Posts Tagged ‘Places that Suck’

Pay No Attention to the Trainwreck on the Left

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

Reluctantly, very reluctantly, and after much pleading from the organizers, I agreed to show up to a meeting entitled, “What’s Up With The Left in Madison.”

My reluctance was based in my long involvement with Progressive Dane from its inception (’93?) until a couple of years ago. For all of those years I tried to get the party’s leadership as well as elected officials to understand the economic & environmental trainwreck around the bend if they didn’t start applying the brakes to all of that car-mandatory development out in the ‘burbs. I even worked hard for countless candidates — many of whom won — who promised to do something about all of the bad planning.

All of those efforts were to no avail.

Not only did they not listen, but PD alders & county supervisors actively accelerated the paving at an alarming rate.

The result:   An economic and environmental policy trainwreck with one train piling into the next in a fog of bad decisionmaking.

Trainwreck #1: Foreclosures. Housing in Madison’s ‘burbs, extending out into rural subdivisions and horsey-doggie sprawl, is now so far flung and anti-pedestrian and anti-transit that the poor, the young, the elderly and the conscientiously carless cannot access it. And for those who just value a human-scaled place (regardless of their socio-economic demographic pigeonhole), it has no value. This destruction of value was brought about by a widely recognized lack of universal access planned into these developments. Walls of distance and speeding car traffic as it were.

In a sense, cosmic justice prevailed as the foreclosure crisis hit car-mandatory places the hardest. Unfortunately, however, it is hurting us all, as the cratering real estate values out there are devastating Madison & Dane County’s tax base.

These economically unsustainable development patterns were heartily supported by elected progressives with nary a peep from party membership (yours truly excepted, of course).

Did the price crash have to happen, given the national foreclosure crisis? Nope. Most of our walking/biking/transit-friendly ‘hoods have either a) maintained their value or b) actually increased in value. This same trend has occurred across the country with human-scaled neighborhoods holding their value while cul-de-sacs tank in the same region. Instead of seeing the foreclosure crisis for what it is — a disaster for all — progressives see it as an opportunity to…squat! (Yes, this is the next direct action actually proposed at the meeting.) So ok, it will make for great theater. And I like theater. But then what? Do we sit there all self-satisfied that we have stuck-it-to-the-man while continuing to support policies that continually drive down our tax base?! What sort of vicious cycle of insanity is this?

Trainwreck #2: The abovedescribed tax base destruction (developers churning out soulless subdivisions -> 1960s-educated planners collaborating -> ‘progressive’ elected officials wielding rubber stamps approving every car-mandatory subdivision ->  gullible homebuyers (or, perhaps more likely, homebuyers given no choice) -> crazy bankers -> (soon) crazy squatters) is now squeezing every city & county department, including those departments forming the social safety net advocated for by the good progressives. At today’s meeting, progressives at first stood stunned, then started casting about for scapegoats. People, only one department has continued to receive double digit year-over-year budget increases, and it is the very people who brought the housing crisis to you in the first place: The highway department! Pavement expansion is raging at 10 times population growth + inflation. TEN times! That’s good money chasing after bad, folks. We’ve been there, done that…and crashed. Yet we keep piling the people’s cash into the same bad land use patterns. It’s not a goat you’re looking for, it’s a hog; and the hog sits in the chief of highways seat. And your endorsed ‘progressive’ elected officials continue to slop that hog.

The car-mandatory nature of our elected leaders’ policies has created trainwreck #3: Increasingly filthy air, thanks to city-mandated driving (a direct result of car-mandatory places). The air is getting so filthy, in fact, that Madison is soon to be designated a dirty air zone by the EPA (‘non-attainment’ in the jargon). This will seriously damage Madison’s ability to attract & retain good jobs, as potential employers will recoil at the extra hoops mandated by the feds when air pollution exceeds the allowable levels.

And while progressives perseverate mightily about the need for good, family-supporting jobs, they fail to see the environment as anything but a white environmentalist/elitist/hobbyist’s concern. (Emphasis on white; there was much hand-wringing about the overwhelming whiteness of the progressive community.). Folks, dirty air is bad for everybody. But the poor — disproportionately non-white — will be disproportionately hit. Those jobs the poor need? Gone thanks to dirty air. (Milwaukee and other rustbelt cities, perpetually under the EPA’s thumb have been hemorrhaging jobs since the inception of the Clean Air Act. Coincidence? Me thinks not. And no, it isn’t the Act’s fault, it is the fault of short-sighted local & state leaders who worship cars more than their constituents’ economic and physical health.)

Then there are the children of the poor. We know that they will suffer disproportionately from air pollution-induced asthma (do I need to go into how bad this is for the developmental progress of a child?).

Fighting against dirty air is not a hobby. Nor is it only a concern of only white enviros.

Trainwreck #4: Dirty drinking water. So much land is paved over that our aquifers are no longer recharging as they should, thus rendering increasingly contaminated water. Combine the paving with constant leaking of petrochemicals onto that pavement (tire & brake grit, exhaust that settles on soil & pavement, oil leaks, etc.); then, after a rain, that filth rushes across that pavement, to sewers, then directly to our surface waters (which now feed the aquifer thanks to paving over of infiltration zones) and you’ve got a recipe for hydrologic disaster…. Case in point: the combination described here has put the kibosh on developing a well for the industrial southeast side, perhaps imperiling hundreds of jobs. Jobs, people!

The biggest trainwreck of all is upcoming: energy. The $4/gallon summers of 2007 & 2008 were the first dominos to set in motion the housing market catastrophe. (In car-mandatory places families faced 2 choices: fill the SUV or pay the mortgage; in the end, neither was economically sustainable.)

But that is nothing compared to what we will be facing soon.

So far, the military has been able to keep the oil supplies open, but the endless wars over oil are proving to be costly in lives, treasure, constitutional rights and basic justice. Social justice advocates often bemoan the de-facto military draft (crushing economic necessity forcing individuals to ‘volunteer’ for the military, etc.), but they typically fail to see first causes: Most of our military is now dedicated to fighting for oil. The world’s #1 consumer of oil? The military. For what? Fighting for oil. The snake is eating its tail.

That is to say, expect even more of the above.

Unless. Unless, we get a handle on our resource consumption and the fouling of our own nests. Because folks, if we don’t, there won’t be any justice left to attain. For anyone.

But this was entirely too mind-blowing for the good progressives to grasp at the meeting Saturday. When we were asked to write down our vision for the city if we achieved a progressive majority on the city council, most people dreamed their dreams as the exercise intended. Affordable housing for all. Racial harmony. Family supporting jobs. Full funding for social services. A strong Regional Transit Authority. And on & on, the same litany we’ve come to know & love about the progressive vision. (And yes, I do love it. As far as it goes. Which isn’t far enough to do any of the above….)

My response to what Madison would look like with a progressive majority? Massively increased paving over of rich, precious, Dane County farmland. Dirtier air. Filthier water. More car traffic. Poor people cut off from jobs due to walls of distance. Planning that plans universal access out of our urban landscape.

Face it, our ‘progressive’ elected officials voted for all of the above in the past and continue to do so. There is no evidence it would change with a majority.

Thus, many of us have simply quit working for any candidates. (At least until we see some evidence of real change.) With the loss of key electoral volunteers, progressives have continued to lose strength on the council.

For no amount of pressure from organized groups seems to have any bearing on their decisions. Neither 20 hours a week of volunteer labor….Nor being a ward captain turning out margins of victories….Nor cold hard progressive cash…Nothing seems to work with these people. (This was, thankfully, alluded to by several other participants).

Many at the meeting lamented the high level of apathy in Madison. I strongly disagree. This city is so organized around mutually supporting — and countless — progressive causes that it should be clear to our elected officials that we do, in fact, want progress. Not Detroit’s vision of a city-enforced car mandate. Not the Teabaggers’ vision of an unstable, grindingly impoverished and violent future. We have stated over & over that we want something better. In fact, I view Madison’s strong civic culture much like a venerable Roman arch, with each organization forming the arch & wall (each brick in the pillar or stone in the arch representing an organization) mutually reinforcing neighboring, allied organizations.

We all hang together or....

But when the keystone element at the top is missing/weak/lacking in conviction, the whole edifice falls apart. In this metaphor, the keystone element is each of our elected officials. Given that they are universally AWOL with regard to the desires of their constituents, the whole edifice falls apart, just as a Roman arch would.

In the case of Madison, the people are doing a yeoman’s job of holding things together, pulling together the increasingly tight resources they have in their non-profits to make things work as best they can for those who have very little. Yet there was a lot of self-flaggelation/blaming ourselves for this sorry situation. Again, I vehemently disagree; the hardworking, civically-engaged people of Madison are not to blame. What is missing is that strong keystone element, starting with the out-of-touch mayor, but including every alder — yes, the ‘progressive’ ones inclusive.

There is no hope of getting through to the current crop of elected officials. In their hands, our destiny lies in gluttonous energy use, car-mandatory land use patterns, transportation only for the well-wheeled, dirtier & dirtier air  and filthier & filthier water.

They simply do not have the capacity to get it.

Edgewater: Mayor Pave v. Historic Neighborhoods

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

Edgewater: Ugly beyond belief. Not just architecturally. Not just in scale & proportion. Not just in the way the developer bullied the neighborhood. Now we have a very ugly legal precedent brewing.

Indeed, the mayor is prodding the council to actually break the law. (More of his histrionics here.)

Fortunately, we have antidotes for such sociopathy in the form of civic-minded community leadership, well grounded in the ways of research, analysis and good will….

For starters, check out a clear-eyed view of Madison’s historic preservation laws brought to you by Brenda Konkel; details here & here.

Another former alder had this warning for current alders with regard to bully-proofing themselves.

Jay Rath at Isthmus has done a yeoman’s job of chronicling the Edgewater saga. He puts Madison’s historic preservation efforts in, well, historic context this week.

Civic leader Ledell Zellers lays out the moral case for historic preservation laws and the implications of breaking them (i.e., bulldozers coming soon to a neighborhood near you!):

Historic Districts in Peril—Speak up to help save Madison’s heritage districts.

The Hammes Co. has appealed the decision of the Landmarks Commission to reject the Edgewater proposal.  The proposal was rejected on the basis of it not complying with either the requirements of the Mansion Hill preservation ordinance or the provisions allowing for a variance from the ordinance.  The basis of rejection was that the proposed tower, because of its huge size (see attached), is not visually compatible with the small scale buildings with which it is “visually related”, nor with the historic district scale of buildings.

If this decision is overturned by City Council, it would essentially gut the provisions of the landmarks ordinance and open up all Madison historic districts for inappropriate development.

Your voice is needed if you care about Madison’s historic districts.   What can you do?

·         Email all alders NOW at allalders@cityofmadison.com to let them know you value our historic districts and you do not want an out of scale building to be built which the Landmarks Commission rejected as inappropriate; and

·         Come to the City Council meeting and testify on Tuesday December 8 at 6:30 pm in room 201 of the City County Building.

·         If you cannot stay to testify on Tuesday, please come and register in opposition to this out of scale, inappropriate project in our oldest heritage landmark district.

What are some of the issues?

·         The Landmarks Commission in following their charge under the Landmarks Ordinance rejected the proposed Edgewater tower as too large for the Mansion Hill Historic district.  The proposed tower is HUGE.  The total gross floor area and gross volume of ALL four buildings combined in the “visually related area” (an area defined by ordinance) is 60% that of the proposed tower.  On an individual basis the proposed tower is 3 to 16 times larger than each of the other buildings.  It was this massive tower that the Landmarks Commissioners found violates the ordinance which was established in 1976 to protect Mansion Hill.

·         Some people are arguing that building this building would create jobs.  Get the size right for the district and go ahead with the project.  But don’t build the wrong building in the wrong place simply to make work.  The jobs will last for a short period.  The historic district will be damaged forever.  This mistake will loom over our lake forever.

·         Commissions have a basis of knowledge on which they base decisions.  The Landmarks Commission considered this issue and discussed it in detail for 7 hours.  These are experts, informed citizens and one alder the mayor has appointed to look at details of the historic district ordinances and how they apply in specific situations.  To disregard, devalue and dismiss such judgments undercuts the committee process which has been long established and long respected in Madison.

·         The appeal ordinance requires that in order to overturn the Landmarks Commission the Council must find “that, owing to special conditions pertaining to the specific piece of property, failure to grant the Certificate of Appropriateness will preclude any and all reasonable use of the property and/or will cause serious hardship for the owner, provided that any self-created hardship shall not be a basis for reversal or modification of the Landmark Commission’s decision.” (Emphasis added.)  The Hammes Company does not yet own the land.  Other provisions of the appeal ordinance also appear not to be met.  Simply because a tower of the size desired by the developer cannot be built it does not preclude any and all reasonable use of the property.  Current owners are responsible for the deteriorated state of the 1940s Edgewater.

·         The precedent which would be created should this proposal be approved will result in a wall of towers hugging Lake Mendota.

Please act to save the Mansion Hill Historic district…to save all Madison historic districts.

Ledell Zellers

510 N Carroll Street

Madison, WI  53703

ledell.zellers@gmail.com

Appropriate scale? Proportionality? Me thinks not.

Appropriate scale? Proportionality? Me thinks not.

My take on the whole thing? Ledell for Mayor 2011!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Detroit Throws in the Towel

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

DetroitBurnedHouse

(More grim & grisly on the Detroit Deathwatch….)

“As land is consolidated and cleared, one immediate productive use for it is urban farming.”

It’s coi’ins for Detroit. Of course, this was probably written by some lecturing/hectoring suburbanite, but, I think it captures quite nicely the predicament the-city-built-by-the-deathmobile-destroyed-by-the-deathmobile finds itself in. And while the self-satisfied suburbanites out there in car-only Oakland County hector about the ills of Detroit, they, too, are swirling around the same toilet.

Mayor Pave on the March: Massive Paving Budget Passes

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

They passed it. On a voice vote (for all intents & purposes, unanimously).

Mayor Pave is on the march.

And the zombies on the council are following.

Meanwhile, Dean Mosiman, ‘dean’ of the local Dying Mainstream Media completely missed the record borrowing for paving in the budget he ‘covered.’ He could only focus on Ald. Jed Sanborn’s tantrums against projects that actually improve our quality of life. (What is it about fiscal conservatives and their hatred of fun?)

The fact that not one “progressive” member of the council stood up to the massive paving spree is continuing proof that there are no friends of the enivronment, our health, or fiscal prudence at the political level in Madison, Wisconsin. Indeed, I’d agree with Mikhail Gorbachev’s recent assessment that

There is the wall between those who cause climate change and those who suffer the consequences. There is the wall between those who heed the scientific evidence and those who pander to vested interests. And there is the wall between the citizens who are changing their own behavior and want strong global action, and the leaders who are so far letting them down.

By passing this pro-car budget, our local leaders ignored the scientific evidence regarding car emissions and global climate catastrophe; instead they pandered to the shrinking-but-still-powerful motoring interests. They ignored the fact that their own constituents are indeed “changing their own behavior” and consciously driving less than they have in a generation. (Yes, driving has been down year-over-year for three years in a row in Madison, Wisconsin. The only mode of transportation to increase? Bicycling.) They are ignoring the local calls to action (and here, and here, and here, etc., et cetera, Et Cetera).

Our local leaders have, as Gorby said, let us down. Gorby was a brave leader who had the guts to open up his Stalinist system to the light of day and let it wither and die a relatively peaceful death. Our leaders, unfortunately, cling to a failed ideology; an ideology of car-worship that rivals Stalinism in its brutal results. The evidence is all around us: the carnage on our streets; the destruction of our climate; the cascading fiscal catastrophes emanating from the automobile industry out to the cul-de-sacs; and then the obvious — our recent oil-wars in Iraq & Afghanistan (and those are just appetizers for more oil wars to come).

Mayor Pave, Tear Down That Wall of Paving!

Mayor’s Budget Puts Madison on War Footing

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Last night the mayor made a perfunctory resolution honoring veterans in commemoration of Veterans Day (Kristin Czubkowski live blogged it here; see 5:45 PM). It was sponsored by him and him alone.

How magnanimous.

As a veteran, here’s something I’d like to see him and his pliant council read as they wield their rubber stamps for a budget bloated with paving, automobile promotion, energy gluttony and thus more war forevermore.

Instead of doing something about the repercussions of our automobile addiction (i.e., war), the “green” mayor has budgeted for:

  • Doubling overall spending on paving since taking office ($33M in 2003 -> $68M in 2009).
  • Doubling the overall paving debt of the city (from an already bloated $47M in 2003 to $96M in the 2010 budget).
  • Trebling the annual increase in the paving contribution to the city’s debt ($11.5M in 2003 -> $35.3M in 2010).
  • Bloating debt service by 33% as a percentage of the operating budget (from 9% of the city budget to 12%).
  • An explosion of debt service to a whopping 17% of the operating budget by 2013.

Where does this fit into the big picture of the city budget? Well, guess what the single largest item in the capital budget is? Paving. The fastest growing component (ongoing) of the capital budget? Paving.

And the mayor’s passion for paving isn’t just a fiscal disaster. The capital budget is one of the major determinants of the look and feel of our city for generations to come. The budgets put together by this mayor have been highway heavy in the extreme. So he is creating places that promote automobilism to the exclusion of sustainable ways of getting around. His highwayscapes endanger pedestrians, terrify bicyclists and make transit untenable. Every tool we have to help pull us out of the climate/energy/fiscal tailspin is nixed by his highwayscapes.

Moreover, the ever tightening squeeze on the operations budget will mean budget difficulties for our quality of life, social & basic services. Saliently, Madison Metro bus service, considered an “operating” expense, will forevermore be in a vise between anti-transit/highwayscaped land use patterns (which cost more to serve) and an eternally squeezed operating budget (that is, a squeeze induced by debt service on those selfsame highways.)

Indeed, at this year’s “Neighborhood Roundtable” the mayor declared his intention of completely cutting all city funds to Madison Metro.

Yet he brags that this is a “reasonable budget for hard times.”

I call it a warmongering budget, Mayor Pave.

Piazza, Piazze, Piazzissimo!

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Here’s a mid-life crisis that went good.

Wow. A developer who actually understands how to embrace history in the urban landscape, create a cool place and make money. Too bad we can’t get the yokel developers around here to understand how badly people want interactive, community-oriented spaces integrated with their abodes.

Then, even when the rare developer does try to do the right thing, they get stymied by bureaucrats who enforce militant landscapes upon all of us. Back when I was on Madison’s Urban Design Commission, we embraced piazza concepts proposed at several new developments.  In each case, we were stymied. What we got was either Design by Cop, or Architecture by Fireman, or Urban Planning by Engineer.

Exhibit A: The developer of a mixed-use apartment building at the corner of Charter & W. Dayton wanted to have a cozy outdoor seating area alongside the building. UW’s Sicherheitsdienst vetoed it. Why? Because it was alleged to that such a space would harbor criminals. Or fun. Or both. (For the cops, the most offensive aspect was probably the terrifying potential for fun.)

Exhibit B: University Square redevelopment. Let’s be clear, this was a monstrous, bloated project, but a major, major improvement over the bunker-like thing that preceded it. It intensified and enlivened the space right at the intersection of Town & Gown. The net result: A pretty good thing.

But all good things can be made better, great even. And in the hometown of a world-class university, you’d think we’d be aiming for great. Unfortunately, great design is being held hostage by retrograde planners, fascistic cops, blockheaded engineers or a fire marshal living in a box.

Here’s the scenario: The huge courtyard area of the University Square developement, set two stories (+/-) above ground level, and encircled by very tall towers, called out for connectivity to the pedestrian mall below. We suggested a “Spanish Steps” treatment connecting piazza above with piazza below (see photo here, look at the area immediately to the left of at the protruding cube: that’s where the steps were envisioned). The idea was to animate & integrate the upstairs/downstairs spaces with human-scaled connectivity, replete with more hanging out space, a see & be seen space. A Fun Place.

When I suggested this, not only did I get agreeing nods amongst the architects and landscape architects around the UDC table, the design team and developer positively beamed. It was one of those great-minds-think-alike moments (ok, that even a mediocre mind such as mine can partake of once in a while!).

Alas, their beaming turned to crestfallen-ness when they went on to explain that, indeed, they had proposed just such a Spanish Steps-style treatment, only to have the UW’s Sicherheitsdienst nix the idea. Once again, they conjured up criminals hiding behind potted plants. Worse, from their perspective, was the prospect of fun.

The result was an less-animated, Blade Runner-esque, sealed-up coldness to the building, and a much less socially permeable feel between the structure and its surrounding space.

Until we get better thinking — and leadership — at the political level (and it ain’t happening here), we will continue to have good, people-oriented design vetoed by the narrow & narrow-minded interests of small town cops, fire people, unimaginative planners, speed obsessed engineers and pliant/unprincipled &/or bought & paid for politicians.

Yuppies Abandon Cars in Droves

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

It’s happening. It first became apparent to me that going car-less was becoming socially acceptable around here circa 2004-5. I think Ölkrieg II in Iraq got a lot of people rethinking their lifestyle choices. (Yes, the sudden, belated realization that our personal consumption habits cause wars; specifically of the Middle East  ‘blood for oil’ variety….) Then things  really ramped up along with the gas price spikes of aught 7 & 8. I think I last counted 12 friends & acquaintances who are now car-less by choice (i.e., they could easily afford one, but choose not to). Suddenly, Pam & I weren’t so alone & odd in our car(e)-free lifestyle. (We’re going on year 20 sans le voiture de mort.)

And now these observations have been given the imprimatur of none other than the Voice of God itself!

My favorite writing-on-the-wall warning to the auto industry was this quote in the article:

If public opinion swings too far away from cars, some environmentalists warn that the car industry could find itself in the same circumstances as cigarette manufacturers, who have hung on to their most fervent users even as public policy, health concerns and public opinion have cast a shadow over their products.

Yes! Death to the Deathmobile! & Only losers will be left driving deathmobiles!

Now if we can just get politicians like Ald Satya Rhodes-Conway to realize that, by redlining bicyclists out of her district, she is actually a) depriving her neighborhood of the creative minds we should be trying to attract here for problem solving and economic success, and b) dimming her own political prospects by filling her district with car curmudgeons instead of progressive-oriented, bright minds.

Mayor Pave’s Green Paving, Shingling

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Budget season is upon us.

The Pavin’ Mayor has it all worked out that paving & shingling over 2500 acres is somehow ‘green’.

And he’s got the money to do it.

Here’s how it works. In the good times boost paving budgets through the stratosphere (in the adopted 2009 budget he boosted the paving budget by 60%, while every other budget but the police department went stagnant or was cut). This sets a new, outrageously elevated “adjusted base budget” for the highwaymen to work from. So even if the highway department had to endure a 6% cut along with the rest of the departments, their budget would still be some 55% higher than it was in 2008. (This, in a deflationary financial environment and a population growth rate of under 1%….)

In other words, a cut would not be a cut in the big scheme of things. It would be paving as usual for the highwaymen.

The rest of the city departments would continue to experience real cuts upon real cuts that get progressively deeper and are compounded each year. When looked at over the course of the 7 years that this mayor has been gratuitously paving, we’re starting to look at amputations in the non-paving departments.

We should expect to see drastically cut bus service, more fare hikes, and a myriad of other cuts to city services and hikes in city fees after this budget is ground out.

But definitely expect a lot more paving. For unimaginative politicians konkrete is the solution to everything.

Lucky in Paving

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Mayor Pave on the retirement of the City Engineer:

Larry will have many legacies, luckily many of them literally cast in concrete.

Luckily. Umh-hmmm.

The Long Emergency is Nigh (and Big Boxes are Going DOWN!)

Monday, July 6th, 2009

…..And I think I hear Nelson (or is that Kunstler?) saying HAh-HaH! Yup, Big Boxes are in a world of hurt. Meanwhile, our little boxes are doing just fine, tankuberrymuchie.

[And thanks, Bob, for the link to the big box article!]