Sunday, March 25, 2007

A Proposal

As the campaign progresses, albeit slowly, I will be walking neighborhoods talking to prospective voters. I hope that exercise will yield feedback uncovering issues of importance to our citizens. As I walk and talk I will report here what is most mentioned and, I hope, I can offer a cogent, sensible take on those issues. But since that empirical springboard is several days off I wanted to use some of the recent discussion here and in other venues as a segue into exploring the germ of an idea.

The purpose of seeking this office is to provide a voice and a vote on the City Council that secures progress for our city. I have mentioned a few of the things that, for me, connote progress : rental housing improvement, increased homeownership, environmental concern, support of independent businesses and an infusing of the spirit of sustainability into the decision-making process. Without a doubt those who agree that these are elements of progress are matched with some who would see the very same elements as the bane of progress. People of both views want what is best for the city and for our future, yet there are differing views of what progress looks like.

It is my view that progress is like a seamless garment. Each thread within the fabric is critical to the garment. It is within that context that I lay out this germ of an idea that could become a stimulus for progress by tying together economic development, community design enhancement, sustainability, and neighborhood growth threads. I would like to see the next Council and the Mayor form "Challenge Zones". Or more likely, one zone as a pilot project.

These zones would be green-field, brown-field or existing neighborhood blocks identified by the City Administration in conjunction with the Plan Commission staff. Once identified, the area would be designed by the Plan Commission staff to incorporate innovative features making the project an ideal version of either a residential development or a commercial development. I have been a member of the Plan Commission ( not to be confused with Plan Commission staff )for five years. During that time I have seen few projects exhibiting imagination or creativity. Rather, time and again, we see the same tired approach. The "Challenge Zones" would allow the years of experience contained within the Plan Commission office to not only respond to a developer's plans but to direct those plans prior to the involvement of the developer.

Once a zone were designated by the Planning staff and laid out in the ideal manner, in cooperation with an architect and engineer, down to specifics of landscape and finishes, it would be fast-tracked for approval. Just as a Planned Unit Development District (P.U.D.D.) is a "contract for zoning" so would be the Challenge Zone. And upon approval, a developer would be sought to complete the project. And it would then become that developer's project to be completed as designed.

This is a way to take an experimental approach toward community design. It is a way to assure that development is given a good direction by people who are serving the interests of the community first and it sets out an ideal that developers, on their own, can follow in future projects.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

City Court

On March 14, all4word asked me about my position on a city court for New Albany. I said I was not familiar enough with the question to give an answer.

My best source for background information on that issue is Judge Joe Weber in Clarksville. He is the Town Judge for Clarksville.

I spoke with him today and asked for his opinion on the question. I was fully prepared to receive an answer biased by his natural perception of the value of his own position. The answer he gave was, for me, surprising. He said almost immediately that New Albany probably does not need a City Court. He further volunteered that such a court, if established, would not make money for the city but would, rather, be a costly office to maintain.

The State-mandated level of court costs is $159.00 per case. Even though called a City Court the sharing of court costs still results in over four fifths of that amount going to the state; the City would keep just $30 per case. Judge Weber said the cost of establishing the court would include finding a courtroom, the necessary office equipment, and using his court as a model, a staff of three clerks and two bailiffs. He also suggested that probation officers may be required. He said the budget for his court is $250,000 per year. Again, even though a City court, the fines are divided between the county and the state. The one area where the City would keep a greater share of the fines levied is in local ordinance enforcement. Judge Weber asked, rhetorically, "does the fire department or police department make money?"

With all the recent discussion of rental inspections the obvious result of those inspections is stricter code-enforcement and some would assume that these code infractions would yield sufficient fines to pay for the structure of the court. Based on Judge Weber's comments that does not appear likely. The question then becomes, " is a City court the best way to achieve stricter code enforcement?" If Judge Weber's estimated budget of $250,000 annually were accurate for New Albany's City court perhaps a different mechanism for enforcement could be found and some or all of that money could be more directly applied to improving the housing stock.

Keep in mind that the Community Housing projects generate federal "match" which is an accounting credit that unlocks federal money for a range of programs all of which are focused exclusively on housing. These can include new construction or rehabilitation. If the match John Miller lights is properly applied it can heat up code enforcement perhaps more than a City court.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

New or Old Urbanism?

On the Ides of March, The New Albanian posted a comment on his blog, NA Confidential, which made passing reference to New Urbanism. (The main point of the post was the overdue return of a Human Rights Commission but I'll save that for another day.) In today's Tribune, publisher, John Tucker wrote a column about ill-planned growth. Mr. Baylor's post and Mr. Tucker's column bring out two important points that lead to a third topic of recent discussion, ie. inspection of rental property.

Mr. Tucker correctly identifies the problem Clarksville has created with its no-holds-barred harvesting of development which results in what the disciples of New Urbanism might term a nightmare scenario. While the New Urbanists preach a gospel of livable communities where people can walk a sensible distance for shopping and entertaiment, Tired Sprawlers adhere to a model that is automobile-centric. New Urbanists attempt to build to a human scale Tired Sprawlers think in terms of limited access roadways. Pedestrians and cyclists need not apply.

The nexus of those diametrically opposed planning models in this post is the fact that we in New Albany have the opportunity to create New Urbanist neighborhoods, not from the ground up but rather from existing structures, in existing neighborhoods, with existing streets, and existing sewers, where people would send children to (wait a second don't get carried away) existing schools, and people would attend existing churches, and play in existing parks.
The advantages of using existing infrastructure are obvious:

a) it costs less

b) it uses less resources in several ways 1) exclusively new materials don't need to be invested in the project 2) new land does not need to be consumed for the project or for the ancillary services the project will require such as schools, churces and parks

c) the end result would be what New Urbanists advocate--a livable city

d) commerce follows development and the infrastructure, although currently underused, for commerce is waiting in the wings, ask Mike Kopp.

One of the things standing between a livable city in the New Urbanist mold and what we have in New Albany is our over abundance of poorly maintained houses and, in fact, entire neighborhoods. (The advantage of buying a "fixer upper" is that once it's fixed up you've got a nice place to live, but if the surrounding houses are mired in decrepitude,you've run afoul of the first three rules of real estate, the first of which is "LOCATION"; I'm fuzzy on the other two but I remember "LOCATION" is important.) One of the ways that situation can be turned around is a commitment by the city to increase property values throughout the city by expanding home ownerhip for first-time buyers. The entire city benefits if we can tap the power of their commitment to this new, greater stake in the community. Another way to increase property values is through the rental registration and inspection program. The goal of which should be to get the properties fixed up so they are not a drag on the surrounding houses or to get them on the market so new owners can get them fixed up. As President Kennedy said " a rising tide lifts all boats." In New Albany which way is the tide going?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

I still believe

For people like us
In places like this
We need all the hope
That we can get
Oh, I still believe

--The Call

As I heard that song on the radio yesterday I thought, corny as it sounds, that is why I'm running for city council. I still believe this can be a better city.

Few people can be as outraged as I on the state of politics at the national level. I went to peace vigils before the invasion of Iraq and have been disgusted as the number of dead in this war built on a foundation of lies has grown ever larger. The number of U.S. dead is 3,194. The number of dead Iraqis is truly unknown.

In most ways I can have little impact on the direction of the nation; few of us do. On the other hand, I belive committed, open-minded people can have a great effect on local issues. As the saying goes, "Think globally. Act locally." So I have decided to run for City Council as an at-large candidate.

I am running as a Democrat because my conscience allows no other choice. I recognize, however, that local issues are not truly defined in terms of party politics and I hope to not contribute to poisoning the groundwater of political discourse through hyperbolic rhetoric.

The best service we, as governmental representatives, can perform is to bring our entire background to the task of making informed decisions for the benefit of the entire community. The perspective of some candidates may draw from their work background, whatever that may be; certainly mine will. But an additional perspective I would like to bring to the task is that of a long-time environmentalist. I want local decisions run through an "environmental filter" to see that any resulting actions are as consistent with environmental health as possible. I don't mean simply that recycling is addressed as a goal or stormwater runoff is handled wisely, but that we seriously consider what types of "progress" we want to encourage. Not all growth is good, and not all economic activity is worth pursuing.

A few of the issues I want to explore throughout this campaign or as a sitting councilman are: dealing with sign clutter, lessening light pollution, taking a good look at the health quality of our drinking water, addressing sustainability as a precept of all of our decisions. I attended a city council meeting recently and saw a local merchant, the owner of the scuba shop on State Street, recount how he was passed over during the purchasing process of diving equipment for the city. ( I think the equipment was instead purchased in Louisville.) Do we have guidelines in place that give extra emphasis to local purchasing of goods and services? Noted environmental writer Bill McKibben has a "one store" rule. If he needs somthing that can't be purchased from an independent business having just one store, he does not buy the item. I'm not suggesting such purity of purpose, but locally based business is the true measure of any city's tangible wealth.

If this blog elicits sufficient interest from anyone, I will try to focus on issues as we go forward toward election day.

One issue to be addressed soon (Tuesday March 13th 7:00 PM at the Calumet Club) is the possible change of traffic patterns to make some currently one-way streets into two-way streets.

The proposed change to two-way traffic is a good one. This is one type of traffic-calming. Other traffic-calming methods are things such as speed bumps, speed tables, and islands built into the street necessitating a driver to slow down to make a swerving dodge of the island. Traffic-calming is not the only reason for a reversion to two-way streets. A real result of two-way traffic is a reordering of the street from simply a thruway into an integrated part of the neighborhood. A further step needs to be taken to make the street more a part of the neighborhood and less an obstacle course: on-street parking. An example of two way-traffic that does not promote integration of the street into the neighborhood is the section of Spring Street east of Vincennes Street. The absence of on-street parking makes this part of Spring car-friendly, not people-friendly.

The things we do on a daily, local basis have the cumulative effect of steering our nation in a certain way. In many ways, the place we have arrived as a nation is not acceptable. I hope to look for ways we, right here in New Albany, can make small changes that resist unwise national trends or, better, begin the positive change we need today and tomorrow.