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.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The "Growth Machine" wants predictability: diffuse chaos is a bad thing

Slide from presentation by the Washington DC Economic Partnership on the results from the annual ICSC convention
Slide from presentation by the Washington DC Economic Partnership on the results from the annual ICSC convention.

David Alpert has a piece in the Washington Post, "The scandal’s serious, but the city’s solid," that makes the point that despite the chaos amongst DC's political elites, in particular the fact that three people affiliated with Vincent Gray and normally prominent in his (the legal or illegal) 2010 campaign for mayor of DC, things are actually fine and that it would be bad for Vincent Gray to resign, especially because people in line to replace him aren't necessarily the greatest when it comes to "smart growth."

So last night some of us were talking about the (sorry) state of affairs amongst the city's elected officials:

- former Councilman Harry Thomas Jr. is in prison
- former Council Chairman Kwame Brown pleaded guilty to a charge and resigned
- the various shenanigans surrounding Mayor Gray
- the taxi industry scandal that has edged up against Councilman Jim Graham
- the Internet gaming shaping and steering by Councilman Michael Brown
- the "side" jobs -- technically the Councilperson job is "part-time" -- that could present conflicts of interest for Councilman Evans and Councilman Catania
- the ongoing drama emanating from Councilman Barry
- some campaign and constituent fund problems with Councilwoman Alexander
- the ongoing mess of the Lottery Contract

Maybe I am still too pissed about the Walmart (probably Mayor Gray's most significant public achievement to date) debacle to agree, and while I am a strong supporter of Phil Mendelson I would agree that he and I don't see eye to eye on "smart growth" and it's true that the streetcars are moving forward--but the separated blue line isn't--the reality is that caretaking isn't enough.

Is the city really solid?

Unlike David, I think that the state of affairs is in extreme flux, not necessarily at a negative tipping point quite yet, but potentially close.

I think the bigger point isn't that Vincent Gray is "Mr. Right Now" but how does today's chaos within DC local government impact and get corrected in the future?

And how much does the increasing instability reduces the ability of decisions to get made and be implemented in the near term?

(It's on a different scale, but the bankruptcies of cities elsewhere in the country, the creation of receiverships to run cities like Detroit and Harrisbug, and bond defaults, see "With No Vote, Taxpayers Stuck With Tab on Bonds" from the New York Times also creates instability.  Is DC's local government political chaos rising to this level?)

The Peter Principle, the end of one political machine, and the search for a new one

Where we are today is that the Barry Machine and its successors has reached its level of "incompetence", both in terms of so many of the elected officials acting out of that agenda are facing political and personal ruin and the reality that the municipal budget is no longer unlimited, a blank check for jobs and contracts.

And the new federal government reality of if not shrinkage, minimal growth, as long as at least either the House, Senate, or Presidency is held by Republicans, and the impact this will have on DC's ability to continue to attract new residents, firms, and development.

The suburbs will use DC's political instability to their advantage

The suburbs--Montgomery County, Arlington County (they are good on transit but bad for DC in terms of their constant recruiting of firms and government agencies from DC--not just the county economic development authority but mostly developers), Alexandria, and Fairfax County especially, excepting Prince George's County which has ethical problems of its own--will be recruiting hard against DC for business location, business relocation, and office development, using the local government's failures as a justification and as a reason to not invest in DC.

Choosing the next Mr. or Ms. Right: who will win the 2014 mayor's race?

In other words, if Vincent Gray stays in office now, despite calls to resign, and fills out his term, what happens in the next Mayoral election in 2014?  He isn't going to run again in all likelihood.

The question isn't just who gets elected, but why, and what kind of regime do they represent, and will the city stabilize within its political environment (for good and for bad)?

... and why does it matter?  New development outside the city's core and core neighborhoods is at risk with increasing instability within government

Key to the assessment of the present is determining how much of the city's forward momentum in terms of population increase and the attraction of new development and commercial and residential tenants-buyers to fill it is on auto-pilot and how much is subject to stability and predictability within the local government?

This is the case especially as it relates to reproduction of space in "(re)new(ed) areas" like the East End of Downtown (now just called "Downtown" or maybe Mount Vernon) Columbia Heights, Petworth, Capitol Riverfront, U Street, NoMA--all of which has involved significant public investment of property, tax incentives, and other funding.
Slide from presentation by the Washington DC Economic Partnership on the results from the annual ICSC convention
Slide focused on current land development opportunities in DC that require significant local government involvement, from a presentation by the Washington DC Economic Partnership on the results from the annual ICSC convention.  Note too that the slide focuses on the retail aspect of these projects.  Most of these projects are far more significant to the city in terms of the opportunity they provide for additional residential and commercial development, and a concomitant increase in property tax revenue and income tax revenue from residents less likely to consume municipal services.

And maybe not so much in those places, because now each of those submarkets has their own momentum and drive, but it definitely affects the ability to realize revitalization opportunities in the submarkets elsewhere in the city that don't possess the locational, positional, and demographic advantages of the places in the city that have already been invested in (e.g., the creation of the New York Avenue Metro Station, 2/3 funded by local taxes and other DC funds) and where "having the government's s*** together" is absolutely essential, because the sites/locations have a panoply of difficult issues, making development very difficult.

From Barry to Williams and the unleashing of development with a new regime

I think the biggest lesson for me from observing the past 15 years of DC Downtown revitalization, neighborhood revitalization and real estate development more generally was how important it was for there to be predictability, reduced risk, an upward trajectory for municipal services delivery, and a stable set of government actors.  (See my Philadelphia Daily News op-ed from 2003, "An outsider's vision for saving Philly," based on my observations of lessons from DC.)

This is an inference, based on the fact that during the 1990s that in terms of those indicators, DC was mostly in serious recession, ranging from Marion Barry being mayor to the city basically being bankrupt and under the control of a federally-created "Financial Control Board."

Once Marion Barry was off the scene for the most part, and the Financial Control Board cleaned things up, the city was poised for growth, and that is what happened under the Mayoralty of Anthony Williams.

I think most involved citizens had no clue that with the election of Anthony Williams such voracious growth would be unleashed.

I don't think this change was a bad thing.  A big difference was a renewed focus on setting the stage for neighborhood improvement in places like Columbia Heights, H Street, U Street, 14th Street, and Petworth.

There were plenty of projects that had issues--from the big box orientation of DC/USA in Columbia Heights to the displacement of businesses and the amount of money provided to baseball--and Mayor Williams wasn't immune to campaign donors and election screwups, but for the most part the city stabilized under his tenure.  Crime declined, municipal service delivery began to improve, not only did potholes get filled but roads were repaved, streetscapes improved, and the subway system (which DC doesn't manage, but does partly fund) seemed to work fine and population stabilized and grew, after many years of decline.

Decline of the Barry Machine and the diffusion of political power

But simultaneous with this change from Barry to Williams was an opening up and a kind of diffusion of some of the political power in the city, in part anyway, from the Mayor to the Council, because of the gradual dissolution of the Barry Machine, abetted by the failure of the new Mayor to pick up the pieces of the Barry Machine and tie them into his own regime, and the quest of various pockets of the Machine to maintain access and benefits.

DC's "Home Rule" law is set up to give the Executive Branch/the Mayor most of the power within government.  (Actually, citizens compared to other jurisdictions are screwed.  We don't vote on bonding authority, and many issues cannot be brought forward in terms of citizen-initiated referendums.)

But with the power to approve contracts, the ability to put earmarks into the annual budget, Councilmanic "privileges" associated development opportunities within Wards, that alley closures (useful for assembling larger development tracts) and property tax abatements are usually initiated via legislative acts put forward by Councilmembers and property sales and eminent domain actions require Council approval (etc.), the Council has a big role to play.

The tension between agendas: social justice and equity vs. local neoliberalism

This is discussed in Between Justice and Beauty by Howard Gillette, and in Dream City by Jaffe and Sherwood.  The thing is that the Barry agenda was two-pronged, mostly about economic development--ceding the control of the real estate development agenda to the property elites--while simultaneously using the power of the municipal purse to distribute city jobs and contracts, to "build" a black economic elite, and create and maintain a power base.

This was accomplished, but maybe in advance of those cities declaring bankruptcy now, the rise in the murder rate, the decline of the quality of municipal services, the continued leakage of population, along with inability of the DC city budget to fund an ever increasing workforce and costly human and social welfare services--key tenets of the social justice agenda--pushed the city to bankruptcy in the late 1990s

For the most part, Mayor Williams wasn't concerned about the disbursement of contracts and jobs in the same way that Marion Barry had been.   Williams wasn't interested in creating a "machine", of being "Mayor-for-Life" in the same way as Marion Barry, as it was put by Ken Cummings, the original "Loose Lips" columnist for the Washington City Paper.  Instead he was focused on improving the economic well being of the city more generally.

So the new boss wasn't the same as the old boss, and this created a great deal of uncertainty on the part of people who relied on the government for contracts and jobs.  (As I overheard someone ask someone about the possibility of their getting a job at the same government agency as their friend--"What's your Tropicana? -- meaning, "how's your juice?  Can you get me a job?")

Failure to create a new machine post-Williams: First with Fenty, then with Gray

These various forces came together to support Adrian Fenty for mayor and were ecstatic when he was elected--someone born and bred in Washington--because they thought that they would get access once again to those verysame contracts and jobs.

But at the same time, these forces hedged their bets, and supported the rise of various Councilmembers, such as Gray, Thomas, and Kwame Brown, to provide another level of edge and access.  See the 2005 blog entry, "Tom Sherwood, Duncan Spencer, Anwar Amal, and thinking about what I call the 'Uncivil War'."

But Adrian, while he showed the beginnings of creating a machine, such as in steering the election of Muriel Bowser as his replacement as Ward 4 Councilmember, ended up being more focused on steering contracts and positions on boards and commissions to his friends, rather than the strategic use of contracts and positions in the creation of a machine, and building his base of loyalty by spreading the largesse around.

But plenty of people were ready to let Fenty go, because they didn't like that he wasn't spreading contracts and jobs around.  After all, he was Washington born and bred and ought to have known how things were supposed to work.

That the Fenty administration challenged Medicaid contractor Jeffrey Thompson's billings and created uncertainty for him in terms of projecting the future value and likelihood of remaining prime contractor for Medicaid services led to Thompson's support of Vincent Gray and the likely funding of a "ghost" campaign off the books.

Vincent Gray hasn't been able to create a machine since his campaign activities have been under legal fire from the very beginning of his term of office.

In the meantime, please hold

All of this set the stage for the city's current paralysis.  Gray will be a one term mayor.  Kwame Brown and Harry Thomas Jr., part of the extended Barry Machine, are off the scene.

As far as the 2014 election goes, Muriel Bowser is being positioned to become mayor--she's smart, understands government, and is simpatico with the Growth Machine agenda.

White Councilpeople with mayoral aspirations are likely to find it difficult to be elected on a city-wide basis to the city's highest (or second highest--David Clark could do it, but he was special) position--because the city is still 50% African-American and it takes an extra special non-African American (Carole Schwartz couldn't do it) to succeed.

Phil Mendelson can probably be elected city-wide as Council Chair, but probably not as mayor.

And how this will shape the Council elections, especially since with the cutting out of 5 months of the election season, by moving the primaries from September to April, remains to be seen.
Power, Corruption & Lies -- New Order

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