Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

"Learning" the wrong lesson is always dangerous and contributes to failure

20+ years ago I worked for the Center for Science for the Public Interest on publishing and communications. One of the first projects I worked on was the compilation and publication of a short booklet on the presence of a potential carcinogen in alcoholic beverages, and promoted it through a press release and subsequent press mentions. We sold a few thousand copies, which was pretty good.

While I thought of the publication as a policy document, about what FDA and BATF weren't doing, comparing them to the actions of the Canadian health authorities, etc., the report also had a list of various alcoholic beverages and the test results, for maybe 1,000+ items (I don't remember the number).

The reality is that the booklet sold as a kind of "self-help" report. People didn't care about the policy. They wanted to know if alcoholic beverages that they bought contained the potential carcinogen.

I had to learn the real reason why people bought the publication, in order to better understand the market for health information, and from that experience (the point about what the report really was about in the eyes of the purchaser was made by the then newsletter editor, we were talking over the lunchroom table), I began to build a framework for understanding CSPI's position in niche publishing.

2. Similarly, a little more than one year ago, I ran into a fairly well known older politico type (an unsuccessful Council candidate who now has a well paying job for DC Government) and he commented about an entry I had written about a Dupont Circle historic preservation battle about a property and its "demolition by neglect."
1841 16th Street NW, Demolition by Neglect

He says, "you know why they won, don't you? I said, "you tell me." "Because they protested." (There was a protest. I don't have photos. It was covered in GGW I think.)

"No," I said. "They won because it's a designated neighborhood, so they have legal protections in place, so that when they protested, there were remedies and actions that could be taken to get them the result that they want." I then countered with an example in the Eckington neighborhood, where an 1880s (?) farmhouse had been demolished, when it too could have been rehabilitated, had the legal requirements been in place.

People don't seem to understand that when the law backs you, you can win. When it doesn't, it's very difficult to succeed, especially when your opponents are well financed.

3. This is relevant because of the Walmart issue. A lot of people think they can protest and through the "will of the people" (e.g., "we shall overcome") that Walmart can be vanquished, especially because this week, Walmart backed down on their plans to build a store on a Civil War battlefield (see "Wal-Mart drops Orange County battlefield store plans" and "Battlefield Walmart issue heads to court" from the Richmond Times-Dispatch).

I patiently tried to explain that this was a zoning issue. That people with standing (residents within a certain distance, with the support of the National Trust for Historic Preservation) sued the County to overturn the decision, based on the argument that the decisionmaking process was faulty. Note that the group didn't oppose Walmart generally, just their plans for that particular site.

As the case went to trial, Walmart backed down, and withdrew their plans for the site. From the first article:

"We just felt it was the right thing to do," said William C. Wertz, a spokesman for the Arkansas retailer. He said the company would seek another location in Orange County and compensate the county for its expenses in defending its decision to approve the store.

An industry analyst said Wal-Mart's decision was based on "practical business reasons" and harks back to founder Sam Walton's credo that Wal-Mart should never build a store where it isn't wanted.

Burt P. Flickinger III of Strategic Resource Group said it is rare for Wal-Mart to back away from a store once it has researched a location and settled on a site. But they may have wanted to avoid a continuing public relations hit at a time of disappointing sales and increased competition. "To the company's credit they decided to do something different," said Flickinger, who said he is a Wal-Mart shareholder.

Some people say again, it's because of the will of the people.

I think instead that the opponents had a good case, and rather than lose in court, especially because people weren't opposing Walmart's presence in the county, just on that particular site, they withdrew, because Walmart doesn't want to lose public and prominent battles, because that further arms opponents elsewhere.

Again, know what is going on, and understand it, before immediately deciding that something that happened somewhere, without really understanding what happened, bolsters your position.

4. Again, another Walmart example is the recent announcement by Walmart that they will be improving the healthful aspects of their foods ("Wal-Mart Plans to Make Its House Brand Healthier" from the New York Times).

I saw some article somewhere that asked why would Walmart actually follow through and implement what they said on this issue, because Walmart is known to be under ethical on labor issues, such as the case about systematic discrimination against women ("Lawyers Warned Wal-Mart of Risks Years Before Bias Suit" from the New York Times).

I responded that the writer missed the point. Walmart doesn't make "ethical" decisions. They make "business" decisions. Walmart made a business decision to improve the nutritional quality of their foods for business reasons -- to improve their competitive position, for public relations value, to build relationships with the First Lady, to increase sales. They will follow through.

Similarly, it was a "business" decision to reduce labor costs, hence allegedly discriminatory treatment of women.

The decisions were consistent, both are decisions about how to conduct their business, nothing more, nothing less.

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