Sunday, June 29, 2014

Death by a thousand curb cuts.

At tomorrow’s Cambridge City Council meeting, councilors will consider a proposed rules change transferring special permit granting authority from the Cambridge Planning Board, where it currently resides, to the City Council.  Special permits, a zoning tool allowing uses and activities  beyond what is allowed "by right" under certain conditions, require approval by the local special permit granting authority.

In my view, moving the authority ("SPGA") from the Planning Board to the City Council is a terrible idea and, if adopted, will create untold problems for the Council, where only one member of the current nine can claim any expertise in urban design, planning or architecture.

More importantly, the citizens of Cambridge will not see an improved process or better outcomes. Instead, they will see a further contorting of our public debate because now all development will become overtly political. Furthermore, the relationship between councilors and developers will grow toxically close, undermining the principle of healthy arms-length deliberation by the decision-making body. What follows began as an list serve exchange and expresses my views on the matter in greater detail.


I do not believe having the City Council doing specific project review is a good idea. As an urban planner who served on that body for four years, it was never my experience that the Council was prepared to do the detailed work of project review. My opinion has not changed since. It's not what a City Council is made for, and it's not what it should be doing with its valuable time.

There are plenty of instances showing just what a tough time the Council has in making timely decisions in contentious development debates. 

Consider curb cuts. These petitions over access to the public way come to the Council periodically after a thorough review by city staff.  Sometimes they are non-controversial, but often they cause a firestorm of opposition requiring huge amounts of discussion and negotiation. The curb cut on Avon Hill split the neighborhood and demanded months of work to sort through.  A curb cut, by anybody’s reckoning, is microscopic compared to the complexity of design arguments on a 20 story building where thousands of different design criteria come into play.

The Foundry Building is another example.  In 2009, the city was given this structure — a building of about 60,000 sq. feet — as part of a mitigation agreement with Alexandria Real Estate for its Binney Street developments. As of this month, June 2014 — five years later — the City Council still has not been able to decide what should happen with that building.  This does not auger success (or sane governance) if the Council's responsibilities expand in a significant manner.

To me, the Foundry Building process is typical of what happens when political bodies try to get their hands around a very specific decision.  Individual councilors focus on their individual concerns, and can grow intransigent.  This locks up the process and freezes any motion.  To unfreeze the situation, pols negotiate with each other until a sufficient number of votes are reached.  That is not urban design. Nor would it be project review.  It is horse-trading, plain and simple.

Furthermore, the political pressures will force us to design by committee. Given the amount of trouble we already have reaching agreement about buildings under our existing process, I cannot imagine how this is an improvement.  Blandness will prevail in our design choices.  Everyone from developers to community voices will opt for "safe" because it will be the easiest.  Offending the least number of people is not a mark of leadership. Not in environmentalism.  Not in urban design.  It just seems like architectural retrenchment to me — and expresses fundamentally conservative tastes rather than progressive and challenging ones. This is not a version of project review I want to see.

Also, the scope of work involved in project review is large. I count nine projects "Special Permit - Granted" in 2014, totaling altogether 1.9 million square feet.  I wonder — on what basis will unelected aides and their councilors be making decisions about what passes muster? What happens in the case when only three community members show up to the meeting? Do they become the group to decide?  And what happens when nobody shows up to voice an opinion? Is it just the whim of the councilor — say one trained as a peace activist, or in non-profit management, or in law — to decide what that building should look like?  This is not an improvement over our current system.

Now, consider the impact this will have on the relationship between city councilors who will hold final say over projects and developers who stand to reap huge benefits for projects that move forward.  Developers will be petitioning councilors constantly, seeking their blessing on minute aspects of design and aesthetics.  Over time, this will bind these two parties together at the hip more closely.  The logical conclusion of this relationship is not a healthy picture at all.  Added to this, it is simply true that councilors have busy schedules and focus on their own issues — whether those are early childhood development or greenhouse gas emissions reductions.  Often this means they defer to committee chairs on subject matters not their own.  In practice, this is not a bad thing — it is how committees are supposed to work — but it means that all of this design decision-making authority will be run through one committee chairperson (or possibly two, if there are co-chairs).  That is simply worse than the system we have now, whatever its flaws.

The special permit granting authority also creates a new (and onerous) timetable for the City Council, one which I believe it will have a hard time meeting.  Under Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 40A Section 9, the SPGA is required to hold its initial hearing within 65 days of an application having been filed.  The decision has to be handed down within 90 days of that initial hearing, unless the timeline is extended by agreement of both parties.  This will be in addition to the timeline the Council must meet for all zoning petitions, and if the Council fails to act in the 90 days, this provision kicks in:
Failure by the special permit granting authority to take final action within said ninety days or extended time, if applicable, shall be deemed to be a grant of the special permit. (MGL, Ch.40A, sec.9)
As well, it is worth noting that the appeals provisions in MGL Ch 40A section 17 are broadly inclusive:
Any person aggrieved by a decision of the board of appeals or any special permit granting authority … whether or not previously a party to the proceeding ... may appeal to the land court department, the superior court department in which the land concerned is situated …
Furthermore …
If the complaint is filed by someone other than the original applicant, appellant or petitioner, such original applicant, appellant, or petitioner and all members of the board of appeals or special permit granting authority shall be named as parties defendant with their addresses.
It is fair and reasonable to ask if the Council will effectively be able to meet the mandated timelines without creating a situation of endless extensions producing something very close to a work-stoppage on all development.  Furthermore, my reading of the appeals provision states that anyone can file an appeal, and that all city councilors would be named as defendants.  This could quickly become an unworkable situation in a city where all development proposals are highly politicized and contentious. 

Planning boards were established exactly to create separation between elected bodies and more technical decisions that need to be made about buildings.  Accountability is a good thing, of course — we want the ability to throw the SOBs out of office at the next election — but it is axiom that politicians often can't see further down the road anyway. Someone needs to keep an eye on the long-range needs and demands of this community.  In a place where small numbers of active voters can skew any discussion significantly and developers pursue their own agenda, this proposal won't solve any of it.  In fact, it will only make it a lot worse.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Tragedy of Iraq (cont.)

How’s this for a deeply worrying opening paragraph: "Syrian government aircraft bombed Sunni militant targets inside Iraq on Tuesday, further broadening the Middle Eastern crisis a day after Israeli warplanes and rockets struck targets inside Syria.” ("Syrian aircraft bomb Sunni militant targets inside Iraq”, Washington Post, June 25, 2014). It has an apocalyptic "End of Days" feel to it.

As if that weren't enough, the border region between Syria and Iraq is fast becoming an ungoverned zone under the control of ISIS, the violent Sunni extremist group currently engaged in overthrowing the Maliki government in Baghdad, according to veteran journalist Robin Wright. Wright made the claim on Monday's Diane Rehm Show, but apparently has seen this coming for quite some time. In a September, 2013 New York Times piece entitled "Imagining a Remapped Middle East", she put forward the idea that lines in the Middle East could get redrawn, posing this fundamental question:
A century after the British adventurer-cum-diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and the French envoy François Georges-Picot carved up the region, nationalism is rooted in varying degrees in countries initially defined by imperial tastes and trade rather than logic. The question now is whether nationalism is stronger than older sources of identity during conflict or tough transitions. 
To answer it, she notes that even strongly nationalistic countries like Syria now have multiple nationalisms within their borders, the ever-present phenomenon of "cleansing" always adds to the challenge and "guns exacerbate differences". Events, it seems, have caught up with her foresight.  Today's Post furthers her thesis with a map entitled “How ISIS is carving out a new country.”

The Post goes on to describe the situation this way:
ISIS militants are fighting the governments on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, and an apparent decision by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to intervene to help Maliki further tangles the already complex knot of actors in the overlapping crises.
In Syria, the United States opposes both Assad and ISIS, which it condemns as a terrorist, al-Qaeda-inspired organization.
Iran supports both Assad and Maliki and is sending aid to both, although Iraq’s ambassador to Tehran on Tuesday denied reports that the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps was in Baghdad helping the government there, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported.
As Iraq disintegrates, the inability of the U.S. to act effectively in this scenario only makes its culpability in helping to create it all the worse. Whatever course the U.S. does choose, dealing with ISIS, buffered as it is by two failing states, will come at a huge cost. Deep war weariness severely constrains American options. It seems that our interests will lead us to a strange bed-fellowship with Iran and therefore with Assad of Syria, and both will present ethical conundrums as well as geopolitical ones.  Watching the fragile Middle East unravel this way is like watching a car crash in high definition slow motion.

Friday, June 20, 2014

New York to Atlanta via rail, one man's journey.

I boarded the southbound Number 19 and was directed to my cabin. The train wasn't departing until 2:15 in the afternoon, so I still had some time. As it was an overnight train, I would have the whole compartment to myself. I leaned back to take in the scene.

Inside the train.

Out the window across the platforms and tracks of Penn Station, I imagined a ribbon of darkness from the tunnels that struggled against the overhead fluorescent lights for control of the space, creating a netherworld in which neither dark nor light could prevail.

Penn Station platform.

Penn Station may be the busiest passenger terminal in North America, but it is no longer the grandest, not by a long shot. That title was grabbed long ago by one of its rivals, perhaps Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station or Washington D.C.’s Union Station or New York’s other great station, Grand Central. The wrecking ball that wiped out the old Penn laid waste to one of the greatest cathedrals of American rail, with high vaulting arches that announced a kingdom of wheeled travel, but one that could not stand up to the churning power of 1960s or the arrival of the airlines.

Old Penn Station a year before demolition, 1962.

Down came those arches in 1963, and up went the new Penn, the impersonal modernist box that still holds sway on 33rd Street and 8th Avenue today.

Penn Station waiting area 2014.

At least, that’s what happened above ground.  Underground was a completely different tale. The world under the earth was untouched by the wrecker’s ball or the digger’s shovel, and therefore essentially unchanged. To those who love rail, the romance of long distance train travel still lingers here. I undertook this journey to see if rail was still a viable option in the United States. 

2:15 pm arrived and the great train lurched forward. The trip to Atlanta would take 19 hours. My train is called the Crescent and it winds its way south via electric power along the rails of the Northeast Corridor, stopping at Philly, Baltimore, DC before it switches to a diesel locomotive for the trip through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and then west to New Orleans, the Crescent City.

New Jersey.

At our first stop in Newark, New Jersey a young couple with a baby boarded and took the compartment across the way. My trip had now begun in earnest.  I started making notes. 
The woman next door is not happy.  The toilet, it turns out, is located in her tiny little compartment.  She wants to know why the toilets are not down at the end of the hall.  To me, this is a manageable problem.  To her, this is clearly not the case.  Within four minutes of having walked into the cabin, she has complained loudly three times.  I want to tell her to go take a plane.  It turns out that my peaceful trip may be interrupted by a crying baby too.  Age doesn’t bring lots of benefits, but it does bring the impression that the indignities you don’t want to deal with you don't not have to.  When this isn’t the case, it’s easy to get annoyed.
We rolled southward. The landscape had a particular beauty to it. I scribbled.

North of Philadelphia.

We’re still north of Washington D.C., but it’s old industrial, there’s an old junk car lot and now a cinderblock building with Home of Cutler Egg Products stenciled on the roof.  There’s a transformer and some very low small buildings and an abandoned factory as we pass the North Philadelphia station.  Another abandoned factory.  And is that another? There seem to be lots of them all along the way.  Bricked up and left to collapse.  And we have to assume the poor neighborhoods are all around them.  We treat our train areas like trash dumps.
We pressed on towards Washington D.C. and Union Station.
The vegetation changes as you go south.  That is an obvious point, but it’s a noticeable one too. There’s a flat brown stream.  It’s shallow. You wouldn’t find that up north.  There are trailer homes but the grass is green.  The trees don’t have leaves yet here either but they are just starting. We cross a river now. A broad river and a long bridge. We must be in Maryland now. 

The Amtrak brochure tells me that that the tracks to Washington D.C. are owned by Amtrak, but south of that to Alexandria they are owned by CSX.  South of that, they are owned by Norfolk Southern.  Let’s see what happens to our pace once we’re on freight tracks.  I’m sure we play second fiddle and have to wait when a freight train is passing. 
Washington, D.C. We are now in Union Station.  All power will be cut as the locomotives get switched.  To my right is a huge set of power cables sitting on a rack.  An Acela Express just came into the station. 

Union Station, Washington, D.C.
Union Station, Washington, D.C.

In the cafe car, I overheard train attendants talking about a guy who ate in the dining car and then walked out without paying.  The conductors tracked him down, but let him go.  Their other option was to arrest him. 

In the dining car, en route.

Virginia is lovely.  Genteel.  Two side-by-side American gothic churches, one slightly bigger than the other.  A train car loaded with sections of train track.  Like a toy model.  The sun is setting.
A Virginia farm at sunset.

It’s immediately noticeable how many freight cars and locomotives are parked on adjacent tracks.  We’re running on diesel power now, can max out at 80 mph, unlike north of DC, where we ran on electric and could max out at 110 mph, or so said the guy behind the bar in the café car.
Two trains passed in the night. It’s 9:48pm, and we’re south of Charlottesville by about 1 hour. Fatigue is setting in, though I’d like to try to do some reading as well.  Conrad.  The Secret Agent.  Let’s see if I can, or will I just fall asleep?  The train whistle sounds.  The wheels rub against the tracks as we turn.  Chug-a-chug-a-chug-a-chug-a. 

Boxcars by night.

Now, about two hours north of Atlanta.  It’s impossible to say that you actually sleep on a train, but the night hours go by in a semi-slumber and before your know it, it’s 4:30am and almost time to get up. 
The train is stopped now, the train stops periodically on the tracks, to wait for clearances or whatnot.  High-pressure sodium lamps light up a lonely parking lot.  The sun has not shown its face at all, though it is 6:22am by my computer clock.  That seems odd.  I would think the sun would at least give a glimmer, particularly since we’re significantly south of where we started from and the days should be longer down here.  It’s almost time for breakfast.
 The sun is up.

Locomotive at dawn.
The mist still lingers on the green fields.  The trees are green, which is pleasant to see.  Every once in a while, a dogwood is tucked back in the thick of it all, short and white and pretty.  Time to pack.  To prepare to de-train.

The Number 19 in Atlanta.

And there it was, 19 hours to Atlanta.

The Atlanta train station is more befitting of a small town than a major American city. It's not connected to public transit and sits next to 15 lanes of freeway traffic.  Atlanta's priorities are clear.  This irony grows when we remember that Atlanta was started as a rail depot.

Atlanta train station.

Nevertheless, my trip told me one thing without question: long distance train travel is alive, if not kicking, in the United States.  Well run, on time, comfortable, these are the words I use to describe my journey. Getting there became a pleasurable part of the experience. It's not the cheapest to travel nor is it the quickest, but it is well worth it even still.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Dems put their gloves on in Worcester; Convention organizers get a black eye.

After waiting over two hours for vote results at Saturday’s Democratic state convention in Worcester’s DCU Center, political reporter Andy Hiller could be overheard offering a hearty dose of expletives to describe what he perceived as a healthy dose of incompetence on the part of Democrats.  His language was sufficiently flavorful that nearby delegates started referring to the WHDH newsman as “Sunshine”.

Still, Hiller had a point. Saturday’s event had the trappings of an organized mess from the first moments to the final announcement of the day’s winners and losers.  Delegate voting took forever, and then getting the results took even longer.

How many tellers does it take to count a ballot? Actually, it is hard work.

One shouldn't draw grand conclusions out of it, but activating the activist base — and what is a convention if not a room full of party activists? — requires building a little good will among the anointed, and this weekend's show did anything but that. 

The party apparatchiks will review the all of it all, so in the meantime let’s take a moment to talk about the delegates’ choices, the candidates who will shape our primary in September and November’s general election.

Governor — My candidate Juliette Kayyem didn’t garner enough support to get on the ballot.  That is a shame because she offered an energetic example of new leadership in the state.  Still, politics is a game of organizing, and at this level, the state convention is hurdle Number One.  The “Best Organized” award goes to Steve Grossman, who out-hustled everyone else to the finish line, his orange "Grossman 14" t-shirts appearing everywhere, with the occasional super-delegate making a fashion statement out of it.
I'm with Steve, dammit!
In comparison, Martha Coakley was nothing but disappointing to these ears.  Not that Grossman is a rock star.  He certainly is not, but she delivered a flat speech that started off by reminding everyone of her 2010 defeat and all the disappointment that went side-by-side.  Yes, mention it Martha.  No, don’t lead with it.  I don’t see it playing out for her.

Don Berwick is the progressives’ darling.  He’s smart and committed to the cause ... a little too committed perhaps, which leaves me a little unconvinced.  Politics is not a morality play at the end of the day.  It’s the rough and tumble way we make choices as large groups, with our competing interests and differing points of view battling it out. Berwick is the “pure” choice for progressives which gives me pause in such an unpure business. The fifth and final candidate, Joe Avellone, didn’t find the votes so his season's over.

Lieutenant Governor — My candidate Leland Cheung just squeaked onto the ballot with slightly over 16 percent of delegates supporting him.  He (and his wife and child) cut a good figure up on the podium, but there’s still lots of work left for him to do.  The “Best Organized” award goes to Steve Kerrigan who clearly knows what he’s doing out there, and will be a very formidable candidate in September.
Kerrigan brings his A game, and it pays off.
The runner-up award goes to runner-up Mike Lake who came in a close second.  Well done Mike, though I suspect that over the campaign trail, Kerrigan will find ways to solidify the lead he showed at the convention.  Leland still had the best speech. James Arena-DeRosa, admirable man and good public servant, couldn't find enough support to continue to the next round.

Mike Lake talks up a delegate, but somebody is bored!
Attorney General — This is going to be the most interesting race to watch. This is the strongest field, a two-person race, with the most dynamic candidates. My candidate Maura Healey is a fighter — by her own assessment and by the vibe she gives off.  When she says she’ll fight for you, you believe her, because every signal you’re getting from her says — Yes, she will fight. You want that in an AG.

Still, Warren Tolman is no slouch.  To his credit, and as an indication of his poise, his short introductory video was unique by its humor, which made it stand above the rest.  The other shorts were simply a dreadful waste of time.  It's a sign of Tolman's wide-angle view that he can see such a small thing for what it is, such a small thing.  It's also a sign of someone who will recognize a big thing too.

This race is too close to call with each candidate getting around 50 percent of the delegates (Tolman beat out Healey by a hair, and got the party’s endorsement in the process) but it will be lots of fun to watch, with two competent, accomplished lawyers fighting for the brass ring.

Treasurer — An important job but not an inspiring one, Tom Conroy got my support because people I know like him. There’s nothing particular about Conroy to announce him as the obvious choice, except a face truly made for politics, but his credentials are good, his support is broad, his speech solid, and his campaign team hard-working.  Deb Goldberg did just fine at the convention, and these two will battle for votes in a contest where most voters couldn’t tell you one actual responsibility the treasurer has.  So be it.  At least we get to choose.  Barry Finegold didn’t make the cut. 

In summation, here’s the briefest wrap up of Saturday’s state Democratic convention in Worcester I can imagine:
"I think the substance of the convention was excellent. The logistics deplorable."
It comes from a fellow delegate, but I couldn’t agree more.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Leland Cheung for lieutentant governor.

Leland Cheung is my choice for lieutenant governor and if you live in Massachusetts, he should be yours. 

Smart, energetic, hard-working, responsive, Leland showed his chops yet again last night at a Cambridge event hosted by Renata von Tscharner, Kristen von Hoffman and others. 

Every pol tries to distill into a short five minute speech what they stand for and who they are.  Leland’s 5-minuter is very strong, covering his background, his history, his motivations, and his goals.  Born to a Chinese immigrant father, Leland is in some ways the American Dream actualized, with all its attendant attributes.  Very hard working and extremely driven — Stanford undergrad, venture capitalist, then off to a joint degree at the MIT Sloan School and Harvard’s Kennedy School — Leland squeaked on to the Cambridge City Council on his first run in 2009. Since then he’s been a whirlwind of activity, sponsoring everything under the sun, and pushing initiative after initiative. Handily reelected in 2011 and 2013, now he’s running for lieutenant governor, and he’s the right one for the job.

Not that I have anything against Steve Kerrigan, Mike Lake or James Arena-DeRosa. They all seem pleasant, earnest, committed and interested in the work. But Leland stands above them, in experience, in understanding, in accomplishment.

Leland gets it, which is another way of saying he understands our next challenge is energizing the Massachusetts cities and towns outside the Boston-Cambridge axis.  Over the past decade, opportunity and wealth have grown unequally in this state, expanding exponentially in a very small geographic area around Kendall Square and Boston’s Innovation District but leaving other parts of the Commonwealth behind.  Worse, the expansion has been felt only by a very small, privileged segment of society.  The haves are gaining at increasing speed while the have-lesses are falling farther behind. Addressing this in the next governor’s term is critical. Leland names it as one of his top priorities. Knowing his track record, he will deliver.

Furthermore, in an increasingly multicultural Massachusetts, we will do better in the long run if our elected and appointed leadership bears some resemblance to our populace as a whole. I can’t help but notice that — other than Leland — the field of candidates is all white men. That is so yesteryear.

Leland is the right man for the job and I hope Saturday’s state Democratic convention, and subsequently the voters in September’s primary and November’s general will recognize this and act on it.  

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Alan Furst reads from his new novel at Porter Square Books.

It’s Paris. It’s 1938. The German threat is increasing, spies are showing up in larger numbers in the City of Light, and an American film star is being asked to keep tabs on anyone suspicious he’s meeting. It’s the opening gambit of the 2012 Alan Furst novel Mission to Paris, and it’s quintessential Furst, capturing not only the politics but the menace of the time.

Called “the best in the business” with stories that are “action-packed and grippingly atmospheric”, Furst is talented, formulaic, and has a following. His loyal fans showed up in droves at Porter Square Books in Cambridge last night to hear him read from his latest novel, Midnight in Europe.

As he commenced reading, he intoned with a broad smile, “And this book starts at Saks Fifth Avenue”.  He knows how to set a scene because he knows the resonances that places and words carry:
On a soft winter evening in Manhattan, the fifteenth of December, 1937, it started to snow; big flakes spun lazily in the sky, danced in the lights of the office buildings, then melted as they hit the pavement.  At Saks Fifth Avenue the window displays were lush and glittering — tinsel, toy trains, sugary frost dusted on the glass — and a crowd had gathered at the main entrance, drawn by a group of carolers dressed for a Dickens Christmas in long mufflers, top hats, and bonnets. Here then, for as long as it lasted, was a romantic New York, the New York in a song on the radio.

Christian Ferrar, a Spanish emigre who lived in Paris, took a moment to enjoy the spectacle, then hurried across the avenue as the traffic light turned red and began to work his way through the crowd.  In a buckled briefcase carried under his arm, he had that morning’s New York Times.   The international news was as usual: marches, riots, assassinations, street brawls, arson, political warfare was tearing Europe apart. ...
Furst has now produced over 12 books, all set at the edges of World War II. He does not seek the traditional narrative of the war, the major battles, the lead actors both political and military, the defining moments. He cozies up to the smaller characters whose lives are soon to be transformed by the peril and chaos of the times. A master of mood, his atmospherics are magnificent. It's a display of just how much weight a simple sentence can carry.

He looks the part of the writer, elderly, short, bald. He stoops as he stands but reads clearly, without flourish. He's smart enough to know not to overdo it.  When he finished, he asked “What’s next best after S & M?  Q & A.” A witty guy, he lives in Sag Harbor on Long Island after many years in New York City.  

"Which comes first, characters or plot?," an audience member wanted to know. Without pause he retorted, characters.  Then he rephrased it — first comes the historico-political setting, then come the characters, then comes the plot. He’s trying to see how his fictional characters respond in real-world historical contexts.  First where. Then who. Then what. 

Here’s another one, for the pleasure of it ...

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Innovation and equity.

I am sitting in Voltage, a coffee shop on 3rd Street in Cambridge, and thinking to myself, “Here we go again."

Ten years ago, the "green jobs" revolution was going to change the environmental movement by distributing benefits more equitably between rich and poor, which in this context meant white and black.

Wealthy homeowners who cared about the environment were going to want more efficient systems. Roofs and walls, windows and doors would need to be insulated and air sealed.  New heating and cooling systems were going to have to be installed. These jobs were perfect for lower-skilled  workers.  Blowing foam into an attic through a large tube doesn’t require the same skill as working in a lab or being a college professor. Meanwhile, the activists were thrilled. Finally there was a way to marry social justice to environmental action.

The problem is, those jobs never materialized. Homeowners never bit into the program with the sufficient hunger. The rebate system was too cumbersome. The home energy retrofit business never really took off.

Fast forward ten years and and there’s an eerily similar feel to the discussion around the innovation economy and its reach.

Take the coffee shop I’m sitting in now, Voltage. Seats are filled with Kendall Square’s tech and innovation vanguard.  They are entrepreneurs and coders, idea people and implementation people, bumping and connecting in the way that they are supposed to do. The dress is casual, for men no ties, very few collared shirts even, for women no skirts though the occasional dress, with sneakers common for both. It's a room that's impressively gender balanced, with most in their 20s and 30s.  They are racially diverse, which is to say Asian, Caucasian, Indian, but not a single African-American or Hispanic to be seen. Average education level, unknown? Presumably high. 

This is a brief sketch of the winners in the innovation economy. That doesn’t mean they all have won. Some haven’t yet. Some never will.  But they get to play in the game. Even more importantly, if they decide that being a start-up guy really wasn’t their ball of wax, they will go off to law school. Or they will apply to med school.  Or they’ll go backpack in the Himalayas. It's an economy that for all its churning and job creation is actually highly selective and therefore restricted.

Huge sections of our broader society will never come near this place. We know because we haven’t seen them to date, and we doubt it’s going to change. They will never engage the networks, the learning and the opportunities wandering around Voltage this afternoon.

There is a belief among some innovationists that by innovation alone, we will overcome these barriers, but they are wrong. Not every problem will relent to the disruptive power of a new idea. Some will, that’s for sure.  Uber has disrupted the taxi industry and Airbnb has disrupted the hotel industry. Efficient information has the power to remap and rewire our old systems.  But I don’t know of the iPhone app that will disrupt the Cambridge child going home hungry this weekend. That requires human action. Sometimes, the answer is analog.

The release of the Brookings Institution report on Innovation Districts on Monday made me think — they’ve got it right. These districts cannot exist independent of the context in which they are found.  In Cambridge, Kendall Square borders Area 4, in Philadelphia, there is a strong push to include the surrounding community.  Equity is work we need to do in every community, in every context.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Brookings Institution on Innovation Districts

Finally, there is a detailed study of the phenomenon that has fascinated me for years, since I was a Cambridge city councillor. On Monday, the Brookings Institution will release its report The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America.  The report makes sense of the emerging phenomenon in America and around the globe that’s bringing smart entrepreneurial young people together into urban settings to create the next wave of the economy, and in the process disrupt old patterns and practices of both methods and outcomes, while at the same time transform the urban spaces used for working, living and playing.

According to the report’s authors, Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings and Julie Wagner, a non-resident fellow there:
Innovation districts constitute the ultimate mash up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments—all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine.
Katz and Wagner call Cambridge’s Kendall Square “today’s iconic innovation district”, citing the presence of MIT as a core driver in what they have termed the “anchor plus model”, which they describe this way:
The “anchor plus” model, primarily found in the downtowns and mid-towns of central cities, is where large scale mixed-use development is centered around major anchor institutions and a rich base of related firms, entrepreneurs and spin-off companies involved in the commercialization of innovation. “Anchor plus” is best exemplified by Kendall Square in Cambridge (and the explosion of growth around MIT and other nearby institutions like Mass. General Hospital) and the Cortex district in St. Louis (flanked by Washington University, Saint Louis University, and Barnes Jewish Hospital).
The report is thorough and insightful and represents a fundamentally important addition to the literature on innovation and American cities.  Brookings is to be commended for their work and their talented team.  Like most times of change, this one is hard to get a handle on.  The pace is brisk, the implications large, and the distribution uneven.  But Brookings is showing us the signposts, and giving us a sense of what they mean.

More information about Monday's release can be found here:

Thursday, June 5, 2014

(Some of the ...) Candidates for MA governor meet to talk transportation.

To walk into the full auditorium at the Boston Public Library last night for a gubernatorial candidates' forum on transportation and see a table filled with only white men was a disappointment.  That's not a comment about the candidates — they were earnest and eager and trying their hardest, as candidates tend to do.  It's not a comment about the sponsor, Livable Streets.  They undoubtedly worked hard to pull this together.  It is more a comment that none of the women candidates showed up and that we have no candidates of color in this race.  As this historic era concludes, where both our governor and our president are African-American, a bevy of five white men in suits on a stage feels so 1980s.

From L to R: Avellone, Berwick, Falchuk, Grossman, McCormick.  Doug Foy, moderator (standing)

Of course, that’s simplistic.  It’s possibly prejudiced.  It may even be racist.  I mean, white men are just as qualified as anyone else to be governor, of course we believe that.  It’s just in this multicolored world called America, in which we have accomplished so much during this last decade on one of the thorniest issues of our history, to return simply to plain vanilla is, uh, not very exciting. 

Why make such a fuss about it?  In part because none of the candidates was particularly inspiring, or particularly knowledgeable, or particularly different.  Joe Avellone (D), to his very great credit, called for a revenue neutral carbon tax.  Steve Grossman (D) spoke out very clearly on the equity issue.  Evan Falchuk (I) talked about 40R, a topic he clearly has studied thoroughly.  Jeff McCormick (I) has started companies and knows what young people want, and Don Berwick (D) likes smart growth.  In fact, they all like smart growth.  Who wouldn’t? 

Yet, transportation in all its guises is so much more than that, it would be nice to have heard someone with more direct experience in the area.  When a woman got up to ask how the candidates will deal with the awful conundrum that transportation investment in poorer communities often leads to gentrification of those communities, the men were trying, but not particularly convincing.  This is only one of the thorny challenges ahead.  Funding and cost, auto-transit mix, jobs-housing access, the elderly, the poor, bicycles and pedestrians - all are such important parts of this next governor’s agenda, we'd like to know if the candidates know what they're talking about.

The challenge of the next decade does not lie in the immediate Boston metro area, the Red Line corridor, Green Line expansion, Silver Line, regardless of how critically important transit in the core is.  The next challenge is how to distribute the benefits of transit to the second tier cities in the state that don’t benefit from the gravitational force of Boston and neighboring Cambridge.  These cities are less white, less affluent, more poorly endowed with the resources to compete in the 21st century economy.  Transit will play a huge role in a longer-term strategy for their rebirth.

Still, our current system has not been able to extend the Green Line in two decades, and cannot adequately meet the upcoming service needs of the new Allston areas that will be transformed by Harvard's private investment over the next decade.  It is very hard under these circumstances to imagine how Fall River or New Bedford or any of a host of other communities in this state will see the levels of investment that will bring them back to life in 2020.  Without a successful strategy to do this, the economic cleavage that segregates our civic sphere will only get much, much deeper.

And Charlie Baker (R), Martha Coakley (D), Juliette Kayyem (D) ... they didn’t show.