Sunday, June 22, 2014

Boxing Day

As Daniel Suddeath reported in the June 20*, News and Tribune, the building at 922 Culbertson is in the sights of the demolition crew. This is a shame, and it didn't, and still doesn't, have to happen.

The worn-out phrase from some distant management guru applies in this case, it is the requirement to think outside the box.

Inside the box, we see inadequate code-enforcement leading to the deterioration of the structure, which set it on its present perilous course. Many building in New Albany are in sorry shape. Are all  these blighters the result of blind eyes in the past? If so, good, we can place blame with people who came before us, and what good does that do anyone?

Are the members of preservation groups strident in defense of the city's historic buildings and neighborhoods; do these groups, or individuals within these groups, rub bureaucrats and policy makers the wrong way? Probably, and so what? Is the Horseshoe Foundation derelict in its mission, not abiding by its bylaws which call on the Foundation to support historic preservation? A lot of people think so.

I've heard that in place of the old tavern will be several newly-designed versions of  Habitat for Humanity houses. This laudable group does good and meaningful work, and is worthy of support, however, the houses they have designed for New Albany leave much to be desired. The placement and design of the houses does nothing to help the city escape the branding of certain parts of town as underprivileged, less desirable neighborhoods, and, therefore does not break the cycle of exclusion and poverty for the residents of those neighborhoods. Inside the Culbertson Avenue box, if the Habitat solution is chosen, we seem intent on making sure that this depressed neighborhood stays depressed and looks the part.

Does New Albany have money to fund the preservation and reuse of the building at 922 Culbertson? Not if you listen to the noise within the box.

Outside the box, there's plenty of money to salvage this building and help this neighborhood, as Suddeath reported June 19*. The sewer bond restructuring will pipe over a million dollars into City coffers. The rehabilitation of the building at 922 Culbertson has been estimated at between $150,000-300,000. Since the available funds to save this building would come from this rewrite of the bonds, perhaps it is fitting that the Sewerage Department share in the benefits of its salvation. Since the City's exhaustive search for willing parties to take on the rejuvenation process of the building has produced no results, why not use some of the savings from the sewer bonds, to invest in a first class renovation of the property and move the Sewer Billing offices there?

The structure is large enough to allow for the operations of that office to be housed on the main floor, with additional space on the upper floor for private offices for sewer employees or a field office for code enforcement, a police substation, or many other public uses. Even with the sewer offices there, the large main room of the tavern would be an ideal setting for a neighborhood Assembly Room, where from time to time governmental meetings could be held, including some City Council meetings. This would be an opportunity to deliver government services to the place where people live.

If the City's use of the property has the effect I believe it would, adding stability and vitality to that neighborhood, it need not be a permanent part of the neighborhood. The City's tenancy could be ended any time and the structure could be sold to private users. But, those private users would be buying into a part of town that has been greatly improved, and more inviting of private investment.

Inside the box rests a wrecking ball. Outside the box lies an open-ended list of possibilities.

One choice requires no imagination, and returns very little to the citizens of that neighborhood, or the city at large.

The other choice requires a hopeful vision for the city and all of its neighborhoods, a commitment to work toward an environmentally sustainable future, a city of walkable, safe, prosperous and interesting neighborhoods. What's the point of walkable neighborhoods, if you have no place to walk to?

Such neighborhoods can help New Albany rebuild, and bring vitality back to the city, as young people starting new families are given what many of their contemporaries are currently seeking in the older neighborhoods of Louisville, such as Germantown and the Highlands. It is not an overnight fix. It is, rather, a long slow process, and one which is immensely helped with a focal point such as the 922 building. If we don't seize some opportunity with this building, it will be a mistake. Will it be a mistake fatal to New Albany's future? Of course not. But it will be a mistake which we didn't need to make if we just looked outside the box.The lid's open. All we need to do is step out.

*June 20, 2014--News and Tribune, Old New Albany tavern to be torn down
*June 19, 2014--News and Tribune, New Albany City Council acts to restructure sewer bonds       


Monday, June 9, 2014

Just a Couple of Crazy Kids With a Dream

Of course the trajectory of crazy the Las Vegas Teabaggers were on, which ended in yet a few more tragic gun deaths, was probably pre-ordained to end in the deaths of the zealots themselves, at their own hands.

Perhaps the now-bastardized slogan, purloined by the radical Tea Party, needs a tweak. In addition to the standard, the Miller's flag might read, "Don't Tread On Me... I'll Tread On Me."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Attention Shoppers

In honor of the Twenty Fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, consumers across America can take an additional 25% off the price of any item bearing the Made in China label. At participating only

Monday, June 2, 2014

No Brainers

Saturday night my wife and I went to a wonderful movie, The Railway Man, and on the way home we decided to walk across the Big Four Bridge, since it was recently opened on both sides. Out of habit, we headed toward River Road in Louisville to our normal point of departure for such walks. At the Vernon Lanes I suggested that we should go instead to Jeff and ascend there, and we did.

While on the circuitous ramp up to the bridge itself, we were both amazed at how many people were taking advantage of the beautiful evening to explore this new addition to the Falls Cities. Once on the deck of the bridge I thought, turning this relic of the heydays of railroads into an amenity for our communities has been a real smash hit. Now that it is obviously successful, some may call the bridge's repurposing a no brainer.

This successful, concrete, example of a community-wide reach beyond our pre-constrained vision of the place we live, made me think of what other no-brainers, perhaps obscured by the darkness of our self-imposed limits, simply wait for a light bulb to click on to bring them into view.

Then, upon reflection, I thought, we are awash in a different kind of no-brainers as well, and it is those people that block out  the light, whether for budgetary, or cognitive-comfort reasons. Or is it simply because they are, themselves, dim bulbs?

The no-brainers, however, that most interest me here are the ones which, if brought to life, would be widely recognized as positive additions to our local scene. Of course, the list here is by no means exhaustive.

Heading up the list is, of course, the missing link to a pedestrian/bicycle loop between the Falls Cities--the K & I Bridge. If the intransigence of the Norfolk Southern bureaucracy maintains, and the railroad's no-public-use policy stays in place, then we, as a community, need to find a way to circumvent that stubbornness. Perhaps the railroad would permit use of the bridge's existing piers so a relatively lightweight structure of cantilevered design could be added to the bridge, independent of its functional aspects. Keep in mind that about $20 million of the total cost to transform the Big Four was eaten up in the approach ramps to that bridge. The K & I approaches are at ground level already, so we're ahead of that project by a huge amount.

Another no-brainer is a comprehensive reclamation of Falling Run Creek as a meandering park throughout much of our city. The current state of the creek in many places is shameful. And yet, it is a diamond in the rough which could be a walking/biking/jogging path through the city. Since Falling Run feeds into the Ohio, a reasonable case could be made that it should be part of the Ohio River Greenway.

New Albany is perilously close to losing its freight rail capability. Freight that is not shipped by rail will, by default, be shipped by truck, and those trucks will travel on city streets. A goal of economic development staff should be to provide incentives to make rail freight more feasible for local manufacturers. Globe Mechanical, QRS Recycling and the City's own waste water treatment plant could possibly become customers on the rail line running practically through their properties. Any additional freight shipments by rail help to strengthen that vital element of our infrastructure while keeping heavy trucks off city streets.

A local look at light rail, unfortunately, brings up one of the other kinds of no-brainers. Several years ago, Louisville appeared poised to head toward a light rail system. With little explanation, Mayor Jerry Abramson nixed the tentative move toward that sensible mode of transportation. It was a loss for Louisville for sure, but it was also a setback for the region, its environment, and its air quality. Had a viable light rail system been in place, would we still be building toll roads today?

Today's edition of the Moyers and Company show featured Joseph Stiglitz. The economist discussed the inequality of today's tax system which unfairly burdens the middle class, while rewarding large corporations with the lowest taxes in modern US history. Those large corporations often make money outside the US, and to avoid taxes if returning the money to the US, they simply leave it in foreign banks and foreign countries. It does nothing to improve the quality of life for our own citizens. These  expatriate corporations drive down the wage structure of this nation and rob the country of the necessary tax money to invest in infrastructure, education, health care, technological innovation and many of the other things we've ransomed to right wing, anti-tax, ideologues. How's this tie into no-brainer's?

Just this, if we stand any chance of holding onto democracy in this country it will be because we have bought into and nurtured the trend of buying local. Just as Tip O'Neill said, "all politics is local", in light of extra-national corporations driving down wages, the quality of life, and substituting jobbettes for good jobs, union jobs, in this country, we need to recognize that all prosperity is local. Every policy of our local government needs to favor locally owned businesses, whether in purchasing on the basis of local ownership over price, or in clearing hurdles for new local businesses starting up. If a policy or rule is found to favor national companies over local companies, that rule must go.

If we focus on building a strong local economy, and do things that make our city innovative, sustainable, safe, and inviting, we'll find we have a better community to call home. Some might call that a no brainer.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Golden Oldie Rings True Today

The Lion of the Senate speaking then, to today's Teapubligarchs?

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Sum of Its Parts

The building above, shown in Christopher Fryer's photograph, remains a structure in jeopardy.
When I was a child, my father, my uncle and my grandfather referred to this neighborhood tavern as Dorothy's. That may or may not have been the name of it. But for some reason, unfathomable to me, and now known only to those long-departed souls, going to Dorothy's was a special gustatory treat.  If my father and I dropped in at my grandfather's house, where my uncle also lived, for a Saturday afternoon visit, my uncle would occasionally announce with glee, as though it were a good thing, "Dorothy's made liver and onions". And off we would walk, from Elm Street to the building pictured above. An unspoken deal let me substitute a coke and potato chips for the offal and onions. We went there other times, besides these sterling occasions, and had things I considered food, open-faced roast beef sandwiches, mashed potatoes, all drowned in gravy. It was a good neighborhood spot. It was one of many neighborhood taverns in New Albany. It was a part of the fabric of the community.

Today, that fabric is soiled and frayed along with that part of our community. The causes of deterioration in this and other parts of the inner city are, to be sure, numerous and difficult to turn around. Disengaged, greedy, slumlords can claim some of the credit for the shape of inner city New Albany. Macro trends, such as chain restaurants, long ago doomed neighborhood taverns, which were not simply beer joints, but were also family restaurants spread through neighborhoods across town. People were lured out of the inner city by modern houses in outwardly spreading developments. National economic trends since the seventies have put in place stagnating wages, lowered expectations,  a dwindling middle class, and a class stratification unknown since the early part of the Twentieth Century.

All of these, and other factors add up to a sad situation in which New
Albany and countless other cities, large and small, find themselves. Inner city neighborhoods are deteriorating, while distant, greedy, rapacious, banks hold key pieces of real estate which they allow to deteriorate further, taking with them the hope of revival of the inner city. According to a Tribune article, dated April 1, 2014, the Wells Fargo banking chain owns the building I refer to as Dorothy's. I don't know how it came to own this particular piece of property, although I know that when the de-regulated banking industry inflated the housing bubble, along with its profits, the bursting bubble inflicted financial damage on many cities and towns in the U.S..  Wells Fargo has no stake in this or many other communities in which it holds under-water properties. Wells Fargo sees no percentage in trying to help those interested in saving Dorothy's. It probably sees the building as a distressed building with no prospects for rehabilitation, in a distressed neighborhood with little prospect for what it recognizes as prosperity.

Dorothy's is certainly in a bad situation. It sits within a neighborhood that has seen some attempt at revival, and yet the evidence of the multi-million dollar attempt (the Neighborhood Stabilization Program NSP), is often lost within the remaining sub-standard housing stock. Quite a few people don't see the value in what the NSP has accomplished. A common refrain from those unimpressed by the NSP's results is, "the best thing you can do for those places is bring in a bulldozer and clear the lots"; presumably those places are the ones that didn't make the NSP cut, the ones which remain un-rehabilitated.

Faced with all of the force pushing against the neighborhood at Tenth and Culbertson, I believe the last thing that part of town needs is a vacant corner lot.

The second to last thing the neighborhood needs is an abandoned, dilapidated, visual insult, such as that seen in the current condition of the building.

I'll leave it to others more versed in historic preservation, to detail the significance of this building. My primary concern is the inclusion of a minus sign in the equation of neighborhood, and citywide, renewal, and New Albany's tentative steps toward walkability. Another equation worth remembering when considering the future of historic buildings:
gone=gone=gone forever.

There are few buildings in New Albany that deserve help and protection more than this forlorn structure. It dominates a corner within a distressed neighborhood. Prior to the loss of the canopy over the sidewalk, it was an even more impressive structure. Between the time it ceased to be a bar, it went through many years as a disgraceful excuse for living quarters. A slumlord milked the building for  all it was worth, while putting little or nothing back into preserving it. Years of neglect were either ignored or allowed, until we have now reached a crisis point which is likely to result in tearing down the building.

I believe that building can again be a jewel in that neighborhood. Once it is lost, it will not be replaced by anything with as much potential to save and add to the character of the neighborhood. I don't have any idea of what could eventually go into building, if rehabilitated, I do think it should be of a commercial nature, though. But, I have seen cities across the United States where off-the-beaten-path places survive and serve as anchors to revived neighborhoods. There is no reason that can't be the case with New Albany, unless of course we take the easy way out and simply scour the neighborhood of our past mistakes.

Getting that building back on its feet needs to be an effort with backing from City government. Direct involvement by government is not necessarily called for, but help in protecting the building from the wanton disregard of Wells Fargo, until help from private individuals can be marshaled is completely appropriate. This would be an excellent opportunity for the Horseshoe Foundation to fulfill its mission of historic preservation. Saving that building will not be easy. We've already had easy: easy enforcement of regulations, take it easy attitudes toward slumlords. The hard work of saving one important structure is crucial to preserving a neighborhood trying to get back on its feet.

Will we muster the effort to rebuild a neighborhood with a walkable, sustainable future? Or, will we, taking the easy way out, pocket the dividends of decay, and tell Dorothy's goodbye?