Though Moscow has a bar that calls itself a nightclub, there is no equivalent here of New York’s CBGB’s or Studio 54. We have some good music spots, John’s Alley, the One World Cafe, the Moscow Food Co-Op, but a big time in Moscow is often a couple of drinks with friends at the Best Western and then home to watch satellite TV or read a good book — or, just for fun, the city’s comprehensive plan.
Last night, Moscow’s Planning and Zoning Committee met to consider a rezone request filed by five citizen activists. The committee played to a capacity crowd: standing room only. More and more, as Moscow faces complex issues related to growth and development, the community’s civic and economic health, and competing visions for the future, city council meetings have been jam-packed with active, vocal, vibrant citizens. People of all political persuasions are turning out in force to make their views known and have their voices heard. It’s amazing to witness; it’s amazing to be a participant-observer. This little town of 25,000 is a hotbed of democracy.
It’s hard to know what city staff think of this surge in citizen interest and activism. Some look stunned, like deer caught in the headlights. I can understand why. Twelve months ago, I didn’t know a comprehensive plan from incontinent puffin. Now, I’ve actually read it, and I’m not the only one. Copies of Moscow’s comprehensive plan are circulating through the populace like The DaVinci Code, and people are meeting formally and informally to discuss it, to propose changes, and to complain about how far we’ve drifted. The major bones of contention? The threat of a WalMart Supercenter on 77 acres east of town and New St. Andrews College’s request for a conditional use permit allowing them to continue to occupy space in Moscow’s Central Business District.
If you want a seat at one of these meetings, you need to arrive at least half an hour early — perhaps even forty-five minutes. At last night’s meeting, people were reportedly sitting on folding chairs stamped Property of the Unitarian-Universalist Church. Many leaned against the walls, both inside the room and in the hall outside. I like people, but I don’t like crowds, and so I did not attend. Where was I? At home, online, receiving blow-by-blow updates from a friend with a text-messaging cell phone. And it was riveting stuff — never before has a group of citizens petitioned the city for a change in the comprehensive plan. At the end of the evening, the petition was unanimously denied, but I suspect this is only the beginning. Large-scale citizen interest and involvement in city planning will continue until Moscow is seen to be responsive to community concerns and we determine, somehow, the kind and size of town we want to be.
Gone are the days of the lonely city planner, poring over platt maps all by himself, day-dreaming, perhaps, like Walter Mitty. Let’s hope city staff are ready for their close-up. This is no time to sink back into comfortable (if agoraphobic) bureaucracy. The city planner is now the life of the party — the guy with the nickel bag and the lampshade on his head. Hypothetically speaking, of course.