Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Revisiting intimate partner violence/murder

The CDC reports that "Half Of All Female Homicide Victims Are Killed By Intimate Partners" (NPR). From the article:
The report was meant to find information that could help prevent such homicides — for example, by focusing programs on women who are at the highest risk of being killed.

For example, the researchers note that patterns of nonlethal domestic violence — referred to as IPV, or intimate partner violence — could be used to prevent homicides.

First responders could assess risk factors for violence to "facilitate immediate safety planning and to connect women with other services, such as crisis intervention and counseling, housing, medical and legal advocacy," the report says.
It happens that I wrote about this last year, in "The state of "broken windows" versus "problem oriented policing" strategies in 2016: Part 1, theory and practice." The article examined the issue, reacting to a speech by noted criminologist Ronald Clarke ("Criminology and the Fundamental Attribution Error").

High Point, North Carolina shows the way forward. From the piece:

Nothing works vs. problem-oriented policing.  I think how we learned the wrong lesson in the 1980s that "nothing works" when the real lesson was that patrol-car-based reactive policing was not effective in reducing crime and that we needed to change how police officer time and related resources were being deployed in order to have significant effect, the same goes with "Broken Windows" versus "Problem-Oriented Policing." ...

"Proving Broken Windows wrong."  Unfortunately, a focus on "proving Broken Windows wrong" has diverted attention from what "Problem-Oriented Policing" got right, that if you want to reduce crime, put your energies in addressing those "situational and opportunity factors" that support criminal activity.

Recently, the Washington City Paper reported ("The Thinned Blue Line") on discontent among DC police officers.

Frankly, because the labor union has traditionally taken the "management is always wrong" approach for a long time I've had a hard time finding their positions credible.  But maybe the officers and management are both wrong, and the police department focus is not systematic enough when it comes to addressing [and developing] crime reduction strategies in focused ways.

Problem-oriented policing and crimes of violence.  Similarly, a few months back Governing Magazine ran a great piece, "How High Point, N.C., Solved Its Domestic Violence Problem," about the approach a city has taken to reducing "intimate partner violence" in particular murder around domestic violence cases.

Since High Point developed their program, they have reduced the number of murders in this category to zero.  I think about that every time I see a story on the tv news about domestic violence related murders in the DC area, which are never-ending:

-- "Man Sought After Killing Estranged Wife Outside High School," MBC4
-- "She helped bail him out of jail. Days later, police say, he killed her," Washington Post
-- "Identifying 'Red Flags' Could Prevent Domestic Murders," NBC4

Adopting situational-opportunistic factors approaches to non-property crimes is clearly needed, now.

Probably what has happened is the "low hanging fruit" opportunities have been harvested and now much more nuanced strategies are required to keep crime and crimes of violence down, as super-predators may be less resistant to simplistic situational strategies, and police departments-cities haven't responded adequately.

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Contested spaces: athletic fields | Gentrification or a planning failure -- revisiting an ongoing issue

In keeping with the theme of the failure to create structural solutions when such are needed...

The Washington Post has an article, "Field wars: Organized league clashes with pickup players in a gentrifying neighborhood," about what we might call "contested space" in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, where a league got permits to use a soccer field, crowding out "unorganized" or "pick up" use of the space.

The Post raises this as an issue of gentrification. It may be, but it's also a matter of parks planning. This came up in nearby Petworth five years ago, and the Post wrote about it then, and I responded, recommending that parks planners step in, and block out some of the schedule for "pick up" use.

"Planning for unplanning: parks and recreation," 11/13/2012

Finding_The_Game by Gwendolyn Oxenham, book coverThe Post has an article, "Rec leagues vs. Pick-up games: two sides of the playing field," about the use of recreation facilities in the city, and how organized leagues with permits for the use of fields trump the use of fields for "unorganized" pick up athletic activity.  The example is soccer.

I understand how government agencies want to minimize their work and conceive of most activities as a regulatory or rationing-type function.  If you have facilities ("Assets") you manage them, and ration their use through permits and fees.

On the other hand, a parks and recreation agency could conceive of its mission as enabling the recreation and parks needs of interests of all demographics, systematically, and stepping in to assist various constituencies/demographics when they way that they are accustomed to using facilities doesn't fit with the standard paradigm.

In basketball, it is not uncommon for court time to be scheduled for "pick up" basketball.  And in swimming, "open swim" time.

In soccer, in DC, at Petworth, and likely other places, DPR should schedule field use for "pick up" soccer as well, in view of mission goals of serving diverse segments of the population, including those who don't play in leagues.

And in some other jurisdictions, there is more accommodation for this.  In Arlington County although they charge, and in NYC, a group PSNYC / Pickup Soccer NYC has organized the unorganized, at least the English speakng ones...  And this piece from the New York Times, "Pelada: Pickup, the Essence of a Game," references a book, Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-five Countries, and the Search for Pickup Soccer on pickup soccer around the world.

Note that this is an issue across recreation and parks planning.  The most organized parks constituencies tend to be people affiliated with team sports and leagues.  Without taking extra steps to ensure that other constituencies are represented, it's very easy for recreation planning to end up focused primarily on team sports.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

For a lot of "urban problems" the issue isn't knowledge about what to do, but willingness to engage that knowledge

I can't help but laugh at the WAMU-Radio (local NPR) article ("From Rats To Confusing Forms, D.C. Recruits Scientists To Find New Solutions To Old Problems") about how DC Government got a grant to hire "scientists" to address urban problems. From the article:
Scientists and researchers working at think tanks will often offer their educated opinions on whether government programs are actually working. But a new initiative in D.C. is turning those outside experts inside the government, where they’re being tasked with finding new solutions to old problems.

It’s called The Lab, and it was funded through $3.2 million grant from the Texas-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which paid for similar “policy labs” in Houston, Michigan and Rhode Island.

The earlier labs focused on working with experts at local universities. D.C.’s is the only one where they are embedded in the government itself, creating an in-house think tank of sorts.

“It’s really groundbreaking work for us,” said City Administrator Rashad Young. “They have a set of skills that are uncommon in government.”
One of the reasons those skills are uncommon in government is that governments tend to not want to hire or keep around people who have those skills.  (I know this from personal experience.)  Critical analysis is uncomfortable for the people who are analyzed.

For example, with urban planning, the point I make is that outcomes from planning and zoning are supposed to improve quality of life, the local economy, etc., and when outcomes don't do this routinely that is an indicator that the processes that generate the outcomes are flawed.  So then I look backward and analyze the processes, and identify those elements which produce the undesirable outcomes.

The knowledge to solve many--not all--urban problems is already out there.  ... although the money may not be.

The problem is that we aren't using knowledge-based responses as a matter of course, and previously created programs ("solutions") are painted with the brand of the other party or predecessors, so that when the other other party gets elected, or chief executives (Presidents, Governors, Mayors) change, "old policies and programs" get junked in favor of "new policies and practices."

A perfect example is how Republican Governors in Maryland want to junk Smart Growth practices because they were initiated and developed by Democrats, and it is the opposite in Massachusetts.  Democrats want to junk Smart Growth practices because they were initiated and developed by Republicans.  The fact is Smart Growth principles are universal.  But they are political, in that their execution reflects different philosophies about government action and resource use.

But there are many examples of this in DC with the transition from Mayor Williams to Mayor Fenty, Mayor Fenty to Mayor Gray, and Mayor Gray to Mayor Bowser--and they're all Democrats.

The issues are:

- acknowledging knowledge, let alone caring about knowledge/evidence-based approaches
- being open to other approaches
- focusing on delivering programs through agencies rather than focusing on addressing the problem
- being willing to acknowledge failure

This piece, "All the talk of e-government, digital government, and open source government is really about employing the design method" (2012), made the point that the issue isn't "open data" or "digital solutions," but about openness to ideas and the design method more generally, regardless of the way of doing so is "analog" or "digital."

That's why I get frustrated reading articles about how "big data" will save us. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for analysis of big data sets and applying innovative solutions as a result of nuanced analysis.

But when we aren't even looking at what we might call the nuggets of "little data," what's the point?

-- "Does the focus on big data mean we miss the opportunity for better use of "little data"," 2015
-- "Creating the right program vs. the hype of big data," (2013)

Executive Branch Government tends to be incredibly hermetic. Critical analysis is seen as "personal criticism." People want cheerleaders, not alternatives. It's a joke whenever people point out the value of "telling truth to power."  That's the last thing people want to hear.

-- "Helping Government Learn," 2009

For a variety of reasons, elected officials aren't too interested in policy analysis, and government officials can be very constrained and parochial in their analytical frameworks too. Often, governments repeat the mistakes they've made before, or refuse to learn from other experiences.

For example, one of my favorite quotes is from Bismarck:
"Fools learn from experience. I prefer to profit from the experience of others."
People in government--at least elected officials and the people who work for them directly--tend to focus on "people" and individuals, not "the system" and structural conditions. I wonder if this is a problem endemic to elected officials, the kinds of people who are most likely to be successful at getting elected. Structural approaches generally tend to elude them. 

And so, many projects and initiatives fail.

-- "I get tired of all the talk about rewarding "failure"," (2017)

When an Executive Branch Government doesn't value critical analysis, it's hard to believe that a program like The Lab has a long term future.

But Legislative Branch Government isn't necessarily better.  DC would be better served if we had a unit comparable to New York City's Independent Budget Office, to provide critical analysis of budget and programs,

Although the DC Auditor, renewed under the tenure of former Councilmember Kathy Patterson, has moved that office forward in many ways.

-- "Why inspector generals don't often seek the whole truth," 2013
-- "Strengthening DC's political systems and structures: The Inspector General and DC Auditor positions should be abolished and replaced by an elected Public Advocate, 2014 (written before the DC Auditor office was revitalized, but I still believe the office should independent of either the executive or legislative branch)

There are other examples of similar kinds of capacity building and analytics initiatives focused on improving local government, from the "Grand Jury" process in California--citizen "juries" review government programs and agencies to the Municipal Research and Information Service in the State of Washington.

Not having such organizations functioning that way in DC hurts the quality of local government.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Purple Line moves forward

Light rail in Minneapolis.  Flickr photo by Nick Benson.

Various media outlets report today that some of the legal limbo that held up moving forward on the Purple Line has ended ("Federal court ruling enables Purple Line to move ahead," WBAL-TV).

The ruling keeps a separate lawsuit fighting the project overall in play, while approving the environmental impact findings that had been approved earlier, rather than requiring a new environmental impact study taking into account degradation of the quality of the Metrorail system and the concomitant drop in ridership.

Rather than write a big long new post, it's an excuse to call attention to previously written pieces on the subject:

1.  With the Purple Line, Prince George's County has been given a second chance to reposition its land use planning and development paradigm around transit connectivity, which it didn't do with the Metrorail.

-- "The future of mixed use development/urbanization: Part 3, Prince George's County, where's the there?," 2011
-- "A recommended new planning direction for Prince George's County," 2011
-- "Another lesson that Prince George's County has a three to five year window to reposition based on visionary transportation planning," 2011
-- "Frustration #3: the talk about transit oriented development and Prince George's County," 2013

2.  At this time, the Purple Line is as close as we're going to get to a Crossrail-type project, but even though it's nothing like the scale of projects in London and Paris, it does have the ability to strengthen significantly the fixed rail transit network in Metropolitan Washington--which is why some of the reasoning in the early holdings on the lawsuit was misguided.

-- "Maybe the Purple Line light rail project in Suburban Maryland is a lot bigger deal than is recognized (It's our Crossrail)," 2016

3.  The Purple Line ought to be seized as an opportunity to drive other complementary changes across the transit network, to make the Purple Line more successful from the outset, and to improve significantly the transit network.

-- "Setting the stage for the Purple Line light rail line to be an overwhelming success: Part 2 | proposed parallel improvements across the transit network," 2017

This piece lists 19 items to improve the existing transit network, leveraging the development of the Purple Line as a way to do so:
  • Change the WMATA Metrorail map so that it includes the Purple Line and regional railroad services
  • Integrate the Purple Line light rail line into the Metrorail fare system
  • Integrate MARC fares into the SmarTrip/ CharmCard fare media system
  • Introduce bi-directional passenger rail service between DC and Frederick on the MARC Brunswick Line
  • Consider charging DC-Montgomery County trips on a bi-directional Brunswick Line using the Metrorail/Purple Line tolling/fare schedule. That would treat mileage from railroad trips in the context of a complete (linked) trip on railroad+subway+light rail as a single fare
  • The White Flint Sector Plan calls for an infill MARC station. Plans to build that station should be accelerated as part of this proposal
  • Provide integrated train arrival information screens at Metrorail, Light Rail, and MARC stations
  • Provide integrated bus arrival and departure information screens at Metrorail, Light Rail, and MARC stations
  • Bus service in certain corridors between DC and Maryland should be extended and/or frequency increased to better link these areas to the new light rail service
  • Montgomery County bus system improvements with the launch of the Purple Line and bi-directional service on the MARC Brunswick Line should include launch of planned Bus Rapid Transit services
  • Rearticulate, rebrand, and reposition-extend the Prince George's County TheBus bus transit service. Change the name of the service and the graphic design of the bus livery
  • Consider a redesign and rebranding of the metropolitan area's bus systems into an integrated framework, comparable to that of GoTransit in the Raleigh-Durham area
  • Set the opening of the Purple Line as the deadline for the integration of the MARC Penn Line and VRE Fredericksburg Line into one combined railroad passenger service
  • Set the opening of the Purple Line as the deadline for the implementation of a full-fledged integrated Night Owl bus network for the DC metropolitan area
  • Create a cheap weekend pass to use the local transit network, especially Metrorail
  • Incorporate quantum improvements in bicycle facilities across the mobility network in association with the launch of the Purple Line
  • Rearticulate transportation demand management programming and services in conjunction with the PL launch, including a single network of "customer information centers"
  • WMATA should upgrade its Metrorail station bus shelters
  • Create "sustainable mobility" corridors in Silver Spring (and other places), complementing the new PL.
4.  To accomplish the various local economic and equity development goals and objectives stated by various groups, stakeholders, and elected officials, Montgomery and Prince George's County need to create a bi-county development authority.

-- "Purple line planning in suburban Maryland as an opportunity to integrate place and people focused initiatives into delivery of new transit systems," 2014
-- "Quick follow up to the Purple Line piece about creating a Transportation Renewal District and selling bonds to fund equitable development," 2014
-- "To build the Purple Line, perhaps Montgomery and Prince George's Counties will have to create a "Transportation Renewal District" and Development Authority," 2015

5. The Purple Line affords the opportunity for Montgomery and Prince George's County to rethink their brand and identity as it relates to "design."

-- "Using the Purple Line to rebrand Montgomery and Prince George's Counties as Design Forward," 2017

6.  The Purple Line is an opportunity to reposition Silver Spring for Montgomery County and New Carrollton Maryland for Prince George's County.

Silver Spring:

Fenton Street, East-West Highway, and Wayne Avenue, Silver Spring, as building blocks for a Silver Spring "Sustainable Mobility District"
-- "
Part 1: Setting the stage"
-- "Part 2: Program items 1- 9"
-- "Part 3: Program items 10-18"
-- "Part 4: Conclusion

New Carrollton:

-- "Making over New Carrollton as a transit-centric urban center and Prince George's County's "New Downtown"," 2017 (an update of a piece from 2014)

While it seems crazy, I think that steps for planning extensions to the Purple Line on either end should get underway also.

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Oregon's excise tax for bikes: bring it on!

Update:  Great piece with a similar argument, from the Tempe Bicycle Action Group, "On Portland’s Bike Tax & Pittman-Robertson (But for Bicycling)"

From the conclusion:
I’ve long thought that the cycling industry should employ the strategies and tactics that the hunting and firearm industries use. This is a simple persuasion play using their exact tactics – we pay for our own stuff and thus we deserve it. This is so powerful that it cannot be outflanked and there is no city department or politician who can say you don’t get use your ear marked tax dollars. It was so successfully in the hunting industry that, 13 years after it was passed, a similar law was passed to benefit fishing and the fishing industry begged for it to pass!

The cycling industry can lead the way here. However, it will take a leadership change along with advocates who understand that most of the arguments against cycling are based on perception. Instituting a C-PR type bill would immediately swing the tide in transportation funding and wipe out the largest perception: Cyclists don’t pay their way.

The recent tax on bikes in Portland has immediately put the cycling community on the same plane as motorists. Some say the the tax was instituted as a punitive measure by non-cyclist groups intended to punish cyclists – even it it is, it was a grave tactical error. We’ll soon see whether the business owners and advocates in PDX embrace their new found power or continue to look this gift horse in the mouth.

I consider it hypocritical to advocate for stuff like bicycle infrastructure or arts facilities and not think about how to pay for it. 

WRT arts and cultural facilities, I've written about this extensively and am a fan of systematic tax assessment districts (sales and/or property) creating arts and parks districts that function at the metropolitan scale, such as the Huron Clinton Metropolitan Parks Authority in Southeastern Michigan, the Regional Asset District in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, the Zoo, Arts, and Parks Tax in Salt Lake County, Utah, and the Science, and the Science and Culture Facilities District in Metropolitan Denver.

The advantage of metropolitan scale funding streams is that typically major arts anchors are located in the center cities, but many of the attendees come from the suburbs so a metropolitan rather than a city-exclusive tax makes funding more congruent.

I am not a fan of "sin taxes" on tobacco to fund the arts, like what Cleveland does ("Cigarette tax helps arts achieve twice the attendance," Cleveland Plain Dealer) because the tax doesn't target likely users of what the funding stream will support.

Today's Washington Post has a story ("Bicyclists fear that Oregon's controversial bike tax could spread") about Oregon's new excise tax on bicycles making the point that anti-taxers and some cycling advocates don't favor it.

First, I'd say the excise tax on bicycles isn't a lot different than the stream of taxes on fuels and outdoor equipment that fund certain land and water conservation activities or excise taxes on cars or gasoline.

Sure, excise taxes on cars should be a lot higher than they are to better compensate for the costs imposed on government for maintaining the road network.  The same goes for gasoline taxes, which I have written about ad infinitum.

Second, although you can make the argument like how there are tax credits for renewable energy, electric cars, etc., to encourage and incentivize optimal behavior and consumer choices, bikes shouldn't be taxed because as a choice of transportation, it is an almost incalculably better form of transportation compared to motor vehicles.

Third, the last thing I'd want to do is call myself an intellectual hypocrite, the way I criticize arts groups that seek exemptions from admissions taxes on tickets for performances while asking for public funding.

Anti-tax advocates are lying if they state their arguments are about government overreach because they don't appear to be concerned much about or believe in "society" as a separate from government, and how government is the means by which we organize to provide "public goods."  Instead, they abhor people coming together to fund projects that improve quality of life calling it a form of "collectivism."

It's hard to come up with many situations when I would be on the same side as such folk.  This isn't one of them.

Fourth, I do agree it won't raise much money, and that makes it questionable.  Yes, it's more likely that the tax was created as a sop to motordom, as many motorists complain about bicyclists not paying their fair share for roads, forgetting the reality that since half the cost of roads are paid by general funds, bicyclists do pay their fare share anyway. 

Frankly, given that I purchase a new bike only every 7-10 years, I can't see this being a huge funding source.  But every little bit helps.  (Actually, an excise tax on tune ups would probably raise more money.) 

And by having a $200 floor at which the excise tax would be imposed, too much money would be left on the table, because most bikes sold at discount stores like Walmart or Target cost less than that.
Target Weekly Ad, 6/18/2017

This would negatively impact bicycle-exclusive and outdoor equipment stores vis a vis large chain retailers, which would not be particularly supportive of independent retailing and building a local economy.

Fifth, rather than complain about bike excise taxes and subject bicyclists to criticism that we aren't interested in paying "our fair share," it would behoove us to come up with the right and better agenda for promoting biking for transportation/sustainable mobility as a part of taxing and other government  policy and action.  A bike sales excise tax is but one element. 

Here is a by no means complete but bigger set of issues where I would like to see action by federal, state, and local legislators:
  • Higher federal and state/local excise taxes for motor vehicle purchases
  • Getting higher commuter tax benefits for biking as right now it is $20/month, versus $255/month for transit or parking
  • Allowing the combination of transit+biking benefits to be used together, rather than forcing a choice of one or the other, which would be particularly useful for bike sharing
  • Payroll deduction plans for buying bikes (the UK does this)
  • Creating a national system of "versement transport" (transit withholding) taxes, like France (a form is used in Oregon and in Greater New York City 
  • Reducing local taxation on car sharing (When Sharing is Taxing: Comparing the Tax Burden on Carsharing in Major U.S. Cities, Chaddick Institute of Metropolitan Development, DePaul University)
  • Higher prices for residential car parking permits
  • requiring that bikes typically used for transportation have as original equipment on the bike, front and rear lights
  • create a standard for turn signaling lighting for bicycles and include such lights as original equipment 

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A problem for cities like Detroit isn't lack of land for development

... this comes up in legacy center cities that have lost much of their past base of manufacturing, they have thousands of acres, if not tens of square miles of unused land.

So the article, "Factories or Runways? Municipal Airports Face Economic Pressure," in yesterday's New York Times about cities like Detroit looking to deaccession their municipal airports (I lived for a time near the old "Detroit City Airport" in the late 1960s...) to "offer prime space for development" misses the point.

There is plenty of other land already available elsewhere, not being developed, and much of it is better located.

Furthermore, in weak real estate markets, you want to focus development on the areas where you have critical mass, and build from there, rather than do development willy-nilly.

E.g., in the DC area, Prince George's County claims to be focused on transit oriented development, but its two biggest projects, National Harbor ("National Harbor Is a Private Urban Island Designed for Fun—If You Can Get There," Washington City Paper) and Konterra ("Development in Prince George's Could Rival Tyson's Corner, NBC4) lack high quality transit connections and are located outside of the county's core.

Similarly, earlier in the week the Washington Post ran a story, "Isiah Leggett's signature plan for Shady Grove is less lucrative than promised," about the failure by Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett to stoke development of county-owned property in the Gaithersburg area. From the article:
The idea was ambitious when Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett pitched it in 2008: transform 90 acres of county-owned industrial land at the Red Line’s Shady Grove terminus into a transit-friendly urban village.

Leggett’s Smart Growth Initiative would be a break-even proposition for taxpayers over time, he said, and might even make money as the county got an attractive new residential neighborhood and replaced outdated warehouses and garages with state-of-the-art facilities elsewhere.

But nearly a decade in, as Leggett (D) nears the end of his 12-year tenure, this signature project has not gone forward as expected. Only a fraction of the money anticipated from land sales to private developers has been paid so far. And the county’s difficulty in finding a new site for a school system bus depot has slowed progress on a major portion of the planned Shady Grove community, including a new park and elementary school.
Shady Grove Station is about 20 miles from Downtown Washington.  It's not centrally located.  Other developments in the vicinity are doing poorly, like Lake Forest Mall ("Struggling Lakeforest Mall faces foreclosure," Washington Business Journal), even though sprawl development continues unabated, although some firms like Marriott, are relocating their headquarters from outer suburban locations to transit-connected locations closer in ("Marriott Signs Letter of Intent for Headquarters in Downtown Bethesda ," press release).

In any case, less well connected land is underdeveloped for a reason.

This is true in DC as well.  The city government has spent millions of dollars of time and energy aimed at redeveloping the Skyland Shopping Center in Ward 7, a more than 20 year process ("Blaming Walmart for Skyland's failure is misdirected: the culprits are DC's economic development and elected officials") and the St. Elizabeths West Campus ("Here's what the St. Elizabeths East first phase will look like," WBJ).

These sites won't develop until better located properties on the north and west side of the Anacostia River are built out.

Even the redevelopment of the Walter Reed Medical Campus will have that issue, vis a vis other sites that are better located or have more desirable demographics. The Wegmans that developers were trying to land at WRMC is being developed on Wisconsin Avenue in Ward 3 instead ("Wegmans to open in DC, anchor Fannie Mae redevelopment," WTOP Radio).

The struggle for local governments is that for political reasons they want and need to push these projects, but because the projects aren't economically viable on their own terms as 100% private sector funded, they require extranormal government funding, and take forever, with many failures along the way, because they are marginal to begin with.

On the other hand, it's very difficult for elected officials to say "the market isn't ready, so your neighborhood/this site will languish for a long long time and there's nothing we can really do about it."

Instead, they throw tons of money at it, in the end for naught, but no one can accuse them of not trying, not doing anything.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Trump's quest to renegotiate NAFTA might be comparable to Brexit

The reality of "Brexit" is that the UK's economy is integrally tied to Europe, and "getting out" of the EU and the old Common Market is disadvantageous in many ways.  With manufacturing it involves the fact that most companies have tightly integrated supply chains that cross borders.

President Trump has initiated renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement because he believes it is disfavorable to the US ("Trump administration unveils goals in renegotiating NAFTA," Washington Post).

Comparable to how most UK newspapers weren't and aren't all that honest about the UK's place in Europe--the wealthy and conservative newspaper owners favored Brexit so as a result so did the coverage of their newspapers--I think that we might get better coverage of this issue from Canadian and Mexican newspapers.  Not because the US papers are dishonest, but because NAFTA might matter more to the counterparties, and this is reflected in media coverage and the depth of reporting.

For example, this article, "Canada has a secret weapon in the coming NAFTA talks" from the Toronto Globe and Mail is far more detailed than the Washington Post article cited above.

Also see the TGM article, "What the US wants from NAFTA talks." (Although the Post has more detailed follow up coverage.)

El Universal, a major daily in Mexico City, has extensive coverage, including "Canadá y México conversarán sobre renegociación del TLCAN."

I finally read the book A Prayer for the City, the story of Ed Rendell's mayoralty in Philadelphia, from 1991-1999, although the book covers the period up to early 1997.  The reality is that most of what Mayor Rendell had to deal with was the closure of much of the city's manufacturing base, including the Philadelphia Navy Yard, which had 8,000 direct employees.

One of the stories the book recounts is a meeting with Kraft, the firm that bought Breyer's Ice Cream, a firm founded in Philadelphia.  Because of various lines of ice cream business, the company had far more manufacturing capacity than demand, and the Philadelphia plant was the oldest and least efficient, with multiple floors, while newer plants were one story and had less congested transportation connections. 

Kraft wasn't interested in incentives to keep the plant open, they would have wanted a new plant on a single floor, but they had no need for one.  Had Philadelphia given them incentives, it would have been $60 million or more, for 50 jobs.

As the TGM article makes clear, while US manufacturing employment has dropped significantly, manufacturing output has not because of continuous and significant capital investment in automation and digitization, abetted by the fact that as long as interest rates are so low, it's cheaper to invest in capital than in labor.

In short, mass production is "mass" in terms of output, but not in terms of labor requirements and a source of employment.

Thinking about US manufacturing is more complicated by the fact that more firms are not US owned are major producers.

For example, auto output by Ford, GM, and Chrysler has dropped, but plants owned by BMW, Honda, Nissan, Toyota, and Mercedes and other firms have been added to the mix so that overall production is not down.

This has changed the geography and organization of various manufacturing sectors so that the South is a more significant center of production compared to the past, when the North/Midwest was the nation's "Industrial Heartland."

-- Industry Week magazine


Monday, July 17, 2017

Local elections in Seattle, 2017

Local elections are underway in Seattle/King County Washington. The state has mail-in ballots, and the primary election date is August 1st.  Seattle is one of the nation's leading cities--the other is San Francisco--pushing a significantly progressive political agenda.  (Cities like DC vie for a similar title, but aren't really in the same league.)

Much to the consternation of the center-right Seattle Times newspaper, the city tends to be  supportive of local taxing initiatives to support transit and other endeavors, even when such measures fail at the scale of the entire county.

A couple elections ago, Seattle switched from an nine seat at-large Council system to seven districts and two at-large seats.  Just before the switch, the city elected Kshama Sawant, affiliated with Socialist Alternative, to Council.  With the switch to districts, she was re-elected as a representative for the Capitol Hill district.

The Seattle Port Commission, which runs the airport and the seaport, is publicly elected too.

In this year's election, 21 people, including former mayor Mike McGinn, are running for mayor.  The incumbent, Ed Murray, declined to run after being accused of non-work related improprieties.

The Stranger is Seattle's leading alternative weekly (although compared to most other cities, the second alternative paper, the Seattle Weekly, holds its own).  It's endorsement articles are always a great read, as is the one for this election, "The Stranger's Endorsements for the August 1, 2017, Primary Election."

Reading their endorsements of Jon Grant for an at-large seat and Cary Moon for Mayor make me feel conservative, although I have to admit that my progressivism is mediated by pragmatism and acceptance of the status quo shaped by the Growth Machine/neoliberalism.

Grant is affiliated with Socialist Alternative.  Moon co-wrote a series of articles in The Stranger on Seattle's housing crisis of high velocity in pricing appreciation, and the loss of lower priced housing to redevelopment:

-- "Hot Money and Seattle's Growing Housing Crisis: Part One"
-- "Parasitical Finance and Seattle's Growing Housing Crisis: Part Two"
-- "Why NIMBYs And Their Haters Can't Offer a Deep Solution to Seattle's Growing Housing Crisis: Part Three
-- "Solutions to Seattle's Growing Housing Crisis: Part Four"

It would be unheard of for a candidate for election in DC to produce the equivalent.

The Seattle Times concurs that the field of Mayoral candidates is surprisingly deep ("Election shocker: This is the best field of Seattle mayoral candidates in decades." While the Municipal League didn't rank highest the most radical candidates, the columnist Danny Westneat called Cary Moon and Nikkita Oliver the smartest. From the article:
The Municipal League of King County has been using citizen volunteers to interview and rate candidates for a century. This year’s Seattle mayoral field got by far the highest rankings in the past 50 years (that’s as far back as I looked).

The Muni League approaches it as a job interview: Do the candidates have the background and the skills to be mayor? This time, three earned the top grade of “outstanding.”

No Seattle mayoral field going back to 1977 has had more than one “outstanding” candidate. And in four elections — 2001, 1989, 1985 and 1981 — the medal-deserving volunteers couldn’t find a single candidate that earned an A grade.

The A grades this time went to former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell, state Sen. Bob Hasegawa and former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan. ...

I haven’t even mentioned the two smartest candidates. Urban planner Cary Moon and educator Nikkita Oliver often drive the mayoral debates with their ideas. Neither has much experience for the job, especially on the managerial side, yet both still earned “very good” ratings from the Muni League.
An interesting tax measure on the ballot applies to King County's entirety, not just Seattle, King County Proposition No. 1 (Sales Tax for Cultural Access Program). The proposed sales tax increase would fund (1) cultural programming in schools; (2) transportation to cultural programs for public school students; and (3) an expansion of programming by cultural organizations to serve underreached, low income, populations.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

I guess Vince Gray will be running for mayor next year

I noticed these signs popping up on various arterials in the outer city over the weekend.

Run Vince Run campaign sign, Blair Road NW, Washington DC
Run Vince Run campaign sign, Blair Road NW, Washington DC


Placemaking at Metrorail stations

Flower boxes at the Brookland-CUA Metrorail station, on the CUA side (west side station exit)
Flower boxes at the Brookland-CUA Metrorail station, on the CUA side (west side station exit).

I presume these have been put up by Catholic University, not WMATA. They've been up for a few months.

Also see "Transit, stations, and placemaking: stations as entrypoints into neighborhoods" and "Thinking systematically about bus transit service improvements: spurred by Columbia SC, Edmonton AB, and Baltimore."

I've been thinking we need more systematic "Adopt a Place" programs in DC:

-- bus stops
-- transit stations
-- streams
-- trails
-- trailheads
-- semi-abandoned park triangles

I've gotten into the habit lately of a couple times a month, picking up trash and recyclables around the Rhode Island Avenue Metrorail Station MBT trailhead, plus I've decided to put exclusively at the Little Free Library that is there at the trailhead my "discard" books and magazines.

San Francisco's "Green Benefits District" is a way to create a means to self-tax at the neighborhood scale for such improvements ("In S.F.'s Dogpatch, innovative plan to pay for park upkeep," San Francisco Chronicle).

More on these topics later.

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Washington Post reports that plans to redevelop the FBI headquarters are being scuttled

FBI Building, Wikipedia photoSee "Federal government cancels costly, decade-long search for a new FBI headquarters."

According to the article:
The federal government is canceling the search for a new FBI headquarters, according to officials familiar with the decision, putting a more than decade-long effort by the bureau to move out of the crumbling J. Edgar Hoover Building back at square one.

The decision follows years of failed attempts by federal officials to persuade Congress to fully back a plan for a campus in the Washington suburbs paid for by trading away the Hoover Building to a real estate developer and putting up nearly $2 billion in taxpayer funds to cover the remaining cost.

... Officials and executives involved in the process also said a lack of permanent leadership at both agencies [the FBI and the General Services Administration] could have hindered the case for funding.
Interestingly, given the alleged interest by President Trump in promoting infrastructure development, this is an example of the incredibly backwards way that the Federal Government handles capital budgeting.

First, unlike state and local governments, the federal government doesn't have a separate capital budgeting process separate from annual appropriations ("The FBI Building as another example of 'I told you so'," and "Town-city management: 'We are all asset managers now'").

This creates distortions in how projects are conceived and scored.

Second, (unfortunately) large projects require specific approval by Congress, and because so many Representatives and Senators believe that "the government is bad by definition" they start from a position of being unfavorable.

I expected this to be a big problem for DC's economy with the election of President Trump and Republican control of both houses of Congress ("Implications of a Trump/McConnell/Ryan Administration on DC's commercial real estate market") and sadly I am being proved right.

Third, this is accentuated by the fact that long term projects are funded from a particular year's appropriations. Which gives rise to arguments that such investments "add to the deficit" rather than add to the economic productivity of the federal government.

Because of this, the GSA did something I thought made little sense, promoting the idea of a land trade "to get a new building for free," which did not work out because it wasn't economically feasible, and it confused the issue.  Note that the Government Printing Office tried the same thing a few years ago, for nought, because again, the economics didn't make sense for the private sector ("GAO-09-392R, Government Printing Office: Issues Faced in Obtaining a New Facility").

Infrastructure is an investment.  Note that the "adding to the deficit" argument is usually fatuous because of the experience of the Civilian Conservation Corps ("Civilian Conservation Corps honored, USA Today), the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration.

From the VCU webpage "The Social Welfare History Project":
Between July 1933 and March 1939, the PWA funded the construction of more than 34,000 projects, including airports, electricity-generating dams, and aircraft carriers; and seventy percent of the new schools and one third of the hospitals built during that time. It also electrified the Pennsylvania Railroad between New York and Washington, D.C. PWA workers built the state capitol building in Oregon, the highway linking the Florida Keys to the mainland United States, the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, the Federal Trade Commission Building in Washington, D.C., the city hall in Kansas City, Outer Drive Bridge in Chicago, the Ellis Island Ferry Building, Washington National Airport and the Grand Coulee Dam in the state of Washington.
Not only did these programs put people to work, these Depression-era "works programs" built significant infrastructure across the country--buildings, roads, bridges--which contributed to the post-war economic resurgence of the US, and many of these projects continue to serve the nation today.

(The right kind of) Infrastructure sets the stage for economic growth.

A chance for reconsideration does have some benefits.  While this sets back redevelopment of the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor by at least a decade, and makes effective management of the FBI that much harder, one good thing could come out of restarting the process--except for the fact that the people running the Executive and Legislative Branches of the Federal Government are anti-government and the Federal Government doesn't have a separate capital budgeting process--new criteria could be set that make keeping the FBI in DC a greater possibility.

Resizing/reallocating space.  In terms of space demands and optimal sizing of agency functions, the FBI could consider dividing certain headquarters/management functions and operations functions and keep the headquarters functions in DC, while relocating certain other functions elsewhere* either in the city or elsewhere in the region.

-- "Intelligent Enterprise," James Brian Quinn
-- Resizing or Right-Sizing?, CCIM Institute
-- "Law firms are 'rightsizing' their office spaces, JLL says," Boston Globe
-- Rightsizing the Multi-Divisional Firm: Individual Response to Change Across Divisions," M@n@gement Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1999, 195-208

While there are many problems now with having federal agencies "in the city" because security requirements usually require that buildings be set apart from the city rather than being integrated within it, agglomeration economies make keeping the headquarters functions of agency in the city beneficial, being close to the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, ATF, Congress, and other agencies.

Possibly DC could consider trying to lease part of the St. Elizabeths East Campus to the Federal Government for the FBI.  Or maybe, at least for the management/headquarters functions, there would be enough room on the St. Elizabeths West Campus, which remains under the control of the Federal Government.

* I am in the process of writing a piece comparing the issues of the DC and NYC rail transit systems, and the Southern Rail system in Greater London and Penn Station in NYC, because the issues are different, but too often conflated (e.g., "Call it Metro schadenfreude: As New York's subway woes worsen Washingtonians offer sympathy," Washington Post).

The problem with the NYC transit system is popularity reaching the system's breaking point, while in DC it's about failure to maintain the system and the addition of a new line stretching the system beyond equilibrium.

Anyway, as part of the review of the problems with the London railroad system, the British Government commissioned a review by rail executive Chris Gibb. Reading the report I was struck by what a difference in seriousness, rigor and thoroughness compared to the recent announcement of a million dollar prize "to fix" the NYC transit system by Gov. Cuomo ("Subway upgrade contest from Cuomo to pay $3M to anyone who can fix signals," AM New York).

It's obvious what the problems are with the NYC Subway--they need new signal systems capable of supporting more trains, and continued investment in tracks and equipment. Instead, lack of budget means it will take decades with the current capital program before the signals are upgraded.

The Gibb report made some amazing recommendations ("Gibb report into improving Southern performance published," Railway Gazette), recognizing that when creating the franchise by merging three different railroads, the "program" on offer was not seriously evaluated or "rationalized," and the reality is that the lines compete, even today, so that the timetable is not optimized for efficient operation.

Given that the system (Southern Railway, Thameslink, Gatwick Express) is the busiest in Britain, the various changes put on the franchise, including new equipment and moving to single engineer operation which is opposed by the Union and led to labor action, along with unnecessary duplication stresses the system. 

Given the usage--not unlike the problems experienced in NYC both on the subway and at Penn Station--extra normal shocks to the system like derailments bring everything to a standstill, although in the case of Southern Rail, Gibb argued it was the labor union strikes and other actions that pushed the system to the edge ("Southern rail strike causes worst disruption in 20 years," Guardian).

Five recommendations stuck out to me:

1. Rightsizing the schedule between the services, focusing on the Thameslink brand
2. Retroceding the Southern Metro train line, which functions more as transit for London, to Transport for London, to provide more resources
3. Electrifying the one diesel line, to make common operation possible, and releasing the diesel equipment to other areas, and eliminating the need for investment in diesel-specific storage and maintenance facilities**
4. Possibly selling the Gatwick station to the airport, because it matters more to the airport to invest in the station than it does to the rail system
5. Changing the way hiring and depots are organized, distributing staff around the system in ways that mean more time is spent moving active trains rather than on off-schedule equipment moves

This kind of detailed analysis seems to be out of the scope of similar processes in the US. Instead, there is political grandstanding.

** Similarly, when David Gunn ran Amtrak, he changed the Cardinal--the only train Amtrak created on its own--from ending in DC, to NYC. He did this because NYC had the maintenance equipment already in place for that kind of train and DC did not. Rather than pay for and install such equipment in DC, he routed the train to NYC. Interestingly, not only did it save money, it increased ridership of that train by 40%.

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Monday, July 10, 2017

The need for a new rural community cooperative movement

A shuttered Walmart store in West Virginia, Getty Images photo.

The Guardian has a story, "What happened when Walmart left?," about the impact of Walmart closing its store in McDowell County, West Virginia, not only in terms of jobs but in reduced access to food and other consumer goods. 

From time to time I've written about this issue and the very rare response in some communities to create community owned businesses to replace closed stores.

In terms of economic development planning, this is what I term the difference between "building a local economy" and "economic development planning."  Traditional economic development planning looks to others for solutions, and focuses on recruiting for profit businesses. 

By contrast, building a local economy focuses on building solutions that have greater local economic impact.  In the case of McDowell County, West Virginia, they shouldn't be looking to Walmart for their salvation.

Just last week, the Christian Science Monitor did an update ("A former exec at Trader Joe's grows another kind of grocery store") on the "salvage food store" Daily Table, created by Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe's, in Boston, aiming to bring more healthful food options to an under-stored neighborhood in Boston.

The article mentions there are eight "non-profit" food stores in the US, but didn't name them, although I am familiar with Fare & Square in Chester, Pennsylvania. A couple years ago, I came across a story of a for profit supermarket owner helping a low income community create a food store. 

And there is the UpLift Solutions consulting firm division of Brown's Supermarkets, a ShopRite member based in Philadelphia ("Why A Philadelphia Grocery Chain Is Thriving In Food Deserts," NPR). 

UpLift assists supermarket firms in working in urban markets, which are problematic because costs tend to be 30% higher than suburban stores ("Access to Affordable Food is Key for UpLift Solutions," AARP).

The CSM story didn't mention cooperative grocery stores, which are another category of community retail. The University of Nebraska agriculture extension program has a unit focused on helping communities create retail cooperatives.

When I read these kinds of stories, I keep wondering why there isn't a systematic response in the US to provide more focused rural retail economic development assistance--although I first thought about this in terms of under-stored low income urban communities--comparable to that of the UK's Plunkett Foundation.

The Plunkett Foundation is focused on quality of life in rural communities and because of the shrinking population in many rural areas, they have a number of programs promoting co-operatives, community shops, community pubs, and other enterprises.

--  Community Shops, Plunkett Foundation
--  Community Pubs, Plunkett Foundation
--  Community Food Enterprises, Plunkett Foundation
--  Publications, Plunkett Foundation

At the same time, I think community owned retail might be an option for impoverished urban areas, or some kind of hybrid social-public-private ownership scheme, because these areas have the same problems that rural areas have in terms of reduced economic circumstances making their areas unattractive to traditional retailers and restaurants.

I'm not saying it would be easy to do.  Urban stores have real problems in terms of attracting quality staff and have big problems with what is called "shrinkage" or stolen goods--not just by "patrons" but also employees.

But it's a way to offer retail coverage that might not otherwise be obtainable.  Combining public sector elements, like a community health clinic with a pharmacy, or a WIC/food stamps center and community kitchen with a supermarket, might be a way to pull it off.

But social entrepreneurialism on the part of nonprofits is rare, although it does exist, from the retail operations of Goodwill and Salvation Army, to a few nonprofit restaurants and the retail activities of NYC's Housing Works organization.

Similarly, restaurants could be run by food service training programs as part of high school and community college vocational programs.  Etc.

The Plunkett Foundation offers a membership program for such shops, which includes bulk buying schemes and technical assistance.

Food cooperatives have the advantage of being able to lean on the resources of the National Cooperative Grocers Association and the National Cooperative Bank.  But without strong support systems, food co-ops have a tough time in low income areas, since they are funded by capital from members.

Nonprofit supermarkets.  In Chester, Pennsylvania, a nonprofit supermarket called Fare & Square was launched by the Philadelphia area food bank Philabundance, and has been open for more than four years ("Nation's First Non-Profit Supermarket Is Picking Up Steam,"Next City; "Q&A: Fare & Square, an oasis in a U.S. food desert," FreshFruit Portal).

Unlike the fairly grim stores that are typical of PriceRite and Sav-A-Lot and other firms focusing on low income consumers, the interiors of the Fare & Square store are attractive, and the organization has strong branding and identity systems.

I believe it would make sense for other cities to work with Philabundance and create a platform out of this store that could be opened in other locations, a kind of franchise for social entrepreneurialism in the grocery sector.

According to the CSM article, cities like Providence, Rhode Island and the Bronx borough of New York City are clamoring for Doug Rauch to open Daily Table stores there.  But there are other options, as the Fare & Square and cooperative grocery models demonstrate.

Soft goods.  Selling other goods is tougher.  There aren't many models I don't think in the US, but working collectively, I don't see why such a model couldn't be created, comparable to Fare & Square.

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Bicycling information systems for bikeways

I've written about ideas to create community information networks--digital (see item #10, here, "PL #5: Creating a Silver Spring "Sustainable Mobility District" | Part 3: Program items 10-18 ) and analog--at the city and sub-city scale.

And I've suggested that bicycle route signage use branding and identity systems (see also the Better Bikeways signage project by Joseph Prichard and "Greater Knoxville Greenway signage project"), including map signage and signs with URLs/contact information for bikeway planning.

Dealing currently with the creation of cycletrack infrastructure in the Greater Takoma area because I sit on the neighborhood "Public Works and Infrastructure" Committee, I have been thinking about incorporating (1) community information boards; (2) murals; and (3) underpass lighting as part of the planning and construction process. 

There is a community information board (and a Little Free Library) at the Rhode Island Metrorail Station "trailhead" on the Metropolitan Branch Trail, and a neighborhood association occasionally posts yard sign meeting notices at the R Street "trailhead," but these are exceptions.
Map sign, bulletin board and Little Free Library at the Rhode Island Avenue pedestrian bridge trailhead, Metropolitan Branch Trail
I think this is the only bulletin board placed on a DC bike trail.

This weekend I noticed that the "Bike to the Beach" fundraising event posted signs promoting the event on various trails and cycletracks throughout the city.  I thought that was pretty smart, a well-targeted way to reach potential participants.

It reinforced the idea of the need for more systematic delivery of cycling-related information along bikeways, besides counters, and maybe digital information systems can be integrated into bike counter kiosks as one method.

A feed could be created as part of local and metropolitan bicycle planning, besides government agencies, it could include info from bicycle organizations and publications like the regional Spokes Magazine for the bicycling community, even ads (to help fund it).

15th Street Cycletrack between V and W Streets
15th Street Cycletrack between V and W Streets NW

Kansas City Streetcar Stop with Smart City Post Kiosks
Kansas City Streetcar Stop with Smart City Post Kiosks.  Flickr photo by Eric Bowers.

Bicycle counter, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Bicycle counter, Broadway Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Photo by Michael Lee, Boston Globe.  Why not make this a kiosk incorporating biking related notices and information?

I noticed from images that on a cycletrack in Sao Paulo they have digital advertising kiosks.
Digital ad signage on Avenida Paulist ciclovia/cycletrack, Sao Paulo
Digital ad signage on Avenida Paulist ciclovia/cycletrack, Sao Paulo.

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Sunday, July 09, 2017

How about kiddie amusement rides as temporary installations in traffic circle "parks"

Most of DC's "traffic circle" park spaces are run by the National Park Service, so this could never happen, but the Austin American-Statesman has an article, "Austin’s loss can be your gain; want to buy a kiddie train?," about the demise of a small children's amusement park called Kiddie Acres, with the rides going up for auction.

Wouldn't it be cool to acquire the airplane and boat rides, and the Merry-Go-Round and truck them around the city as temporary installations in parks, commercial districts, and other open spaces, just as splash fountains are an increasingly desirable park and business district amenity?

Note that this line of thinking was triggered by one of the blog's e-correspondents, who suggested putting a kiddie train in as an attraction as part of the National Mall, mentioning that the Mall had more of these kinds of attractions at one time.

Interestingly, around that time I bought a vintage postcard for a regionally-located similar kind of amusement park and attraction, the "Blue Mountain Railway" at the Braddock Heights Amusement Park in Frederick County, Maryland.

Many cities have "piers"--Santa Monica, Chicago, Copenhagen--with various attractions including Ferris Wheels, as does the area's "National Harbor," located in Prince George's County ("National Harbor Is a Private Urban Island Designed for Fun—If You Can Get There," Washington City Paper).

Alternatively, the massive parking lots at RFK Stadium lend themselves to such a treatment.