Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Planning Director to leave after 31 years of city service

Whether this is still part of the phase in which Mayor Pugh installs her own cabinet (Tom Stosur is a holdover from Mayors Stephanie Rawlings Blaker and Sheila Dixon), whether 31 years of working in various city agencies (mostly Planning) were really enough for one person or whether there was some other reason is not easy to determine. Fact is, instead through a press release, originally planned for last Friday, Mayor Pugh announced this morning in a cabinet meeting that Planning Director Tom Stosur had submitted his resignation from his post effective October 1. Asked to explain, Stosur provided this statement this to me:
Tom Stosur (BBJ)
“I will be retiring from City Government service as of October 1st, after 30+ years—essentially my entire professional career.  Nearly a decade of that time has been spent serving as Director of this great Department, and as Executive Secretary of the Planning Commission.  It’s really been an honor and a privilege to serve in these roles, to work with such dedicated and talented staff and colleagues, and to play a role in Baltimore’s ongoing evolution and progress.  I’ll be forever grateful for this opportunity.” (Tom Stosur)
Stosur, who holds a Masters Degree in regional planning from Cornell, started in Baltimore City Planning in 1987 at a time when the late legendary Larry Reich still held the reigns. Reich had been the chief planner under five Baltimore Mayors; Stosur made it through three. But he beats Reich in terms of his total tenure at the City by 6 years.
Stosur in 2010 (zdnet.com)

Even if it was only for three years, Reich would have been a great teacher for the young planner Stosur beginning his first job. Unfortunately cities, city planning and the strength of the Baltimore Planning Department were on a waning cycle at the time, certainly compared to 1965 when Reich took his job, and it continued even beyond 2009 when Stosur was appointed by Mayor Dixon right around the time she was indicted. But Stosur served long enough to benefit from the then following period of urban renaissance that allowed him regain some ground and lead with some large initiatives such as a new zoning code, the Baltimore Green Building Code, the integration of the historic commission CHAP into the Planning Department, and the creation of robust offices inside the department which deal with sustainability, resilience  and urban farming. Recently the department created the position of Assistant Director for Equity, Engagement and Communications, and found out how unbalanced resource distribution had been in recent years.
"Tom Stosur deserves credit for having navigated the department through five years of Transform Baltimore and cerdit for getting the code itself into a more flexible and modern era. For example by including Transit Oriented Developmet and relaxing parking requirements." (Alfred Barry, former Deputy Planning Director)
According to the City charter, the planning department is instrumental in creating the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), which gives it special standing among the many departments in need of capital funds.  By definition, the Department of Planning is  supposed to plan, and other departments are supposed to implement. However, this simple set-up requires that the various agencies coordinate and work well together. In the initial years after Larry Reich retired in 1990 the department shriveled in its importance, in part for lack of leadership, and other city departments such as Housing and BDC jumped into the breach. Some of Baltimore's most formative developments, such as the redevelopment of all the large public housing highrises under HOPE VI and the BDC planning of the Westside (Superblock!), fall into that period. When Stosur took the post he slowly but surely regained some of the lost turf. Mayor Pugh who had her eyes set on restructuring Housing and BDC seemed to help Planning in holding its own.

Then this year the Mayor directly intervened in Planning's affairs when, with some influence from her special adviser Jim Smith, she restructured the design review process, initially called Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel (UDARP) and now relabeled as the Urban Design and Architectural Advisory  Panel (UDAAP). Two vocal panel members were abruptly retired. While the renaming seems to be mostly semantic, it was motivated by developer complaints about the process as not development friendly enough and discouraging investments. UDARP was only advisory in nature all along, but the intervention certainly signaled how the Mayor's office wanted to see Planning's oversight of development.

Stosur worked in Planning from 1987 to 2005, when he changed departments to become a senior facilities planner for Baltimore City Public Schools. In 2007 Mayor Dixon hired him as Assistant Deputy Mayor for Neighborhood and Economic Development before making him Planning Director in 2009. Asked about his future plans he offered:
“The immediate plan is to have no immediate plan. We will be taking a few months to decompress, travel a bit, recharge, and consider the options for our next chapter. It’s been a great run!”
In Baltimore's current turbulent conditions, a strong Planning Director would be more useful than ever.
"I think that a new Planning Director needs to understand what economic development can bring towards solving the city's problems, even though [such development] is seen in many areas as suspicious". (Alfred Barry)
Strategic decisions galore: How to balance demolition and rehabilitation of vacant rowhouses, whether to plan for new jobs or new residences, how to find the right course between equity based planning versus "building from strength" and between planning for existing residents versus for new ones, and how to distribute resources effectively but also fairly and equitably.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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