No matter your opinion of the City Council’s verdict on the Newport Restoration Foundation’s proposed redesign of Queen Anne Square, this much should be clear: Nothing is more important than community buy-in.
When the NRF’s Pieter Roos stood before the City Council back in May to offer a gift worth somewhere north of $3 million, one could hardly predict the intensity of the resistance exhibited by so many in town.
Their concerns were varied, and many well-founded.
Among them: The project was contrived; paying tribute to a past that is already so prominently on display. That the installation goes too far, and threatens to change the passive recreational use of the park. And that the money – a significant sum by any measure – could be better spent elsewhere.
On the other side of the debate, many of the project’s proponents were understandably taken aback.
How could a gift cause such a stir, they wondered. Why would Newporters reject such a grand gesture – especially one carrying the signature of such an acclaimed artist like Maya Lin? And what better way to pay tribute to one of Newport’s most influential preservationists?
For weeks, the two sides debated – through a stream of letters to the editor, in public, at home, over coffee, and amongst friends at cocktail parties. Dueling petitions were launched in the hope of convincing the council of the merits of their side.
But is it possible that all of this recent controversy could have been avoided?
In business and in government, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the importance of “the buy-in.” Whether it’s making changes to the way an organization operates, or rolling out a new design for a public park, getting stakeholders to buy-in to the plan, product, or procedure, is critical to success.
In the case of Queen Anne Square, the public was never given a chance to buy-in. Instead, a plan – whose primary elements remain – was presented for what amounted to an up-or-down vote. Along with it would come various improvements to the park – such as additional lighting, enhanced seating options, and better security.
Like many works of art, the public’s reaction was mixed. Unfortunately, one cannot simply view Ms. Lin’s design solely on its artistic merit. Queen Anne Square is in many respects the focal point of the city’s downtown. A backyard for some, a gathering place for many more, any proposal that would change its use was sure to draw protest.
Some of those concerns, we believe, could have been addressed through a more up-front design process.
And while it has become a flashpoint of late, by no means is the case of Queen Anne Square unique.
Similarly, in the School Committee’s ongoing campaign to build the new Claiborne d. Pell Elementary School, despite years of near-constant discussion and debate, the latest design has yet to be fully embraced by the community. Once again, frustration with “the process” has been cited time and again by opponents.
The Newport Restoration Foundation has proven itself since its inception to be a model organization, a pillar of the community, and a standout in the broader world of historic preservation. Likewise, throughout his tenure, Mr. Roos has demonstrated himself to be tireless in his efforts on behalf of the NRF and one of Newport’s best advocates.
Let’s hope that now that the issue is behind us, we take from this experience a renewed appreciation for the benefits of engaging the public early on in any significant community project and even more so, for the importance of the buy-in.