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, November 03, 2014

Analytical myopia by politicians and the DC mayoral election

I had intended last week to write a scathing piece about Muriel Bowser, the Democratic candidate for Mayor, about her analytical myopia, an incredibly simplistic approach to complex issues, and a belief that any sort of development is "progress" and if you express any sort of opposition, even considered and measured, "you're against progress."

But then I realized that's an affliction common to most of DC's elected officials, even her opponent David Catania (e.g., his stand on ticketing parents for a child's truancy or absence from school--see "Criminalizing truancy versus creating focused programs to address truant behavior").

But I will give a couple examples regardless.

Any business is good business

1.  The first is Walmart.  I wrote about Walmart's entry into DC last week, and the predicted negative impact on businesses in the area around the store and how the city didn't engage in any mitigation of the potential for problems.  (I didn't mention that the city made the likelihood of business failure worse by removing parking adjacent to those businesses, in order to facilitate traffic movement to and from the Walmart store.)

Campaign sign on a bus.  

When people criticized Walmart for various reasons, around the point that low prices come at great costs that are paid for by the public in other ways, Councilmember Bowser's response made opposition a class issue, commenting that critics had the luxury of being able to shop in Virginia and other places.

A couple days after the blog entry, a bakery across the street from Walmart announced it was closing.  (Although I am the first to admit that the location is terrible, regardless of Walmart's presence.)

2.  The second has to do with liquor licenses.  Discussion about liquor licenses at long time establishments in Takoma and my Manor Park neighborhood made me realize that the city's method of differentiating between types of licenses--restaurants, taverns, clubs, etc.--is inadequate because what matters just as much is where the business is located (e.g., within housing districts), the nature of the business district (neighborhood or "regionally" serving), Metrorail access, ability to accommodate traffic, etc.

These other elements should shape how what the business can do with regard to hours of operation and entertainment, including the presentation of music.

While 11 years ago I was an opponent of "the overconcentration of liquor stores" in neighborhoods like H Street NE or Georgia Avenue NW because of the often debilitating impact of single sales on neighborhoods because of how the products were typically consumed, I have never been an opponent of the sales of alcoholic beverages in restaurants and taverns--and I believe that limiting sales because of proximity to religious institutions (typically open a couple of hours/week on Sundays when most such beverage-selling businesses aren't even open) or schools (most alcohol sales and consumption occurs when schools are closed) is spurious, because for the most part, restricting sales or not there is no real impact on schools or churches from such sales.

See "The sales of alcoholic beverages in cities" and the 2005 blog entry, "Local involvement is so much fun," which counters opposition to expansion of inside consumption of alcoholic beverages in restaurants and taverns on H Street NE, which is now one of the city's leading entertainment districts.

But a little one block commercial district surrounded by blocks and blocks of housing is decidedly different from regionally-serving entertainment and commercial districts like Georgetown, Downtown, Adams-Morgan, or H Street, and should be treated differently.

Of course in my greater neighborhood, these issues are more complicated because they are termed as newcomers often white organized against long-time black-owned businesses.

What the issues have to do with are hours of operation, the intended audience, amplification of music, proximity to residences, and general management of the business.  In either case, I had no problems with the businesses operating, selling alcohol, or presenting music, but with the hours of operation for both the sales of alcohol and how late music could be presented.

A tavern surrounded by houses shouldn't be presenting loud music after midnight...

To make a long story short, Councilmember Bowser's position on these matters hasn't been to work with these businesses to make sure that the way they operate fits within the community, it's to accuse the "opponents" (who aren't against the businesses) as being "against progress."

Interestingly, I was filing yesterday and put away an editorial from over the summer from the Falls Church News-Press ("Editorial: Productive Vs. Non- Productive Growth") which made the point that most proponents of "the market economy" never acknowledge that some elements of the market economy work better than others or may be inappropriately applied in other instances.

That is a concept that is foreign to Muriel Bowser.

Reputation for great constituent services is countered by lack of follow through and failure to understand individual problems may result from systemic process failure

3.  My general complaint about Councilmember Bowser's approach to constituent services is not that her office doesn't do it--although the two issues I brought to her attention have never been "solved" to my satisfaction--one still exists 6 years later, and the other was resolved in an environmentally inappropriate manner ("Another example of DC Government's failure to engage in sustainability practice")--it's that she and her colleagues fail to realize that constituent service is a great opportunity for identifying the need for structural/process changes in government practice, rules, regulations and laws and then working to make those changes, to improve outcomes for all.

Instead, everything is a one-off, the problems don't get rectified systemically, and just pop up again and again in the ward and elsewhere in the city, providing new opportunities to seem helpful and engaged.

Conclusion: David Catania is probably a better urban mechanic

The lack of capacity to look at matters in terms of a bigger picture isn't a quality that you want in a mayor, even if recently deceased former mayor of Boston Tom Menino derided vision and in turn was often criticized as being the "urban mechanic" of the city...

From the Boston Globe article, "Thomas M. Menino, Boston's longest serving mayor, dies at 71":
Thomas Michael Menino, who insisted a mayor doesn’t need a grand vision to lead, then went on to shepherd Boston’s economy and shape the skyline and the very identity of the city he loved through an unprecedented five consecutive terms in City Hall, died Thursday. He was 71 and was diagnosed with advanced cancer not long after leaving office at the beginning of this year. 
“Visionaries don’t get things done,” he once said, crisply separating himself from politicians who gaze at distant horizons and imagine what might be. Leaving to others the lofty rhetoric of Boston as the Athens of America, he took a decidedly ground-level view of the city on a hill, earning himself a nickname for his intense focus on the nuts and bolts of everyday life: the urban mechanic.
Muriel Bowser isn't Tom Menino, or at least, she hasn't proven to be that great of an urban mechanic, despite claims to the contrary.

The kinds of initiatives her opponent David Catania has taken on, such as expanding health insurance to the poor, and keeping a hospital open "East of the River," are the results of a more engaged "urban mechanic," even if he too has issues of his own, including analytical myopia.

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At 11:14 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well, if that is an endorsement damning with faint praise takes on a new meaning!

The only good thing is that voter turnout tomorrow with be beyond pathetic. I don't know a single person planning on voting -- besides myself.

At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

Interesting point about voter turnout. I mostly just interact with the "engaged." I don't expect that Catania has a chance, Democratic Party inertia is pretty strong.

2. I remember a conversation with CM Wells from a couple years ago, when he said something to the tune of that David Catania was ready to end his tenure on City Council. Maybe the campaign for a Mayor is a way to exit gracefully.


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