Does Dominion Win or Lose from the New Law?

Does Dominion Win or Lose from the New Law?

Virginia's biggest power company could benefit from the freeze in electric rates but it also could take a big hit to earnings from power-plant shutdowns.

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Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Jonnie Williams' trial testimony about a critical meeting with the former governor was contradictory, implausible and sometimes incoherent. But the jury bought it anyway

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Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to reinvent a 60's-era industrial office park as an innovation district. It's making progress but suburban sprawl is not an easy habit to break.

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The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

VDOT had loads of warning that wetlands could kill the U.S. 460 project but the state charged ahead with a design-build contract that everyone knew could explode.

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Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

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

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Scandal at the Royal Academy of Arts!!!!

Baconby James A. Bacon

So, the Bacon family visited the Royal Academy of Arts today to pay respects to a statue of Sir Francis Bacon, the brilliant philosopher who first articulated the scientific method and laid the foundation for all human progress ever since. With the possible exception of a certain charismatic, 1st-century Jewish holy man who wound up hanging on a cross, no one in the broad sweep of history has done more to propel mankind from the depths of superstition to enlightment than Bacon. Without Bacon, the vast majority of us would be mired in filth, poverty and depravity.

So, you imagine the tremulous excitement the Bacon family from Richmond, Virginia, felt upon approaching the Royal Academy of Arts, one of only two known locations in London to have statues commemorating the life of this great benefactor of mankind. Our enthusiasm was only slightly diminished when we entered the front court of the academy to encounter a statue dedicated to a certain Joshua Reynolds, whoever he was. When we inquired as to the whereabouts of the Bacon statue, the ignorant buffoons who greeted visitors had no knowledge of where it might be located. It was only when the lady at the information desk checked the Internet that we found that the statue of Bacon resided on the back side of the academy. We had to walk around the block to see it.

bacon3

Sir Francis Bacon

Breathless with anticipation, we pressed through the throng of pedestrians on Piccadilly to reach the rear of the building on some street no one has ever heard of. And there it was, the statue of Bacon along with renderings of five other great philosophers and scientists. We approached to pay our respects and give our obeisance. And to our horror, we perceived the head of the greatest philosopher since Aristotle to be covered in bird droppings. Yes! Bird droppings!!

Royal Academy of Arts, j’accuse! How long have you allowed this desecration to persist under your uncaring eye!

Now, I know that not everyone fully recognizes the monumental contributions that Bacon has made to mankind. But how about Adam Smith and John Locke, the progenitors of the American republic and the free-market system? How about Gottfried Leibnitz, one of the greatest mathematicians to live, second only to Isaac Newton, Georges Cuvier, the naturalist, and Carl Linnaeus, developer of the first taxonomy of species? All of them — all save Linnaeus — were covered in filth!

John Locke

John Locke

Here, look upon John Locke, arguably the most influential philosopher of the enlightenment, second only to Francis Bacon, who elaborated the social contract theory of governance, laying the groundwork for the American Revolution and, in case you’re a British reader, the primacy of Parliament over royalty. And there he stands with bird droppings running down his face like Indian war paint!

smith

Adam Smith

As if that were not blasphemous enough, the statue of Adam Smith stands in an equal state of defilement! The third greatest philosopher of all time, who not only made the economic case for free markets and limited government but the  moral case is likewise bedecked with bird poo. I dare say that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would not be treated with such disdain. (Speaking of Engels, has anyone ever noted how absurdly large his beard is? Click  on “more” to see what I’m talking about.)

To be fair, Leibnitz and Cuvier have been treated to the same cavalier disregard! They are worthy of high regard, but it’s not as if they were Englishmen. Leibnitz was German and Cuvier a Frenchman.

linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus

Then there is the indecipherable matter of Linnaeus. Look at his statue — as pristine as a baby’s behind. Not a speck of bird poo to be seen. I suppose we’re supposed to be impressed by the fact that he was the father of taxonomy. It’s not like he was Darwin — he got a whole lot of stuff wrong. (Just read this: “The Poverty of Linnaean Hierarchy: A Study of Biological Taxonomy.”) And it’s not as if he was even English — he was Swedish, educated in the Netherlands. Yet somehow, the Royal Academy of Arts sees fit to clean his statue of bird poo while leaving the others peppered by guano?

The Royal Academy of Arts needs to do some serious soul searching, oh, yes it does. Right-thinking people cannot allow this desecration to persist! Continue reading

When Bicycles and Buses Collide

cyclists

Cyclists near Buckingham Palace.

by James A. Bacon

My favorite London bicycling story so far comes from the London Evening Standard, which wrote of a bus driver ogling a female pedestrian who failed to notice a cyclist and hit him. That was only one of 25 incidents involving cyclists in complaints lodged with Transport for London over a fortnight last August. In a metropolis of 8.5 million dedicated to building a system of multimodal transportation in narrow streets, I suppose such incidents should come as no surprise.

bike_laneLondon is a bicycle-friendly city, and cyclists are seen with some frequency. Local authorities have done a commendable job of building bicycle lanes; there are even two Cycle Superhighways providing easy access to the central city. And under a new seven-year, £51 million sponsorship by Santander Bank (taken over from Barclay’s), the bus share system is undergoing an expansion. The bike-share stations can be found all over the region, and there is one about a block from our apartment.

According to another article in my new favorite authoritative source on London urbanism, the London Evening Standard, proximity to bike-share stations has joined schools and underground train stations as amenities that drive real estate values.

more_parked_bikes
An unresolved issue is where to park the bikes. In our Earl’s Court neighborhood, which is rich in ornamental ironwork fences, people bolt their bikes to the ironwork — and homeowners don’t like it. I’ve seen at least a dozen signs threatening to haul away bicycles attached to private fences.

chainsIn a city as large and dense as London, there is no perfect system. Cars, buses, bikes, pedestrians and property owners cannot all be fully accommodated. Trade-offs must be made. While I’m a huge fan of bicycles as a transportation mode, I don’t think they should rule the streets. For every cyclist one sees on the streets of London, there are hundreds of cars and hundreds of pedestrians. I’ve counted more of the ubiquitous red buses than cyclists. It’s great to have bicycles as a transportation option, but London could never evolve into a cyclist’s paradise like Amsterdam or Copenhagen without a multibillion-pound reworking of the urban fabric. Even so, it beats most American cities by a country mile.

Update from the London Evening Standard: A truck driver, 53-year-old Barry Mcyer, is facing jail time for running a red light and striking and killing a woman cyclist. The woman was one of 13 cyclists killed in London in 2013.

Why Does London Have So Many Parks?

key_park

The park at Redcliff Square

by James A. Bacon

In the United States, we have gated communities. In the United Kingdom, the Brits have gated parks. They call them “key parks” because it takes a key to enter.

There is just such a park near where we are staying. The Bacon family walks past it every day on the way to the Underground. The beautifully manicured park has a grassy open area enclosed by trees, shrubs and a cast-iron fence. We tried to find a way in. Every gate was locked. We found it baffling. Only later were we told that key parks were a common feature around London.

In the U.S., we assume that parks are meant for the benefit of all. The existence of an institution such as private parks in a major city struck me as almost shocking. That’s one of the benefits of visiting other places — it challenges suppositions that there may be only one way to do a thing. Upon reflection, I can see the logic of the key park.

private_gardenI am conjecturing here: Redcliff Square was built as an amenity for the owners of the handsome buildings surrounding the park. Buy a house (or rent an apartment — I’m not sure who occupies the buildings along the street) and you enjoy access to the park. In the States, proximity to public parks adds value to nearby real estate. I suppose in London, proximity to a key park, which keeps out the riff-raff like American tourists, adds even more value to nearby real estate. (At least it does if you have a key.)

London has a remarkable number of parks, some public, some private. Google a map of London and you’ll see not only the massive Hyde Park and Regents Park but dozens and dozens of smaller neighborhood parks. No matter where you live in the city, you’re only a couple of blocks from a park. (You may not have access to it, but at least you can enjoy the view while walking past it!)

park

A small park, including statutory, installed by the wealthy Grosvenor family.

Insofar as London parks are built by developers and maintained by private property owners, they provide a partial amenity for the general public at private expense. Personally, I like the idea of developers building parks and handing them over to local government for public maintenance and publnic enjoyment. But, then, we probably would end up with a lot fewer parks that way.

Update: According to the London Evening Standard, municipal authorities are providing funding for seven new parks and the New London Landscape is brainstorming all kinds of new ideas. “Among the exciting new range of watery spaces proposed are floating gardens in Docklands, a linear lido along Regent’s Canal … and a reinstated River Fleet channel as a new low-line park. The subterranean river, below Fleet Street in the City, has been covered since 1769. It would be opened up below street level, with pedestriran footpaths either side.”

In Praise of Whimsical Statuary

whimsical_art
Yes, it’s true, London has more statuary per square mile devoted to dead kings, lords, generals and admirals than any other city on the planet. (One cathedral, Westminster Abbey, has more statuary than entire states in America.) It’s all very serious and patriotic, and of considerable interest to foreign visitors. Perhaps the most best known monument is that of Lord Nelson, victor of the battle of Trafalgar. Needless to say, monument space in a premier locale like Trafalgar Square is very precious — you can’t turn it over to just any old run-of-the-mill military hero like the dudes who led the Burma campaign or won the battle of Omdurman.

How is it, then, that a skeletal horse stands upon one of four plinths at such a revered location? Moreover, how is that the skeletal horse is bedecked with an electronic ribbon with a digital ticker tape-like display of the London Stock Exchange? Apparently, the work by Ekow Eshun, a German artist, is a commentary on the relationship between money, power and history. I’m not certain exactly is what is implied, but I’m sure it’s not meant to be flattering to those in power. Thus, has public art evolved from celebrating national institutions to questioning them.

DunamisI suppose one reaction to such art would be to declare it symptomatic of our civilization’s self-loathing — a sign of decay. There’s probably some sense to that view. But I have a second reaction. I find the statue amusing. It makes a nice change of pace from dead heroes. Google “whimsical statues in London” and you’ll find an extraordinary variety of creative works, such as the one at right of a jester holding up an elephant by its trunk. It’s all part of “cool Britannia,” part of what makes London such a fun, exciting, world-class city.

Virginia could use a few such public works itself. Of course, public art requires public spaces to display it. And Virginia suffers from a paucity of quality public spaces. Try putting this kind of art in a shopping center or subdivision. There aren’t many suitable locations. But if we want to build the kind of communities that inspire creativity and innovation, we need to open ourselves to the display of creative work even if, from time to time, it challenges the nexus of money and power. We want to see more wealth-creating entrepreneurs, and challenging the nexus of money and power is exactly what entrepreneurs do.

— JAB

Jonnie R. Williams’ Mansion on Market for $4.9m

Williams

Williams

 By Peter Galuszka

It might be right out of the “Lifestyles of Richmond’s Rich and Famous.”

A trust controlled by Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the glad-handing vitamin salesman who was the chief witness against former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen, has put his 14,700 square foot mansion along with 61 acres of land up for sale for $4.9 million.

I have the story here in Style Weekly.
“1 Starwood Lane” has six bedroom suits, a paneled “executive” study, a pool, a gazebo, a billiards and media room and (what the truly wealthy really need) a state-of-the-art security vault. There must be trouble in paradise however, because the realtor says it was originally listed as a $5.5 million purchase with just the mansion and 28 acres of property. Later, they threw in 35 acres more and dropped the price.

Williams, who got immunity from prosecution for his testimony for the McDonnell trial and another, unrelated one involving securities fraud, has apparently left the Richmond area where his former company Star Scientific moved from Henrico County after renaming itself Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals. He gave the McDonnells $177,000 in cash, loans, gifts and stock in exchange for influence in peddling his products, according to testimony at the six-week trial last year.

The McDonnells were convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud and other felonies. McDonnell got two years and his wife was sentenced to a year and a day. They are appealing.

The McDonnell’s who have separated sold their home in a Short Pump subdivision. It was listed at $944,000 and sold in a week. Williams’ mansion is in the middle of the high cotton Hermitage Golf Course in Goochland County.

For more details, click on Style.

Old and New

phone_booths

Click for larger image.

This image tickled me. Nothing better illustrates how the old and new live side by side in London than this view, near the Earl’s Court underground station, of a classic, red telephone booth and a newer booth that says, “WiFi here.” We saw a number of the red booths around the city — but never anyone using them. Why would they? Everyone has cell phones.

– JAB

Serious Bad-Asses

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus

No Bacon family trip to London would be complete without a visit to the British Museum, which has one of the greatest collections of antiquities in the world. And no visit to the British Museum  would be permissible without a couple of hours devoted to the Greco-Roman section.

I learned two things from my visit  First, I came away with a better understanding of how Greek culture was transmitted to Rome. I had always assumed that Rome absorbed Greek mythology, art and other cultural attributes when it conquered the Greek-speaking Macedonians, Seleucids and Ptolemies (Cleopatra, anyone?) with their great cities of Athens, Antioch and Alexandria. In fact, the Greek influence had begun far earlier — when Rome conquered the Greek city states of Taranto (on the mainland) and Syracuse (in Sicily) two centuries before. The Greeks had colonized southern Italy long before the Romans had gotten around to conquering it. The term “Phyrric victory” comes from the Greek General Phyrrus of Epirus (in Greece proper) who aligned himself with the Greeks on the Italian peninsula and whose tactical military victories were so costly that he lost the war. Later, when Hannibal crossed the Alps and hoped to conquer Rome, he allied himself with the recently conquered Gauls in the north of the Italian peninsula and with the old Greek city-states in the south. It took the Romans twenty years to chase him out. Anyway, the Romans ended up borrowing much of their culture from their conquered Greek holdings.

Bad-ass emperor... the Dude looks like he coud have taken on Mike  Tyson

This Dude looks like he could have taken out Mike Tyson

The second thing I learned was that some of the Roman emperors were serious bad-asses. The British Museum didn’t put it that way. But you can just tell by looking at their marble busts.

The portrait at top is of Septimius Severus, generally regarded as one of Rome’s five “good” emperors in the late 2nd/early 3rd century — at the peak of the empire. I forgot to take down the names of the other two, but they both rose to power through the military. You could not climb to the top of the heap of the Roman army and defeat two or three rival generals for the emperor slot in a bloody civil war without being a serious bad-ass. And the dude above looks like he could have chewed up modern American leaders like George Bush or Barack Obama and picked his teeth with their bones.

You don't mess around with this guy. And no matter how bad it bothers you, you do NOT mention that it looks like he's got a booger hanging from his right nostril.

You don’t mess around with this guy. And no matter how bad it bothers you, you do NOT mention that it looks like he’s got a booger hanging from his right nostril. (Click to see a close-up.)

This fellow doesn’t look like he takes a lot of guff either.

I’ll tell you this, Rome spent spilled a lot of blood and treasure fighting the Iranians (back then, they were called the Parthians). If the Parthians had been working on a nuclear bomb (or whatever the equivalent would have been in the 2nd century A.D., like a catapult that hurled two-ton rocks), I have no doubt they would have marched right over there and kicked some serious butt. Whether they would have marched back alive or not is another question.

– JAB

Building the New Midtown Tunnel

tunnel_construction

Graphic credit: Virginia Business. Click for more legible image.

Building the new Midtown Tunnel between Norfolk and Portsmouth is one of the more spectacular engineering feats ever attempted in Virginia. Elizabeth River Crossings (ERC), the private-sector partner in charge of the $1.5 billion construction project, has to dredge a 95-foot-deep trench in the Elizabeth River, float 11 massive concrete tubes the length of football fields down from Sparrows Point Md., submerge them, and then place them together within one-inch tolerances in order to snap them together.

The tunnel, only the second in the nation to be constructed in this manner, is engineered to withstand the weight of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Virginia Business has the story.

– JAB

Exploring the World’s “Best” City

Blackbird2

by James A. Bacon

Last year Price Waterhouse Cooper crowned London as the “best” city in the world based upon a range of factors encompassing technology, innovation, transportation, tourism, livability, corporate clout and sustainability, beating out such great metropolises as New York, Singapore, Toronto, San Francisco and Paris.

With a population of 8.6 million, London is a big city. The Bacon family is spending only one week here, we’ll experience only a tiny fraction of what the city has to offer, and we’ll do so as tourists skimming the surface. But there’s still a lot to be gleaned from a superficial scan. In between indulging in typical tourista fare such as the Tower of London, the British Museum and the Eye, I’ll report my observations about land use and transportation with the thought that Virginians might have something to useful learn.

We’re renting an apartment in the Earls’ Court ward, which originated in the mid-1800s as a railroad suburb west of the city. In the 20th century, the ward went into a period of decline, earning a seedy reputation. Thanks to large numbers of Polish immigrants following World War II, the area became known as the “Danzig Corridor.” Later, after an influx of Australians and Kiwis in the 1960s, it earned the moniker “Kangaroo Valley.” Since then, according to Wikipedia, Earl’s Court has gentrified. Indeed, a remarkable number of old buildings are adorned with construction scaffolding, suggesting that investment and revitalization remain strong.

harcourt_terrace2From what I can tell  from the architecture (and I speak with no authority), this part of London was built in the Golden Age of city planning — the late 19th century and early 20th century. Even though buildings rarely rise higher than five stories, density is high. Almost all residential buildings are attached, either in row houses or apartments. As seen above, the dwellings fronting on a single block tend to have identical patterns of design; they’re not as individuated as the buildings of similar era and density in Barcelona. While a certain sameness prevails on a single block, the blocks stand out distinctly from one another. That makes it much easier for wandering strangers to remember to find their way around.

troubador

The front door to Troubador

One of the great virtues of old development over new is that older buildings have had time to evolve distinctive personalities, as their occupiers work their creativity upon them over the ages, adding a porch stoop here, a balcony there or a garden in the back. One fun place we visited the first day was Troubador, an organic-food restaurant with a music club in the basement and a postage-stamp dining garden in the rear. Inside, there was an eclectic mix of decor, including three shelves of watering cans in the front window. Old watering cans as decorative art? Let’s just say that’s something I never would have come with.

new buildingsWhen new apartments have been constructed, as seen at left, builders have preserved the human scale of the original development pattern, no more than five floors. I suspect that’s enforced by strict zoning standards, although I don’t know for certain. Real estate has gotten so expensive in London, due in part to those very same zoning standards, that developers surely would build at greater heights and densities if allowed.

mews

Redcliffe Mews, behind our apartment

From a livability perspective, five stories may be the optimal height for large-scale residential habitation adapted to the reality of the automobile. Even on a Sunday, the streets are crowded with cars. But parking is limited. I didn’t see any structured parking in Earl’s Court, as exists in older districts of New York, Barcelona and San Francisco. But that’s just one neighborhood. And many of the on-street parking spaces are permit-parking only. On Harcourt Terrace, where we are staying, it is possible to access garages behind the houses by means ofa “mews,” basically, an upgraded alleyway that would be impossible to build in the United States because it is too narrow to accommodate monster fire trucks so prevalent in fire departments today. Continue reading

Sediment, Wetlands and Climate Change

Karen McGlathery. Photo credit: Virginia

Karen McGlathery at work. Photo credit: Virginia

Karen McGlathery, an environmental sciences professor at the University of Virginia who runs the Virginia Coastal Reserve Long Term Ecological Research program, is particularly taken with the study of marshes and wetlands.

Over the past century, worldwide sea levels have risen seven inches over the past century, and even faster in the Virginia Tidewater where subsidence has accelerated the rise. As noted in the new edition of “Virginia,” the UVa alumni magazine, marshes, barrier islands and oyster reefs are humans’ first line of defense against hurricanes and other violent storms.

“We know that, for millennia, marshes have kept pace with rising and falling sea levels as glaciers formed and melted,” McGlathery says. Marshes depend upon sediment flowing into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries to keep up with rising waters. But human activities such as dam building and shoreline hardening could change that dynamic. If the replenishment of sediment is blocked, the marshes could die as water levels rise.

But there is good news. Says McGlathery: “One thing that we’ve learned is that in Virginia, on the Eastern Shore, many of the marshes are doing very well — they have the capacity to keep up with the current rising seas.”

Bacon’s bottom line: If Virginians are going to think seriously about resilience in the face of recurrent flooding and inundation, we need to better understand the fundamentals of how wetlands adapt to rising sea levels. On the one hand, higher levels of sediment from eroding rivers and streams creates a problem for Chesapeake Bay ecosystems, and is considered to be bad thing. Strict and expensive storm-water management regulations going into effect in Virginia is aimed at cleaning up the Bay. But, ironically, sediment in the right places — in threatened marshlands — can help Bay ecosystems adapt to rising sea levels.  Is it possible that there is “good” sediment and “bad” sediment? We may need to adopt a more nuanced approach toward sediment. McGlathery’s work will prove invaluable.

– JAB