Category Archives: Environment

Two UMW Daughters of the ’60s

Birmingham By Peter Galuszka

Just a few days ago, Elena Siddall, a Mathews County Republican activist and Tea Party Patriot, posted her account on the Rebellion of being a social worker in New York in the 1960s and the wrong-headedness of Saul Alinsky, a leftist organizer who had had a lot of influence back in the day, among others. I won’t comment on Ms. Siddall’s lively account and conservative point of view. But I do notice one thing: she is a 1963 graduate of what is now the University of Mary Washington, which then was considered the female side of the University of Virginia (campuses being segregated by sex back then).

I have a tie as well to Mary Wash, which is now coed. My daughter graduated from there last year and my cousin-in-law, now living in Tennessee, went there was well before moving on the U.Va. nursing. Our family experience at Mary Wash has been a big positive and I support the school. So, it is with considerable interest that I noticed that the Spring 2014 issue of the University of Mary Washington Magazine had a cover story of a different kind of graduate than Ms. Siddall with some very different views.

So, in the interest of providing some equal time among women who came of age during those years of intense ethical and political awareness, I thought I’d toss in the magazine story to further the debate and show that not every Eagle from Mary Wash thinks like Ms. Siddall (no disrespect intended).

The story has to do with Nan Grogan Orrock, class of ’65, the daughter of an Abingdon forest ranger, who got the civil rights fever when it wasn’t always easy for a young, white woman in Virginia to be an activist. But activist she was, from exhorting her classmates to join protests, to spending summers and other time in the Deep South demonstrating with African-Americans in SNCC, to staring down the real possibility of being beaten or killed and to even today, when she’s been active in the Georgia legislature shaking things up, such as trying to get the Confederate flag off public buildings.

The article, written by Mary Carter Bishop, class of ’67, is intriguing. The writer is a career journalist who was part of a team that won a Pulitzer in 1980 for the Philadelphia Inquirer when that paper was one of the liveliest and best in the nation.

As Bishop writes:Nan Grogan Orrock ’65 is among the South’s most veteran and well-respected advocates of social change. She is one of the longest-serving and most progressive members of the Georgia legislature and has left her mark on every sector of social justice: civil rights, women’s rights, worker rights, gay rights, environmental rights.

“She’s chased after cross-burning Ku Klux Klansmen, cut sugar cane in Cuba, started an alternative newspaper, organized unions, led strikes, been arrested a bunch of times, and still stands on picket lines. At 70, she’s far from done. I had to finally get to know her. The week before Christmas, I flew to Atlanta and sat down with her at the State Capitol.”

Please read both accounts – Ms. Siddall’s and Ms. Bishop’s article – and see ideas through opposite prisms of the 1960s involving two obviously very bright women.

Denying Truth on the Outer Banks

Sun Realty

Sun Realty

By Peter Galuszka

North Carolina’s Outer Banks have always been a touchstone for me – in as much as anyone can associate permanence with sandy islands being perpetually tossed  around by tremendous wind and water forces.

The Banks and I go back to 1954 and Hurricane Hazel when I was an infant. They mark many parts of my life. So, I read with great interest The Washington Post story by Lori Montgomery about how real estate officials in Dare County and other coastal parts of North Carolina are trying to alter clear-cut scientific projections about how deeply the islands will be under water by 2100.

State officials say that the ocean should rise 39 inches by the end of the century. This would mean that 8,500 structures worth $1.4 billion would be useless. Naturally, this has upset the real estate industry which is pushing for a new projection of an 8-inch rise 30 years from now. Think of it like a photo in a rental brochure. You don’t choose shots of dark and stormy days. The skies must be blue.

Ditto science. The insanity is that so many still don’t believe what is going on with climate change and carbon dioxide pollution. Over the past several years, Virginians, many of whom vacation on the Outer Banks, endured and paid for former Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli’s legal attacks against a former University of Virginia climatologist who linked global warming to human activity. The assaults went nowhere.

Instead of addressing such profoundly transitory events, too many in the region say it isn’t so or pick away at what is really happening as we speak. And as Mother Jones magazine points out, it isn’t because weather change deniers, usually conservatives, don’t understand science.

The Outer Banks are an extreme example because of their incredible fragility. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of the islands knows that they are completely under the thumb because they are where two major ocean currents meet.

The only reason Hatteras has developed at all is the Bonner Bridge, an ill-conceived, 51-year-old span over Oregon Inlet so decrepit that it is often closed for repairs. Replacing it has been constantly delayed by the lack of funding and the threat of lawsuits. The federal government has been complicit for decades by spending at least hundreds of millions on sand replenishment programs or offering flood insurance coverage.

About 15 miles south of the bridge is Rodanthe, a flyspeck village just south of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuse. It is at the point of the Banks that sticks out farthest into the Atlantic and is under the strongest attack by ocean currents and storms. Route 12, the only way to evacuate by car when a hurricane comes, is on a narrow spit of constantly shifting sand trapped between the ocean and Pamlico Sound.

I’ve been going to Rodanthe for years. Starting in the 1980s, friends and I would pool our money and  rent one of the big beach houses. We have been constantly amazed how the distance between the structures and the surf is disappearing. One favorite spot was “Serendipity,” a skinny, tall beach house that we rented perhaps twice and featured fantastic views from the top-floor bar.

It was dressed up as a bed and breakfast in the movie ”Nights At Rodanthe,” a 2008 weeper starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane. The film was panned and the house was equally threatened. In fact, the next year, the owner had the whole thing placed on a truck and moved nearly a mile down the coast where there’s a little more sand.

More hurricanes followed, cutting a new inlet a few miles into Pea Island and its watery bird impoundments. The oceanfront houses we used to rent are in trouble. The ones across Route 12 now have dramatic new views.  A small, new bridge spans the inlet.

One can argue that building on the Banks is madness, global warming or not. There’s a lot of truth to this. But rising ocean water is truly going to accelerate the changes no matter how hard politicians or North Carolina’s real estate industry say it isn’t so.

Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

David Grannis

David Grannis

A California developer is teaming with Daimler AG to bring buses, shuttles and ride sharing to an Orange County community — with no government subsidies.

by James A. Bacon

Rancho Mission Viejo south of Los Angeles is developing a 23,000-acre planned development with all the amenities one would expect from an affluent California community: parks, hiking/biking trails, yoga and fitness studios, community gardens and a hacienda-style clubhouse. But the biggest selling proposition may be the potential to slash living expenses by thousands of dollars yearly by living a car-lite lifestyle.

Working in partnership with Daimler AG’s Business Innovation group, Rancho Mission Viejo will introduce to its Ladera Ranch community in July a service that provides residents access to scooters, cars, circulator buses, destination shuttles, Car2Share carpooling and other bundled transportation services, all accessible through a smartphone app. Those services will be provided as well to the neighboring Sendero project, with an expected 14,000 new residents and workers in five million square feet of commercial space, now under development.

David Grannis, a partner with pointC Partners, who is leading the initiative for the developer, says the goal is to cut the cost of mobility in half from the $14,000 or more it takes to own and operate an automobile today in south Orange County, California. Households in the target demographic typically own two or three cars. “I’m not telling you to get out of your car,” he told attendees of the 2014 LOCUS conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. “I’m telling you to get out of your third car.”

If successful, the transportation-as-a-subscriber-service initiative could transform the economics of automobile transportation. Daimler, parent company of Mercedes Benz, could evolve from a company that primarily manufactures and sells automobiles into a company that provides mobility services. Other auto companies that are exploring similar strategies could follow suit. The new business model could slash the cost of mobility for Americans, improving their standard of living, while shifting people out of single-occupancy automobiles into buses, vans and other shared-ridership modes, thus burning less gasoline and releasing less greenhouse gas.

Experience has shown that moral suasion — it’s good for the environment — doesn’t work very well, Grannis says. When Rancho Mission Viejo offered the option of environmentally beneficial solar roofs or granite counter tops, 97% of buyers selected the granite counter tops — until the recession came along and people appreciated the fact that photovoltaic roofs could reduce their energy bills. He sees the mobility service the same way. A handful of people will go for it because it’s the right thing to do; the rest will embrace it because it saves them thousands of dollars per year. “It’s economics, all economics.”

The Ladera community in Rancho Mission Viejo

The Ladera community in Rancho Mission Viejo

Rancho Mission Viejo’s multimillion-dollar experiment, says Grannis, responds to confluence of environmental, regulatory and demographic trends.

On the regulatory front, California has mandated massive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, which will require major shifts in transportation habits and development patterns. It is all but illegal to continue building the kind of low-density suburban communities associated with heavy automobile use and high GHG emissions. At present, 80% of Ladera Ranch residents drive alone to work, most of them to destinations outside the community. None of them bicycle or ride transit to work. To meet regulatory goals, the developer has to find a way to reduce the solo commute.

Another trend is demographic. Rancho Mission Viejo is focused mainly on Baby Boomers and Millennials. Boomers are selling the houses they lived in when raising families. As they age and find it more difficult to drive, Boomers are concerned about losing their mobility. They also see walkability as a fitness imperative. They want communities where they can get around on foot. Buses, vans, bikes and scooters complement walkable neighborhoods very nicely. Meanwhile, Millennials are less enamored with car ownership than previous generations. If they can find a less expensive mode of transportation, they will gladly take it.

People still want to live in well-designed communities such as Rancho Mission Viejo where they enjoy access to good schools, open space and lots of healthy activities, says Grannis. Automobile ownership is superfluous. What matters is mobility and access. And that’s what the venture with Daimler will provide them.

Transportation-as-a-service represents the next great evolution of the automobile industry. Grannis equates the innovation in importance to Henry Ford’s assembly line that introduced cheap cars and to the financing revolutions that made it easier for people to buy and lease cars. The next big step will be to eliminate much of the cost and risk associated with auto ownership.

A necessary prerequisite for making transportation-as-a-service work is to design walkable communities. Rancho Mission Viejo is planning compact residential neighborhoods with sidewalks and commercial districts with complete streets.  The next step is pitching the service to a population not accustomed to it by making it as easy as consulting your smart phone to reserve a ride, and by providing incentives, offering rewards and making it fun. Continue reading

McAuliffe: Time for Some Real Ethics Reform

mcauliffePeter Galuszka

One can hardly blame Gov. Terry McAuliffe for ditching the General Assembly’s absurdly weak ethics panel along with deep-sixing the line items in the budget that restrict him from expanding Medicaid.

Obviously, the nice-guy, bipartisan approach he had advocated simply isn’t possible with the likes of Tommy Norment and Bill Howell in the legislature. So, it’s hard ball time.

After a year-long trauma of the tawdry gift accepting of former Gov. and Mrs. Robert F. McDonnell and their upcoming corruption trial, it is high time the state got serious about ethics reform. But true to form and the traditional senses of entitlement and privilege, the General Assembly has created a ridiculously weak entity called the Virginia Conflicts of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council.

This wrist-slapper would collect and review financial filings of donations to legislators and help “educate” those poor dears about those mistakes they might surely make even though they obviously didn’t intend to.

As for real teeth, it has gums. It doesn’t cover “intangibles” like trips to the Masters, deep-sea fishing, African boar-hunting, feasts at high-end steak houses and so on. Dominion, Altria and anyone else can shower on such goodies. Jonnie R. Williams could still fly Bob and Maureen anywhere in his private jet. Subpoena power? Forget it!

Well, McAuliffe has defunded this effort and wants real ethics legislation by next assembly.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s cozy politicians are “shocked, shocked, mind you” that the feds are taking a harder look at them. Many can’t get over the fact that McDonnell was actually indicted. They can’t believe he really faces trial in six weeks. Five former Attorneys General harrumphed their way to federal court saying that this is certainly not corruption. A federal judge effectively showed them the door.

Now we have a new federal case. Veteran State Sen. Philip Puckett, a key Democrat, decided to take a powder just before the General Assembly vote on the $96 billion, two-year budget and the Medicaid expansion matter. His bizarre departure just before the vote tilted matters the way of conservative, anti-expansion Republicans.

It was said at the time that Puckett might be considered for a six-figure job at the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, which would be a step up from the $18,000 he makes as a senator. In the mix, his daughter could get appointed as a state judge.

The outcry was so strong that Puckett withdrew from the tobacco commission job possibility. But there’s a federal probe in Abingdon and Puckett has hired Thomas J. Bondurant Jr., a former federal prosecutor. Likewise lawyering up is tobacco commission head Terry G. Kilgore, who will be represented by Thomas Cullen, another former federal prosecutor. This sounds just like GiftGate.

Now the tobacco commission has always been a fun place since it doles out hundreds of millions from the state’s settlement with Big Tobacco back in the 1990s. Many of the 46 states who got the money used it to prevent smoking but Virginia also created a gigantic slush fund supposedly to advance products in the Southside and Southwest tobacco belts that grow bright leaf and burley.

Their first act was to hand out checks worth thousands to anyone who held a tobacco quota in a now-defunct tobacco program. You could use this to invest in your community, buy new golf clubs or vacation in the Maldives. Your choice. (We Virginians like free choice, it’s the Jefferson thing).

A few problems set in. Turns out that former director of the commission, John W. Forbes II, was dipping in the well to the tune of $4 million and also set up a suspect “literacy fund” worth $5 million. He is serving a 10-year prison sentence after his trial in 2010.

Since then, there’s been more suspect stuff going on. Last fall, for instance, the commission gave a $240,000 grant to Virginia Intermont College, a tiny and troubled liberal arts school in Bristol. The college has received lots of money form the commission over the years.

Well, the grant was supposed to help Intermont turn the corner financially as it tried to merge with another institution. The latest is that the merger failed and Intermont is kaput and the city wants it to pay its bills. And where did that $240,000 go?

Not to worry, folks. We’re dealing with Virginia gentlemen here and we are all honorable. Or maybe not. As State Sen. Creigh Deeds says: “We ought to be troubled. We ought to all tremble. I’ve read some pretty nasty speculation. We ought to fear people talking like that. … When you’re elected to office, your public actions ought to be beyond reproach.”

Menu Items on the Free Lunch Smorgasbord

Last week I published “Lean Urbanism and the Bureaucratic State,” a post that described a New Urbanist project to rectify the baleful effects of excess regulation upon urban re-development efforts. Questions arose in the comments regarding this initiative. What were these terrible regulations? Were the New Urbanists exaggerating the costs they imposed? Reader Richard N. Maier, a real estate manager for a major Central Texas homebuilder, contacted me to share his experience trying to redevelop a single property in Austin a few years ago. I republish this with his permission. Remember, this is Texas, where it is easier to build than almost anywhere in the country. — JAB

Bungalow for rent in Austin, Texas

Bungalow for rent in Austin, Texas

The Cost of Regulation: The Effect of Municipal Land Use Regulations on Housing Affordability

by Richard N. Maier

One of my professors at the University of Chicago told the class on the first day, “I don’t expect you to remember everything I talk about here, so my suggestion is for you to walk out of here with one takeaway from each class.” I can’t really say I did that every time, but sitting at convocation at Rockefeller Cathedral, I decided the one takeway that trumped all others was, “There is no free lunch.”

Throughout my career it has intrigued me how many of us travel through our careers and personal lives thinking otherwise.

A discussion of “affordable housing” is a perfect platform for testing this statement. While attending the University of Pittsburgh as an undergraduate, I worked for the Allegheny County Housing Authority in Pittsburgh. Our mission was affordable housing. The Authority constructed, rehabilitated and managed thousands of housing units aroud the count. This program was provided courtesy of the Federal government (a/k/a the American taxpayer). After getting my Bachelor’s degree, I entered the private sector and began my lessons in the practicalities of how such programs became re-titled as “exactions,” “incentives,” “impact fees,” “water quality preservation” and so forth. While I understand that various governments believe their regulations, laws and ordinances serve a variety of purposes that are in the public interest (neighborhood and historical preservation, safeguarding of public safety and the environment, “saving” resources, and so forth), the cost of that menu of delicacies can be expensive to the homebuyer and therefore a tax on the economy.

Inasmuch as my career the lat twenty-five years or so has centered around Austin and Central Texas, my examples will be drawn from that experience.

If life in the development/homebuilding business were simple, we could find a property, get it properly zoned, develop the lots or building sites, and construct the homes. But then it’s not, in fact, simple.

Let’s start with an actual example of building on a single lot in a central city residential neighborhood in Austin. A few years ago we contracted to purchase a lot in an area known as North Hyde Park. This example is utilized to illustrate the extreme costs incurred when developing in the central city, an area of high demand and low supply. The various regulations that overlaid this property were the zoning code, a residential design compatibility ordinance known as the “McMansion Ordinance” (all 26 pages of it), impervious cover limitations, “Neighborhood Conservation Combining District” regulations (a 28-page ordinance that supplements the zoning ordinance), handicapped accessibility requirements, sidewalk construction ordinances, a tree protection ordinance and an historic preservation overlay (which threatens even the simplest of structures with the prospect of being labeled “historic” or “significant”). While each of these eight regulation categories (which I consider to be menu items on the free lunch menu) have what the municipalities or jurisdictions consider to be public purposes, in many instances they are very costly to the ultimate homebuyer and contribute to the reduction in home affordability. As such, they are certainly not free. The following addreses a few of these categories and their impact on development.

Menu Item #1: Historic Preservation

The building lot in this real example in the City of Austin, Texas, was 80′ x 130′; approximately 10,400 square feet in total area. Situated thereon was a bungalow constructed in the early ’40s. It was about 90 square feet in size, had no particular architectural significance (there are probably a hundred similar structures within a mile and a half), was generally rented to students at the University of Texas and was acquired for the value of the land ($266,000) for new home construction. Despite the builder’s determination that the structure was beyond its useful life, the demolition permit was opposed by a neighbor (a renter, in fact; it should be noted that none of the neighbors who owned their homes opposed the demolition). This neighbor posited to the municipality that the structure to be demolished was historically significant and should be preserved. This declaration launched the seller of the house into an entirely new and unanticipated process of having to fight historic designation of the structure. The process from start to finish took approximately nine months during which time the property was left empty.

Continue reading.

Harnessing Citizen Science

thingful

This first section of this post by James A. Bacon is cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog…

Recent years have seen the rise of what European Union officials are calling “citizen science,” a phenomenon in which amateurs, enthusiasts and others acting in a non-official capacity collect data (usually environmental data), participate in the design of projects and subject the data to analysis for public benefit. This trend is gaining momentum as the cost of acquiring environmental sensors drops for everything from CO2 levels to water quality, as mechanisms arise for citizens to share their data online and as activists in one location inspire citizens in another.

Indeed, there is so much activity that the European Commission Joint Research Centre convened a “Citizen Science and Smart Cities Summit” in Ispra, Italy, this past February. The Centre now has published a report, “Citizen Science and Smart Cities,” summarizing the main findings and recommendations.

There often is overlap between municipal smart-cities programs — an increasing number of European cities are setting up sensor networks to measure key environmental quality indicators — and grassroots citizens initiatives. Also, notes the report, there is “increasing recognition in the scientific community that to address the key challenges of the 21st century we need to move beyond the boundaries of discipline research and engage in research that is multi-disciplinary and participatory.”

Unfortunately, there has been little synergy between citizen and municipal initiatives. It is difficult to compare the results of citizen science and smart cities projects or translate findings from one context to another. Moreover, citizen data often disappears after the projects wind down, making it difficult to reproduce results.

The report makes a number of recommendations. One is to map citizen-science and smart-cities projects and generate a semantic network of concepts between the projects to facilitate searches of related activities. Another is to create a repository for data, software and apps so they can be maintained beyond the life of projects and be made shareable.

Bacon’s bottom line. The Euro-weenies are way ahead of most American metropolitan regions (especially Virginia metros) in applying sensors, wireless and Big Data — essentially, the Internet of Things – to the business of running their cities. Admittedly, much of Europe’s activity is top-down, fostered by national-government and European-Union subsidies, but a lot of it — especially the citizen science piece — is bubbling from the bottom-up. I see next to nothing here in Virginia, whether top-down or bottom-up.

The map at the top of this post comes from Thingful, a search engine for the Internet of Things (IoT). Each data represents a data set that someone has posted to Thingful. Follow this link to see the density of published data sets in Virginia compared to that of other cities around the world.

A region’s ability to compete in the global economy depends upon its collective capacity ability to boost productivity and innovation. The IoT is supplying a new set of tools by which to advance those aims. If we snooze, we lose.

While regions in Europe, Asia and even Latin America race to embrace IoT technology and reinvent themselves (the new Indian government has announced its intention to build 100 smart cities), I get the feeling that Virginia’s metropolitan regions are lollygagging along. The Internet of Things is not part of the public discourse. I see nothing written about it in our newspapers and magazines. Whenever I write about smart cities, I get next-to-zero feedback. If the readers of Bacon’s Rebellion aren’t interested — and you are indubitably the smartest and most perceptive citizens in the commonwealth — what hope is there?

Want to Combat Noise Pollution? Measure It

I’m a big fan of city life but I’m the first to acknowledge that there are drawbacks to crowding and congestion. The foremost of those is noise. Cities are noisier than the burbs and the countryside. The older I get (I’m 61 now), the larger the noise factor looms in my consideration of things. Even in suburbs, it doesn’t take much commotion to jangle my nerves. In the early morning birds can drive me crazy with all their chirping and cawing and twittering. As for children, don’t get me started. The noise-oblivious little monsters can be worse than freight trains. If it sounds like I’m turning into a cranky old man… yes, I believe that’s exactly what’s happening.

As a rule, cities are even noisier than the burbs. People are more densely packed in urban areas, so there are more people — more drunks, more wife beaters, more backyard dogs, more buses, more sirens, more jackhammers, more big, honking HVACs — generating sound waves within hearing distance. Cities also have more concrete and masonry that reflect sound and less in the way of trees, bushes and vegetative mass to dampen it. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), problems resulting from too much noise include poor work and school performance and even cardiovascular problems. Clearly, in the battle for livability, the noise factor favors suburbs, small towns and rural areas.

How does a city combat that disadvantage? Ordinances can limit excessive noise from construction, honking horns or barking dogs. Transportation officials can build sound walls along highways. Aside from such obvious measures, one useful place to start is to measure decibel levels to visualize where noise is the worst. Thanks to the increasing ubiquity of smart phones, the practice of noise mapping is spreading around the world.

In 2010 the Sony Computer Science Lab in Paris released an app, NoiseTube, that anyone can download and use to record decibel levels wherever they go. Users can tag particularly obnoxious noise sources and display them on Google Maps. The data can be aggregated to create noise maps accessible to researchers and city officials.

Sony appears to have neglected its website. NoiseTube.com claims to have data from 509 cities worldwide (including Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Richmond, Scottsville and Lynchburg) but the data doesn’t upload to my PC. Regardless, the code is open source, and anyone is free to improve upon it. Creating regional noise maps sounds like a cool community project to undertake. I’d volunteer to participate.  If there are any civic hackers in Virginia looking for a project, let me know.

– JAB

Tea Party Populism vs. Eric Cantor

teddy roosevelt By Peter Galuszka

Political analysts and the media are still trying to tease out the meaning of soon-to-be-former House Majority leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss last week to an obscure college professor.

Two major themes seem to be emerging. One is what the Tea Party’s role was and what the Tea Party really is. The second is how the Big Media missed the story of winner David Brat’s surprising strength, although a number of local publications did get it, including the Chesterfield Observer, a suburban weekly that I write for (although not about politics) and won a special accolade in this morning’s New York Times.

The Times also had a piece Sunday on its front page noting just how closely tied Cantor is to Corporate America. Aerospace giant Boeing saw its stock plummet just after Cantor was clobbered. Over the years, Cantor has gladly done the bidding of big companies, notably in managed care and finance. His donors provide a ready chart.

He’s backed the continuation of the Export-Import Bank that helps guarantee loans for foreign sales (to Boeing no less) and helped kill a bill that would have increased the capital gains tax made by alpha-seeking and ultra-rich hedge fund managers. Cantor does know about big business because he is a lawyer and has a degree in real estate. His wife, Diana, has worked for such Wall Street behemoths as Goldman Sachs. And, of course, Cantor was hatched and grew up in Richmond’s cliquish business community.

The interesting trend here is how Brat, touching a surprisingly sensitive populist nerve, targeted Cantor’s cozy links to Big Business along with the usual complaint menu about illegal immigrants and government spending. Brat hit Cantor for various corporate bailouts, including TARP, backing Medicare Plan D and two unfunded wars.

Such criticism resonated with his supporters, who are conservatives. But unlike the country club Republicans of yesteryear, these voters might be throwbacks to the Gilded Age during the era of gigantic trusts. I am strolling through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit” which looks at Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft at the turn of the 19th century and it is fascinating reading.

Being a Republican then meant being an upstart and independent-minded troublemaker, not a defender of the status quo and big business interests. The public seemed remarkable well informed and the media was filled with brilliant journalists like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and S.S. McClure who took apart trust-builders such as John D. Rockefeller.

There was a real sense that too much economic power was being concentrated in two few hands and if you look at what’s happening today with the mergers of airlines, cable companies and banks, you get an uneasy sense of déjà vu. The result back then was long-standing legislation like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and bodies like the Federal Trade Commission. The concerns were inequality, lopsided economic clout and the tendency for big companies to abuse their power.

It is in this sphere where the Tea Party types, whomever they are really, might be on to something. I’m all for leniency and compassion on immigration issues but I have to say that some of the anti-Cantor comments might have harkened back to the days of McClure’s Magazine and Tarbell’s extraordinarily detailed dissection of Standard Oil.

Sadly, the journalist profession has been gutted by cost-cutting, which is one reason why the Beltway types missed the Cantor story and scrappy little papers like the Chesterfield Observer got it. If there is growth in the news media, the hot trend is setting up “data-driven” Websites but as the Times notes, these proved inadequate as well in last week’s election because they relied on imperfect data. In other words, garbage in, garbage out, no matter how lively the prose is. What really matters is shoe leather journalism and not numbers crunching.

On-the-ground reporting can capture important clues such as how Cantor misused his Majority Leader bodyguards and Black Suburban SUVs to keep his constituents at bay on the rare occasions he actually sought them out. Otherwise, he seemed to be sequestered at expensive steakhouses. Voters pummeled by the Great Recession got the message.

Add up all of these trends and you might start understanding why Cantor’s defeat was so important. It posits who exactly the Tea Party is and what they actually stand for. It could be the start of a movement as historically significant as the one 125 years ago.

Lean Urbanism and the Bureaucratic State

building_codesby James A. Bacon

The really big idea to emerge from the 2014 Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) was “lean urbanism.” The idea isn’t entirely new. Andres Duany, New Urbanism guru and the driving force behind “lean” urbanism, has been publicly discussing the idea for a year or more. But he used the annual confab to flesh out the idea in a series of forums and conversations with others. The idea received a positive response — far more people attended his sessions than Duany had expected — but he received at least one reminder, which I shall recount shortly, that bringing about the kind of reforms he envisions will be exceedingly difficult. The fundamental problem resides not in bureaucratic intransigence or political obstreperousness but in the extraordinary complexity of modern democratic society.

The concept of lean urbanism arises from Duany’s observation that municipal zoning codes and building codes are so complex and onerous that they make it exceedingly difficult for young people, artists, gays and other small-scale players with a high tolerance for risk to gentrify and re-develop decaying urban neighborhoods. They simply lack the scale to hire the architects, planners and lawyers needed to push their projects through City Hall. Without the risk-oblivious pioneers to pave the way and demonstrate the viability of a neighborhood, big-money developers stay away unless government mitigates the risk through partnerships and subsidies, which, of course, are highly risky and expensive for government.

Duany experienced what he calls an “aha” moment, however, when touring Detroit not long ago. He was astounded by hot spots of revitalization where young people had moved into neighborhoods and begun rebuilding under the radar. Detroit’s bankruptcy, he contended, had forced the city to pare back its code enforcement apparatus, with the result that the Millennial pioneers no longer faced the bureaucratic obstacles that had halted re-development before. Was there some way to replicate that experience by, in effect, pre-negotiating a stripped down set of codes and regulations for districts targeted for development?

Lean urbanism, as best I could decipher it from the CNU sessions I attended, moves along two tracks — one on the private-sector side, the other on the public-sector side. In a series of sessions, a succession of lean-urbanism advocates presented papers on different strategies and tactics for bringing down the private-sector cost of re-development projects. Duany sat in attendance as commenter and interloculator.

Thus, David Brain, a board member of the National Charrette Institute, made a presentation on how to reduce the cost of charrettes, which are visioning and design sessions conducted with extensive public input. Charrettes are manpower-intensive and run up significant bills for the developers who hold them. Perhaps the idea could be re-tooled, Brain suggested, by bringing in smaller teams that focused on incremental changes rather than grand visions and by settling for rougher sketches without the complete documentation. There would be trade-offs, to be sure, but the result would be a tool that can “do more with less in the way of financial resources.”

Another concept was to build on the idea of tactical urbanism, in which planners, non-profits and/or volunteers mock up changes to the cityscape by repainting traffic lines, bringing in trees and bushes in planters, installing movable street furniture and holding events to show people what is possible. The idea is to undertake small, inexpensive experiments. If they fail, they can be scrapped at little cost. If they succeed, municipalities can follow up by making permanent changes.

One CNU session highlighted an example of “lean sprawl repair” for the Oak Hollow Mall in High Point, N.C. That project visualized transforming an abandoned mall into a business incubator with space for live-work studios, artisan workshops and a culinary institute. Parking lots would provide space for cheap, pop-up business quarters in the form of shipping containers. Cheap. Fast. Low risk. Other presentations explored the potential for making greater use of live-work units, using lean urbanism to revitalize small towns, and adopting the vernacular architecture of the Philippines to increase energy efficiency of American buildings at low cost.

But achieving public-sector reform is a tougher nut to crack. In yet another session, Richmond, Va., attorney Daniel K. Slone tackled the prospects for reforming the building code. Rules in the building code exist for a reason, he said. They are designed to protect against hazards common to the construction of buildings and they have constituencies that will fight to preserve them. Responsible builders prefer having codes because they protect against competitors underbidding them by doing shoddy work and because hewing to accepted best practices protects them against lawsuits if something does go wrong. When Millennials in Detroit ignore the permitting process, they take on risks — or pass them on to others — that they may or may not be prepared to deal with.

Unlike many government standards, which are imposed from above, building codes come from a grassroots, bottom-up process in which government plays a negligible role in setting the standards. The process is open to anyone who wants to participate, and the results reflect a give-and-take between stakeholders. The 1990s saw important updates to the code as environmentalists pressed for alternative building designs for such things as green roofs, adobe houses and putting outdoor lighting in trees rather than on creosote phone poles. Another wave of reform resulted in the creation of a Rehab subcode that recognized that the renovation of existing buildings justifies different rules than does construction of new buildings, achieving some of the goals that the Lean Urbanists are agitating for.

It might be useful, suggested Slone, to examine the concept of sovereign immunity that protects public officials for the negligent actions of government. Sovereign immunity has eroded over the years as citizens, legislators and courts have sought to hold public officials more accountable. Understandably, government officials are reluctant to expose themselves to the risk of lawsuits by modifying the building code. Clarification or expansion of sovereign immunity may be one of the most overlooked aspects of achieving lean regulatory reform, Slone wrote in a draft white paper. However, reformers should expect the possibility of resistance from the plaintiff’s bar and consumer advocates. Continue reading

Nash Nails Neanderthal GOP

crabbersBy Peter Galuszka

Imagine Norfolk spending $300 million for light rail only to have it covered in salt water. Or consider that Virginia’s statewide mean temperature has risen 0.46 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1975. Or that, due to carbon dioxide emissions, the sea level on the Virginia coast is expected to rise by two feet by 2050 and by 5.6 feet by 2100.

And consider that the state’s Republican politicians are mostly sticking their heads in the rising tide about climate change.

That’s the point of an intriguing essay in the Local Opinions section of this morning’s Washington Post by Stephen P. Nash, a research scholar and former journalism professor at the University of Richmond. His book on the rising water and climate change involving Virginia is due out this fall.

As Nash correctly explains, the state’s GOP leadership takes a “ho-hum” attitude about climate change and is loath to accept the fact of what is happening around them. You hear a lot of the echos on this very blog.

Nash is absolutely right. He should be listened to. As he points out,what is especially odd is that today’s deniers are running contrary to the traditions of their own Republican Party which gave us Theodore Roosevelt who set aside great expanses of land for preservation. Even Richard Nixon proved to be one of the most influential environment protectors in modern U.S. history.

I did a piece last year quoting scientists about how fishing patterns are already changing for Virginia’s watermen due to climate change.

Do the sea creatures know something that the GOP House of Delegates doesn’t know? Most likely they do.