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, April 15, 2013

Wow! I wish I could vote for Julie Menin, candidate for Borough President of Manhattan

It turns out that the house 4 doors down from me was bought by someone I've known since 2002.  We met working on various community land use organizing issues.  Small world...

 I still haven't written about who I'll be voting for in the At-large election, which is next Tuesday, April 23rd.  (And I go back and forth anyway.)  Most of the traditional political wisdom has unified around Patrick Mara, the Republican Party candidate.  So we were talking yesterday and I asked her who she is going to vote for in the DC City Council at-large race.

She is more radical than I am, so she is going to vote for the Statehood-Green candidate, Perry Redd.  But we both lamented that the choices aren't stupendous and that most of the city's elected officials aren't particularly impressive.

With regard to Patrick Mara, I don't believe all that much in the "odd man out" thesis that change is spearheaded by someone who thinks and acts differently from everybody else.

 Hell, I know from personal experience how difficult it is, and I probably would be a lot better on urban issues--at least with positions--than someone like Patrick Mara.

But still, even sitting on boards I end up personifying the "odd man out" in terms of how I approach issues comprehensively and with different ways of thinking, I find it takes years and years if ever to get people to start "thinking differently" and changing their approach.  It really sucks.  No one listens and cogitates, or at least it takes a long long time.

(Although the experience of viewing from afar how Baltimore County is implementing its bicycle and pedestrian ordinance--with provisions mostly drawn from the Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan, for which I was the chief author and project manager--is very interesting.  Damn if they aren't doing it, but, I think it helps that I was a "change agent" there for a brief time, could help shake things up, and then they could just move on.)

That's why I am impressed by the campaign by Julie Menin, a former Community Board chair in Manhattan--she's running for Borough President there.  Borough Presidents don't have tons of authority, but they do have some money and staff.  Her platform on land use issues is far better than that of any of the past few years worth of candidates for DC City Council or Mayor.

The five point plan recommends that:

1. The Borough President should develop a “General Plan” in partnership with Community Boards, advocacy groups, businesses, elected officials and stakeholders throughout the borough, which ensures classroom space, affordable housing, open space, health care needs and transportation infrastructure are addressed comprehensively.

2. Community Boards should execute “Community Plans” that detail the needs for resources in their own local neighborhoods – proactively planning for their neighborhood. Community Plans would serve to make each community’s priorities clear to both the public and developers, and would be updated every two years.

3. The Borough President should continue the reform of Community Boards that was initiated by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. Indeed, the office should institutionalize urban planning support and provide training on land use issues for all Community Board members.

4. The City Environmental Review Process should be more user-friendly and transparent. All Environmental Assessment Statements should include brief plain-English summaries of their findings, explain the methodology behind studies that conclude that a project will have “no impact” on a community and make public hearings more accessible to all stakeholders.

5. The current Community Benefit Agreement (“CBA”) process is unpredictable and unenforceable, resulting in some community stakeholders negotiating with developers at the exclusion of others. CBAs should also be available for public review on the Borough President's website and elsewhere and be made more transparent.

-- press release, "Menin calls for 'Manhattan Master Plan'"

Lessons for DC

Blog commenter Christopher has made the point that NYC doesn't do "plans" they do zoning.

DC does have a Comprehensive Land Use Plan, although I've argued in the past that there are many many many gaps in the plan and the processes that support it ("Proposed DC Comprehensive Plan Amendments," Further thoughts on rethinking comprehensive plan theory in terms of city planning and public finance"), and there appears to be no movement towards addressing those gaps.

For example, DC doesn't have sector or neighborhood plans either and doesn't do very thorough environmental or economic assessment ("Lessons from Walmart's foray into Washington, DC").  DC needs serious capacity development infrastructure for ANCs (Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, comparable to NYC's Community Boards) and community groups ("DC's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions").  DC's Community Benefits process is pathetically flawed ("Community benefits agreements: revised (again)").

We need an initiative to address the gaps.  ("Mind the gap.")

Incremental land use and transportation legislative initiatives in DC generally don't do much

From time to time, DC Council members do propose legislation, propose initiatives, and even pass laws that relate to land use and transportation planning matters.

For the most part, the initiatives are picayune and lack comprehensiveness.

The biggest things passed were adding to resident parking privileges (so-called "performance parking" pilot projects). Mayor Gray raised--not lowered--speed limits on certain neighborhood serving arterials.  Councilwoman Bowser pushed notice requirements to ANCs for demolition permits, without providing any added remedies that would assist ANCs in doing anything about demolitions.

Former Chairman Kwame Brown proposed a toll for the 14th Street bridge.  Former Councilman Harry Thomas Jr. wanted to provide tax incentives for gas stations.  Former Councilman Michael Brown wanted there to be extended free parking for funerals.  The Council prevented the imposition of parking fees for people with handicapped parking privileges.  Etc.

I wish it were possible to see land use and transportation planning initiatives in DC comparable to those proposed by Manhattan Borough President candidate Julie Menin.

Also see "Repositioning cities (at least on the coasts) for greater political prominence, and a city-first agenda," which discusses city-focused platforms by local parties in Vancouver and Montreal.

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At 8:08 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Richard, I wish you could have gotten a draft of your "Dream R agenda for urban issues" out to compare with Mara. I'd agree he is pretty weak on policy.

That being said, I think you are underestimating a bit the power of a councilman to be a thorn. Certain things can be done. I'd fully agree Mara might not be that guy, and the literature generally supports you.

In any case, the job of a councilman is to listen, and not be a policy expert. At best you can set up a good framework for listening (which I think Gray has done OK on, but not as good as Lee in SF).

At 8:53 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Hmm. What about Councilmembers as identifying, minding, and filling gaps? Especially when the executive branch is not doing it?

My experience is that there isn't much appreciation for critical analysis. Any criticalness is seen as criticism and personal criticism at that.


2. But if you're right, and you probably are, no wonder I don't have much "fun" being the "odd man."

3. and yes, I regret not getting to the R agenda either. Never did get the book by former Mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida, Rick Baker, that the Manhattan Institute claimed they sent...

But I still wonder whether even I--and I claim to be able to be pretty objective--am capable of a fair counterfactual capability on this topic.

Other than privatization, tough on crime, caving into EMS pensions but being tough on unions otherwise, hiring more police, more privatization of schools, cutting taxes, reducing "regulations", it's hard for me to see what they would do that would be positive.

I have a bunch of ideas though. And I want to talk to former mayor of Dayton, now a Congressman, Mike Turner also.

At 10:25 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well, an "agenda" in many ways is just an expression of group interests. And a new R agenda for the city needs to be an new urban coalition.

(The gay - right wing coalition. Green-D coalition. Transit users-R coalition)

Also, changing the voting. For instance, banning felony voters or those on parole. Moving to an entire at-large council.

After all the biggest bang in politics is making changes that nobody pays attention to but really changes the rules of the game --- rather than culture war.


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