To get a flavor of the opposition to "Plano Tomorrow," the northern suburb's newly adopted comprehensive plan, you don't need to listen to the dozens of residents who spoke against it at a marathon City Council meeting this week. Skimming this column by a leader of the opposition group Plano Future will do. Actually, scratch that. Don't bother skimming. Just read the headline: "Don't let Plano Tomorrow become Dallas today." Still too many words? OK, try this summary: "Ewwww, apartments."
Plano Tomorrow isn't exclusively about apartments. It's a sprawling document, two years in the making, that maps out a vision for the next couple of decades. But the plan's emphasis on increasing density, namely the addition of an unspecified number of multifamily housing units, has drawn out the opponents who fret that the extra apartments will deteriorate within a decade or so and cause decreased home values, overwhelmed city services and declining schools. As proof, they point to declining performance at elementary schools in southern Plano that have seen an influx of apartment dwellers. "While we have always touted the quality of our schools, they have been starting to slip and this is a dark undercurrent that could dim our future," the Plano Future website says. "One of the Old Shepard residents said it best at the P&Z meeting last week when talking about the PISD schools going downhill and saying once you lose your reputation for fine schools, it affects whether people will buy homes in that district and then it’s a downhill spiral from there and there is no hope of the district ever getting its reputation back."
This is a familiar refrain. Ex-Richardson Mayor Laura Maczka may have set herself up for disaster through her cozy relationship with the developer of a large apartment complex along Central Expressway, but her neighbors' furor over the apartments' impact on property values and schools in their tony neighborhood of Canyon Creek is what fueled the scandal. Such concerns are remarkably consistent among homeowners, particularly in affluent/formerly affluent suburbs, even if they are based largely on anecdote rather than evidence. There's Vickery Meadow, but there's also Uptown. And Plano residents need not look so far down Central for an example of successful, sustainable multifamily development. They just need to visit Downtown Plano.
The debate nevertheless presents a conundrum for suburban elected officials. The politically expedient thing to do would probably be to kowtow to the angry homeowners and rail against apartments. But this is also pretty objectively the wrong thing to do. The same factors that made Plano the "it" suburb of the 1990s (i.e., having undeveloped land and being far north) now favor Frisco, McKinney and points beyond, leaving Plano saddled with sprawling infrastructure that will be very expensive to maintain in the years to come. If Plano can glean anything from the "Dallas today" bogeyman referenced by Plano Future, it's that aging, widespread municipalities need more density, not less. If Dallas had been more forward-thinking, perhaps it wouldn't have a $10 billion infrastructure deficit.
Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere acknowledges as much. He has positioned himself as the chief public advocate for the Plano Tomorrow plan, championing it as a necessary and forward-thinking way to guide Plano's development moving forward. And this week, he led the council in approving the plan despite the vocal opposition and threats of a recall election. It was, all in all, an impressive display of leadership, and not LaRosiliere's first. He put on a similar display last December when he pushed LGBT protections through the City Council despite teeth-gnashing from Plano's many social conservatives, including the hometown Liberty Institute.
In both instances, LaRosiliere staked out the smart, humane position and presided over a raucous debate with professional ease. He respectfully engaged with opponents but refused to budge. In the wake of last night's vote, he dismissed the controversy as "noise."
This is all much harder than LaRosiliere makes it look. During her tenure as Richardson's mayor, Maczka advanced a similar position, arguing that her inner-ring suburb needed to remake itself as denser and more urban in order to survive as an attractive place to live in the 21st century, but her message was lost in the noise, first in her anti-apartment campaign stance, then in the fallout from the aforementioned scandal. LaRosiliere comes off better still when you compare him with North Texas' most famous suburban mayor, Irving's Beth Van Duyne, whose vision of leadership involves mining the more despicable veins of Tea Party nativism by trading Islamophobic conspiracy theories with Glenn Beck while trashing a 13-year-old constituent.
How he's managed to do this while leading the largest city in Tea-drunk Collin County — the same county that repeatedly elected a politician as objectively awful as Ken Paxton — is a mystery, but it's damn impressive. If he keeps it up, we may have to upgrade Plano's status from crappy suburb to decent pseudo-city.
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