Friday, October 19, 2007

"Re-Educating" Parker-Gray

The marathon Braddock Road Metro Small Area Plan meetings started again earlier this week, and now that the neighborhood has had a taste of the City's new approach, it's worthwhile to stop and make a few observations.

Let's start by acknowledging the obvious: City staff and their hired guns like Kramer & Associates and Goody Glancy are not about to broker a compromise but have regrouped with a new approach. Their goal appears to be persuading us that we must accept the juggernaut of development that has been proposed for the Braddock Road and historic Parker-Gray areas.

It's already clear the technique will be to show us how we are all wrong, that the City is right, and that the plan should go forward as originally drafted. We will be worn down by endless meetings packed with outsiders and will be divided up to prevent grass-roots leaders from emerging and dominating or driving the process.

In fact, it seems the City is hoping the consultants can even make us clamor for more. Recall that at the September 24 meeting David Dixon waxed on about a client, a community which initially resisted millions of square feet of development. We were told that after Goody Clancy worked their magic, the neighborhood overnight turned pro-density and even pressed their elected leaders to move faster. A lesson for us?

This is also the only plausible way to explain why Kramer conducted all of those one-on-one interviews but failed to probe for commonality of interest, on which compromise could be then be brokered relatively quickly and efficiently.

Such commonality does exist, on issues ranging from transportation, density and public housing and the City is in possession of a group-written white paper with ten major demands. It's safe to say nearly everyone in this community holds at least one of those demands dear to their hearts, whether it is to reduce density, deal better with traffic, increase open space or disperse public housing.

In fact, where in this new schedule do residents get to vocalize their concerns and views? It just isn't on the agenda.

This new approach is also the only way to explain P&Z Director Faroll Hamer's rigidity, scolding us that everyone has to attend every meeting, telling us that certain topics (like Potomac Yard) are off limits and that she is not going to do penance for past history.

No, the City has its own vision and is not interested in our opinion. The impetus behind Kramer's approach was to find differences and then report back that this is a fractured community, thus emplowering City staff to promote themselves as the paternal Solomons ready to steer a neighborhood that "doesn't know what it wants."

And can there also be anything more cynical than Kramer's findings that many people felt that getting through the last protracted planning cycle depended mostly on stamina and that it was a matter of "last man left standing"? The new process recommended by Kramer is designed to be more of them same, starting from the ground up again in the hopes that neighborhood stalwarts will simply drop from exhaustion or give up.

That brings us to the idea of "divide and conquer," which some on this blog have used to describe the City's new death march process for the plan.

This, to the Growler, is a useful phrase. It's certainly been applied by City bureaucrats not only to people but to the issues, with public housing being yanked out and put on its own track in the Braddock East Concept Plan and with the Ad Hoc Transportation Task Force given license to run amok with febrile grandiosity, aflame with the prospect of federal transit bucks.

But the phrase "divide and conquer" lacks some extra dimension. And the Growler thinks that missing element is the concept of political re-education, which chimes nicely with the fact that these meetings are being billed as "educational" sessions.

It's one thing to genuinely bring light to the uninformed, but in fact many in this neighborhood already grasp most of the concepts and even many of the nuances, including density and FAR (which at bottom both involve packing more households with their inevitable automobiles into the community) and the dilemma the City has put financially strapped ARHA into by its rock-ribbed support for Resolution 830.

No, there are already inklings that these "education" sessions will be used to counter points the neighborhood has already absorbed and understood.

Mr. Dixon, for example, has mentioned several times that the consultants are prepared to demonstrate that Braddock Place was the worst possible place for retail due to lack of foot traffic.

The Growler can't wait to hear that explanation. Braddock Place has four substantial office buildings stuffed with hundreds of workers. It's adjacent to a Metro station which serves several thousand riders each day, and is flanked by two enormous high rise condo and apartment buildings as well as the greater Parker-Gray District to the south.

If this site should never have been devoted to retail (which means the planners of 1984 were fools), then what's the prospects for the other retail planned for this area? Maybe Engin Artemel needs to defend himself. Or is this just another cynical come-on that if we accept even more density, maybe the City can make retail work after all?

Interestingly, last Tuesday's "education" sessions concealed as much as they revealed. Have we not been lectured by Ms. Hamer that we don't understand the difference between "public housing" and "affordable" or "workforce housing"? If so, why did the first slide from Rhae Parks of Abt & Associates lump public housing, Section 8, and work force housing affordable up to 120% of area median income into the same pot labeled "affordable housing"?

Doesn't Ms. Parks get it, or did the City not vet its consultants ahead of time?

And speaking of "affordable housing," did anyone notice how P&Z's Web page on the Braddock Plan is now packed with links to stories about "mixed income" communities, undoubtedly supplied by the consultants?

This has always been a mixed income community, but it looks like the City is preparing to hark back to the theme that "Parker-Gray can't lose its middle class." Meaning we are not going to lose public housing but in fact will be stuffed with affordable housing for pampered City staff or milked for developer contributions to promote such housing elsewhere in town.

Ms. Parks' presentation was less informative than the ARHA public meeting the previous night, and she seemed unfamiliar with some of the details of Alexandria's public housing crisis. For example, she stated repeatedly that public housing authorities couldn't incur debt. That may be technically true, but most of us know that the impending foreclosure on ARHA's $6 million mortgage at Glebe Park is the fulcrum for the proposed redevelopment of James Bland. At Tuesday's meeting we had to have ARHA staff explain how the authority managed to incur this obligation in the first place (the answer: by mortgaging the "market rate" units at Glebe Park to carry the public housing units).

As others have noted here, there's still no information either from the consultants, from ARHA staff or from P&Z about how many market rate units will be placed at Bland and how dense the revitalized project will be. The Growler is beginning to understand why Ms. Hamer rose in a panic to protest the Hope VI application at the September meeting of the ARHA Redevelopment Work Group. The cat's going to be let out of the bag soon and that doesn't dovetail nicely with P&Z's tactic to split off the Braddock East public housing review and put it on a separate track that concludes well after the Braddock Plan has been approved.

Equally elusive was Jeff Farner and David Dixon's presentation on FAR and density. The illustrations of FAR using a map and styrofoam blocks were only semi-useful, because we've seen these models at Braddock Road and ICCA meetings before. What Mr. Farner didn't disclose until pressed is that affordable housing units in a development don't count toward FAR (as someone suggested earlier in a comment here). And he touched only lightly on the differences between the affordable housing density bonus and developers' "voluntary" contributions.

In the end, the real conundrum is that City staff and their minions are trying to finesse process solutions to issues that are inherently political in nature.

The crux of the Braddock Road controversy is about fair share -- our neighborhood's fair share not just of public housing but of density, of traffic, and of the burden of creating revenue for a free-spending but strapped City government.

That's a political question, not something that the Yankees from Boston can massage with flip charts, PowerPoint presentation and charrettes.

And the battle over our fair share is one that will have to be fought politically.