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.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Three examples of L'etat c'est moi/Not invented here/Executive authority (in DC local government)

1.  Legality of chickens.  Over the weekend there was a story, "Do you raise chickens in D. C.? Their days may be numbered," in the Washington Post about how successfully bested the city in a lawsuit concerning the legality of chickens, not via building regulations and zoning, but the definition of animals within the city's public health laws.

Even though the city talks a good game about urban agriculture, it hasn't moved forward legalizing poultry, although many other (more) innovative cities and counties have already done so, such as Seattle and Salt Lake City (""An update on Block Supported (Poultry) Agriculture").

The original proposal for allowing poultry in some of the discussions in the Zoning Rewrite were so strict that they likely eliminated eligibility from more than 98% of DC residential properties. (50 feet setback from each lot line--meaning a property would have to be about 110 feet wide and maybe the same distance in length.) That being said having some limitations is reasonable, but DC has never proposed reasonable limitations.

Rather than taking the opportunity to correct lack of vision, Mayor Bowser has put language in the FY2018 Budget legislation explicitly and directly changing the definitions in the public health law to ban the practice.

There is a petition organized by the successful plaintiffs, aiming to influence City Council to extract that language from the budget bill.

-- DC City Council: Lay off the hens; support backyard chickens in DC

1220 Maple View Place SE is one of the properties in question.  Photo: L'Enfant Trust.

2.  There has been coverage of the battle between the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch over how to deal with four nuisance/disinvested properties in the Anacostia neighborhood ("Four Anacostia houses are at heart of an affordable housing struggle," Washington Business Journal; "DHCD Refuses to Comment on Derelict D.C.-Owned Anacostia Houses," Washington City Paper).  The properties have continued to decline and languish while under the control of the city's Department of Housing and Community.

Neighborhood residents convinced the City Council to transfer the properties to the housing rehabilitation program of the nonprofit L'Enfant Trust, which has restored a couple of houses in the neighborhood.

Instead of going along with the legislation, the Executive Branch has ignored the law passed transferring the properties, and separately is marketing the properties for sale.

3.  The nonprofit National Mall Coalition has been floating a concept for a number of years to build a parking structure/stormwater capture facility under the National Mall.  The revenue from parking would pay for the facility.  Granted the National Park Service, which controls the land, isn't too keen on the idea. But the NMC has offered to pay $100,000 for a feasibility study by the Army Corps of Engineers, which is willing to do the preliminary study.  But the request, even if paid for by a nonprofit or private sector initiative, has to come from a local government.

DC's Executive Branch is not willing to put forth such a request, so NMC is trying to get City Council to pass legislation authorizing the study.

I have some reservations, not about the initiative, but about there needing to be more "visitor management planning" wrapped around the proposal ("A National Mall-focused heritage (replica) streetcar service to serve visitors is a way bigger idea than a parking garage under the Mall").  To their credit, NMC added my recommendation of a visitors center to their original concept.

The National Archives McGowan Auditorium was flooded during a stormwater overflow event in 2006, costing millions of dollars in damage.

Still, what's "the harm" in a study, especially because it is in response to stormwater-related floods that caused millions of dollars of damage in 2006 ("With National Treasures At Risk, D.C. Fights Against Flooding," NPR) and maintaining the economic viability of the central business district ought to be a key element of the city's economic development and risk management policies.

What each of these examples share is that the initiative for action did not come from the Executive Branch, which seems to believe that only it knows what's best for the rest of us.

It's not a good way to behave or model behavior and it is definitely counter to language in Mayor Bowser's inauguration speech:
I will encourage creativity, risk-taking and innovation. It is my pledge to take sometimes the road less protected, to see jobs and opportunities when others see only the costs, and to praise my staff when they get it right and be the one to tell you if we get it wrong.

Now you know this, I’m not a “pie in the sky” politician. I believe in making both bold and pragmatic plans and executing them every day. At the end of every day, week or quarter—our team will have to show results. Not just during election season, but for the four full years.

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At 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

amazing that the hipsters have ignored or have not yet invaded Anacostia and that heritage areas go un noticed EOTR to this day while former hard ghetto areas on the city mainland are all being fixed up or have transformed completely in the past 15-odd years.

At 3:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. Having the Council dictate to whom city property should be sold isn't a great idea. Even if the executive branch is slow-walking the disposition, that doesn't mean having the Council pick winners is the right solution.

If the Council wants to set specific requirements for the property and then direct the agency to run a competitive process based on those requirements, fine. But that's not what's happening here.

2. The Mall garage is a terrible idea; people shouldn't give any oxygen to it, particularly the idea that it will magically pay for itself with parking revenues. Extremely unlikely.

Repeating that assertion uncritically isn't a great idea.

Their own cost estimate is $200 million; Bonding that much for 20 years at 5% gives a rough monthly debt service cost of 1.3 million. That's a whole lot of parking fees!

They estimate 1100 parking spaces; you'd need to bring in $40 per day per available space just to cover the debt service.

At 7:18 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

anon -- it's not safe to be colonized. cf.

At 7:21 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

anon 2 -- good point, actually, about Council vs. the Executive. Normally I agree with you of course. Here the issue was the Exec. Branch's failure to act.

HOWEVER, I argue in my other writings about asset management that (1) the city needs a public capital budgeting planning process separate from the annual budget, comparable to how other jurisdictions do it (e.g., usually a 6 year running budget, revised annually or bi-ennially) and (2) within that process, dealing with property sales, tax abatements, alley closings, and eminent domain actions among others.

2. wrt the parking garage, I don't think it's a bad idea in terms of an element of comprehensive visitor management, as I have written before. Good point though about debt service.

... and the stormwater protection issue is important.

At 11:08 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

well you've got a couple political tensions here.

Council vs Mayor.
Mayor vs AG (emerging).

In general, yes, the Council in DC is too powerful. And the Mayor too weak.

There are, however, very good reasons for this.

Richard is talking more of a argument of technocrats vs democracy, which is a tension as well.*

I generally come down on democracy.

That said, you can really see the value of plans in all this -- both as something to at least understand change, and to match against metrics.

In many ways DC is overplanned (oversight, veto points, etc) although the second part -- the oversight and implentation is weak.

I don't want to do the Mayor's job, but it strikes me as selling her vision is the mot important thing to do.

Criticize gray but at least you can sum it up -- One City.

Bowser is a mayor with zero vision. I've have to say I am impressed with your command of details in some areas (she knows the city well) but weak executive skills (vs Williams , didn't know the city at all but at least understood graduate level management)

It has been an interesting dynamic post Fenty that you've got to convince the white people in DC that you are looking out for them. They are more powerful as swing voters than the numbers. That is where Gray failed.

* That is why I am impressed Bowser is keeping sustainability. Yes, it may be just to impresses other mayors. But at least a plan and some continuity.

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... the problem in all of this is when people get elected, they believe they got elected because they know everything.

when I was thinking of running for City Council a couple years ago, I talked with someone who had been on a council in the metropolitan area, and he said "it's not a seminar, where people are constantly engaged in improving what they know and how they act. They already believe they know everything they need to, otherwise they wouldn't have been elected."

I joke that the great thing about the planning profession is that you learn every day -- but that's only if you're open to it.

I am a big proponent of the idea of "negative communication" needing to be seen as an indicator.

1. The Council dealing with the DHCD properties was an indicator DHCD wasn't dealing with the properties.

2. The poultry issue was an indicator that DC lags urban agriculture practice.

3. The parking structure issue is multilayered, but a big one is TDM and visitor management.

All are indicators that the current course is suboptimal. You can say "hey, we need to improve" and react accordingly, or you can stonewall.

I just wish that there was greater attention and interest in constantly striving to improve.

At 12:38 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... I keep forgetting about Mayor vs. AG.

I completely missed the boat/reality on that aspect of creating an elected AG.

Silly me, I thought the AG would be focused on developing and demonstrating competence so as to get DC the authority to take over prosecuting adult crimes.

At 1:40 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: empty houses. That is why I asked about the CHDC. The houses were transferred to them, rather than the L'Enfant trust.

At 4:12 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

oops. Don't know about the specifics. The L'Enfant Trust is a c3, but not a CDC. Not sure if provisions are in DC law making it easier to transfer properties to a CDC. I would expect there might be such provisions.

At 7:52 AM, Anonymous charlie said...



There is always another layer -- this is DC which is a giant pastry cake -- but you've got federal/local fights.

Having an elected AG was always going to turn that into a Mayor in waiting.

I've always been comfortable with having Congress as the oversight. In terms of federal local, I'd be much happier with an appointed AG that gets to take back prosecution than this current vote based AG.

RE: c3 vs CDC. As with many things with the Mayor, despite her emphasis on blocking and tackling she doesn't do that well. A simple statement to that effect would have solved three weeks of a new cycle. Much like her homeless initiative and sanctuary city stance.

At 12:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

empty houses- that's why I made my comments that no one seemed to notice

At 7:47 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Thinking about charlies comment about technocrat vs. democracy, as he knows I am a fan of technocracy. But if you're gonna be a technocrat, you should aim to be very very good at it, rather than merely being focused on preogatives.

At 8:03 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

In terms of technocracy, it is a question of how you evaluate the success.

The problem in the US is a government technocracy tends to gets captured by finance.

Look at DC Water. Basically captured by wall street; using the steady stream of water bill to finance a giant debt load.

Same with charter schools.

As I've said, WMATA wants a "dedicated funding" for the same issue.

States tend to be robust enough that it is harder to capture.

In terms of my personal life, reducing the water bill would save our Condo about 20K be year, saving me perhaps about $1000. I don't think DC water is providing that value.

Reducing internet access price -- 55 or 65 or whatever I am paying would also help.

We have a technocratic system on zoning, and it doesn't really deliver either.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt the houses:


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