Your Questions About the City of Spartanburg’s Comprehensive Plan Answered

April 15th, 2021

“Plan Spartanburg” is the City of Spartanburg's comprehensive plan update process currently in progress. A comp plan is the policy document that details the City's long-term vision and goals, and outlines the steps necessary to achieve them. From the outset, equity has been the foundational concept for building Plan Spartanburg — a plan that is on track to be the first equity-focused comprehensive plan in the country.

We spoke with Spartanburg City Manager Chris Story about Plan Spartanburg, its equity focus, what the comp plan team has learned so far, and what’s next in the process.

Can you give us a basic overview of Plan Spartanburg?

Plan Spartanburg is our long-awaited comprehensive planning effort. Our aim is to develop a plan for the future that has a high degree of consensus and a high degree of clarity to what the community wants to become over the next 20 years.

Our aim is to emphasize equity in the plan. That emphasis bears some connection to the history of community planning and how it has resulted in disparate impacts and conditions when one considers race and other factors. We want to centralize that concept — the pursuit of equity — into all aspects of the plan. That is difficult. It has challenged us already and it will certainly continue to challenge us. It creates a very interesting new lens, to look at and understand what type of change and opportunity we are attempting to bring to various parts of the city and what our motivations are for certain types of envisioned investments.

From the outset, the goal has been for Plan Spartanburg to become the first equity-focused comprehensive plan in the United States. How did this goal come about and why is an equity-focus important for Spartanburg?

Comp plans have historically focused on land use patterns and we know the history of development and redevelopment has exacerbated, at times, inequities.

It has been a very forthright discussion in Spartanburg about the role and impact of urban renewal efforts where outcomes didn’t align with some of the stated goals. There is no magic that comes with saying you’re going to have an equity focused plan. It is a lot of hard work — a lot of difficult questions to confront – Will a particular action result in a community that has more widespread prosperity? Will Plan Spartanburg enable a community that doesn’t have the inequities we see now? It doesn’t simplify anything at all. It creates an important focal lens for understanding outcomes that are contemplated in the comprehensive plan.

A big moment in this community’s life was when we published the community’s first racial equity index, which is data disaggregated by race to show where progress is being made and where it isn’t. The development of that, the racial equity index, is one key element. Our deep and intensive work in the Northside, and now Highland and other community development efforts, have been aids in solving the problems of those neighborhoods. These are effectively learning labs for how to pursue equitable development. So this is attempting to take that framework citywide. And that process reveals some tensions, particularly as we think about housing policy, development priorities, and continued enhancement of our downtown.

Our downtown is on a terrific trajectory but its positive impact on the community has been limited — it is not positively impacting wide and deep portions of the community. For a decade or more, we have said that our emphasis on downtown is not in pursuit of a vibrant downtown as an end in itself. Rather, a vibrant downtown is the means to a broader end, which is more opportunity for folks who live here throughout the city — in our neighborhoods that surround the downtown and elsewhere. If it’s not doing that, then it’s not nearly as impactful.

We recognize that equitable development is much, much easier said than done. When it comes to any community or any neighborhood within a larger community, change is really the only constant. We know that if you don’t give conscious thought to these kind of things, you get inequitable, bad results. What we don’t yet know is even with the most conscious thought, even with setting the right lenses and frames around planning, can we achieve redevelopment in the community that is broadly perceived as having equitable impacts? Finding examples of that is kind of like finding a unicorn. There is a large and growing collection of communities and entities across the country engaged in that search and working on it. We are trying to learn from all of them — take their best ideas — and we’re also willing to experiment with some things that may emerge that haven’t been tried before. There are no guarantees but I’m pleased with the dynamics and the questions being asked.

How will the plan define "equity?”

We are in the process of teasing that out. Some of the dimensions are obvious — housing affordability, access to amenities, access to services and support for basic family needs — but some are more nuanced and we’re figuring that out.

Did a clear answer emerge during the public engagement process last fall? What did you learn beyond the obvious dimensions you mentioned?

We heard an emphasis on culture, how culture is very important to the identity of places. This is an important part of the discussion and is one of the hardest for government to influence, right? We can fix your sidewalk and we can deploy resources to meet certain needs. We can engage actively in achieving certain types of development, but it is very hard for government to influence whether people feel an authentic connection to a place. So that’s a challenge for us.

What have you heard from citizens? What are they most concerned about looking ahead over the next 20 years in Spartanburg?

There is a broad sense that the community is on a positive trajectory and that’s important. That’s always a good affirmation — that generally people are bullish on the place they call home.

I think we’ll have some tensions around density. To get where we need to go, we need to have a significant increase in the number of housing units that we have in the community and all data seems to point to that. With additional housing units, many other factors come into play. So it will definitely be a busier 20 square miles a decade from now, and there will be some resistance to certain aspects of that, but generally there is support for growing the density of the community.

Without the benefit of having seen a draft of the plan yet, how would you say citizens' collective input is shaping Plan Spartanburg, the process and the plan itself so far?

I think the jury is out on exactly how good of a job we have done reaching out to all segments of the community. I think this summer and fall will help to determine that. I do think the team has done a good job of following where the community has led it. I love some of the tools they used to do it, including the ability of folks to flag things on the interactive map to direct the attention of the planning team to certain areas. I think it has been healthy to see where the energy is and where the concerns lie. The areas of the plan that are drawn out for further examination are driven by public input, comments, and questions. We did not come with a preconceived set of focus areas. So that’s one thing and there will be more as we move forward.

The classic visual used to illustrate the contrast between plans that have a high degree of participation and those that turn out to be a meaningless exercise is the document sitting on the shelf gathering dust, right? I’ll confess that 25 years into a career in local government, I’ve got some of those laying on my shelf. I very much want for Plan Spartanburg to not be that way.

What is coming up next for Plan Spartanburg and when will the public see a draft of the plan?

We hope to put a public draft before the council and the community this summer. Depending on the progress the community has made on Covid-19, we hope to offer more conventional ways of reacting to a draft plan. We envision those activities in the summer and fall and then pursuing Plan Spartanburg adoption in the fall. We know we’ve got to do more through this summer and into the fall to make the process easily accessible to all populations. We engaged in a variety of specific outreach efforts but it was hard to rise above the conditions of the pandemic last fall, so we’re going to do more to meet people where they are as we have a draft for folks to react to. Open-ended conversations produce one kind of results, but a document that one can read and say, “this is missing and that is missing,” is helpful.

Why it is important for citizens to continue to be involved in the process this summer and fall?

Plan Spartanburg is envisioned to be directly reflective of community input and that in and of itself requires depth and breadth of input. Robust participation is essential for the validity of the process and to make sure that the specifics articulated in the plan are those that best match the reality of the community. So folks have every reason to put time and energy to it.

What will the public feedback loop on the draft plan look like? Do you anticipate Plan Spartanburg hosting more in-person events moving through the summer and into the fall?

Hopefully, and this is all dependent on continued reduction in Covid cases, but hopefully we’ll be able to make the draft public for an extended period of time. We want to put copies in the hands of community groups in in-person meetings and do both virtual and live presentations that go over the draft plan — and channel folks to several different ways of giving their responses, including online, direct verbal at meetings and other conventional responses.

I think in-person public meetings are necessary. Again it's all of the above, but I think folks learn a lot about their neighborhoods and their communities from interactions with each other in meetings like this. We sometimes talk about public input as if it is a one-way channel from an individual to the entity receiving that input but what more often happens is that citizens participate in a process and learn from their fellow citizens. More than a few times in my experience, those are the very interactions — from neighbor to neighbor — that result in the most substantive actions and changed perspectives.

How do you see Covid-19 continuing to influence the overall planning process moving forward? How does the pandemic influence engagement strategy?

Added to the very challenging aspiration of our equity focus, is the complexity that comes with trying to do the process during a pandemic. That said, I’m pleased with the ingenuity of all the participants and with the tenacity of the public to participate despite the difficult ways we’ve had to go about the process, but we still have a long way to go before it’s done.

Once the plan is adopted, how does the city anticipate taking steps to implement its recommendations and how can citizens support that effort?

One of the important things for citizens is the accountability function — to ask how future activities, investments, etc., how do they relate to the plan? I think what would be the best judge is to fast forward 5 years… Are we able to look back at the choices we made over that time and see an alignment? Are discussions and staff recommendations, Council discussions, and activities and investments by community partners actively and openly tied to the plan? If the answer to those Is yes, I’ll be thrilled.

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