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February 20, 2008

Incompetence

Dear Competent Citizens:

In the last issue of themail, Ed Barron offered to bet anyone that the Tenley Branch Library would not be built and opened before 2011. Three readers respond in this issue, but so far no one has taken the bet. Betting against the efficiency and competence of DC government is pretty much a safe bet. But Edís lack of faith that the city government will rebuild the branch library in a timely fashion is inconsistent with his touching faith that the city government can efficiently, competently, and effectively engage in "private-public partnerships" to build government or mixed-use buildings, to improve neighborhoods, and to encourage economic development.

Government is usually the least effective way to accomplish anything, but it is particularly bad at building projects that are done under the rationale of "economic development." There are two major reasons for this: government officials arenít punished when economic development projects go wrong, and they are rewarded even when these projects are done very badly. A private development company that makes consistently bad decisions, that underestimates its costs and canít meet its construction schedules, will soon go bankrupt and go out of business. Therefore, companies that want to survive will choose projects that make economic sense, that they can accomplish within their budgets and in a timely fashion.

Government doesnít face the same constraints. A government that makes repeated development mistakes will simply raise taxes or issue bonds to pay for its miscalculations. The politicians who make these mistakes, at least in DC, will not suffer at the ballot box; instead, they will celebrate each other for all the hard work they did to raise the extra funds needed to complete their misbegotten projects. The baseball stadium was sold to the public with transparently phony cost projections, and the electorate will not punish the politicians who voted for it pretending that they believed these cost estimates. Development of the many acres of vacant land in Columbia Heights was stalled for decades by the city governmentís bad decisions; even after the government gave the land to its chosen developers a decade ago, various parcels took anywhere from two to eight extra years to build as developers renegotiated their contracts to get tens of millions in extra subsidies from DC. No politician has suffered or will suffer for choosing the least qualified developers for Columbia Heights projects, for wasting taxpayersí money on unnecessary subsidies for under financed developers, or for delaying neighborhood development for years and decades. Instead, when the DC USA project opens in another month (or two, or more), politicians will take full credit for being the engines that drove this "great economic development project" and for revitalizing the neighborhood. Theyíll be elbowing each other off the dais.

Gary Imhoff
themail@dcwatch.com

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Fifteen Million for Lincolnís Cottage; Homeless Veterans Out in the Cold
Faye Pinkney, Faye515706@yahoo.com

There was an official ceremony Tuesday in recognition of the opening of the fifteen-million-dollar restored Lincoln Cottage located on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home. I was in attendance and heard numerous accolades regarding the structure. Isnít it ironic that a building can gain the attention of many, simply because it was once used by a former President, but fifty homeless veterans on the same property are being "pushed out the door," and will be without a place to live come March 31. Yes, this is what is happening right here in America, "the land of the free, and the home of the brave," and in a nation thatís been blessed above all nations. Itís truly sad.

What do we give priority? Cottage restoration or veterans out in the cold? Itís not that both couldnít be addressed, but veterans were never even given consideration. To those whose choice it was to ignore the cries of the people who have bravely served their country and deserve a clean, comfortable environment in which to live: may you sleep well tonight, in your better than comfortable bed, and arise tomorrow to a fresh new day. Sadly, we are not as fortunate, as, by the grace of God, we will awaken to another day of wondering where we are going to live.

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Will Washingtonpost.com Follow CNNís iReport?
Phil Shapiro, pshapiro@his.com

CNN has set up a web site where any member of the public can submit photos, video, or audio of news they witness (see http://tinyurl.com/rwdqr). Will Washingtonpost.com follow suit on this?

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Cabs Have Lost My Good Will
Jim Champagne, remyjec@aol.com

Having lived here for forty years, I have always been a staunch supporter of DC cabbies. But not anymore. And it really has nothing to do with the recent spate of one-day strikes. Maybe it is just me, but it bugged me that some autocratic authority decided three times now to institute a $1 surcharge for the poor cab driver who apparently canít afford gasoline.

First, I think a public hearing should have been held regarding the extra buck for every ride. Since I take cabs at least twice a day (four separate rides in all), that amounts to an extra $20.00 per week at least. Iím not convinced that I should be paying the extra money for someone who uses gasoline as an integral part of his business operation; if he is getting $20 from me, then how much is he getting during the course of a week? I believe that it is something that should be discussed and not merely pronounced without citizen (riding public) input.

Second, if the cabbies need the extra dollar for every cab fare, then how can they afford to go on strike once a week to demonstrate their collective displeasure over meters? Personally, I think the cabbies are taking advantage of the situation, albeit a case where our erstwhile mayor has no idea of what he is doing. Shocking on both counts. Simply shocking.

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The Taxicab Issue
Eric J. Jones, Ejjones.threed@gmail.com

For months I have heard all of these transplants and visitors say how outdated our taxicab system is and how it leaves one confused and misguided. This is just another example of how the individuals in this city and for that matter this country are completely on their heads. At the current time, DC is one of the only places in this country in which you can find out your exact cost of travel before you step foot into a taxi. No guessing, no wondering if the taxi is taking the long way to drive up the price of the meter, no questions about if you were hosed at any cost. You see, we have this wonderful thing in this city called information. To get this information, you can call the Taxicab Commission or go on their web site, give them your starting point and your ending point, and find out the exact cost of your trip, no matter the cab company, time of day, or number of passengers. The same individuals who can search Google to find naked pictures of so-called celebrities, find sneak previews of whatever show or movie they are looking for, or just more random information to complain about, apparently canít find the web site of the city that they are visiting or live in, in hopes of making their life easier.

What type of example are we setting for our children? Yes, we know that the information on exactly what we need to know is three minutes away, but why do it the smart way when we can waste money? How will these same individuals be able to tell a youth to pick up the book instead of reading the Spark Notes or finding a summary online? How will these same individuals be able to tell a young person that the work ethic is important and that nothing comes easy, when they are the same ones crying because taking three minutes out of their lives to do hard work is just too hard? It baffles me that these same individuals wonder why our educational system has only advanced to the point at which cash registers at fast food places have pictures of the food instead of words or numbers, wonder why our jobs are going overseas and why our economy is going downhill faster than the career of Brittany Spears. Could it be laziness, could it be the lack of work ethic that we instill in the next generation, could it be outside forces that drive the global economy, or could it be just us? How about for a day, just one, change your home page from whatever it is to the web site of your local state government. Take just five to ten minutes a day to read the press releases from you locally elected leaders, and get a better understanding of the decisions that are being made which most directly impact your life.

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Betting on the New Library
Sue Hemberger, Friendship Heights, smithhemb@aol.com

In the last issue of themail [February 17], Ed Barron called those of us who are delighted to see the fate of the Tenley-Friendship branch library disentangled from Janney Elementary Schoolís modernization "loonies" add offered a bet that the library wouldnít be finished before 2011. Implicit in his bet was the notion that a public-private partnership (PPP) would finish the project sooner. Not a chance. If itís a choice between Ginnie Cooper [Director of DC public libraries] versus Roadside Development building the Tenley-Friendship branch library, my moneyís on Cooper. (If yours is on Roadside, you might want to read up on the O Street Market project before laying out serious money on this proposition.) Actually, if itís a choice between Cooper building a standalone library and any developer building the library in the context of a mixed-use building that exceeds the zoning limits and involves a couple of stories of excavation, my moneyís on Cooper.

What I donít know, given the latest news ó i.e., that developers may present their original but now non-responsive proposals at the community meeting on February 28 ó is whether (and, if so, for how long) Neil Albertís shop will attempt to undo the decoupling of the library from the rest of the project. If anything substantially delays the library at this point, it will be that kind of maneuver.

DCPL has certainly screwed up big time in the past, but from what Iíve seen of Cooper (and from her track-record building libraries (fifty or sixty new and a similar number of modernizations)), I think sheís a good bet. The submission deadline for DCPLís RFP for a construction manager at risk (who will lose 20 percent of his fee if the project isnít done on time and within budget by end of 2009) for this project just closed last Thursday. Once that contractor is hired, the betís on if Ed is still willing. But if DCPL is somehow prevented from making that contract, Iíve got no confidence regarding what happens next. Never underestimate DC governmentís ability and inclination to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory! The thing that people forget regarding the public-private partnership is that it doesnít get DC government out of the mix. It would actually give more DC government actors, often with potentially conflicting agendas, a say (or two or three) in the project. At this point I have a lot more faith in DCPL (which has the money in hand to build the branch and designs already drawn up), than I do in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, DCPS, the Zoning Commission, and the council, all of whom would necessarily be involved in making the PPP happen.

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A Telling Connection
Bill Coe, bceedeec@gmail.com

In themail of February 17, Mr. Barron comments on two activities not wholly unrelated. I wonít accept his wager that the Tenley Library wonít be rebuilt before 2011. I just wish its patrons godspeed in getting the thing done. For me, the best news about that project is seeing the city disconnect the library work from arguments over a proposed partnership with the private sector to create much-needed housing in Tenley and, in the process, accelerate planned improvements to Janney Elementary School (which serves a neighborhood jam-packed with children and is bursting at the seams).

Mr. Barronís unfavorable view of a soccer stadium at Poplar Point is, in my opinion, misdirected. Compared with the baseball stadium, the soccer field is a sweetheart deal. I happen to believe Nationals Park is a worthwhile piece of public work and will yield the benefits predicted in that part of town ó much as Verizon Center has on the East End. However, it canít be denied that Major League Baseball exploited Washingtonís lousy negotiating position and drove a harsh bargain on costs and other burdens. DC begged more than three decades for a baseball team and narrowly missed getting one at least twice. The Nationals were our best (if not final) chance to land a viable, established franchise. The unattractive terms we had to accept will not prevent us from making a success of this venture. The soccer stadium is another matter. First, its overall cost is much less than the baseball stadiumís and, happily, DC will pay its fair share, not the whole bill. Second, a soccer palace will almost surely anchor small businesses and other enterprises already planned for that section of the eastern river shore, helping to ensure commercial success in an underserved community. By contrast, the ballpark precedes surrounding development which, though likely to materialize, is only presumed to follow. Third, and most important (in my view), soccerís best days are ahead of it. The game is supported by groups on the rise -- most especially, Hispanic and other suburban families. Latinos are the fasting growing demo in the nation. It is reliably predicted that, in just a few decades, one in three Americans will be of Hispanic descent -- maybe more in this region. Those folks love their soccer and will flock to Poplar Point with money to spend and, frequently, wanting to buy homes.

What connects these two developments? One answer is this: the prominence of "loonies," as Mr. Barron describes them. Articles in the Post about the debate in Ward 8 over a soccer stadium and other ideas for Poplar Point quoted some exasperated citizen who said its opponents "are against everything." Up here in northwest, I can sympathize. We hear -- loudly, constantly -- the rants of obstructionists who reflexively oppose any and all creative approaches by entrepreneurs trying work with government to meet the publicís needs. Those folks love to recite, at nauseating excruciating length, their interpretation of law and regulation but are markedly uninterested in real action which that solve such pressing problems as a dilapidated school or a housing shortage that is driving good people out of the city. Mr. Barronís gratuitous crack about Councilmember Barry is neither here nor there. I carry no brief for the former mayor. However, letís give Barry credit for persevering in a climate of doubt and trying to advance the interests of his benighted constituents. I want someone like him representing me on the city council (hint hint, Ms. Cheh) ó someone willing to get behind sensible proposals for smart urban growth ó someone able to face down the reactionaries who selfishly oppose reasonable attempts to change the comfortable order of things.

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Loonies Win, Library Users Will Lose
Jonathan R. Rees, jrrees2006@verizon.net

In the February 17 edition of themail, Ed T. Barron states: "Iím pledging to donate $300 to the new library if it opens by January 1, 2011, in exchange for a pledge by anyone, or any group, that will give fifty cents to me for every day that the Tenley library opens after January 1, 2011. Any takers?"

Ed, if history has taught us anything, it has taught us that nothing gets done on time or any reasonable time therein. I am a betting man, Ed, but not looking to go into bankruptcy. As such, thanks but no thanks on your challenge.

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Itís Time to Change Direction
Len Sullivan, lsnarpac@bellatlantic.net

After more than ten years of analyzing the full range of DCís inner city problems that mar our US capitalís national and global image, NARPAC intends to change direction for 2008. We have reluctantly concluded that while it has been too easy for city leadership to encourage economic development, even with ridiculous zoning limitations, it is proving too difficult for even overpaid city officials to fix DCís Third-World socioeconomic woes without major inputs from beyond the city limits. There will be a brand new gang in town in January 2009 (unfortunately without Tom Davis), and groundwork needs to be laid now for increasing the federal focus on making the Washington region (including its core city) Americaís premiere metro area.

Itís time for top DC officials to stop misleading (dissembling, really) about the freeloading of, or constraints imposed by, either the feds or the suburbs. There will be a new opportunity to start cooperating on a long-range program to restore national pride in Americaís capital. Fixing our capital cityís basic infrastructure, both human and physical, requires national support and cooperation, not more autonomy for local ideologues bent on remaining the regionís run-down, go-it-alone poorhouse. We pursue these issues in NARPACís now-quarterly editorial and in its, latest informal photo album additions, which look at the conflicting symbolism implicit in DCís new baseball stadium and its surrounds (http://www.narpac.org).

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CLASSIFIEDS ó EVENTS

Recorder of Deeds Building Tours, February 21, 23
Alexander Padro, padroanc2c@aol.com

The eighth annual DC Recorder of Deeds Building tours celebrate Black history month. The District of Columbia Recorder of Deeds Building, completed in 1942, features seven recently restored WPA-era Black history murals (depicting African-American heroes including Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, Crispus Attucks, Matthew Henson, and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment) and other artwork, in a building designed to house the only District agency led and staffed almost exclusively by African Americans for over 125 years. Come visit the ROD Building and hear about the history of past recorders of deeds, including Frederick Douglass (the first Black recorder of deeds, appointed by President James A. Garfield in 1881) and Blanche K. Bruce, the work of such prominent African American artists as William E. Scott and Selma Burke, and see the buildingís intact 1940s dťcor, which was almost lost to demolition in 2001.

The 2008 tours will be held on Thursday, February 21, at 6:00 p.m. and on Saturday, February 23, at 12:00 p.m. The tours are free and no reservations are required. The DC Recorder of Deeds Building is located at 515 D Street, NW, just one block from the Archives/Navy Memorial Green and Yellow Line Metro station and Judiciary Square Red Line Metro station. Sponsored by the DC Office of Tax and Revenue/Recorder of Deeds. For more information, call the DC Recorder of Deeds at 727-0419.

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National Building Museum Events, February 21, 27
Jazmine Zick, jzick@nbm.org

Thursday, February 21, 6:30-8:00 p.m. Engineering Series: The Past, Present, and Future of the Panama Canal. The riveting history and proposed expansion of the Panama Canal is explored by Dr. Michael J. Brodhead, a historian with the US Army Corps of Engineers, and others. $12 members; $12 students; $20 public. Prepaid registration required. Walk-in registration based on availability.

Wednesday, February 27, 6:30-8:00 p.m. Washington National Cathedral: A Century of Excellence in Architecture and Art. In celebration of the National Cathedralís 100th anniversary, The Reverend John A. Runkle, RA, goes beyond the usual histories of names and dates to reveal that the cathedral is more than just another building. $12 members; $12 students; $20 public. Prepaid registration required. Walk-in registration based on availability. Both events at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW, Judiciary Square stop, Metro Red Line. Register for events at http://www.nbm.org.

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eDemocracyCamp, March 1-2
Tim Bonnemann, tim@plansphere.com

Iím organizing eDemocracyCamp, an unconference (a conference/workshop where the participants drive the agenda and schedule) on e-democracy and related topics, March 1-2, in Washington, DC. Itís a free, noncommercial, and completely community-driven event. Weíre trying to attract a diverse audience (political, government, research, technology, as well as ordinary citizens). eDemocracyCamp will be the first BarCamp with a focus specifically on e-democracy. eDemocracyCamp will connect citizens, researchers, developers, practitioners, and anyone else interested in the topic to learn about the current state of e-democracy and share their visions for its future direction. Topics may include (but arenít limited to) e-democracy, e-participation, e-government, e-voting, online civic engagement, online political campaigning, online dialogue, and deliberation. Technical tracks may cover things like the importance of open standards, hacktivism, mashups, etc. For more information or to sign up, go to http://barcamp.org/eDemocracyCamp.

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