sort of hard to be, you know, sort of outward about it, but we have to sort of figure out, like, what is our social responsibility when we're thinking about, you know, the projects that we're taking on and how we talk to or how we engage, you know? Do we feel like we're being authentic and real in the conversations that we're having and that — are they creating the space for us to do that?
[00:42:30.570] CK: That's really helpful, and I'm glad it's not just me that sees it this way, that we do have a responsibility to kind of leverage the process towards impact and making sure everyone's on the same page about the desired impact.
[00:42:42.530] TS: Mmhmm.
[00:42:44.430] CK: As a follow-up, I'm interested to hear a little bit more about your time working on the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan. From my understanding, the mayor made this big sweeping announcement. The communities were left to sort of react, and essentially it sounds like East Harlem did a plan on its heels sort of starting from like, OK, this announcement's been made. What are we going to do about it? How can we express our shared vision for ourselves?
[00:43:10.320] TS: Mmhmm. So the announcement of the rezonings — right? — had to do with two policy initiatives. One was mandatory inclusionary and the other one was zoning for quality and affordability, which really had a lot to do with transit-oriented development and basically offering waivers for parking and things like that, if you were building — if you're, like, in a transit zone or building near transit. So in announcing this — right? — there, there was a lot of history behind — once those, once those two zoning amendments were passed, they're basically zoning overlays. So they have to be, just because they were passed — they were citywide, but they had to be zoned in a particular place. So they had to be overlaid in order for them to sort of take effect. Right? So when the mayor announced the rezonings — right? — for the mandatory inclusionary, it was required that you build this permanent supply of affordable housing. But you were, you did get sort of an FAR [floor area ratio] bump in the areas where you had to provide permanent affordability. So that being said [laughs], once it was announced, it spurred all this speculation, like, all of a sudden it's like, oh, you can build higher, you could do all, you know — you can make more money in certain areas. In East Harlem — East Harlem being in Manhattan was already experiencing a lot of development pressures, so with this added on top of it, it was, well, now knowing that the majority of the population — I think at that time, it was, like, more than 50 percent of the population in East Harlem had a median income of, I want to say, like, below forty thousand dollars a year or something, some — somewhere near there, right? So if you're thinking about, like, new development in Manhattan and market-rate housing, no one's going to be able to afford that. Right? Like, no one from the community is going to be able to afford this new housing. So when these announcements, when all of this is — you know, there's a lot of fear and a lot of — and I think, like, rightfully so. I think sometimes we don't give enough credit to people sort of understanding, right, that when, when these big changes are made, are they being made for me? Am I going to be able to benefit from these new amenities that all of a sudden are gonna come? Because now, you know, these folks with a bit more money are going to be living in this area. So, you know, for the Speaker, it was — and usually in New York City, if there's going to be a rezoning, the City sort of leads it, particularly the Department of City Planning. And sort of understanding that they were going to come in and decide what was going to happen in all these spaces or how it was going to, basically what the future of East Harlem was going to be. The Speaker was like, "Is there a way for us to come in and develop a plan?" And even looking at the nuts and bolts of zoning — right? — and how it impacts sort of day-to-day lives of folks that live in East Harlem and create a plan with recommendations in all these different areas. So open space, affordability, everything. And so that's why it required a series of — or even schools. Right? Because even school — basically, if you think about an environment — an environmental impact statement, what does it mean to bring X amount? If we, you can do, you could do a calculation to sort of think of, "Here's the potential. You can potentially add, you know, two or three thousand new units of housing to this area." What does that look like? Right? If it's family housing, how does it impact schools? How does it impact the fact that we only have this one little baseball diamond with this one broken, you know [laughs], toilet that for some reason the City could not come [and fix] — you know, all these different things, right. So, so that was the impetus behind coming in and saying, "We're gonna come up with our process," and sort of preempt the City and say, "Here's a, here's the community idea of how you should be rezoning this area and you must sort of consider this as you go into that work." So for me, some real lessons learned from that or the most important lesson, I think, that I learned: Be as honest as possible. I hate going into meetings, hearing planners sit down and say, "The sky is the limit." That is not true [laughs]. It is never, ever true. You cannot have anything you want. You know, there are real constraints. And what I loved about working with — and that, like I said, it was actually my first meeting [with] WXY and seeing — when you're sitting and you're actually developing — I think sometimes when you think about where planning has been and where it's come, right, and where it's come, I think we're a lot more willing to talk about those constraints. Right? I think there was a point where planners would always come in and say, "Well, what do you want?" And sort of not think that there's actual skill to curating a conversation, right? Now we will go in and say, "What do you want within these constraints? And we're talking about this particular thing. We're talking about transportation. We're talking about housing. Here's what we understand and here —" you know? Having those more, like, focused conversations, really — and having a mapping exercise where you're actually looking at built environment versus just, you know, pointing and, you know, saying — even the building blocks. Sometimes that would drive me crazy, because I was like, are, do, do people actually understand what the building blocks mean, if we're gonna do like, you know, a building block exercise. So totally, lesson learned was: understand what your constraints are and communicate those to the community at the forefront every time you have a meeting [laughs].
[00:49:36.790] CK: Well, it's more respectful. It's more authentic. I think people will, you know, let go of the proverbial Barnes and Nobles or Trader Joes or whatever it is if you respect them and explain the very real constraints. Then the engagement can be actually impactful.
[00:49:55.110] TS: Yeah. Oh, because the other thing you want to be able to do, right, is come back and say — so I think one of the, I think it's still up on the City's, or the New York City Council's website — is you want to be able to come back and say, "And here's what happened." Like, "Here's this recommendation, and here's how it was incorporated into the City's budget or here's how, you know, something actually occurred." I was being serious about the baseball diamond and the bathroom. I mean, it was really, like — it seems like a small thing, but it was really, there's one baseball diamond. And there's this one — what do we call it? I'm, like, losing my words. You know when there's the — I don't know why I can't think of the word right now. But in any case, like, it, there is this — and it's a built structure. It's not, like, you know, but it was broken for, like, years. It seemed like it must've been broken for years by the time we came and had that conversation. And you think it's going to be something you hear once. But as you're, you know, having people sort of move from table to table, it came up over and over and over again. So it feels good to walk away from a conversation knowing that the recommendations that you're getting are implementable and that you'll be able to come back and be seen as an honest broker in a particular community, because they know that the work that you're doing will translate to something, so.
[00:51:23.490] CK: So in that spirit, what do you think the field of planning is getting right these days? What inspires you?
[00:51:30.110] TS: The more holistic thinking [laughs]. The understanding that we're, we can't just talk about housing. That you have to talk about transportation. You know? That you have to talk about health. You kind of have to be a generalist. I do feel like when I was in planning school, we did sort of get pushed into our silos. And I didn't realize it was an issue until I started to practice — really, actually until I got to the Speaker's office and in realizing that there was this — there were worlds of planning that I was less exposed to because I was so interested in housing, you know. But then, in having that conversation, realize how all of it is connected. If you're thinking about stability and what it takes to, you know, have a normal — not even, like, I'm not saying people want to live in the lap of luxury, but they want a quality of life that allows them to maybe raise their kids or go out to a park or any of those things. Right? You can't do any of that without a stable place to live, so you have to be able to pay your rent. You need schools that are well funded. You need to be able to get to work and you might not have a car or have access to a car, so is there good public transit? You might want to ride your bike to work, and is there a network where you can do it where you're not worried about getting hit by a car? All these things. I just, I love that, I think, we're all thinking in that way now. And yeah, I just, I hope we hope do better [laughs].
[00:53:24.620] CK: What would you like to see happening more in planning?
[00:53:30.360] TS: You know, the funny thing is it was interesting when you made the comment about how, you know, planners don't draw earlier. I do wish that more planners took the time to understand architecture and really just the built environment in general. You do have — I think we still, do still live in our silos sometimes. And I have definitely had conversations where, you know, it's, it's not just, like, I understand that folks are worried about — we'll take workforce development, for example. Right? Or economic development. There are whole firms that are focused on economic development and basically, like, how, how do you create corridors, you know, that are successful, right? The funny thing is, to me, part of understanding how that corridor works is how does it meet — really, literally how does the rubber meet the road? Right? Like, we — I, for the first time, heard someone say that a mixed-use development wasn't successful. And I was like, how? I mean, wouldn't you want to live somewhere where you have services on the first floor, whatever those services are? It could be a laundromat. It could be a restaurant. It could be whatever. Right? But then ended up finding out that it was built next to a highway. Right? And so [laughs], so they're wondering, like, they have, like, these storefronts and they're wondering why, like, it's not working. Right. Like, no one's walking up and it's like, well, did anyone stop to think [laughs] —
[00:55:03.930] CK: — about the design?
[00:55:05.330] TS: — about the design? And so for me, it's, you know, we — as we're continuing to break down silos, right, I hope that we just, we continue to move in that direction. I so appreciate working at a design firm for that, just for getting that skill, that I don't know if I would have considered before.
[00:55:27.880] CK: So if people want to learn more about your work, where can they go?
[00:55:32.480] TS: Oh, well, WXY Studio dot com [wxystudio.com] or, you know, at WXY Studio [@WXYStudio], Twitter handle or, you know, Google us. We have a lot going on right now, so, yeah.
[00:55:48.110] CK: Tracy, I want to thank you for speaking with us today.
[00:55:50.570] TS: Thank you.
[00:55:54.350] CK: Thanks for tuning into another episode of the American Planning Association podcast. For more information and to hear past episodes, visit planning dot org slash podcast [planning.org/podcast]. You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Have an idea for a podcast? Send them to podcast at planning dot org [firstname.lastname@example.org].
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