Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A disappointing decision, and my angry screed

So, my neighborhood voted for neighborhood commercial zoning.
The “Neighborhood Commercial” designation residents approved focuses on three “nodes” along North Highland Avenue and limits new buildings to three stories, requires sidewalks, permits open-air dining, and encourages shared parking. It would also prohibit in-front commercial parking and require developers to provide project information to the group prior to seeking permits from the city.
I think most of the zoning is good, but the three-story thing is short sighted. I think there are plenty of problems with The Mix - starting with it's name, and followed shortly thereafter with it's architecture - but how can you purport to be advocates of smart growth, pedestrian friendly neighborhoods, increased viability of transit, and then limit the density to three stories?

I don't think it is economically viable to develop anything on the numerous parking lots in the neighborhood without going higher than three stories. I could be wrong, but whatever you put there would have to be very expensive. Basically, I think the neighborhood is doing everything possible to keep N. Highland exactly the way it is. It is a bunch of NIMBYism dressed up as concern about historic preservation.

Which is a shame, because there are some great locations that could be developed/redeveloped to make the neighborhood more intimate, more pedestrian. Off the top of my head, I can think of the parking lot where The Mix is slated to go, redeveloping the CVS, those lame brick apartments/condos next to it, redeveloping the Hand in Hand lot that has parking in the front, or the lot on Amsterdam...

It's probably easy to discount my opinion - I'm an MBA student, worked for developers, want to continue in that line of work, etc. I'm the bad guy whose motives are easy to question. But I grew up in this neighborhood. It's been my home for 26 years. I probably know it better than most of the people around. I care about it as much or more than all the NIMBYs. I got into real estate because I saw how the urban environment affects our lives, and how smart growth and pedestrian friendly neighborhoods really can be a great positive force in our culture. Instead of trying to use public policy to shape growth, I decided to learn how to do it myself.

I realize that the only way for Atlanta to grow the way that we all want it to grow is to see greater density in areas like Virginia-Highlands. Why would five stories, tiered back (like The Mix is), with appropriate architecture, be so bad? I guess because I wasn't involved with this whole NC zoning thing, I don't have that much room to complain. The neighborhood voted 178-15 for this thing, I'm pretty sure my voice wouldn't have made a difference. Part of me wishes I had time in my life for this sort of thing - I just can't make it a priority right now. But hey, I'm a blogger, so basically the gig is to complain about stuff all day instead of doing anything, right?

Monday, October 20, 2008

I can't really defend this

I get annoyed often with how some folks like to just complain about the GA Democratic Party having no spine, etc. They'll complain about how bad the GOP is, and then complain about how lame the Dems are, and just lament the whole system.

I think I get annoyed because its like shooting fish in a barrel - yeah, everyone knows the GA Dems are a mess right now. You aren't original if you say it in a particularly spiteful or condescending fashion. In fact, it kind of makes you look like a hack. "Can't come up with a column this week, guess I'll bitch about how spineless the Dems are." Sure, it's valid, but it's boring to read about.

I also know a few folks at the party (not terribly well, of course), and have been involved with Dem politics, so I'm pretty forgiving of what it takes to be successful. It's not as easy as everyone likes to think it is.

Having said that, Charles Bullock is dead right:
Charles Bullock, a UGA political scientist, said Democrats blew a big opportunity by not fielding candidates against dozens of House Republicans in a year that should be very good for Democrats.

Only 23 incumbent Republican House members face Democratic or independent opposition.

“It doesn’t look like there is going to be much [change] because there aren’t a lot of Democratic candidates,” Bullock said.
Honestly, it is really hard to defend the GA Democratic Party for the most part. They are disorganized, underfunded, and lack spine. Like, I said, we know all this. But man, it sure does suck when you can't even field enough candidates to have a real chance at winning the House. I think the answer is fielding operatives and candidates from outside the traditional circles.

Anyway, I'm not sure I have a real point, other than bitching about the Dems like I just complained about other people doing. I guess I'm a hypocrite. I don't think its because everyone involved is stupid, I just think that there is no leadership. There is no standard bearer for GA Dems to rally around and identify with.

It is the same problem national Dems had until Obama. Obama's field organization is directly related to his ability to inspire and lead party faithful. We need someone like that on the state level to reorganize the party. I don't think the party ever really reorganized after Barnes lost, and the old model was premised on having a Governor in charge of things.

Without that political clout, we need a strong party organization to create cohesion and unity. Organization is the key to electoral victory - competing in every race no matter what, recruiting quality candidates, and giving them the resources (voter and donor lists, financial aid, volunteers, etc.) to be competitive.

I don't think the Dem party can reorganize without a strong leader.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Apologies

Wow. I didn't expect my blogging to fall of quite like it did last week. Puppies are exhausting, even a fairly well behaved one like mine (so far...). Since I don't have anything to post related to the actual purpose of this blog, I'll cheat and put up puppy pictures. Enjoy, and hopefully I'll get to some real blogging later this week. But hey, the puppy is keeping my mind off the election, so that's good!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blogging may be sporadic

For some crazy reason, I decided to adopt a puppydog on Monday. This means that blogging may get very sporadic, as my free time will be spent with the puppydog and not looking for "interesting" news items to comment on. Thanks for keeping up with the blog, of course! I'm not going anywhere, we may just be experiencing some brownouts occasionally.

Eliminating the federal gas tax?

My first reaction to this idea was "what a horrible idea", mostly because I am immediately suspicious of plans to eliminate taxes. Obviously it depends on the replacement plan, but there are definitely enough problems with the gas tax as-is:
The gas tax doesn’t rise with inflation and gets weaker every year...

The gas tax is charged as cents-per-gallon instead of cents-per-dollar, so the same size tank always reaps the same amount of money in taxes, no matter how much the price of gas goes up.

In addition, as people get more fuel-efficient cars, they use less gas, and so pay less gas tax.
The article is about the federal gas tax, but the criticisms above apply equally to the state gas tax. I would add that the state gas tax does not pay for transit, only roads (the federal gas tax spends about 15% of the gas tax on transit). This is one reason the Metro Chamber has been so vocal about a local option tax that could be spent on transit as well as roads.

The ARC is "studying" this, and looking for a more "sustainable" funding mechanism. I would certainly be open to alternatives, especially if it meant that MARTA started seeing some state gas tax dollars. I know this article is about the federal tax, but a change in federal policy presents a natural opening for a change in state policy. Not that it'd ever happen, thanks to the DOT and rural legislators missing the bigger picture while they try to protect their fiefdoms.

BTW, how long until the word "sustainable" has no meaning whatsoever? Are we already there?

Monday, October 13, 2008

J-U-R-Y, Jury Duty!!

I have jury duty today, unfortunately.  Last time I was on standby, called in the day before, and my group was excused.  This time, no such luck.  So I will be at the lovely Fulton County Courthouse at 8 AM.  

The silver lining - I should be able to hop across the street for some early voting for Obama.  

A few notes and links from over the weekend that I bookmarked:
  • Jacoby Development is no longer in the running for the GM Doraville redevelopment.  That leaves New Broad Street Cos., the Sembler Co., and Hines.  I am rooting for "not Sembler".

  • AJC article on the Atlanta police:
    More than one-third of recent Atlanta Police Academy graduates have been arrested or cited for a crime, according to a review of their job applications. The arrests ranged from minor offenses such as shoplifting to violent charges including assault. More than one-third of the officers had been rejected by other law enforcement agencies, and more than half of the recruits admitted using marijuana.
    I don't really know what else to say.  That war on drugs is really working well though!  Seriously, we need some mayoral candidates who come out with specific plans on reforming the APD.  

  • Michigan lost to Toledo.  Toledo.  I spent most of Saturday afternoon randomly shouting that word out in disbelief.  Toledo.  

    Oh, and UGA didn't cover by 1 point.  Thanks a lot, 'Dawgs.  Other "fun" moments in my college football weekend - rooting for Colorodo to score late against Kansas to beat a 14 point spread, but losing by 16; Ohio State scoring only 3 points in the second half against Purdue, when another touchdown would have covered the spread.  I hate you more every day, Tresselvest.  

    Rusty's NCAA picks have me caring about this silly stuff.  Seriously, why else would I care about Colorodo vs. Kansas?  I'd say it make things more fun, but it really just makes things more aggravating.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Unending library blogging

The AJC editorializes against the new Central Library, calling it "of questionable need". Library Director John Szabo defends the referendum. He starts out with, "Think of the children!":
The Fulton County library bond referendum is about 60 preschoolers packed into a tiny one-room library at Bankhead Courts listening to the story of Peter and the Wolf. ...

It’s about a library located in a rented former funeral home that is one of our most heavily used in the system. Don’t our children deserve better?
This is what pisses me off so much about the way the County handled the Central Library issue. The existing referendum was a good idea with compelling reasons to support it. So why would you play politics with it by injecting this stupid Central Library issue at the last minute? If it was soooo important to think about the children, why would you show such disrespect for the existing bond by jeopardizing it with these shenanigans?

Further, Szabo doesn't make the case for a new Central Library. All he says is:
Seattle, Nashville, Minneapolis and others all understand this —- they’ve built many new branches and, yes, a new central library as well. A new central library in Atlanta would follow the path of these other great cities, but it is only a piece of the plan.
That's not a compelling case for $84 million of taxpayer money!! It's not even a case at all! I still can't believe something so half-baked is going before the public.

Please tell your friends to vote NO on this ballot item. You can find more of my rants on the Library situation here.

A thought on all those new voters

I typically avoid the local Dem blogs and have been pretty out of touch with the state legislative races. So I'm sure that some of the various Democratic groups in town have considered this idea. However, it just occurred to me that all these new voters, combined with record African American turnout, could lead to some interesting results in contested state House and state Senate seats.

For example, Chris Huttman is running against Jill Chambers for the Chamblee/Doraville House seat. In a normal year, I'd think Chambers had a pretty safe seat. She won with 59% of the vote in 2006, although 2004 was closer (55%-44%).

Given that this is an in-town-ish area ripe for targeting by the Obama campaign, I actually expect that Huttman has a very good shot at beating Chambers. I don't think that GA Dems recruited enough folks to have a shot at taking either chamber, but they'll win a few seats that folks weren't expecting them to win.

The thought occurred to me reading this Political Insider column about Chambers over-reacting to an ethics complaint. Way to ensure the complaint gets media coverage! Perhaps she is feeling the pressure?

60 minutes on credit default swaps

A professor showed this video in class last night, and I thought I should share it. I wasn't quite aware of how involved credit default swaps were with the whole economic mess right now. I knew that it was a big part of what took down AIG, but according to this report it was also a big part of Bear Stearns and Lehman. This is a $50-$60 trillion dollar industry, that is totally unregulated.

The video probably goes too far and basically lays the entire crisis on credit default swaps. I'm certainly no expert, and I'm still trying to get my head around everything going on. I do feel okay saying that the involvement of credit default swaps was a bigger factor than Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or the CRA.

You are free to consider and discard this as the liberal position, of course, but I found the report very informative. Remember, I first saw this in business school, not exactly a bastion of liberalism.

Viva urbanism

Interesting article in the AJC yesterday about how my generation is changing how we live.  Basically, we all agree that the suburbs suck, and we also want to have everything possible wired into the interwebs.  Lots of good marketing info, with this being the most encouraging for the city's future:
The Robert Charles Lesser study states that “70 percent do not believe they have to move to the suburbs once they have kids.” And “only half are confident they will need a single-family home once they have kids.”
This is perhaps one reason that APS is building a new school on the east side.  I really need to spend more attention on our schools... any readers want to write a guest post or two?  Any young parents?

I enjoyed the article a lot, but this nugget struck me as odd:
Gen Y’s favorite neighborhood amenity is a library, followed by restaurant or cafe, a main street village, a recycling center and a fitness center, the Robert Charles Lesser study says.
A library first?  Seriously?  You are talking about a generation that gets everything online, and all the rest of your marketing information tells you that this:
“This is a generation that has always known a computer,” said Uri Vaknin, vice president of business development at the Marketing Directors, a condo sales company. “They want these programmed lives.”
A library is an important feature?  Who knew.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

more homeless stuff

The AJC highlights the folks who try to help homeless folks get off the streets.  These are the sorts of services provided by the Gateway Center that I whole-heartedly support.  
Within three to four months of intense case management and support services, Biswas said, more than 30 percent move on to permanent housing.

“That’s the real success for us,” he said.

It used to be the homeless had to get rid of their addiction or stabilize their mental illness before they could earn an apartment.

“Now we take them from the street and move them into an apartment, no questions asked,” said Biswas. “In the old model, the majority dropped out of the program. In this model, 80 percent stay in housing.”

Across the park, Hunter jars another man stretched across the cold ground from his sleep. The man curses, gets up, slings on his backpack and stumbles off into the distance.

“Until folk are ready to make a change,” Hunter says, “all we can do is keep trying.”
There is also an unrelated photo gallery of one homeless woman's daily struggle here.  Some interesting items - she has a bed under the CNN Center viaduct, like three feet from an active railroad track; she takes a shower daily at the Gateway Center; she is a self-described addict.  

When I was working for a company trying to redevelop a vacant building downtown, I constantly had to ask people to stop using the building as a bathroom or a bedroom.  I'm etertnally grateful to our maintenance staff that I never had to clean anything up.  People sold drugs in other vacant properties nearby.  Other folks broke in to the building and stole copper from active water pipes, flooding the basement.  

When I first started dealing with the situation, I thought, "surely there is some win-win situation where they can get help and I can get them off the property."  I called the Task Force, tried to get in touch with the Police's HOPE unit.  I'm not sure what I expected, but no one was really helpful.  The Task Force told me to get them arrested, that they knew better.  

I'd call the cops to get people arrested for trespassing, and then have to sit there and argue with the cops that yes, I'd told this guy to leave every day for the last week and he was fully aware my building was not a place for him to sleep.  Then he'd be on the street again the next day.  

It is hard not to get all bleeding heart-liberal reading these articles.  My sympathy for the homeless seems to be inversely proportional to my daily interaction with them.  Going to GSU, just walking through Woodruff Park, I don't get riled a whole lot anymore.  I realized yesterday that I don't really have a huge problem with Woodruff Park.  I mean, I wish there weren't so many homeless folks there, but they largely don't bother anyone, and the CAP Chess court and Reading Room bring some sense of order to it all.  So far, the public bathroom doesn't seem to be a mistake.  My issue is with the folks smoking crack, trespassing, soiling property, breaking and entering, sleeping on sidewalks, and harrassing pedestrians.

At the end of the day I end up about where the case worker in the article above does.  Of course we have a duty to help those who are mentallly ill.  But at least half the folks in the article above are self-described addicts or alcoholics.  Until folks are ready to make a change, there isn't a lot that you can do.  

Downtown Design Excellence Awards

My friends at Central Atlanta Progress notified me a few days ago about the Atlanta Downtown Design Excellence Awards, so I pass it along to you, my readers. I bitch enough about bad architecture in this city, I figure I should do my part to highlight good architecture.

Anyway, the ADDEA "raises awareness about quality additions, renovations, rehabs, and new construction projects in Downtown Atlanta. " You can vote online for your favorite new designs downtown, and you get to watch a little slide show for each project. The before and afters for the Ellis Hotel are pretty neat.

I also really enjoyed the restaurants section, and I've decided I need to go to STATS to watch a Michigan game at some point. For you beer enthusiasts, I think this is the place where you can refill your pitcher automatically from the table without waiting on the waitress.

I should also mention that the awards will be given out at this year's Downtown Development Day, which is a lot of fun if you are a real estate dork. I'm not sure how much fun this year will be, of course, given the market conditions.

Monday, October 6, 2008

sorry for the lack of posts last week

I had several mid-terms last week, and blogging simply took a back seat. I'm going to try and get back on the horse this week.

How close is GA really?

There have been lots of polls lately putting Jim Martin anywhere from 7 to 2 points down in his race to unseat Saxby. I for one am quite surprised. Pollster.com's poll of polls for GA show Obama still down 12, but recent polls have him within 6.

Add on top of that this analysis by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com. He assumes that Obama wins 95% of black votes, and 30% of non-black votes (including Latinos and Asians), and projects how increased black registration and turnout narrows the result:
Now suppose that black and nonblack voters each turn out at the same rates as they did in 2004, but that we account for the increase in black registration. According to our math, John McCain's 7.0-point lead is now cut to 4.9 points...

Even this, however, may be too conservative. For one thing, the registration window in Georgia is not yet over ... it concludes today. The statistics I cited above only reflected registrations through September 30. There is typically a surge of registrations in the final few days before the deadline...

So suppose that by tonight, black voters have increased to 30 percent of Georgia's registered voter pool. Plugging that 30 percent number in, McCain's advantage is a mere 1 point.
Is this realistic? Well, 40% of early votes have been cast by African-Americans. Surely this can't hold, but it is encouraging. Apparently Martin is out-polling Obama, as local Dems tend to do. So if Obama loses by 1 point, the Martin could win.

I have heard that pollsters update their voter registration files for calling potential voters every month, and so these later poll numbers would favor Obama once these new registrants started appearing on the pollsters' lists. Is this a partial explanation of why these polls have tightened recently? That doesn't make them less viable, of course.

I, for one, am a huge skeptic. I still expect Martin and Obama to lose by about 6 points. As far as I'm concerned, GA might be the reddest state around - even Alabama and Mississippi have Democratic state legislatures. Kansas, Wyoming, and Montana have Democratic governors. Until Martin actually wins, I don't really believe these numbers.

FWIW, Pollster.com's poll of polls still shows a very wide gap: