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.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

New years post #5: DC City Council Committees and striving to be a world class city

One of the problems of being a career person, an advocate, and a blogger all focused on the same general topics of urban revitalization, commercial district revitalization, and sustainable transportation planning is that you frequently switch from role to role and because of the blog, the people that you are dealing with often have a difficult time distinguishing between "critical analysis" versus what they perceive as "personal criticism."

It definitely makes it hard to get work, especially if you pride yourself on being critical. Don't believe what they say on shows like "West Wing" about "telling truth to power." The people in power don't like to hear much in the way of alternative narrative, interpretation, and analysis.
Center City Gentrifier, a fake magazine cover
Can you figure out why this magazine cover parody probably wasn't a good idea in terms of my testifying before City Council?

In the beginning when I would blog I would focus maybe a bit too much on the person doing the stupid thing, rather than the stupid thing, and providing the analysis about why such was "not a good idea." By changing my focus to "the stupid thing," even if the target couldn't make sense of the difference, it was easier for me to maintain critical and objective distance, and I was able to switch from role to role as circumstances required.

The other thing that led to this change was a recognition that while I could excoriate someone in the blog, I would still have to deal with them, testify before them at a Council hearing, etc., and that I needed to better package my postings. Plus, while I write somewhat hardcore, in person I am not comfortable with in your face tactics (although if someone is so hypocritical or wrong-headed, I often helpfully call attention to their hypocrisy or wrong direction in a pointed fashion...).

In short, while I wanted to do things like write why I wanted to not endorse specific candidates ("For Ward 5 Council: Kenyan McDuffie" from Greater Greater Washington) or beliefs about specific Council chairs ("Will Thomas push for local business and good urban design" from Greater Greater Washington), it just isn't safe doing it, if I want to still be able to deal with those people as Councilmembers, or if I thought that even if a candidate for office was better, s/he was still going to get crushed, and Councilmembers have long memories.

So what I am going to offer instead is a different way of thinking about DC Council and the Council Committees.
Sustainable Communities Slide from presentation, Leadership and the Role of Parks and Recreation in the New Economy, David Barth
Sustainable Communities Slide from presentation, Leadership and the Role of Parks and Recreation in the New Economy, David Barth. DC -- residents, elected officials, and other stakeholders -- need a stronger, more global perspective and approach to the issues that we address as residents and citizens of our neighborhoods and of the city as a whole. We should strive to consider both micro- and macro-level perspectives and a broader framework of sustainability.

DC is a world city, because it is the national capital of the United States, which is still the most powerful (albeit declining) country in the world.

While we call ourselves a world class city because of this, too often we do things that aren't world class--I joke that because DC is a world city, whatever we do, we call it "world class," even if it is downright mediocre.

Plus, DC wants to be a state, so again, if we want to be a state, let's operate at a best in class level, rather than at the average. After all, since the work around "reinventing government," it's been said that the most innovative work in government has been happening at the state and local level. See "The Take: A new era of innovation for the states?" from the Washington Post.

That's not been the case so much with DC, with the exception maybe of some work in transportation (streetscape improvements, the initial planning for streetcars, bike sharing--which was in the bus shelter contract signed in 2005), which has been trumped by other cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, and New York, which have ended up moving much more quickly for the most part, when they have taken on similar initiatives.

Plus, Charles Landry, a noted commentator-consultant-author with regard to cities, revitalization, innovation, and the creative economy, makes a point about world cities--that they don't just take, they set an example, do great things, which in turn inspires other cities.

A good example of this would be Paris and the bicycle sharing system there. Paris was not the first city to do modern bike sharing. They were maybe the 10th or 15th city in Europe to take it on. But where Paris set a new bar was with scale--20,000 bikes, 1,000 stations, with stations every 200 meters. Paris took bike sharing to new heights, and brought so much attention to it, that now bike sharing is being introduced to cities all over the world such as London in the UK, Melbourne in Australia, Montreal and Toronto in Canada, Denver, Minneapolis, DC, Boston, Baltimore, San Francisco, New York in the U.S., in Mexico City, in Brazil, etc.

(Note that Paris launched Velib in 2007, but that in 2005, DC signed a bus shelter contract with Adshel which included provisions for bike sharing. Five years after the contract was signed, three years after Paris introduced such a system, now DC has a bike sharing system 1/20 the size of Paris.)

How could DC City Council Committees reposition somewhat what they do, so that they aren't just production engines of minutiae (legislation like how to safely trap rats and other vermin), but shapers of the agenda for making DC over into a truly world class city?

Note though that DC Council committees are very lightly staffed, and don't have the kind of heft necessary to be able to do thorough research and reports. That's something that needs to be addressed too.

Here are some breakthrough agenda items for DC Council committees:

Jim Graham (Ward 1) - Human Services

- in yesterday's Post, columnist Colbert King wrote, "D.C.'s broken families should be Mayor Gray's priority," that the most important issue for Mayor Gray is to break the cycle of poverty in the city. I agree.

- figure out how to, in significant, best practice fashion, reduce juvenile crime, recidivism, and improve rehabilitation

- figure out how to break the cycle of poverty in DC, so that those who are most impoverished, are able to truly participate and succeed in society

- such actions also have an economic payback in terms of reduced cash outlays, which can then be put in other areas. During the election campaign, the otherwise wackjob mayoral candidate Leo Alexander made the point that for every 10% reduction in people on welfare, that is a reduction in cost of $150 million.


-- "Straight Outta Boston" Mother Jones Magazine, about how to significantly reduce youth violence

Jack Evans (Ward 2) - Finance and Revenue

- come up with a system that explains simply the sources of tax and other revenues for the city (income, property, sales, etc.) and the costs of servicing commercial and residential property. The progressives wildly advocating for attracting families to the city seem to forget that it is very expensive to "service" families, as each child costs $15,000/year or more to educate, and many households pay less than this in taxes

- an issue that I focused on for many years is how the national-international market of commercial real estate in the Central Business District has led to an overvaluing of commercial property throughout the city, in a way that is particularly damaging for commercial retail buildings, especially in local commercial districts. Even in marginal commercial districts, asking pricing for retail rents are at least $35/square foot, which is much higher than the revenue generating capacities of most of the buildings. The commercial property tax assessment method needs to be changed to differentiate between "Downtown"-type commercial property and small buildings in local commercial districts. I testified about this for many years, but it never seemed as if the Councilmembers could grasp the argument.

- come up with a master system for requesting tax incentives, involving this committee and the Chief Financial Officer, so that there is one, open, and transparent system for requesting, reviewing, and monitoring tax breaks.

- open up the tourism tax revenue stream (hotel taxes, meals taxes, parking taxes, car rental taxes) to supporting cultural initiatives more broadly. Mostly this money now pays for the Convention Center.


-- Orange County Florida (Orlando and vicinity) Tourist-Development Tax
-- "Make Eminent Domain Fair for All," Boston Globe (the process they outline should also be applied to tax incentive and abatement decisions

Mary Cheh (Ward 3) - Government Operations and the Environment

- pass an open meetings act that isn't bullshit (see "D.C. Council wrongly exempts itself from open-meetings reform law" from the Washington Post)

- require that posted DC government metrics and "performance" data (Track DC) be significant and usable, rather than mostly fluff

- come up with a significant training and capacity building regime for ANCs and civic organizations and interested residents

- remove the City Council exemption from DC contracting and procurement laws (DC Council can pass legislation that is in effect, a contract, without having first released a request for proposals, and without an open and transparent process for selection)

- create an open and transparent process for eminent domain decisions, nonprofit organization funding, and tax incentive and abatement decisions

- pass a law requiring that the DC.GOV website not suck, that when it gets "upgraded," tens of thousands of links and documents are no longer accessible to the public

- with regard to the environment, how about urban agriculture, and urban orchards on unused reservations

- and engaging citizens and the city in a substantive fashion into the sustainability movement


- "Make Eminent Domain Fair for All," Boston Globe (the process they outline should also be applied to tax incentive and abatement decisions
-- Urban Information Center, Dallas Public Library

Muriel Bowser (Ward 4) - Libraries, Parks and Recreation

- Add arts and culture" to the purview of this committee.

- Use the concept of an "integrated public realm" as an organizing framework for the action agenda of this committee.

- DC doesn't have a Parks and Recreation Master Plan, make this an issue, get it done.

- DC doesn't really have a publicly vetted Libraries Master Plan, make this an issue, get it done.

- The Arts and Culture element of the Comprehensive Plan is reasonably pathetic, do an Arts and Culture Master Plan of real weight (see above about the tourism tax revenue stream).

- Create a combined central library, city archives, and visitor center.


-- See the blog entry "Step up and vision an interconnected public realm.
-- Cultural Planning Toolkit
-- read local parks and recreation master plans such as Arlington and Montgomery Counties, and even Baltimore County.
-- See the blog entry "Cultural resources planning in DC: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king"
-- Leadership and the Role of Parks and Recreation in the New Economy
-- blog entry, "Central Library Planning efforts and the City Museum, how about some learning from Augusta, Maine ... and Baltimore?"
-- Creative City Network of Canada

Harry Thomas, Jr. (Ward 5) - Economic Development

- some day I will write a journal article on the difference between "building a local economy" and "economic development." There is a difference. Building a local economy focuses on developing and retaining not just businesses, but profits and investment capital locally. It's about the multiplier effect from purchasing. Businesses located here but owned elsewhere end up exporting profits elsewhere. And businesses not located here can easily be moved.

- so a local economic development agenda needs to be created for the development of a more balanced economy, one that is not hyper dependent on the federal government. E.g, I was impressed but terrified that the new business improvement district in Ballston ("Arlington OK's Ballston BID" from the Washington Business Journal) is going to focus in part on developing Ballston as "a hub for science and technology" because other than promoting real estate development, retail, and maybe transportation demand management, DC business improvement districts don't really take on economic development in this fashion...

- that means focusing too on the economic development capabilities of DC-based universities -- many firms get started at local universities, but they end up locating in the suburbs.

- and developing a truly robust creative economy plan (we actually have one that is pretty good, surprisingly, now the challenge is execution, and that includes the DC City Council) and focusing on the knowledge economy outside of the law firms, lobbing companies, and trade associations that are focused on the federal government.

- Supporting commercial district revitalization and retail entrepreneurship in significant ways. Make DC a leader in this area, instead of "me too" or unconcerned when it comes to substance.

- Reduce the regulatory burden on small businesses.

- Develop a Tourism Management and Development Plan, which later should become a separate element of the DC Comp Plan.

- Selectively, consider creating new public markets in places like Mount Pleasant and Anacostia, and perhaps in other places, could be thought of as economic development as well as health promotion initiatives


-- Economic Development Element, DC Comprehensive Plan
-- Community Economic Development Handbook
-- "Premier-ranked Tourist Destinations: Development of a Framework for Analysis and its Self-guided Workbook"
-- Montreal's Board of Trade released a report on the role of transit in their region, Public transit: a powerful economic-development engine for the metropolitan Montreal region
-- books by Richard Florida and Charles Landry
-- Creative City Network of Canada
-- The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs

Tommy Wells (Ward 6) - Public Works and Transportation

- first, extend Councilmember Wells' efforts as Ward 6 Councilmember focused on placemaking and quality of life improvements in Ward 6 to the development of a citywide placemaking and quality of life improvement effort. (Note that DDOT's streetscape planning and construction efforts under Dan Tangherlini around 2000 are the foundation and first building block of this effort.)

- DC doesn't really have a Master Transportation Plan comparable to that of neighboring jurisdictions. Sure the "state" of DC has to produce a long range state transportation plan and give it to the US DOT, but compared to Arlington County, we don't have a thorough and deep transportation plan. Instead, the Councilmembers legislate all kinds of "stuff" ranging from parking districts, to committees to oversee the streetcars, to how much parking meters should cost downtown in order to fund human services. That should stop.

- DC should have a Master Transportation Plan. City Council should get DDOT to do it. Make transportation demand management planning required!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And set metrics and level of service standards to limit the creation of politically-inspired bus services, etc.

- San Francisco has enshrined in their city charter, a "Transit First" mobility and land use policy. DC needs one.

- Comparable to the Zoning Commission, DC should create a Transportation Commission, to address transportation issues of all sorts, in the context of land use, economic development, and mobility decisions. Arlington has one, so does Alexandria and Rockville (and Tempe, Arizona). While the Office of Zoning has increased their consideration of transportation issues, it's not enough. To make evident how important transportation is to DC's quality of life and economic competitiveness, let's create a transportation commission.

- Perhaps DC should reconceptualize the streetcar network that is being developed within the city somewhat independently of the Metro system, comparable to how the MUNI system in San Francisco is separate from but integrated with the BART regional subway system. I am not sure about this, but CM Wells' committee could study the issue.

- Ideally, the metropolitan area's separate railroad passenger commuter systems should be integrated into one regional railroad passenger service with 18/7/365 service. DC, not being either VA or MD, could help bring the two states together and join in.

- Instead of parking performance districts willy nilly, create the framework of "transportation management disticts" and plan and implement accordingly.

- Explore and build the support for a transit withholding tax on people working in DC. 70% of the people in DC don't live in the city. We need more money to pay for the necessary transportation infrastructure to support their entry into and exit out of the city, as well as local needs. This is an issue because typically the federal government is exempt from such programs. However, it has recently been held that federal agencies will now pay for stormwater system charges, maybe this is the breakthrough we need.

- create neighborhood/multi-neighborhood/Ward sustainable transportation elements focused on infrastructure and programming efforts concerning walking, biking, and transit.

- with regard to public works, add initiatives on citywide composting (Toronto cut its trash in half by separating and composting organic materials), and as a waste reduction and business development initiative, harvesting of downed trees for lumber and firewood. Develop waste reduction initiatives with regard to dumped materials at the trash transfer stations.


-- Arlington County Master Transportation Plan
-- Seattle Bridging the Gap transportation and streetscape funding initiative
-- Seattle Urban Mobility Plan
-- Oregon Payroll Transit Tax
-- San Francisco Sustainable Mobility Agenda presentation
-- San Francisco Transit-First Policy
-- blog entry, "Regional transportation planning and fixed rail service"
-- Leadership and the Role of Parks and Recreation in the New Economy
-- "Goodbye, foreign landfill" from the Toronto Star

Yvette Alexander (Ward 7) - Public Services and Consumer Affairs

- Create a civic engagement element for the DC Comprehensive Plan that also functions as a citizens bill of rights with regard to government openness and transparency, including open meetings act provisions. One thing such an element should forbid is scheduling meetings in places with extremely limited transit service, which is a tactic specifically designed to limit public participation.

- Continue to improve the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

- Develop a specific agenda to reduce the regulatory burden on small businesses either seeking to open or already in business in DC.


-- "Lattes at the Regulatory Cafe," an article from the Claremont Institute which explains how difficult it can be for independent entrepreneurs to open businesses
-- Seattle Customer Bill of Rights
-- Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance"
-- International Association for Public Participation
-- International Association for Public Participation Spectrum of Public Participation

Marion Barry (Ward 8) - Aging and Community Affairs

- See the stuff in the previous entry about a civic engagement element.

- Senior centers shouldn't be standalone facilities, they should be integrated into recreation centers and other facilities. For example, Baltimore County has a combined library and senior center in Pikesville. Senior centers are closed at night, when if part of an expanded facility, the facilities could be used by others.

- Create and implement the schools/community centers concept.


-- Alianza's Beacon School concept
-- Price Charities City Heights Initiative, San Diego
-- Schools as centers of communities planning guide

David Catania (At-Large) - Health

- adopt the public health model approach to guide health care planning and decisionmaking in DC. You see, the problem with health care and the insurance model is that health insurance was created not to promote health, but to regularize the income of hospitals during the Depression. Building a system focused on health and wellness requires a different model.

- for a long time, I have argued for the (re)creation of community public health clinics/centers to deliver a lot of the basics of health care, and oversee the management of chronic disease, comparable to how clinics at pharmacies and supermarkets do it, but also to deliver health and wellness programming. I thought it was a great innovative idea, until I learned that Christopher Alexander called for the same thing in his book Pattern Language (1979). No city or county really does this. It's the kind of thing that should have been in the Health Care reform initiative and wasn't. If DC really did something like this, it would truly be a world class initiative.

- getting behavior choice related diseases under control (obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, alcoholism and drug related problems) would save the city tons of money.

- consider working with Prince George's County on more regional approaches to dealing with the provision of hospital based care, given that the Prince George's County Hospital system, the United Health Care Center in DC, and Howard University Hospital all have financial issues.


-- the blog entry "Rethinking health care service delivery in significant ways is not likely to happen in health care 'reform'" has links to most of my entries on this topic
-- American Public Health Association
-- Center for Science in the Public Interest
-- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
-- blog entry, "Speaking of hospitals and regional equity"

Phil Mendelson (At-Large) - Public Safety and the Judiciary

- really develop community (problem oriented) policing. While murder rates are dropping, there are still problems with other types of crime. See "District, Prince George's report continuing decline in number of homicides" from the Washington Post.

- consider separating the fire department from the paramedical services. Clearly it hasn't been working in DC for about 25 years plus, as there have been various efforts to do this over the years. Partly, firefighters don't want to separate the units, because there aren't that many fires, and in order to keep people employed, by being first responders on health related calls, service call numbers remain high.

Michael A. Brown (At-Large) - Housing and Workforce Development

- DC needs a citywide discussion about what "gentrification" means, and how to address displacement.

- Relatedly, we need a housing policy and plan that deals with both owner occupied and rental housing. I don't like to use the word gentrification, but there is no question that as housing prices increase, people get displaced. Addressing this requires a variety of tools, including property tax assessment methods, community land trusts, cooperatives, portfolio investment, etc. As long as housing is addressed almost solely in terms of "the market" people of lesser means will be priced out.

- Similarly, with regard to workforce development, we need a great Department of Employment Services, integrated with the K-12 and college education system. We have to figure out why such a large swath of the city's population is unemployable and deal with it.

- merge the summer youth employment program into a year round effort including a form of cooperative education at the high school level


-- Blog entry, "More about contested spaces and gentrification
-- National Community Land Trust Network
-- Gentrification and Resistance in New York City" from Shelterforce Magazine
-- The concept of supergentrification/Loretta Lees
-- "Cooperative Education: Characteristics and Effectiveness"
-- Cooperative Education in High School: Promise and Neglect

Kwame Brown, City Council Chairman - Committee of the Whole + Education

- ideally, the capacity of City Council committees to do high quality research and policy development should be enhanced

- with regard to education, while Mayor Fenty's recognition that the problems with the schools needed to be addressed, his "bomb the schools" approach via Michelle Rhee was a huge mistake. First, it didn't really address the fundamental issues, instead blaming teachers. Second, it should have used a "positive deviance approach" and recognized the high performing clusters already existing within the school system, e.g., at the elementary school level, language programs like Oyster, the Capitol Hill Cluster Schools, and Montessori programs, and extended and expanded these programs. Third, a significant professional development program for schools, teachers, principals, and families needs to be created, not a bullshit thing like what has been done.

Similarly, with the charter school movement and the voucher bullshit, community social and organizational capacity is dissipated and deconcentrated, breeding chaos and reducing the energy and ability and capability for truly improving the system.

It doesn't matter that people feel better about it, it's basically a flawed effort. Even if billionaires want to throw money at Michelle Rhee, that doesn't mean that they know what they are doing.

- consider year round schooling

Ideally, the City Council could help to build a new community consensus on how to approach school improvement.

- with regard to the Committee of the Whole, which acts de facto as the City Planning Commission, create a Parks and Planning Commission comparable to Planning Commissions in other jurisdictions. Along with the idea to create a Transportation Commission (above), DC could have a tripartite set of commissions: planning; zoning; and transportation. This commission would have oversight for the planning and parks departments, and approval and monitoring authority for all DC government agency planning efforts, including planning, transportation, and parks and recreation. With the Office of Planning and the Chief Financial Officer, create and implement a 6 year capital improvements planning process.

(Note my joke, not appreciated by past directors of the Office of Planning, that DC doesn't have an office of planning, but an office of land use. Let's create and follow a real planning system with robust processes.)

- DC doesn't create neighborhood plans. There is a mistaken belief that Small Area Plans are neighborhood plans, but really they are plans to manage development opportunities present in high value locations. Community/neighborhood plans are comprehensive plans for neighborhoods, looking at all elements, from schools, libraries, and parks, to the quality of commercial districts, housing stock, and transportation. As part of the process of creating a Parks and Planning Commission, the framework of planning for the Office of Planning should be changed to include the development and maintenance of neighborhood/sector plans. (Sector planning efforts in places like Montgomery County, Maryland are one piece of this. We don't do that either, as we have Area Elements in the Comprehensive Plan, but the elements are not detailed.)


-- "Bucking School Reform, a Leader Gets Results" New York Times (this school superintendent in New York City was not supported by the Bloomberg reform narrative, but schools under her supervision for the most part outperformed the rest)
-- "From Hunger Aid to School Reform"
-- "Your Company's Secret Change Agents," article from Harvard Business Review on positive deviance
-- Marion Orr, Black Social Capital. The Politics of School Reform in Baltimore, 1986-1998
-- Clarence Stone, "Civic Capacity and Urban Education"
-- Building Civic Capacity: The Politics of Reforming Urban Schools
-- Roy Strickland "Integrating Primary and Secondary Education with Community Life: Designing Cities of Learning
-- "Year Round Schooling," review, Education Week
-- National Association for Year Round Schooling
-- Baltimore County Capital Improvement Planning process

I've tried to make this pretty comprehensive. Frankly, I had intended to write an entry in the fall during the election campaign, about what I thought should be the agenda in the Mayoral campaign. I'm sure I've missed some things. Happy New Year DC City Council and Mayor Gray!

Public Realm as an Interconnected system, Slide from presentation, Leadership and the Role of Parks and Recreation in the New Economy, David Barth
This slide: Public Realm as an Interconnected system, Bottom slide: Civic assets/public realm. Slides from presentation, Leadership and the Role of Parks and Recreation in the New Economy, David Barth.

Civic assets/public realm, Slide from presentation, Leadership and the Role of Parks and Recreation in the New Economy, David Barth

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