City Planner John McConnell and the Challenges of Tuscaloosa Forward

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John Connell speaks to the Tuscaloosa Rotary about the new Tuscaloosa City rebuilding planAs a native of Mobile, Tuscaloosa Director of City Planner John McConnell knows the dangers and disasters of extreme weather. But unlike the hurricanes with which he and his family were so familiar, the storms that ripped through Tuscaloosa in April were somehow far more frightening.

“You can get out of the way” of a hurricane, he pointed out. Over seven thousand structures were damaged or destroyed in the storm, many of them EMA, police, fire and other core public infrastructure buildings. McConnell is now faced with the serious challenge of leading the effort to plan a new beginning, under the banner of the Tuscaloosa Forward initiative.
McConnell is aware of the burden he bears. “We’ve got to do something special,” he said, and he has been challenged to do it quickly. A typical project—to say nothing of one on the scale of Tuscaloosa Forward—might be planned on an 18-24 month schedule. The current plan was been developed in just over 90 days. McConnell recruited a large team of experts—52 architects, engineers and other outside consultants—to help him conceive of a plan. Also key was the “crowdsourcing” of solutions through new websites like mindmixer. These tools helped establish a “24/7 town-hall meeting” in cyberspace, one that elicited over 11,000 visits in five weeks, and over 300 substantive ideas. The resulting plan, as it stands, is a high-level road map—“a view at 30,000 feet,” says McConnell, that “sets the direction” but that does not dictate details.

And, of course, the devil is always in the details. Tensions are beginning to emerge as planners discuss land use, new zoning, new codes and ordinances for the damaged areas. Part of the problem is that before the storm those areas were governed by zoning ordinances last updated in 1972, when the affected areas were decidedly more suburban. Simply rebuilding without a new plan would likely only re-create many of the old problems.

The new plan envisions three distinct urban-style “villages,” that combine residential areas with parking and shopping, as well as a green-space running through the heart of the new developments. Planers must work now to balance the dictates of the new vision with the rights and desires of the property owners in the affected areas. McConnell—and his boss Mayor Maddox—are convinced that “the status quo is not good enough for Tuscaloosa.” But as always, new visions, and the new laws to enforce them, will have to be balanced with existing rights and freedoms.

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