Friday, October 25, 2013

Filling in an Empty Quarter (II)

The MedQuarter SSMID folk and their consultants, the Lakota Group of Chicago, revealed more of their plans for invigorating this underused area last night at an open house at St. Luke's Hospital. (The first open house, mainly intending to solicit public opinion, occurred in May; my post on that event is here.) I found last night's event encouraging in a number of ways; though several nagging questions remain unaddressed, I am now confident this will be a positive development for Cedar Rapids.

The plan appears very open, particularly facing downtown. The blue dots in the left diagram below represent "gateways," which would consist of signage announcing the district but which otherwise would blend into what's already there. (The schematic drawing of the one across 1st Av from Coe showed a sign blocking a driver's view of Brewed Awakenings, but they assured me that would not happen in practice.) On the right, the yellow shaded area between the medical operations and downtown is projected to be housing, which would go far to connect the two zones and fill in the land space.

The plan also makes use of existing structures, instead of tearing them down; the historic Brewer House on 4th Av, for example, would be converted to office space. (On the other hand, the Knights of Columbus building on 1st Av was taken down last night, while we were meeting, and it's not clear what the plans are for other older buildings.) They propose to work with the existing street system rather than closing any more of them.

The most exciting aspect of the plan for me was the human scale of many of the facilities. In the district now are three enormous health care facilities and a lot of open space. Much of what is now open or featureless or underused would be filled in, and it looked from eyeballing it that the current sea of surface parking would be tamed somewhat. This picture shows what 4th Av might look like at its intersection with 6th St; if you can magnify the picture enough to see the inset you can see what it looks like now and that it could stand some improvement.

Secondly, a lot of what they're proposing would be at a human scale. With the hospitals, PCI, the convention center, and the new federal courthouse, I think this part of town has about as much massiveness as it can stand.
The small features depicted in the schematic above would enhance walking rather than making it more difficult. A green walk along 4th Av from downtown to 10th St would provide a connector that could encourage business development, which would of course lead to further walkability.

All that said in favor of the MedQuarter district's direction, there are some remaining concerns. I'd like to see more about how they propose to orient to Wellington Heights, the working-class neighborhood across 10th St. The PCI building not only closed 2nd Av between 10th and 12th, it creates a barrier between the neighborhood and the medical district (and the downtown beyond). That leaves 3rd, 4th and 5th Aves as through streets that cross 10th. Can they be made more welcoming, not only for out-of-town drivers, but for local bikers and walkers?

Secondly, I wonder about the mix of business and housing the district envisions, and how it will be distributed. Ideally, it would be widely-distributed, not just concentrated in the area adjacent to downtown and along 1st Ave. Wide distribution of businesses would provide a lively atmosphere during the day, and wide distribution of housing would keep the streets alive in the evenings. Thank you, Jane Jacobs.

Third, I'm hoping the completed district will have a variety of building types, including historic and not-so-historic buildings.

(Rental housing in the 300 block of 8th St)

Shiny new buildings are individually nice, but a district that's all shiny aesthetically fails and makes people uncomfortable rather than encouraging them to be out and about. Older buildings are easier for businesses and working-class people to rent. Health care consumers are predominantly older and upper-middle-class, of course, but this shouldn't become an enclave.

My May 2013 post on this subject:

MedQuarter SSMID website:

Gazette story on the open house by Chelsea Keenan:

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Answer me these questions three

A busy week, culminating in a trip to Skokie, Illinois, for the Midwest Writing Centers Association meeting, kept my mind occupied away from bloggable topics. So, three brief questions that occurred to me while I listened to people talk about college writing centers:

1. How difficult is it to find open spaces in an urban environment? My student Caleb, who is studying off campus in Chicago this semester, said one thing he misses about Cedar Rapids is how easy it is to get out of the city. Chicago has, thanks to its early planners, a run of public space along the lakefront, but that's often crowded, and how accessible it is depends on where you're starting from. I visited the Skokie Public Library for the first time, and noticed that there are very few tables. Plenty of chairs, many of them plush, but few places on which to set papers. I need to compare the new Cedar Rapids library next time I'm there. That night, Caleb and I had dinner at the Heartland Cafe, which has removed most of the shelves from its "general store." Both of these create more space in the rooms. Maybe this is connected to a widely-felt need for more open space.
(The "general store" room at the Heartland Cafe used to look like this,
but now has fewer shelves... picture from Heartland website)

2. Is there an ethic or unwritten law governing non-commercial use of commercial third places? One of the best sessions I attended at the conference was a presentation by four consultants from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Writing Studio. Their presentation drew heavily on The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg, which I have discussed in an earlier post. The Writing Studio aims at being a third place on campus for students, more hangout than tutoring room, and from all accounts they've succeeded. One of the presenters fondly recalled another third place, a coffee shop in his home town where he and his friends would gather after high school. They never purchased anything, nor did they cause trouble. They just hung out on the coffeehouse patio and talked. He reported the owner would threaten every month or so to kick them out, but never did. Oldenburg says in Celebrating the Third Place (Marlowe, 2001), "The best places are locally owned, independent, small-scale, steady-state businesses" (p. 4). Businesses need to make sufficient profit to stay in business. It seems in this story that the owner was being unusually forbearing, and that the teens should occasionally have made some purchases, but is there a line that shouldn't be crossed?
(Paper consultation at the UMKC Writing Studio, from UMKC website.
Putting green is not visible.)

3. Can there be virtual third places? UMKC does some consultation virtually, by e-mail and Skype. As the presentation went on, they discussed how they were trying to use social media to become a virtual third place. This is a phenomenon not considered by Oldenburg, whose books were published before social media became widespread. I would think not... the shared characteristics of the third places Oldenburg describes are (my list):

  • local, easily accessible from home, preferably on foot;
  • comfortable, where you could drop in by yourself and feel welcome;
  • relaxed i.e. you can stay as long as you wish, spending (if it's a business) some but not a huge amount of money; and
  • possessing a steady clientele, so that when you drop in you're sure to encounter people you know.
I suppose all of these do apply to virtual encounters, particularly if your computer's in your basement or your bedroom where you can stay as long as you want for free. Yet I think something is missing if you're not encountering humans in the flesh. And unless you find a quote from Oldenburg that proves me wrong, I'm claiming him for my side.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Shutdowns and Sillypants (and the Statler Brothers)

(The Statler Brothers, from their website)

Last weekend, I was in Washington, D.C., visiting our Washington Term students. On a Saturday afternoon walk along the Capitol Mall, my thoughts turned as they inevitably do to the Statler Brothers. The Statler Brothers were a top country-and-western group with a string of hits in the late 1960s and 1970s. Along with tight harmonies they exuded an old fashioned "aw shucks" attitude which was a powerful counterpoint to a rather cynical time. One of their less-well-remembered songs, but one that always comes up on the jukebox in my head when I'm touring Washington, is "Nothing as Original as You." The singer tours the sites of D.C., and finds it all amazing... but of course not quite as amazing as his lover back home.

Sitting in a hotel room in Washington, D.C.
Looking out my window at the miles of history
Somewhere in the skyline is the Capitol Dome
And the White House that just a few men have called home

The song was released in 1978 or '79, but there's nothing in here about the Carter administration, or Watergate, or the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Public approval of both President and Congress were at then-historic lows, but the singer found time to be impressed by all the physical manifestations of American history on view.

And today I saw the first airplane that flew
Saw a dinosaur, and a space module too
Got lost seven times on Pennsylvania Avenue
But even here there's nothing as original as you

It's those physical manifestations of American history that distinguish Washington as a place. This remains true in spite of the partial government shutdown, which was going strong while I was there and is still going as I write this. I was neither there expecting to show my children the wonders of Air and Space, nor was I a resident either anxious about the furloughs or guiltily enjoying a suddenly-easier commute. Washington was Washington, as far as I could see. The most immediate physical impression was that it was stiflingly hot.

Part of Washington is the familiar sites, like the Capitol...

...or Union Station

But what keeps me gawking are not the famous sites but the less-well-known ones, popping up in unexpected places. This is the Victims of Communism memorial, a couple blocks from my hotel.

Last year I found Daniel Webster...

...and took this selfie with former Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas:

There's the Old Stone House in Georgetown, the oldest structure in the city...

...and randomly-appearing embassies of countries like Ukraine

I saw a place where George Washington built two cabins in 1798. And on, and on. It may be un-academic to get too gushy about the history here, but it's important to remember this country was founded on ideals, and the story of America has been the struggle to make those ideals reality. All these historical impressions put the current shutdown in a sad perspective.

It is pretty clearly Republicans in Congress who chose the shutdown tactic. Either side could, of course, end the shutdown by making major concessions, but it was congressional Republicans who eschewed a conference committee over the budget, presumably because they thought they could get a better deal at or after the deadline (Wasson). It was congressional Republicans who opted to make their stand, not on a dispute about the budget itself, but on trying to repeal health care legislation they famously dislike (Young and Sanchez). Repealing the health care reform having been an overreach (York), it is now congressional Republicans who are trying to get something out of this, if not delaying or scaling back health care, then maybe some cuts in entitlements. [BN: Boy oh boy, do we need entitlement reform. But it should be seriously considered, not an afterthought at gunpoint.] Maybe take the heat off by passing a continuing resolution to cover only photogenic parts of government, like veterans' affairs and national parks.

House Republican leadership has thus far been resistant to allow a vote on the continuing resolution passed by the Senate, which could draw enough Republican votes in the House to become law. Their side of the shutdown is now about needing to get something to justify the effort they've gone to and the pain that's caused. Rep. Martin Stutzman (R-Indiana) was unusually inelegant when he told the Washington Examiner, "We're not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is" (Cillizza). But less tone-deaf Republicans are saying it is President Obama who needs to compromise, which means what? It's up to him to find a Republican demand he can give in to?

Republicans say they're acting on principle, and I'll grant that. There are ways of pursuing those principles, though, without tearing the building down and threatening the economy. You could try to do better in next year's Senate elections, and support presidential candidates in 2016 who will change policy. You could try to craft legislative changes that would win support from the Senate. You could hope public opinion will turn against the Democrats, and capitalize on that. You could work through state governments and lobby federal agencies to affect implementation. You could come up with your own policy. (Just sayin'.) Any of these steps would honor your supporters as well as the long American project that we are now part of, and to which all those memorials and plaques in Washington testify.

Meanwhile, the shutdown continues, but on a hot Saturday afternoon I had to look for signs of it. This is what those signs looked like... the National Postal Museum...

...the sculpture garden...

...and the mall itself.

Note the energetic soccer game going beyond the little barrier. While I passed by, a man in a National Parks Service vehicle drove by, paused, and drove on.

People gathered on the steps of the Air and Space Museum, though of course they couldn't go in.

The Washington Monument was closed, but that was a long-term closure for repairs. How can we play the Washington Monument Game if the Washington Monument itself is offline?

There was even a chain across the gate to the playground at Stanton Park near Capitol Hill.

Of course the fence is only about two feet high so it was easy to get in anyhow. When one young girl headed for the gate, her mother reminded her the gate was chained closed. "Mommy has to lift you over the fence, because some people are being sillypants." "Me!" the girl announced. "Well, some other people, down the street," Mom answered.

[UPDATE 10/10/13: A list, courtesy of the Washington Post, of previous government shutdowns due to budget stalemates: Thanks to Lwin Chan Kyaw for the link. Note that most of these were of extremely brief duration if they were even noticeable at all.]

Dan Balz, "The Shrinking Middle Ground," Washington Post, 6 October 2013, A1 & 8 [on congressional polarization]

Jonathan Chait, "How Republicans Failed to Understand the Democrats' Debt-Ceiling Logic," New York, 6 October 2013,
[institutional stakes in this stalemate]

Chris Cillizza, "Worst Week in Washington," The Washington Post, 6 October 2013, B2.

Derek Thompson, "Why the Government Shutdown Isn't Anywhere Near Over--in 1 Graph," The Atlantic, 7 October 2013, [poll showing partisan polarization on the shutdown]

Erik Wasson, "GOP Blocks Reid from Creating Conference Committee on Budget," The Hill, 23 April 2013, [Republicans blocked conference committee over budget in April]

Byron York, "GOP Congressman: We Stumbled into War over Obamacare," Washington Examiner, 6 October 2013, [thoughtful Republican criticizes his leadership as well as the Democratic response]

Kerry Young and Humberto Sanchez, "GOP Divided Over Spending Plans," CQ Weekly, 16 September 2013, [Republican leadership plan to prevent shutdown is blocked by their own members]

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Deliberation and the shutdown

Last Tuesday night I moderated a discussion among first-year students at Coe College on "Getting American Politics Back on Track." It was fortuitously timed, given the shutdown of the federal government that began with the start of the new fiscal year that very day. (The organizers insisted it was mere coincidence.)

The discussion format was based on James Fishkin's book Democracy and Deliberation (Yale University Press, 1993). After the organizers introduced the format, and I said a little about the issue, the students divided into groups of six-to-eight and discussed the options presented on the two-page issue brief. As a student of political theory as well as American politics, I was as interested in their reactions to the process as much as their thoughts on how to overcome polarization-based governmental dysfunction.

Well, they liked the format just fine, or so they said, though some groups were unable to reach a consensus and fell back on majority rule, and some groups' results felt like lowest-common-denominator compromises instead of creative products of multiple competing perspectives. But since they are required to attend a certain number of these during their first year at Coe, we didn't confront what to me is the biggest obstacle to ideas like Fishkin's or Benjamin Barber's: time. We were there more than two hours after all, counting dinner provided by the school, and that's not insignificant for most adults.

I came to see a couple more obstacles, ways that the system of deliberation could be gamed by those seeking an advantage. I want to be clear that I didn't see manipulation happening Tuesday night. The Coe students mostly knew each other, and for the most part didn't have immediate personal stakes in the issue. But at a town meeting, dealing with issues on which people had strong feelings, you'd really need to trust the people you were deliberating with.

First, without an objective standard of fairness, we are reliant on the perceptions of the participants. While ideally deliberation would take into account all interests and weight them equally, that's unlikely to happen in practice, and even if it did not everyone would see it that way. A comment at the Tuesday forum illustrated this problem as it relates to the current shutdown of the federal government. One young man suggested the shutdown was occurring because of congressional Democrats' unwillingness to compromise. House Republicans keep passing continuing resolutions, he noted, and they keep getting shot down in the Democratically-controlled Senate. "That's the Republicans' story," I laughed, "and they're sticking with it." There certainly are reasons to question whether the House Republicans are negotiating in good faith. For one thing, the continuing resolutions they keep passing have all been variations of the same approach: continuing resolutions for short periods while delaying and/or defunding implementation of the health care reforms. For another, the health care reform law on which the House Republicans have been fixated is a side issue. Democrats can argue, with some justification, that a "clean CR"--a continuing resolution funding the government at current levels, without amendments--is itself a compromise, albeit a lowest-common-denominator one, because it reflects no new legislative priorities from neither side.

Does anyone think the House Republicans are seeking common ground? Well, maybe the Republicans do. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, said during debate Tuesday, "All the Senate has to do is say 'yes' and the government is funded tomorrow." Thomas L. Friedman interpreted this as "Give me the money and nobody gets hurt." But the fact remains that there is no clear standard of objectivity. What looks to me like a reasonable compromise, even a patch, might look to you like complete disregard of my priorities. If you believe that the health care reform truly is a fiscal disaster-in-the-making that will create all manner of societal problems besides, then repeated efforts to roll it back are not only eminently reasonable but urgent.

A second problem with deliberation is that a process that relies on achieving consensus is vulnerable to who allege unfairness as a negotiating tactic. The instruction book I used Tuesday night calls for the moderator to solicit ideas from people who feel their voices were not heard in the small group discussions. (I didn't do this, though.) If some participants in a deliberative meeting complain that their voices were not heard, they may truly have been excluded, or they may just be trying to gain a bargaining advantage. I continue to hear, as state health care exchanges open this week, complaints from opponents that the 2010 health care law was passed with only Democratic votes--"rammed through," as some put it. While that is true, I don't know that Republicans can plausibly charge that their views were deliberately ignored. President Obama met repeatedly with people from both parties through the summer of 2009, including Iowa's Republican Senator Charles Grassley. It was Grassley and the other Republicans who withdrew from these talks, in the wake of Tea Party tantrums at local congressional appearances in August 2009. (And then there were those alleged "death panels," and Sarah Palin charging that she would have been forced to have an abortion under the law, ...) I'm certain that Obama would have loved to get Republican votes for the law, or any version of it--the optics would have been way better, not to mention it would have reduced the need for bargaining with provider interest groups. But there were simply no Republican votes to be had.

In spite of the potential pitfalls of deliberative democracy, though, one look at the mess the federal government is in this week is all it takes to know there has got to be a better way than what we're doing.

Do bicycle boulevards need a purpose?

I was surprised last weekend to find the place where we were staying was on a bicycle boulevard. A bicycle boulevard is "a street ...