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November 21, 2010

Planners Versus Residents

Dear Residents:

I wrote for months before the primary election that Vincent Gray and Adrian Fenty actually shared the same position on many of the issues that their supporters thought divided them. Gray, as he has said all along, is likely to continue with few alterations the questionable “school reform” that Gray’s supporters largely opposed and Gray’s opponents largely supported. He is likely, therefore, to alienate many of his supporters by continuing Michelle Rhee’s program of preferring inexperienced over experienced teachers, of breaking the teachers’ union, of relentless yet ineffective testing and evaluation of teachers and students — and he is unlikely to get any credit from Fenty’s supporters for continuing these policies introduced by Rhee.

Another battle for the mind and soul of Vincent Gray that has not been decided is over his position on the kind of urban planning that has been taking place under Adrian Fenty. The faddish preference among urban planners today, under the guise of “Smart Growth” is for congestion and crowing in urban centers — planning for apartment buildings rather than single-family houses, for small houses rather than large ones, eliminating yards and other “unnecessary” green spaces in city centers, eliminating height limitations to encourage high rises and skyscrapers, discouraging car ownership and making driving difficult for residents and commuters. Urban planners are being trained to impose these choices on residents, rather than to defer to the preferences of residents, because residents are too dumb to know what is best for them and their cities, and experts know best what those residents should want. (This kind of sneering contempt for the wishes and desires or residents who resist the march toward Manhattanization is well represented by blogger Matthew Yglesias, for example at and

Over the past century, vigilant protection by neighborhood activists has preserved many of the best things about the District of Columbia. In the early decades of the twentieth century, neighborhood associations and residential groups introduced and kept the height limitation that made DC a livable city of pleasant residential neighborhoods, rather than an overbuilt concrete jungle. (Yes, the height limitation was passed by Congress, but the impetus for it came from the city’s residents.) In the middle of the twentieth century, neighborhood activists fought the urban planners whose faddish expertise then called for crisscrossing the city with freeways that would cut up and divide neighborhoods. Now neighborhood activists are again fighting the urban planning experts — in this case Fenty’s director of the Office of Planning, Harriet Tregoning, and his director of the Department of Transportation, Gabe Klein — who want to impose their vision of a densely populated urban center served by public transportation, with only minimal provision for driving and parking, on the city’s residents. In the primary, Gray benefited from residents’ dislike of the planning decisions made by Fenty, Tregoning, and Klein, but he never pledged to reverse or even significantly alter any of those decisions. For example, when he was asked in a primary debate about extortionate rates for parking at city meters, he basked in the enthusiastic audience applause at the question, but he never said he would do anything about it; on the contrary, he said that something had to be done to discourage residents from owning and driving cars.

The debate is well laid out by the Committee of 100, representing neighborhood activists; David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington, representing anti-car bicyclists and top-down urban planning; and the Ward Three Democrats, again representing city residents, in their letters to Gray about Tregoning and Klein, at Gray’s decision will soon become clear — will he support the neighborhood and civic organizations that largely supported him, or will he support continuing Fenty’s planning policies?

Gary Imhoff


Inside Gray’s Very Secret Transition
Dorothy Brizill,

Since the November 3 press conference that Vincent Gray held to announce his “transition leadership team,”, there has been no announcement of appointments and very little information forthcoming from Gray’s transition. Indeed, Freeman Klopott’s November 16 article in the Washington Examiner, “Gray’s Quiet Transition,”, noted that “Gray’s transition has so far been more notable for what hasn’t happened than what has.”

Gray’s quiet transition stems, in large measure, from a bunker mentality among Gray’s small inner circle. After a hard-fought victory over an incumbent mayor, neither Gray nor his advisors were prepared for the investigation of Reuben Charles’ background by the press nor for the widespread opposition to him among Gray’s former campaign workers and the larger community. In addition, immediately following the November 3 press conference, Gray was surprised when he was harshly criticized both for failing to name representatives of labor and civic and community leaders to his transition team and for the individuals he did name to the team. This bunker mentality has resulted in a transition that is neither open nor transparent. The transition operates behind locked doors in a fourth-floor office in the Reeves Building. Virtually every decision is made by two individuals, Lorraine Green, chair of Gray’s campaign committee and his transition chairperson, and Reuben Charles, former director of operations for Gray’s campaign and now executive director of the transition. Moreover, only a handful of Gray’s campaign workers and supporters have been offered work positions or been invited to volunteer in the transition. Despite the fact that hundreds of individuals have signed up on the Gray web site to work on the transition, there is a secretive screening and selection process that determines who will actually be “invited” to serve on a transition subcommittee.

A veil of secrecy permeates the transition. Despite repeated press requests, the transition will not provide a list of the individuals serving on the various transition subcommittees, and no meetings of the transition committee or subcommittees are open to the public or the press, despite the fact that the transition operates in a government building and uses government employees, supplies, and facilities. This is a bad omen for Gray’s governing style as mayor. If he believes that decisionmaking and discussion in the transition committee is best carried out in secret, will be also believe that decisionmaking and discussion in the mayor’s office should be closed to the public? All transition volunteers must complete and sign two documents — a four-page “code of ethical conduct for volunteers” and a “volunteer disclosure form” ( According to the Gray transition, all volunteers for the transition team must sign the forms before being allowed to participate in the transition, in order to “prevent conflicts of interest” and “define the scope of the volunteer’s authority.” Buried within the legal jargon of the two documents is their true purpose: “the code of ethical conduct outlines the scope of the volunteers’ tasks and authority and makes clear that volunteers are not authorized to comment on the transition or the Mayor-Elect’s policies unless specifically granted such authorization by Doxie McCoy, Spokeswoman to the Mayor-Elect.” In the past week, the Gray transition invoked this confidentiality provision to admonish and even threaten individuals from discussing any aspect of the transition, including transition subcommittee meetings, with anyone outside of the confines of the transition.


Notice of Foreclosure
Everton Johnson, ej at

The new Notice of Foreclosure law, which was passed as emergency legislation, delays residential foreclosures. Unfortunately it is badly, if not fatally, flawed. It is was not well thought out and could easily cause lenders to stop making loans in DC. On Thursday, November 18, the mayor signed sweeping emergency legislation, Bill 18-1067 (also known as Act 18-0599), requiring that Notices of Foreclosure not be filed unless accompanied by a Certificate of Mediation issued by the Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking. The mediation period can be up to three months (the period is shortened if the occupant fails to request the mediation or fails to participate), and affects all residential owner-occupied properties, including those of four units or fewer if one unit is owner-occupied. This emergency legislation will expire on February 15, 2011. The permanent version, Bill 18-691 is pending.

The law is potentially flawed. It needs attention in the following areas: 1) it has no sunset provision; 2) it was introduced and passed rapidly, with no input from the financial institutions and title insurance companies that it affects; 3) there are no forms or infrastructure in place yet; 4) there is a danger of attribution to foreclosures noticed or held before the effective data; 5) it equates the trustee with the “lender,” subject to all penalties that can be levied upon a lender, even though the trustee holds only naked legal title and would not be able to control the lender’s responses to mediation or other obligations; 6) it requires someone (who is uncertain) to certify that the property is owner-occupied; 7) it fails to define the “immediate family” whose residency may trigger rights; 8) it lacks a provision whereby the recordation of the filing of the Certificate of Mediation is proof-positive that all requirements of the statute have been met; and 8) any foreclosure not conducted in accordance with the new statute is void, not voidable.

The Fiscal Impact Statement submitted in association with the bill fails to anticipate the additional costs to and problems to be faced by the consumer. Lenders will likely factor in a three-month holding period when pricing loans. Similarly, the costs associated with conducting the mediation and obtaining the Certificate of Mediation (including legal fees) may somehow be shifted to the consumer. This legislation, coupled with the Attorney General’s Statement, may prompt lenders or title insurers to look closely at the pros and cons of making residential loans in the District.


Precarious Predicament For Instructional Coaches
Candi Peterson,

Last week, DCPS Instructional Coaches (IC’s) found themselves in a precarious predicament, being government employees manipulated at taxpayer’s expense. The Washington Teacher blog confirmed that Instructional Coaches were required to attend a mandatory November 19 afternoon meeting with holdover WTU president George Parker during instructional time instead of their previously scheduled training. It was reported that Parker was a “no show” at the November 19 meeting. This was the second hastily called Friday meeting for IC’s with Parker at taxpayer’s expense and had some IC’s feeling miffed about the misuse of instructional time and directive to meet with Parker last week.

In a November 18 E-mail to Jason Kamras, one Instructional Coach wrote: “In all my years as DCPS employee, I have never worked under administrators who disregarded the sanctity of instructional time. The last such meeting was a total sham! George Parker and Mary Collins presented nothing of educational, or professional value to teachers. Needless to say, I am shocked and disappointed by this administration’s callous disregard for instructional time. I have no recourse but to respond to (Washington Post) Bill Turque’s queries about this meeting, as many WTU members have forwarded the E-mail notices about this meeting to him. Please explain why this meeting is preempting one half day’s training for Instructional Coaches for a union meeting. I pay taxes in DC and I know that you and Kaya do too; thus, I do not believe that DC tax payers will look favorably upon this misuse of learning time for teachers and students.”

Another union activist complained to Parker last week in a terse E-mail: “Despite the recent meeting with DC teaching fellows, you have not called a union meeting in six months. This violates our Constitution and you (Parker) are directly responsible for this ongoing destruction of unionists’ democratic rights.” One has to wonder how important these IC’s issues really are to Parker, given that he hasn’t conducted any union meetings (representatives assembly or membership meetings), as the WTU Constitution requires. Perhaps Parker’s meeting with IC’s is as Washington Post writer/blogger Bill Turque suggested about Parker’s recent meeting with TFA/DC teaching fellows, an attempt by him to reach out to a less active segment of the electorate to garner votes in the runoff election against the Nathan Saunders’ slate who received the most votes overall. I was in attendance at the TFA/DC Teacher Fellows’ Monday meeting and the menu piled on crab cakes, London broil, and quesadillas while Parker promised to work on the DC fellows’ job related issues (i.e., not being paid, exorbitant costs for private certification to the tune of $4000, etc.) and provide special IMPACT training.

Given that the city is demanding that teachers be held accountable for students’ performance — was the Instructional Coaches meeting an appropriate use of their time or was it payback of Interim Chancellor Henderson to Parker? As a Washington Teacher commenter wrote to me: “I expect this from Parker, who has pulled every trick out of the book to stay in office, but I’m feeling abused by Kaya Henderson right now. Gray better watch these actions.”


Unequivocal Support for MPD Assistant Chief Groomes
Mary C. Williams,

I met Assistant Chief Groomes only a few years ago when she was named our Police Commander. During her brief tenure in the First District, she proved to be not only a dedicated and hardworking public servant, but one of the most decent and compassionate human beings on this earth. Her community policing efforts contributed largely to a dramatic reduction in crime in my Southwest neighborhood, and I know that she has almost single-handedly worked just as hard in transforming other neighborhoods as well. Her commitment to the residents of this city is unquestioned. So, I feel confident in saying that I know that she would not intentionally violate an MPD rule or policy, nor would she compromise on ethics. While the facts surrounding her recent suspension have not been made public, this is one person in this city who has earned our trust and deserves the benefit of doubt. Knowing that she has dedicated her life to this job, I can only imagine her pain when this allegation of impropriety was raised. I am certain that she will be cleared eventually, but in the difficult meantime and the unknown length of police internal investigations, I would hope that those of you who know her, as I do, would take the time to write or call her to lend support. She has done so much to make this city a safer place for all of us to live, it’s the least that we can do for her. Also, send a message to the mayor and MPD Chief Lanier that we want a speedy investigation and an even faster resolution.

[“Statement by Assistant Chief Diane Groomes to FOX 5: ‘I am sorry for my actions and bad judgment . . . and bringing discredit to the best chief . . . police department and city,’” — Gary Imhoff]


Curbside Refilling
Sandra Shamwell,

Gary [themail, November 17] could not have better expressed my view of so-called electric cars and the ridiculous Volt in particular. This car costs upwards of $42,000 before taxpayer subsidy and is little better than a Chevy Malibu or even an Impala in terms of its appointments, cars that cost thousands less. The car is simply not worth the price no matter how you posit its benefits. Were it not for government subsidies and purchasers who believe either that the car carries a certain élan or will somehow save the planet, this car would or should not have left the drawing board. Although, as an aside, a friend informed me that GM was working on fully electric cars decades ago, but gave up on the effort in favor of the Saturn. Frankly, if you want a eco-friendly car for a lot less money, buy a Toyota Prius which even comes equipped with Obama-Biden bumper stickers.

This government seems to be unable to embark upon anything sensible in terms of meeting our transportation needs. Five hundred spaces devoted to a car that will number probably in the dozens in the DC area for the foreseeable future, while leaving the rest of the parking public out in the cold, simply seems almost irrational. The governing folks in this city demand utopian unworkable schemes like the ineffective gun laws and welfare ( and poverty) forever, and overlook the obvious and workable plans like building public parking garages and demanding that folks work for any benefits provided by the taxpayers. It seems anything that has any connection to the practical and even pragmatic never sees the light of day.

So, for now, we face a $175 million short fall and what do we do? Plan for the installation of charging stations that have no patrons. This field of dreams approach to governance — build charging stations and the Volts will come — is killing us.

[See also “Five Reasons Electric Cars Will Disappoint,” US News and World Report, — Gary Imhoff]


Gasoline Versus Electric Car Drivers
Richard Layman,

Interesting that you draw out the argument that providing parking spaces dedicated for electric car charging pits gasoline-based drivers against electric car drivers in competition for precious street space. I haven’t seen that discussed anywhere else. As one of the soldiers in the sustainable transportation “army,” it’s good to see the possibility of internecine war breaking out amongst automobilists. I won’t argue the point about gasoline versus electric cars and subsidy but I do think you are looking at the question in extremely narrow terms. Recognizing that the US consumes 25 percent of the annual production of the world’s oil, and that the US comprises less than 5 percent of the world’s population sets the stage for asking better questions.

If you want to maintain an automobile-centric way of life in the US, as you advocate in your editorials, then the issue comes down to planning for resiliency in a future that likely involves increased demand for likely dwindling oil resources. Don’t forget that China’s annual sales of automobiles is expected to surpass that of the US around 2015. Sure you have to burn coal to get electricity — for cars or fixed rail transit — but the US has adequate supplies of coal to last hundreds of years. (But don’t forget the pesky battery questions, and the fact that China controls many of the precious and scarce minerals needed for battery production.)

Where I think the real question is, and the one you didn’t pose, is what is the best way to provide access to electric car charging in the city. How much demand is there for what we might term “regular” charging — people who travel in a particular pattern every work day — versus serving “occasional” trips — people who don’t travel to and/or around DC on a daily basis, but who may need access to charging stations while they are here. In a conversation with a utility executive with regard to a bid for a project in Chattanooga, we discussed this and opined that about 80 percent of the demand for this service would be for people making regular/repetitive trips. Do people who own electric cars want certainty and predictability for access to charging facilities, and therefore, would they prefer reserved (guaranteed) spaces in a parking garage, rather than a street space? I think they do. Would a car in a street space take up the space for hours after it has finished charging, thereby denying access to other cars?

Now, I haven’t paid attention to these issues with regard to DC, and maybe the questions have been answered, e.g., how much demand is there for charging equipment at home, and in particular in multiunit buildings and how to provide it; how much demand is there for charging equipment at the workplace to serve commuters and how to provide it; and how much demand is there for casual or intermittent access in street-accessible locations? Those are the questions that interest me as a planner and advocate. But I am all for you “sparking” a war between electric car owners and gasoline powered car owners in the meantime.


Curbside Refilling — Take the Long View
Tom Grahame,

Gary, I think your view on electric cars and curbside electric refilling [themail, November 17] are shortsighted. As a country, we don’t seem to have much capability to take a longer view. Despite importing a larger and larger percentage of our oil from abroad, despite knowing how much money flowed from our country even when oil prices were lower, governments in the US acted as if a party based upon cheap oil could go on forever. The federal government kept CAFE (fuel efficiency) standards low for thirty years. When oil hit $140 per barrel, and gasoline hit five dollars per gallon, people with long commutes couldn’t buy much else but gasoline. This lack of spending power was one of many reasons our recession got so bad so fast, and why it is taking so long to recover. Suppose that the US imported half as much oil in 2008 as we actually did import. We might have kept something north of several hundred billion dollars in this country, in our pocketbooks, to be spent here and to create jobs here. (Yes, the housing bubble and Wall Street malfeasance were larger triggers to the recession, I don’t mean to suggest otherwise.)

Electric cars will take decades to fully develop. Most people who look at oil markets think that prices will only go higher in coming years, because all the cheap, easily found oil is being depleted, while newer sources are much more expensive and have substantial environmental costs — think deepwater drilling and tar sands, for example. The phenomenon goes by the title “Peak Oil,” and it means that although there is still plenty of oil in geological formations, the money and time to produce from these new sources is such that new production can barely keep up with depletion, and it will come with continually higher costs. When accelerating demand from China and other countries meets static supply, prices must go up.

So it isn’t crazy for governments to do what they can to prepare for a time when electric cars might be cost competitive with gasoline powered cars. It takes decades to prepare a new car industry. Will it succeed? I don’t know, but I think governments should be prepared to innovate, just as the private sector does. Some private sector innovation works, some doesn’t — that doesn’t mean innovation per se is bad. To the contrary, without innovation, where would we be? So I don’t mind having a few plug-in locations. Lots of people want to be part of the move to electric cars — so let’s make sure they have the small amount of infrastructure they need.

I also wonder if perhaps the DC government might be a little less hostile to car owners than you suggest, at least in some actions, in particular their encouragement of Zipcars. If people can use a Zipcar instead of owning one, then one Zipcar might take the place of many personally owned ones, sitting unused much of the time at the curb. My wife and I, somewhere near your age, both own cars. We drive them about 5,000 miles per year, mostly local errands, seeing friends, occasionally driving out of town. My wife drives large pieces of art occasionally, so Zipcars wouldn’t fit her needs. We aren’t part of the new E-world, where you schedule everything and pay for everything from your iPhone, but that seems to me to be a very viable model for living in an urban area. Zipcars may well be the best thing that can happen for those of us who increasingly have trouble finding parking spaces near our homes, because it may mean that fewer people will own their own car. That isn’t hostility toward car owners, to me at least — Zipcars might actually help reduce the level of congestion that would actually occur on my block, and it will be because people chose voluntarily to live that way. And some Zipcars may turn out to be all-electric, and need curbside refueling. That’s OK by me.


Schools Are Not an Island
Willie Schatz,

I quote a segment of Richard Urban’s piece in the last issue [November 17]: “. . . good character begins with self discipline and sexual abstinence before marriage.”

So, two questions: 1) Who defines “self discipline”? 2) If one has sex before marriage, does that tar one as not having “good character”?



2010 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement, December 1
Johanna Weber,

December 1, 3:00-5:00 p.m., the Environmental Protection Agency presents the 2010 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement, which recognizes communities that use the principles of smart growth to create better places. One winner will be announced in each of the following categories: Smart Growth and Green Building; Programs, Policies, and Regulations; Civic Places; Rural Smart Growth; and Overall Excellence in Smart Growth. The communities honored this year range from a rural coastal area to a historic reuse project. The award ceremony includes a panel discussion with experts from each community. Free, preregistration required at Walk in registration based on availability. At the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW, Judiciary Square Metro station.


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