Friday, April 29, 2011

EMC Loses Part of Sewer Contract

Mayor England sent out a press release this afternoon confirming what had been expected, that the private company which manages the New Albany sewer system will relinquish some of its contract resulting in the annual saving of $700,000.

The amount of the contract sacrificed, costs the City about $1,700,000 annually. Of that amount, a significant portion is a "management fee". According to the press release, this will "allow in excess of $1 million to be directed to improving the collection system."

The improvement of the collection system refers to an in-place re-lining process designed to eliminate inflow and infiltration. It is this undermining of the system by the infusion of groundwater into broken and deteriorated pipes that overwhelms the system during heavy rains, resulting in illegal discharges into the river. These discharges caused fines to be levied against the utility by the EPA, and they are the reason New Albany's sewer system is subject to a consent decree with the EPA to clean up the overflow problem.

The re-lining will now be done by employees of the New Albany sewer utility, and paid directly by the utility. The elimination of a private, for-profit management company puts New Albany in a better position to control its own fate and to keep the money spent on this process in the local economy.

Perhaps EMC was a necessary bridge to a point of stability in the management of the sewer utility. But now that the contract has been abridged to allow the Sewer Board its rightful place in managing the utility, we might take from this excercise in public/private partnerships, the lesson that cities need not always be run like a business.

Running cities openly and for the benefit of the citizens is not easy but it is the business of government, and government is a not-for-profit enterprise.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Fork in the Road

The River View project has taken a seat for the moment. Signs point to a slower closer consideration of the project. Consensus seems to be that the project is good from at least one angle: people are thinking big about downtown New Albany and, likewise, thinking big about housing downtown.

One of the concepts placed on the table for discussion is a "public-private partnership". This term, for such a relatively new concept, seems to be fast becoming not just a way to avoid the messy details of public projects, such as tax-based funding, but also a somewhat inaccurate cliche. The very willingness of a private developer to step forward with an idea seems to place the onus of acceptance at the feet of the citizens, who are then hectored for ingratitude if they balk at the generosity proffered by the developer.

To me, the most appealing feature of the River View plan is its river view. (As mentioned previously, that was the prime motivation behind Gonder Platz.) The design of the condos is prosaic and seems out of scale--but that is a personal and subjective take on it.

For the discussion to have carried forward to the point where slicing into the flood wall is seen as at least on the table, suggests that the City has bought into the cut, at least conceptually. That's great. And if that is the extent of the "public" side of the "public-private" partnership, I'm fine with it.

And therein lies the problem. I don't like the condos. I like the cut in the flood wall. I don't like the scale. I think this. I think that. I did run for office and I do have a vote on this issue. But I can't see the future, and I can't see if what we do today on this unbelievably significant investment for the City's present and future generations is the best course to pursue. Something this monumental, and of this lasting, directional change for New Albany calls for all hands on the wheel.

With the River View project we have a chance to democratize the concept of a "public-private partnership". This democratization, if pursued, would have a direct effect on New Albany's relationship to the river in the immediate case. But, significantly, and lastingly, it could affect our future and our ability to adapt more smartly to it.

Perhaps the best method of democratizing this project and, indeed, the entire process of building a modern, adaptable, environmentally responsible city for now and the future is found in the Smart Growth tenet of Form Based Codes. Here are a couple links to Form Based Code information: Link one and Link 2 .

New Albany is at a fork in the road now. We've been at the fork of other roads before. At one such point we chose to demolish a beautiful and significant structure in our downtown--the Post Office at Pearl and Spring Streets. Through a series of forks in roads we whittled away much of what had made our city something special, and instead opted for sprawling away from our community.

But the River View project is different. It can reorder this City for many, many generations. It can reunite us with the Ohio River, or it can put in place a multi-story ghost town which would act as a pall on future downtown revival. It is a major fork in the road. Joe Biden might call it, "A big forkin deal." And he would be right.

The fork is not whether to go forward with Bobo Platz and River View, or whether to turn down the plan. The BFD is, do we involve the citizens of this community in an inter-generationally defining project, or do we kick it around the Plan Commission and the City Council and come up with something "that we can live with"? A Form Based Code gets the community involved in defining how our City will develop both literally and figuratively.

As the primary campaign winds down, I pledge now, if I am given a second term,to do all that I can to push this city toward a full exploration of a Form Based Code. It may not be the answer to all our planning issues. It may be unworkable here for one reason or another. Or, it may be what lies down one direction of that fork in the road, the direction that leads us sensibly and responsibly into the still-new century.

Even though New Albany does not now operate under a form based code, the overlay of those concepts on the River View project would be a good and sensible way to proceed with that project. Community meetings, called charettes, are a hallmark of form based codes, and it is in these democratic meetings where the citizens can chart the course for their City by saying how they want new to fit in with old.

River View is too important a decision to not include as much community thought as possible.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

River View, Look Again

Yesterday I recounted the circumstances surrounding the ill-fated project known, only to me, as Gonder Platz. That was intended as simply a preface to a more critical look at the River View project. I will lay out my thoughts on it here. Such an excercise may have little sway upon the reader or value, or even readers. It is more an attempt on my part, to get some thoughts on this once-in-a-lifetime project down in writing.

I am neither a proponent nor an opponent of the project.

I am a proponent of a more densely populated New Albany. I am a proponent of a city which thoughtfully and conscientiously uses its paid-for infrastructure to build a more environmentally responsible forward looking city. Such a city can grow responsibly and in such a way that future generations can see a future here, not simply a starting point on the way to there.

New Albany, as cities go, is pretty average for its size. It has little to exploit, little to differentiate it from any of the thousands of similarly situated cities of comparable size around the country. It matters, really, only to us. Under different circumstances, this blog could as easily be called, "Gonder for Des Moines at-Large". But fate places us here, and now. I am interested in starting here, and using our small, comfortable city as a feasible sensibly-sized place to put into practice and experimentation the things millions of people are learning in their own small, comfortable hometowns around the nation and the world. Never before have we been able to communicate so effortlessly. (I heard recently that a fifteen year old with a smart phone has at his fingers more information than was available to the President of the United States just fifteen years ago. True? I don't know, but it seems plausible.) All that communication should help us keep from making the same mistakes that other cities have made.

It is in that spirit that I offer this information from a not-too-cutting-edge form of communication. This is from Triumph of the City, by Edward Glaeser, Copyright Edward Glaeser, Penguin Press, 2011:

Too many officials in troubled cities wrongly imagine that they can lead their city back to its former glories with some massive construction project--a new stadium or light rail system, a convention center, or a housing project. With very few exceptions, no public policy can stem the tidal forces of urban change. We mustn't ignore the needs of the poor people who live in the Rust Belt, but public policy should help poor people, not poor places.

Shiny new real estate may dress up a declining city, but it doesn't solve its underlying problems. The hallmark of declining cities is that they have too much housing and infrastructure relative to the strength of their economies. With all that supply of structure and so little demand, it makes no sense to use public money to build more supply. (emphasis added)The folly of building-centric urban renewal reminds us that cities aren't structures; cities are people.

Again, I am neither a proponent nor an opponent of Bobo Platz, but I have difficulty seeing how this plan recognizes that "cities aren't structures, cities are people."

To be continued...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

It Coulda Been a Showplace, Part 1

The Germans, or at the time the West Germans,were especially devastated by President Kennedy's assassination. Just days after the tragedy in Dallas, they renamed a famous public square after the fallen hero, and commemorated John F. Kennedy Platz.
To my young ear, one unexposed to the German language,it sounded decidedly odd and a bit nefarious: "John F. Kennedy plots to do what?"

Many years later I was day dreaming of how I should deploy my winnings from a particularly large Power Ball pot, $200 million, I think. My active fantasy center provided for me a fully-formed gift to my hometown, along with the prospect of instant, altruistic, immortality.

The double-deck Municipal Parking Garage on the south side of Main Street, between Pearl and State Streets, was perhaps still functional but, and I believe honestly, in a state of "park-at-your-own-risk" decrepitude.

Downtown's current renaissance was still unrealized, yet widely longed-for.

My fantasy plan was to acquire the garage property from the City for very little money, and simply a promise to build something transformational for my hometown.

A plaza would slope gently upwards from Main Street to the top of the flood wall. The concrete plaza would serve as the roof to shops and restaurants built below. People walking down Pearl or the alley next to the South Side Inn would see numerous store fronts at street level. Restaurants could have beer gardens and patios on the plaza. I never noodled out the logistics of tables, chairs, and drivers sharing plaza space with cars. I just knew people like to eat and drink outside and look at the river.

As luck would have it, I had no luck. No luck, no dough. No dough, no go.

Thus was New Albany deprived the beneficence I hoped to deliver it.

Alas,I never built Gonder Platz.

So, here we are years later still, and now the question: whither Bobo Platz?

To be continued...

Monday, April 4, 2011

Robert Kennedy in Indianapolis, April 4, 1968: "We have to make an effort..."

Imagine such a statesmanlike perfomance from any of the national political figures astride the stage today.

Then consider all that we have lost.