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.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Walmart as the neverending story #1

Last night's ANC4B meeting to consider "recommendations" and a resolution on the Walmart in Ward 4 issue was a zoo. As I have said repeatedly, because there is so much animus about Walmart in general, it's almost impossible to deal with the issue, especially because most all of DC's elected officials had been lined up in advance to support Walmart's entry into DC.

This was reflected in the audience, and amongst the Commissioners. Obviously, the people in the area immediately affected who were attending the meeting don't want a Walmart, don't want mixed use, don't want much of anything to happen on the site. There is no question that they will experience a loss in quality of life, even though people elsewhere in the Ward, the ANC, and the city will benefit from more intensive development (particularly mixed use) on that site.

Not a Walmart probably, but imagine a better project than that. However, a better project couldn't be obtained, because of the anti-position on better development previously expressed by residents and the ANC before.

Some of the audience was absolutely enraged. Some of the ANC Commissoners specialize in being obstructive all the time, and many were inconsistent. Still, I felt like the Commissioners, including the Chair, trying to do the right thing are 'saints" for putting themselves out there and being Commisioners in the first place.

1. There was a long resolution with recommendations, without taking a yes/no stand about Walmart.

2. Most people in the audience wanted a "no" vote. They couldn't deal with there not being a yes/no stand.

3. The project is for a site where the zoning classification allows a store like Walmart "as a matter of right" so there is no way that the developer/store cannot be approved by the city. (And it ought to be obvious that Walmart was very much strategic in the sites that they chose, to minimize the ability for their entry to be opposed in terms of zoning laws and regulations. They chose sites that allowed their entry.)

4. Most people don't seem to understand what matter of right means or how the zoning process works.

5. The Large Tract Review process isn't about yes or no, except in extraordinary situations which don't apply in this case. It's about "yes, but also do X." Like that book titled Getting to Yes about negotiating.

(It is possible to change the zoning of a tract under the LTR process, but the zoning has to be found in error as a result of the review process. There is no way such a result could obtain in this situation.) The Large Tract Review process is about providing another level of review, not super detailed or extraordinary, focused on making sure major issues aren't missed.

6. In a real way, this process sets up ANCs like 4B for massive failure, because they are made out to be the last hope/good guy/bad guy about "Walmart" while Mayor Gray, Council Chairman Kwame Brown, and Councilmembers like Harry Thomas and Muriel Bowser get a pass.

Mayor Gray should have been up there taking the hits. Instead, it was our neighbors, as Commissioners, getting bruised.

7. When a project like this gets put on the table, ANCs and the community need a massive amount of assistance as a type of community organizing, in order to be able to deal.

Such assistance isn't really available from or provided by the Office of Planning, the Mayor's Office, the City Council generally, individual Councilmembers specifically, or other agencies.

They all just focus on the legal aspects of the process. And it's pretty disjoint. Most of the interaction with developers and government agencies happens in private meetings. Since the key elected officials are in the Walmart camp already, for the most part agencies find their "hands tied" and they can't be too demanding or creative, because they don't have the support of the Mayor.

8. And the various public meetings with citizens groups and the developer/tenant aren't so well organized that they can deal substantively with the issues in the depth that is required.

E.g., there should have been an all weekend "charrette", with professional facilitators, etc., a long time ago, instead of the continuous somewhat substance-less public dog and pony show.

9. I'm not saying that ANC4B did everything right last night. But they needed help that they maybe didn't see that they needed. Plus they should have had another public hearing or two before this vote, although it probably wouldn't have mattered in terms of the audience last night.

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