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August 14, 2013

The Language of the Debate

Dear Linguists:

The language of the debate sets the terms, and the terms determine the outcome of the debate. The language of the urban planning debate in which we are currently engaged is terribly skewed, and needs to be rebalanced. One side calls itself the champion of "smart growth." What do their opponents favor, then, if it isn’t smart? Those who like neighborhoods of single-family homes with yards are derided as advocates of "sprawl." Sprawl is a bad thing; doesn’t it just sound ugly? But those who like neighborhoods of high-rise apartment buildings want "walkable" and "livable" communities, when they could equally be accused of favoring "congestion" and "crowding." Opponents of cars want urban families to be "car-free." This may be the most misleading term of all. What makes a family without access to a car "car-free," instead of "car-deprived?" As a parallel language construction, are homeless families simply "house-free," freed of the burden and expense of maintaining a household?

The problem with smart-growth language is that it may sound good in urban planning classes in colleges, but when it is tested in the public its deceptions become apparent. People just can’t be forced into one way of life. For a city to thrive it has to provide a variety of choices and lifestyles to its residents. That’s why Councilmember Tommy Wells, now that he is a candidate for mayor, is abandoning his "smart growth" slogan of a "livable, walkable" city in favor of a slogan that better disguises his true agenda, "Making DC a great place to live, work, and raise a family" (see Will Sommer’s article, Washington does have a chance to be a city that will be a great place to raise a family, but not if it continues to pursue antifamily planning policies.

Let me quote one last article by Joel Kotkin before moving on to another topic in future issues, "How Can We Be So Dense? Anti-Sprawl Policies Threaten America’s Future," "There are at least three major problems with the thesis that density is an unabashed good. First, and foremost, Census and survey data reveal that most people do not want to live cheek to jowl if they can avoid it. Second, most of the attractive highest-density areas also have impossibly high home prices relative to incomes and low levels of homeownership. And third, and perhaps most important, dense places tend to be regarded as poor places for raising families. In simple terms, a dense future is likely to be a largely childless one. . . . The density agenda need to be knocked off its perch as the summum bonum of planning policy. These policies may not hurt older Americans, like me, who bought their homes decades ago, but will weigh heavily on the already hard-pressed young adult population. Unless the drive for densification is relaxed in favor of a responsible but largely market-based approach open to diverse housing options, our children can look forward to a regime of ever-higher house prices, declining opportunities for ownership and, like young people in East Asia, an environment hostile to family formation. All for a policy that, for all its progressive allure, will make more Americans more unhappy, less familial, and likely poorer."

Gary Imhoff


Plausible Deniability?
Dorothy Brizill,

This past Tuesday, August 13, Vernon Hawkins pled guilty to one felony charge of "knowingly and willfully" making "false, fictitious, and fraudulent statement and representation" to FBI special agents in an effort to obstruct or influence the federal investigation of Mayor Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign. Hawkins is a personal friend of Gray’s, his successor as Director of Human Services in Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly’s administration, and was a key advisor to Gray in his 2010 mayoral campaign. While Hawkins’ guilty plea follows that of three other individuals associated with the 2010 campaign (Thomas Gore, Howard Brooks, and Jean Harris) it is of particular significance because it suggests that the so-called "shadow campaign," which largely operated out of buildings adjacent to Union Temple Church in Anacostia, and the official Gray campaign, whose headquarters was downtown on 6th Street, NW, were not separate and distinct operations, but instead coordinated strategy and shared resources.

In the "statement of the offense" signed by Hawkins as part of his guilty plea, he acknowledges that Jeffrey Thompson provided funds through Jean Harris for a get-out-the-vote (GOTV) initiative in support of Gray’s 2010 campaign. Hawkins had developed the GOTV strategy for the official Gray campaign. Harris then cooperated with Hawkins to hire Tracy Hardy, a resident of Philadelphia, to serve as the coordinator of a GOTV initiative funded by Jeffrey Thompson. The official Gray campaign had already hired Junelle Cavero as its GOTV coordinator, but when Hardy was hired he shared the office with her on the second floor of the building that adjoined the main 6th Street office of the Gray campaign.

Until now, Mayor Gray could plausibly claim deniability regarding the existence and operation of a shadow campaign. After all, it is difficult for a candidate like Gray to be fully aware of every aspect of his campaign, especially since the shadow campaign was largely based east of the river, in Anacostia. However, with Vernon Hawkins’ guilty plea, and with indications that he will be cooperating with federal law enforcement authorities in the future, Mayor Gray will find it difficult to maintain credibly that he was totally unaware of what was going on in the very small campaign headquarters on 6th Street. Hawkins, in his statement of offense, also suggests coordination between the Thompson-finded shadow campaign and Gray’s official campaign, and states that he "personally observed conversations between Hardy and Gray campaign officials."


The Need for Cars
Amy Hall,

Just want to reply to your postings about Attracting Families Back [August 4, 7, 11]. I recently wrote to my councilmember, growing more and more concerned reading all the back and forth about parking minimums and how this will affect families in DC. I certainly agree with your assessment about safety, schooling, and green space. In addition, however, many families will still need cars. While many of us do our best to bike, walk, and Metro — especially with children who have activities all over — a car remains critical. We could not get to a weekend soccer game in Loudoun County or a basketball tournament in Richmond in any reasonable way without a car. We could not get to twice weekly basketball practices at various Montgomery County schools without a car. Many families carpool, but we still need cars to get to many places our children go, both inside and outside of DC. So to the extent the city wants to keep families and attract new ones, city planners will also have to remember that, even despite the best efforts families make to be "car free," cars are still needed at times. To the extent planners make the city (and new housing) intolerant of cars, that too, will drive families away.


Gwen Southerland,

Growing up in DC in the 1950’s, I remember the streetcar so well. The problem, however, was when one car was stalled, all of the following streetcars were backed up and stalled. Unlike the MetroRail, there was no way to switch the cars to another track, so they just backed up with riders waiting endless hours for the cars to finally arrive. Once the inoperative car was fixed and moving, there would be a string of streetcars, one behind the other, all arriving in mass at the same time. I wonder if the city has given any thought as to how to handle the backups often caused by streetcars stuck on the track. Think that might be why the District eliminated the service.


DC Trolleys
Dan Gamber,

I wonder how Mr. Howard [themail, August 11] understands the term "Federal City." It certainly does not include all of DC. DC Transit ran lots of overhead wires in the district. See for example the map at It is of 1958, the sections with overhead have crosshatching. The places marked "pit" were where the switch from overhead to conduit took place.

As regards H Street, Mr. Howard should check out the several years of history for this project, with dozens of meetings of various authorities including Congressional. Hardly anything rash here.

As for looking like Baltimore or (still today) Philadelphia, everyone should visit a modern light rail system before complaining about the concept. Denver is an outstanding example, or if you are heading to Europe dozens in France, Germany, and even England. Most of the benefits of a subway with a fraction of the cost. In fact two additional benefits: you can see the city, and don’t have to worry about broken escalators and elevators to get to the vehicle doorway — with no steps required in most new systems.


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