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November 21, 2012

Dystopian Dreams for Thanksgiving

Dear Dystopians:

Nathan Hurst, in Wired, writes enthusiastically of San Francisco’s zoning revision that lops more than a hundred square feet off of the overly expansive 330-square feet microunits planned for DC: "Take That Tokyo! San Francisco Approves 220-Square Foot ‘Micro-Apartments’,"

The Free Online Dictionary,, defines a dystopia as "a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding." Our experts, our "urbanologists," want to build in Washington and in America’s big cities a society of disaffected singletons, alienated from others and isolated in cells that are the size of and have the charm of storage units, in skyscrapers towering high enough to block the sunlight from the streets. And they plan to build that dystopian society deliberately, with foresight, because to them overcrowding is a good thing, a positive value, that is opposed to the dread "sprawl" that to them characterizes those dull suburbs and underdeveloped cities that have too much green space and housing units that are too spacious, and are connected by roads and cars. Overcrowding, our experts claim, makes cities "livable" and "walkable." It is what makes cities desirable. Pressuring people to give up their cars, those societal evils that let them transport themselves individually, when and where they want, and pushing them into public transportation that takes them on the routes and on the schedules that government plans for them, makes the dream complete. Overcrowding only incidentally — and it’s not worth mentioning, so don’t bring it up — creates the highest possible profits for developers and the greatest possible contributions for their enablers, their kept politicians who write the rules and regulations that make the dream possible.

But it’s Thanksgiving, that family holiday in which relatives and close friends gather around a dining table (that’s too large to put in any microunit, where lonely people eat alone, standing hunched over minuscule kitchen sinks) and celebrate together. So it’s time to celebrate that even the faddish enthusiasms of government experts can eventually be tempered by reality. Kaid Banfield, "the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America," has written a smart and knowing article in The Atlantic Cities, "The Urbanist Case for Keeping DC’s Height Restrictions," Unlike most urbanologists and smart grown experts who write about the District of Columbia, Banfield writes from the perspective of someone who actually likes this city and appreciates what the residents of its neighborhoods see in it.

Banfield says that he wrote his article reluctantly and procrastinated over it because he knew the controversy he would cause among his friends and colleagues by defending the limitation on building height. And he was right. Although there are some supportive comments on the article, there are more highly critical ones. It will be worth taking the time over your long holiday weekend, after you’ve recovered from the Thanksgiving feast and after you’ve revived from your nap following the Black Friday shopping contest, to read the article and all its comments. This is the ground over which the urban planning battle will be fought in the next several years, between the dystopian dreams of the experts and the urban planners and the defenses of the neighborhoods and residents of the city. Can the wisdom of the residents protect us from the zealousness and fervor of the experts and the greed of the developers and politicians? It will be a close call; the power is not with the people.

Gary Imhoff


A Chicken Turkey in Every Pot
Dorothy Brizill,

If ever you wanted insight into the workings of the District government and many of the issue and problems plaguing it, then this past Tuesday provided a good snapshot. First, on Tuesday morning, Councilmembers Marion Barry and Vincent Orange, two of the most ethically challenged members of the council, gave away holiday turkeys to needy District residents and the politically connected. When queried on Monday, Barry initially refused to reveal who had paid for the turkeys and whether any of the donors were also DC government contractors. He further compounded the controversy by claiming that "only liberal white folks" are interested in disclosure and other good government initiatives. By Tuesday, however, Barry’s office released a statement indicating that the two thousand turkeys cost forty thousand dollars, and had been paid for by a laundry list o companies with contracts or ties to the DC government — Chartered Health Plan (which was founded by shadow campaign financier Jeffrey Thompson), Wal-Mart (which is seeking to open six stores in the District in the coming years), Intralot (the Greek company that holds the District’s controversial lottery contract), W.C. Smith, United Healthcare (a managed care organization contracted by the District government), Chapman Development, Fort Myer Construction (which is the single largest contractor with the DC Department of Transportation), and Union Temple Baptist Church (which provided the facility and staff for Mayor Gray’s "shadow" 2010 campaign).

Meanwhile, across town in Ward 5, Vincent Orange’s council staff and campaign workers distributed three hundred turkeys at Orange’s campaign headquarters on South Dakota Avenue. The turkeys arrived at approximately 11:00 a.m. in an eighteen-wheeler truck. As people lined up to receive their turkeys, Anita Bonds, the Chairman of the DC Democratic Party who is running for the party to appoint her to the at-large council seat vacated by Phil Mendelson when he won election to the Council Chairman seat vacated by Kwame Brown, planted herself at the front door of the small building. Bonds is Corporate Relations Director for Fort Myer Construction; she made certain that everyone knew that she had provided the turkeys and that they had been paid for by Fort Myer. To drive that message home, labels were placed on the turkeys reading, "Wishing you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving. From Fort Myer Construction Company in cooperation with DC At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange." In an effort to gain maximum personal advantage from the situation, Bonds engaged in extreme politicking. She approached turkey recipients and had them sign her nominating petition, which has to be submitted to the DC Democratic State Committee with two hundred signatures by next week on November 28. If an individual refused to sign, Bonds would threaten to take back "her" turkey.

Footnote: on Tuesday afternoon, when I approached Vincent Orange at the Wilson Building and asked him about the turkey giveaway, he refused to answer any questions, and raced down the corridor to his office. He wouldn’t disclose the total number of turkeys or whether they were being funded by his constituent services fund or were being donated (which I already knew from going to the distribution at his campaign headquarters and talking with his staff). He did indicate that it was possible that some turkeys were being donated, but he claimed he didn’t know the source of the donation. I tried to impress on Mr. Orange the inherent danger of pretending to be uninformed regarding the source of such an expensive shrugged gift. He was agitated by my making inquiries, and just shrugged his shoulders and said he was aware of DC reporting requirement, and that it would be accounted for in the next filing of his constituent services fund.


Campaign Financing
Jacqueline R. Mitchell,

[Re: "Clean Elections in the District," November 18] Why do we expect this process to benefit anyone other than those who write and approve the rules and regulations? Especially if they may eventually be the recipients of the repercussions of the laws, rules/regulations. How many unbiased community members were involved in the total process? Is this the same as the criminals writing the laws for themselves?


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