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, March 06, 2017

DC as a city and "The Vision Thing"

There is an article ("Phil Mendelson beat the odds to run D.C. Will his luck hold in the Trump era?") in the Washington Post on Phil Mendelson, the Chair of the DC City Council.  Many of the quotes fault him for being low on vision. For example:
Some still question whether he’s up to the job. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said Mendelson has not articulated a vision for the city and has been slow to prepare for federal threats, such as the loss of health-care funding, in part because he is unwilling to delegate the nitty-gritty work of building relationships on Capitol Hill.

“That’s okay when you’re 12-to-1 Phil, the nitpicker,” Evans said, referring to a 2006 campaign mailer in which Mendelson proudly stamped a photo of himself with the word “NITPICKER.” “But it’s not okay when you’re the chairman of the council.”

Mendelson said he has encouraged council members to lobby federal officials on their own initiative, even if he has not formally directed them to do so.
The "vision thing" is probably true, but it hardly makes him an exception amongst the city's elected officials. Chairman Mendelson agrees. From the article:
Mendelson ... appears to relish his role as a punctilious steward of the people’s business. “I think most politicians don’t take the long view,” he said on a recent afternoon, steering his Ford Focus through downtown D.C. traffic after a visit to a senior center. “Only time will tell whether I do it right. But I think I’m respected for being thoughtful, and for having integrity and for being a moderating influence in government.”
Maybe not in terms of progressive legislation on a higher minimum wage or family leave--where the city is on the same plane as other progressive cities like Seattle--but in terms of long term issues in how to invest in the city, maintain the city's place in the metropolitan economy, deal with equity, or expand transit, how many of the city's elected officials are looking long term?

For example, there is an article, "Ward 3 crowding prompts review," in this week's Current community newspaper about how Ward 3 schools face an capacity crisis, as most of the schools are over-enrolled. The article mentions how the school system is "creating a master facilities plan."

Umm, why isn't there a master facilities plan already in place?, especially after spending BILLIONS OF DOLLARS on renovation and new construction with probably as much as ONE BILLION DOLLARS MORE spending in the pipeline.

And Councilmember Cheh is quoted as saying we need more schools but she doesn't want to use any capital monies--even though buildings are capital expenditures--because the city is mostly out of funding for capital spending.

That's because the city has a legislated cap on how much of its funding stream can be dedicated to capital spending. I argue the cap should be raised, because the city is in a period of growth and needs to add public facilities to accommodate and serve this growth in population and need for services.

Seems like these are big questions with long term impact and considerations.

I don't see people asking them.

The issue about the ceiling on capital budgeting came up with how the city has gamed the process for building a set of homeless shelters across the city. There are issues with the program and its design. But I think there are also issues with how an unwillingness to address the capital funding matter shaped how this program was developed, in ways that are seriously sub-optimal.

I don't see those questions really being asked.

Then there's transit, sustainable mobility.


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At 1:29 PM, Anonymous charle said...

on capital budgeting, and on the debt limit, I think M is creating a crisis by crisis situation to drive to the inevitable result -- raise the debt limit (still under the Congressional limits).

On the vision thing, the need to on the non-governmental side. Unfortunately in DC the majority of that investment is by the poverty industrial complex (DCFPI, Appleseed, etc) which continues to draw a line and make sure DC is the regional center for poverty. Current politicians don't complain because they would not be elected (w1, w4, w5, w7 and w8) if we had a better educated population.

From the piece in GGW by the ED of the FCC I'd say there is zero vision there as well.

I always thought Tony Williams was better at the blocking and tackling --like when he realized that DC employees didn't know how to use the phone system and did a large training -- than on vision.

At 5:24 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I think you're right. Because there had been such a vacuum before, at the time, a lot of the "blocking and tackling" seemed like vision when it wasn't.

2. I don't know if it works to be subtle about the debt limit. I do realize that it is Congressionally set. OTOH, DC is growing in population, the capital plant is aging.

As you know, I am torn about the debt limit. I think it should be raised. At the same time I don't think we have been the most frugal and forward thinking when it comes to capital planning and budgeting.

E.g., the schools thing. I was thinking about W3 for schools. One of the reasons we're at the debt cap is wasting money rebuilding Dunbar.

But then instead of spending almost $200MM on Ellington, it should have been moved to either TR or Coolidge (either on a Metro line), thereby using up spare capacity in W4 and providing enough students for at least one high school to offer a full range of programming, thereby freeing up a school in W3 to be locally serving.

Plus move the art programs back to the fully enrolled schools and make Fillmore an in-use school.

But oh, we didn't have a facilities plan and people willing to make hard decisions or take the political heat.

3. wrt the poverty industrial complex, yes, it's a real problem, because a lot of those programs become the equivalent of entitlements and create perpetual funding requirements.

(E.g. an editorial in yesterday's Times about homeless in NYC mentioned the numbers they're talking about in the City of LA--holy s*** that's a lot of money.)

The cycle needs to be broken so that over time the ROI on spending results in fewer people needing to draw on those kinds of programs. Even a 25% reduction over time would make a big difference, at least $500MM annually.

At 5:25 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

oh and yes, the Dan Tangherlini articles and the Emeka Moneme article (he is ex-WMATA and after that director of DDOT and then back to WMATA) shows that if that is the peak of our "vision" on transportation policy then we are really on the wrong track.

At 6:17 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

I believe Congress set a limit of something like 18%.

DC itself reduced it to the current 12.

Bond investors seem ok with 12, although that is a bit high as well Remember is is 12% of General Fund revenue, and that revenue is supposed to increase.

Lot of tricks (what is revenue? What is debt?) that can be played and are being played.

Since the control board, DC has demonstrated a great ability to increase revenue. It is demonstrated very little ability to spend that money on capital projects wisely.

At 7:39 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

word on that last paragraph.

wrt the locally generated budget, that's about $7 Billion right now on an annual basis.

At 12:20 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

One thing that investor may not be considering is the DC Water capital program.

There is another $3 billion in debt hidden there.

As I have said the idea of recurring revenue is to enable WMATA to issue more debt. Throw in another $5B in WMATA debt and the ability to extract money out of the district becomes constrained.

At 1:22 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

I don't know how it works. I think because DC Water does treatment for NoVA and gets revenue from them, maybe the debt isn't counted directly towards DC in the same way general debt for school construction is.

Similarly, EventsDC (Convention Center, RFK) might be off the books in a different way too.


WMATA is another issue, sure. I hadn't thought of it, but maybe that's why I like the concept of the versement transport tax (withholding) because it doesn't encumber localities in the same way that more traditional property-based taxes would.

At 2:11 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Not sure on events DC either. I suspect that is under the DC cap.

Yes, that's my point on DC water. It is a separate entity. Debt doesn't come into the cap. But the "fees" comes from the same source. You can only squeeze a potato so much. Water bills are up what 5x since they started adding on debt?

At some point you drive people out.

At 4:03 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

not that I am advocating more taxing, but DC does pretty well compared to other major cities.

That being said, what's more important than comparing DC's tax burden to the largest city in "the other" 50 states, is comparing it to MoCo, PGC, FFX, Loudoun, Alexandria, and Arlington.

And, of course, as we have discussed in this thread and elsewhere, spending efficiently more generally.

I think people in DC are mostly reasonable. We aren't against higher taxes, somewhat, if there are great returns, and the money is spent efficiently. That direct connection isn't clear a lot of the time.


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