LIVERMORE — The city council on Monday chose the Southern California-based firm PlaceWorks as its consultant for the city’s general plan update.
Councilmembers said the company’s experience helping to create the city’s plan nearly two decades ago and its recent work to revitalize the downtown area made it the right choice to continue with designing the community’s future.
The council chose PlaceWorks over Ventura-based Rincon Consultants Inc. and Berkeley-based MIG during a nearly five hour special city council meeting that served as a public pitch session for each of the companies’ executives and partner firms to tout their experience, resumes and qualifications to handle the job.
Although councilmembers deemed all three firms to be impressive and worthy of the city’s business, each made PlaceWorks the top choice during what turned out to be a quick discussion and decision.
“I think everybody did a really good job, and this was not easy,” Mayor Bob Woerner said before the 5-0 vote to pick PlaceWorks. “We are looking forward to working with you. Hopefully, we have opportunities for the other teams to work with us (in other capacities).”
Councilmember Brittni Kiick, who spoke first in the council's deliberation, spoke positively of Rincon, saying the decision was "very difficult." Rincon's plan utilized a team of consultants at a number of firms, each experienced in a particular part of a General Plan and Housing Element.
Kiick said the company's holistic approach to integrating housing and land-use issues into its plan impressed her, but she understood other councilmembers' feelings for PlaceWorks. After other councilmembers said they preferred PlaceWorks, she voted with them, saying PlaceWorks has a "long history" and "deep knowledge of our community."
City staff will negotiate a contract with PlaceWorks for future council approval. The process is expected to cost about $3.2 million, a city report said.
Joanna Jansen, PlaceWorks’ principal in charge of its Bay Area office, said she worked on Livermore’s general plan as a young planner in 2001. She said the city made a “deep impression” on her. She called Livermore a unique place with suburban neighborhoods and “a lot of authenticity” and history that has been preserved.
“I am genuinely excited about working with Livermore,” Jansen stated during her presentation. “People are very attached to Livermore. It’s not just some place they live. They live in Livermore, because there’s something special about it.”
The city council in March identified updating the general plan and its housing element as a priority for the next two years. The general plan, previously adopted in 2004 to run through 2025, contains long-range policies for growth, economic growth, noise, land use, open space conservation, climate change, access to health care, infrastructure, traffic and other issues. The housing element is a state-required policy to meet housing needs, including affordable housing. At its previous meeting, the council received a report that said the city was meeting its requirements for market-rate housing units, but was behind in establishing those considered affordable for low-income people.
Both require updates, the staff report indicated, to meet new state laws and changes in what residents want to see take place in their town’s future.
In their written proposals and in their public presentations on Monday, each of the firms outlined similar ideas to deal with key issues. Those issues included growth, climate change, equity, sustainability, health and housing needs. Each emphasized reaching out to residents to seek their ideas and concerns, whether at public meetings, online or in the streets at fairs, festivals, farmers markets, libraries and after church services to gain diverse opinions on where the city should go.
Each of the planning firms was asked how they deal with disagreement from residents.
Jansen said residents disagreed with decisions during the downtown planning process, which became emotionally charged at times.
Jansen noted it's important to design discussions so that all voices can be heard, not just the louder and more passionate ones.
"We really take pains to train our facilitators and structure our meetings in a way that allows people to feel safe speaking up and sharing their opinions," Jansen said.
She said sometimes they "impose some discipline on the meetings to make sure that everyone feels safe and comfortable participating and not drowned out or shouted down if there's strong dissenting opinions."
David Early, a senior advisor at PlaceWorks who worked on the 2004 general plan, said that they found "a lot of disagreement" on the downtown plan, but worked to get a strong sense of what the majority of residents wanted.
"We didn't have unanimity about everything, but I think we did get a strong sense of where the majority of residents' opinions lay," he said. "So we do move away from total disagreement into more agreement."
Early said they want people who did not get their way to feel that they were heard and their ideas were considered.
"Hopefully, most people got at least some things that they wanted but everybody knows that they were at least listened to," Early said.
Councilmembers additionally focused on community outreach, while questioning the company executives on their plans to utilize many opinions in formulating the plan, including holding meetings and disseminating information in Spanish and other languages.
“The content will come from community members who will live with and implement the plan,” Jansen said.
Jansen, whose firm won a 2019 award for public outreach from the California American Planning Association for its work on the Downtown Livermore Facilitation Project, said the firm had Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Hindi and Portuguese speakers among its 122 staff members statewide. She reported that the firm also uses translation services for other languages and can bring in interpreters for the deaf.
“This is your general plan,” Jansen told the council. “We bring expertise on how to get through the general plan process. We don’t decide what goes into your general plan. I see that as the city’s decision and ultimately the city council’s decision.”