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.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mayoral draft efforts in DC

ChangeGiven the state of decay in local politics in DC these days--the Mayor is under a cloud due to illegal campaign activities, one ex-Councilmember is in prison for stealing, and the Council Chair had to step down because of illegalities of his own--people are trying to figure out who will be the city's next mayor since even if Mayor Gray doesn't end up stepping down, it is unlikely that he will run again.

That leaves the 2014 race wide open.

The City Paper has an article, "Wanted: None of the Above," about the upcoming election and how people are disappointed with the likely candidates, current councilmembers Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans, Vincent Orange, and Tommy Wells.

The article lede features Marie Drissel, one of the leaders of the 1997 successful effort to draft Anthony Williams, and her desire and efforts to draft someone else--a new savior--for the mayor's race.

Based on the article, I think that people like Drissel don't fully understand why Anthony Williams ended up being such a successful choice--as mayor, running the city government--and why the various names being bandied about these days are not likely to be all that great, even if they are incorruptible. 

Mayor Williams kicks off summerLeft: Anthony Williams launching the opening of the city's outdoor pools.  His cannonball into one of the city's pools was a summer ritual.  Photo: Lateef Mangum, DC Govt.

At the root, Anthony Williams cares about cities.

He cares about the arts, about planning, about historic preservation, about culture. (IN 2002, when I ran a historic preservation study in the H Street neighborhood--funded by a federal historic preservation study grant--we invited Mayor Williams to our final presentation as a courtesy.  Not only did he come, he stayed for the entire presentation, something I don't think any other of the current passel of elected officials would do.)

So he had a sense for what to do beyond getting elected, beyond being able to manage money, being being straight and narrow.

That doesn't mean that he was perfect--the baseball stadium comes to mind--but during his tenure the quality of city government agency provided services improved markedly, roads got repaved, the office of planning was reconstituted, a Department of Transportation was created to be separate from the Department of Public Works, crime and murder rates dropped, the Comp. Plan was updated and plans and studies were developed for many communities across the city, etc.

Outside Central Perk, from the tv show FriendsRight: the outside in New York City set of the Central Perk coffee shop from the Friends TV show.

Williams was also lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

Global interest rates were low and so a building boom of unprecedented proportions commenced, concomitant with the reaching of a critical mass of interest in urban living, especially amongst younger demographics, stoked no doubt by tv shows such as Friends and Seinfeld, which unlike The Brady Bunch, and other popular sitcoms in previous decades, were set in the city, not the suburbs.

But the key point is that Williams had vision, a worldview, a love of and commitment to cities, a vibe--and "vibe" is a strong word to describe Anthony Williams--that you don't get from the current Council candidates jockeying for position in the 2014 race (some of them may care about the city and cities but haven't been successful in articulating that vision in a way that resonates across the city) or from any of the potential candidates that people like Marie Drissel think might pass muster as saviors.

For some thinking about what's important, see "Wanted: A Plan for Cities to Save Themselves" from Black Commentator and "What do I think the city's planning agenda should be right now," "The primary ingredient for retail revitalization is (after planning) conviction," and "New years post #5: DC City Council Committees and striving to be a world class city" from the blog.

So some rich businessman is unlikely to pass muster as a politician, someone with a feel for people and their concerns (cf. Mitt Romney), same with some of these other people being suggested, who might be ethical but don't seem to love cities or have much of a worldview, along the lines of the work of Charles Landry.

Councilwoman Muriel Bowser speaking at a May 2010 event heralding the completion of the Takoma DC commercial facade improvement projectNow with the current candidates on Council, my money (were I a betting man) is on Muriel Bowser (pictured right, at a 2010 event in Takoma heralding the completion of a facade improvement program for commercial properties in the business district).

1.  I don't think the city's demographics--the city is still 50% African-American--favor a white person being elected as Mayor, not yet, unless they are incredibly special.

No one comes to mind. Yes, the city is capable of having a white Council Chair (a la David Clarke, and in all likelihood, Phil Mendelson, see "Smooth Operator" from the City Paper), but Mayor is too much of a stretch.  Another 10 years of demographic change is likely required (plus more electric candidates maybe like a John Hickenlooper?).

2.  Muriel Bowser is attractive, has presence, speaks well, and keeps her constituents happy enough.

3.  She's a moderate, and very much sympatico with the business agenda as expressed by the Growth Machine thesis--focused on real estate development as the city's primary economic development augur--so she'll have no problem raising money.

4.  I don't think she has a long term vision about the city and where it should be, but people don't seem to be asking for such a vision either.

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