Friday, January 12, 2007

Night Thoughts of a Growler

The Growler had a vivid dream last night. Guess it was the incendiary Ethiopian kitfo this carnivore had for dinner.

Any way, developers, the City and Parker-Gray Everyman were sitting round the table negotiating density. (At bottom, that’s what the whole Braddock Road plan is about. )

Everyman isn’t against greater density but knows it will bring more traffic and put pressure on parking. But he's been told by the developers and the City that there will be benefits to density — amenities like retail, usable open space, and better streetscapes. The politicians chime in that property taxes will go down.

The developer secretly knows how much potential profit he can give up to secure the deal and still make money. That’s the goodie bag.

Everyman is startled when the City creams millions off the top of the bag by requiring affordable housing units or contributions.

Wait, Everyman says. Affordable housing here is like carrying coals to Newcastle. We have public and subsidized housing, and home prices are still within reach. If you want it, why didn’t you squeeze it out of developers at Cameron Station or Potomac Yard?

Too bad, say the pols, you have to compromise. (Of course they can’t resist the political capital to be made from looking compassionate, especially if it’s done from a comfortable manse in Del Ray or anywhere else but Parker-Gray.)

The goodie bag is further depleted with campaign contributions to politicians or (in the case of Mayor Euille) donations to pet charities.

But where’s the share for homeowning, taxpaying Parker-Gray Everyman? By the time everyone's taken their cut, there’s only crumbs left.

Sure, he could press for little things like more attractive trash cans. But that’s chump change that has to be exhaustingly negotiated with each site plan.

Everyman is still hopeful, because he’s been promised good things as compensation for density. But ultimately he learns that the streetscaping improvements only apply to the newly redeveloped properties, not the old neighborhood. (The City will never pick up the tab for that.) The promise of “open space” is deflated when developers build on three-quarters of the former open lots, leaving only scraps between or behind the canyon walls.

The final indignity is that the much-anticipated retail never arrives. Posh Carlyle Everyman can empathize. In his neighborhood where the public housing variable isn't present, more than 86% of the retail is empty and residents are getting fast food joints instead of sit-down restaurants. Back in Parker-Gray, it becomes clear that neither the City nor the developer can hog-tie and deliver retailers, not even a grocer.

So a disheartened Parker-Gray Everyman slinks away from the table empty-handed, dodging telephone poles in the middle of the walkway and negotiating buckled concrete. He’ll creep past Andrew Adkins (still there because of all those pols trying to look compassionate from the other side of the railroad tracks) and he'll idle in the alley at N. Patrick and Princess while picking up his kids from day care. (To sweeten the density pill, the City told him Route 1 could handle more traffic but then immediately balked at letting kiddies be dropped off on such a dangerous street.)

In the mail box is his real estate assessment notice. The final blow.

So what’s the point of this sad fable?

The Growler declares we need to be served at the table first. If there is to be density, let the historic district get rewarded first for its pains.

Let the City calculate how much it would cost to underground the utilities in the historic district, repair and refurbish every sidewalk with brick, plant new trees in attractive new treewells, and install historically correct lamps on every one of our long-neglected streets. Let them make this the first priority from the developer goodie bag.

Then let the pols fight over the scraps.