And Annistonians, by and large, don’t get it.
If Anniston were a person, its hobby would be planning — for Noble Street and West 15th Street redevelopment, for McClellan’s future, for school improvement, for luring retailers into town. Over time, Anniston’s leaders have planned and planned and planned and planned, and many of the city’s recurring issues remain unsolved. Anniston is the dog that chases its tail.
Today, Mayor Vaughn Stewart and his “One City, One Vision” team of residents are in full-blown planning mode. Some people mock the Stewart City Hall’s never-ending schedule of kickoff meetings, work sessions and community open houses — I get that — but that’s sophomoric. Don’t judge them for trying to plan; judge them on whether their much-ballyhooed strategic plan works.
As for that opening salvo of gripes, it comes from a 1972 document published by the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission. In its 249 dusty pages are findings, statistics, maps, artists’ renderings, summaries and conclusions, all of which ooze two main points: (a.) Anniston is paying for its planning sins of the past, and (b.) Anniston has vast potential — if it doesn’t screw it up.
Consider the times. In 1972, Anniston’s public schools had only recently integrated and its high school on Woodstock Avenue still had that new-school smell. Soldiers trained for Vietnam at Fort McClellan, Noble Street had just started losing big-box retailers to Quintard Mall, and Oxford, not yet fueled by Interstate 20 or Leon Smith’s leadership, remained a quaint southern neighbor.
Ominously, the report’s authors admitted, “motivation of large groups of residents has been a difficult task, especially since the majority of citizens do not readily grasp the true significance of long-range community planning.” So much for One City, One Vision solidarity.
Nevertheless, the commission mimicked the Stewart strategy of today. Meetings were held. Telephone surveys were conducted. Volunteers went door to door, quizzing Annistonians about their city. Barber and beauty shops, where public opinion thrived, helped out.
The result: “Comprehensive Plan for Anniston, Alabama,” which, when it rolled off the press in June ’72, laid out a smart and thoughtful roadmap for the city’s next half-century. Scream if you’ve heard this before:
Something must be done about Quintard traffic. (The commission called it “an acute problem, creating safety hazards, destruction of the avenue itself, and tension and frustration for the community so dependent on it.)
Anniston’s central business district — Noble and Quintard, mainly — is a mishmash of zoning, signage mistakes and under-used buildings.
The city would benefit from a workable mass-transit system.
Anniston should aggressively annex neighboring communities to boost its population and business opportunities.
One of the city’s untapped veins of potential is recreation.
Those recommendations were among the hundreds in this ’72 plan. Admittedly, it’s interesting to cherry-pick a few of its proposals and see which ones stuck: Anniston still has no workable mass-transit system, Anniston did not annex Saks, Quintard traffic is still a nightmare, and consolidation of the city’s schools with the county system (for efficiency’s sake) hasn’t occurred — and likely never will.
On a side note, it’s fascinating that planners in the early ’70s felt the Noble Street core could be reinvented as a modern district of entertainment, shops and transportation. They recommended the building of a downtown transit terminus, a Grand Central Station for bus, rail and road. What’s more, they suggested a 13th Street pedestrian plaza that would include the terminus, open-air markets, a civic center, shops and galleries. Zinn Park would include a band shell and a landscaped pond. (A pond!) They even proposed the notion of building an enclosed mall — take that, Oxford! — at 8th and Noble. “There is a substantial potential for economic growth within the present central business district,” the commission wrote.
Forty-two years later, some people still believe that.
It’s now 2014, and Annistonians remain obsessed with planning. I get that, too. The seismic shifts of the ’60s and ’70s — in race relations, in suburbanization, in retail trends — still roil us. Today, Stewart-led Anniston is creating yet another strategic plan that will map where the city should go and say what residents think is best.
The real shame won’t be if this modern-day plan gathers dust on a shelf. It’ll be if it proves to be nothing more than a rehash of past failures.
Phillip Tutor is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.