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Archive for August, 2008

As I reported earlier, and as readers of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner may may have read, the Vision Fairbanks downtown revitalization plan passed the Borough Assembly 8-0.  While this seems like a stunning coup, I have worries.

First, some highlights (or at least points of interest):

Dozens of citizens testified — and just about all in favor.  In fact, nobody said, “I think this is a bad plan and will result in nothing but a waste of money.”  I believe that as many as five people may have had negative or challenging things to say about it:

  • Carl Benson, a long-time member of the Borough’s Transportation Advisory Commission, questioned the wisdom of tearing down the existing bus station, which was completed only a few years ago,  to build the public square at the center of Vision Fairbanks’s “retail hot spot”.
  • Jerry Colp, a City engineer who built his house several years ago in an area designated by the plan as the site for a grocery store, said that the plan would have to be flexible enough to accommodate existing land-owners who did not want to move.
  • Another man suggested that we should have some major private investors lined up to support this before making it law; he was not aware of any private parties that had committed money to this project.
  • Two (apparently) mentally handicapped women voiced their concern about the proposed removal of the bus station.  They were worried about losing their only means to reach their jobs, their shopping, and their health care.

As far as I could tell, everybody else loved it.  Even people who had seen other downtown improvement efforts in Fairbanks fail, said, “I’ve been against scads of half-baked city improvement schemes, and I don’t have much regard for planners generally.  But these Crandall Arambula folks are the real deal.  This plan is the most exciting prospect I’ve seen for Fairbanks in decades.”

(A sound recording of the hearing, in mp3 format, can be found on the Borough’s Assembly Meetings page, under August 21.  The hearing on the Vision Fairbanks ordinance starts on Track 2 at 6:55.  My testimony starts at 19:24.)

Here’s where I have reservations about what was passed.  Mayor Jim Whitaker introduced the winning ordinance (no. 2008-30), which specified, unfortunately, that the Vision Fairbanks amendment was advisory only and should not have the force of law:

The Vision Fairbanks Downtown Plan may be modified in the course of implementation decisions and it should not be interpreted as restricting the Assembly’s ability to accommodate the actual development of the downtown core area and the changing needs of the community.  It is a set of recommendations that should be considered in future land use determinations including requests for future zoning changes, development, and public investments in infrastructure inthe downtown core area.

(Ordinance No. 2008 – 30, Attachment 3)

Assembly member Luke Hopkins proposed a substitute ordinance, which struck the language saying that the Borough was under no obligation to follow it, and replaced it with much stronger language:

Rather, the Vision Fairbanks Downtown Plan will, however, require that future proposals relating to land use in the downtown core area be analyzed for consistency with the Vision Fairbanks Downtown Plan.

(Proposed Substitute Attachment 3 to Ordinance No. 2008-30)

The Hopkins version also specified that the plan would have to be regularly reviewed and updated.  It said that the plan could be changed as necessary.

To my mind, the Hopkins version would have been much preferable.  The plan would have had the force of law, and any projects determined not to conform to it would have had to go through a more rigorous public process to be approved.  This is something I suspect the Assembly didn’t fully understand: while a “codified” (binding) ordinance would have made it harder for changes to be made, they could still be made — just with a more deliberative process.  It would have given private investors a kind of security: the knowledge that the conditions that existed and helped them prosper today would very likely be in effect and help them prosper tomorrow.

Unfortunately, the Hopkins version failed, 2-6.  (And the only person besides Hopkins to vote for the substitute was Bill Stringer, who seemed to have a fuzzy understanding of the proposed ordinance.) So we have an “advisory” plan.

A few Assembly members took their turns to speak about the Hopkins version.  But when Bernardo Hernandez, Director of Community Planning, was called, he got an awkward public silencing.  Mayor Whitaker took the floor instead and said, essentially, “While you’re welcome to ask Mr. Hernandez any questions you need to, I will represent the position of this administration, and I have already done so.”

As Chad Roberts commented a few days ago, there’s nothing technically out of order for the mayor to speak for the administration, or to dictate who may speak.  But it seemed plain that Mr. Hernandez intended to advocate for the passage of a codified ordinance.  This was confirmed for me by someone who went to the Assembly work sessions prior to the public hearing: Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Whitaker openly disagreed about the need for a binding amendment.  The Assembly knew full well what Mr. Hernandez thought; he was just not allowed to voice those thoughts at a public hearing.  Too bad.  Their disagreement raises the question, Why is the mayor advocating for something his expert staff tell him is a bad idea?

I’m disheartened about the plan’s future, not only because of the language of the approved ordinance, but because of who supported it.

During the Assembly’s discussion, Assembly member Randy Frank recalled his recent visits to Duluth and Minneapolis, in whose downtown streets he could not see anything interesting going on. He had to be directed indoors, to where the (evidently secret) fun was.  (This off-street, indoor fun was called something like the “Minnesota Underground”.) He seemed to think that this lack of street life was praiseworthy. He said it made those places unique, and he’d like Fairbanks to be unique, too.

To me, that suggests that Mr. Frank is hostile (or at least indifferent) to the idea of active street life, which is central to the spirit of Vision Fairbanks.  The fact that he would vote to approve the mayor’s ordinance, when he shows so little regard for one of the plan’s central virtues, suggests to me that he is not threatened by this non-binding ordinance, and is confident that the Assembly could disregard it when convenient.

I could be wrong about Mr. Frank.  Maybe he only meant that Duluth and Minneapolis had one kind of distinctiveness, and he was for distinctiveness in general.  Maybe he was really enthusiastic about Vision Fairbanks, and had a very subtle way of expressing it.  But it seemed like the subtlety of a person who has to seem supportive of something he doesn’t care for, and it worried me.

So, fellow downtown-loving Fairbanksans: we’re going to have to be vigilant.  We’ll have to have somebody at every meeting of the Planning Commission, every meeting of the Assembly, watching for potential corruption of the plan.  We’ll need to keep each other informed when something comes up.  And we’ll have to keep the pressure on, always reminding the commissioners and Assembly members: This was unanimously approved!  This was the overwhelming will of the people!  Be faithful to it!

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This post continues thoughts begun in “The people’s thing?” about three weeks ago.

(If you’re wondering where my fuller report is on the Vision Fairbanks public hearing before the FNSB Assembly, it’s coming.  This is now a little more timely.  And it’s what I feel like writing about today.)

As I said in “The people’s thing?”, there was a local candidate for office whose principles — according to his web page — have everything to do with individual liberty and with government creating a place where individuals can thrive, but nothing to do with community, common goals, shared fate, mutual obligation, or even duty.

This person is Schaeffer Cox.  He garnered over 37 percent of the vote in the Republican primary for House District 7 — not enough to unseat incumbent Mike Kelly, coming in at just under 50 percent.  While I don’t care for his opinions on the role of government in strengthening community or the insufficient attention he pays to mutual obligation and social justice, I bear him personally no ill will.  By all accounts, he is intelligent, accomplished for his age, well versed in the U.S. and Alaska constitutions, able to point to particular legislation he agrees or disagrees with and not just fall back on vague promises, and both ready and able to discuss politics at the drop of a hat.  While he was out-raised and out-spent by Kelly, he had twice as many individual donors, according to the News-Miner.  The fact that he made it so close to an elected office at the age of 24 is admirable.

After posting, I e-mailed Mr. Cox’s campaign and invited him either to reply directly on The Fairbanks Pedestrian or to address concerns of community and related issues in the “Principles” section of his website.  While he did neither of these, he did e-mail me a few days before the primary with (1) a reply, (2) permission to post the reply here, and (3) an invitation to call him at any time to ask other questions.  Here is what he wrote:

Why I do not talk specifically about community on my website?

Short Answer: Governments fail miserably at producing community while individuals succeed beautifully.  It is the legislator’s job to uphold justice and defend individual freedom.  This provides an environment where the individuals are able to do their job of creating and sustaining community, friendship and brotherhood.

Long Answer:  Community and the brotherhood of man is a good thing, but it must be done by individuals on a person-to-person level, not by legislators through the government with the use of law/force.  One must understand that law is force.  The job of a legislator is to write laws, determining where the use of force is appropriate.  Every human being has an inherent, natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and a corresponding right and, I dare say, obligation to defend, even with force, against encroachments upon that right.  Defense is the only proper application of force.  These same principles that guide the individual are to guide the group of individuals organized into a government.  Government is the collective extension of the individual right to self-defense.  It would be wrong for me as an individual to promote a good thing by force.  It would be wrong for me as a legislator to promote a good thing by force.   And since the implementation of law, and therefore force, is my concern as a legislator, the principle of community is absent.

I have a few responses to this:

Mr. Cox asserts that “Government is the collective extension of the individual right to self-defense.”  To me that seems a bleak and lonely view.  I prefer to see governments as the people acting together out of collective interest.  I see no reason that people should collectively pay for an organization whose sole goal is to enable them to meet individual, selfish desires.  Individuality must be protected, to be sure.  But it scarcely needs promotion.  Humans are a selfish enough lot that, with enough help, we’ll take our individuality to an isolating, antisocial extreme.

I suppose he’s right that, when push comes to shove, government amounts to force.  I prefer the term coercion, though, since force to me implies the application of physical force, while coercion increases the number of tools at a government’s disposal.  But, whether governments “force” people or “coerce” them, the key words are “when push comes to shove”.  The fact is, if government is done well, it rarely has to come to the level of outright coercion or brute force.  Governments are able to provide incentives both subtle and gross to encourage people to act in one way or another.  With skill, they will encourage people to act toward common goods.

For an example, let me take the public library (a brilliant idea that would surely be shot down if it were first thought up in today’s individualistic climate).  An educated populace is a social good.  Fortunately, public libraries have been with us long enough that people recognize them as a tremendous bargain, and most people are happy to fund them with their property taxes or whatever public funding.  Nobody has to be “forced” to pay for them.

Okay, if you really hate public libraries and you start shorting your local property tax payment by the proportion that would fund your library, you’ll ultimately lose your house — but that’s only if push comes to shove.  There is no reason it should, if a fair government is run.  Everybody should get something out of the bargain; everybody should feel that he’s come out somewhat ahead.

Mr. Cox states, “Governments fail miserably at producing community while individuals succeed beautifully.”  I take issue with this.  First, individuals, by definition, cannot produce community.  They may make beautiful paintings, hunt trophy moose, run record distances, and pen prize-winning novels — as individuals.  Community requires people to suppress their perfect individuality to become something more.

I admit, that may have been verbal sophistry.  I suspect Mr. Cox really meant that people succeed better at creating community when they are free to act with no government coercion.  So we have to wonder, what kind of coercion should people be under in forming community?  If the answer is “none”, then that community will never arise.  When people feel perfectly free to opt out of every situation, they have no cause to settle differences and arrive at conventions that will (more or less) please all.

Second, Mr. Cox seems to be implying that governments attempting to “produce” community are trying to force it into being.  This would be an absurd aim, one that I hope no public official endorses.  Governments cannot force community into being any more than I can force grass to grow.  However, just as I can offer that grass water, sunlight, and fertile soil, governments — again, the people acting together out of collective interest — can create circumstances under which community will thrive.  Like Aristotle, I believe that man is a social animal.  Most of us will tend toward lives of collaboration and co-nurturance if given the chance.  But to suppose that individuals will create community on their own without creating favorable conditions is like supposing that a sack of grass seed will turn into a lawn without water, light, or soil.  The governments we constitute are the agents by which we create those conditions.

A quick example: I believe that one of the requirements of community is that people sometimes spend time together.  (I may get into the benefits of this another time.)  They cannot do this without common space.  (There is no meaningful right to free assembly when the people have no place to assemble.)  What’s more, that space must be attractive and interesting enough to lure them from the the familiarity of the private sphere.  Thus, if public interest is served by people sometimes spending time together, then public interest is served by fostering quality public places.  In a sense, the government must create “infrastructure” of a kind, to allow and foster collective action.

My last complaint about Mr. Cox’s statement (and most of what’s on his “Principles” page) is that it too perfectly and too rigidly adheres to a single ideal: freedom.  I appreciate freedom.  I enjoy freedom.  But it is not the only virtue — it may not even be the greatest virtue — and it is incapable of doing all the moral “work” that many demand of it.

I’ll close with a quotation that has recently become a favorite of mine:

Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind.

(Schumacher, E. F. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 127.)

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This can only be brief right now, since it’s late and I need to go to bed.

The good news is, Vision Fairbanks passed the Assembly 8-0-1.  (Nadine Winters had a conflict of interest and had to recuse herself.)

The bad news is, the version that passed was the weaker of the two proposed — one that seems not to really restrict the Assembly in its future decisions.  Oh, it must be consulted, but here it is, in black and white:

The Vision Fairbanks Downtown Plan may be modified in the course of implementation decisions and it should not be interpreted as restricting the Assembly’s ability to accommodate the actual development of the downtown core area and the changing needs of the community.  It is a set of recommendations that should be considered in future land use determinations including requests for future zoning changes, development, and public investments in infrastructure inthe downtown core area.

(Ordinance No. 2008 – 30, Attachment 3)

Dammit, I wanted the Assembly’s power restricted!  So did two-thirds of those who testified!

The room was full of cheers when the clerk announced that the ordinance passed.  Not my cheers, though.  I’m profoundly concerned that, lacking any meaningful promises about how the Borough will develop the downtown area, fewer private investors will be willing to locate there; this plan will become a mixed success at best and a major waste of public funds at worst; and all the naysayers will be able to say, “See, we told you downtown wasn’t worth investing in!”

A few other people who have worked long on this project were optimistic.  I’m trying to be.

Anyhoo, I’ll give a fuller report tomorrow or the next day, when I’ve had some sleep.  There were surprises and drama this evening.  (Here’s a teaser: it appears that Mayor Whitaker, who proposed the weaker ordinance, was afraid of what his Director of Community Planning might say if given permission to do more than answer direct questions….)

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For those just tuning in: The Borough Assembly will hold a public hearing on Vision Fairbanks this Thursday evening (Aug. 21) at 6:00.  Be there, speak in favor of its adoption, and wear blue to show your support!

More details here.

*** *** ***

Following is a letter I’ve just sent to the members of our Borough Assembly:

<<<<<

Good Assembly Members,

If you read the News-Miner online, you probably see the disheartening comments from our citizenry about Vision Fairbanks.  Many of them are cynical about the prospects of any revitalization efforts: to these people, the improvement of downtown Fairbanks is a lost cause, just another hole for local government to throw money into.

You can prove them wrong.  It will require commitment.

My primary concern, frankly, is not the commercial success of downtown businesses.  It is the establishment of quality civic space, where citizens will wish to spend time and where they may run into friends, meet people different from themselves, and develop a sense of common interest — the heart of community.

However, I know that such a space will not develop without a rich and successful mixture of recreational, civic, retail, and commercial attractions to bring people there to begin with.  Businesses especially must be given a framework in which they can succeed if downtown is to attain the “critical mass” of people to make continued private investment profitable and quality civic space viable.

The safe money right now isn’t on small stores downtown; it’s on big-box retail at the periphery.  Any business risking opening up a shop downtown would want to be assured that the ground it was built on, so to speak, would not soon start shifting.  Were I a business owner, I would want to know that my customers had enough places to park, that they could walk safely and comfortably in the public space outside my store, that downtown was attractive enough for people to prefer it to the sterility and sameness of big-box retail, and that there were enough varied attractions that customers of other stores might want to loiter downtown long enough to find my store.  Most important, I would want to know that these conditions would not easily change — that the governmental bodies charged with the creation and maintenance of public space would not pull the rug out from under me.

For Vision Fairbanks to succeed, we need private investment.  Private investors want the promise of a stable environment.  You, good Assembly members, can offer that — if you approve Vision Fairbanks not as a recommendation that could be ignored when convenient, but as a codified ordinance.

Businesses will locate downtown, if they know they can build on stable ground.  Please give them a framework to let them succeed: approve Vision Fairbanks, and make it binding.

(Signed, etc.)

>>>>>

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For those just tuning in: The Borough Assembly will hold a public hearing on Vision Fairbanks this Thursday evening (Aug. 21) at 6:00.  Be there, speak in favor of its adoption, and wear blue to show your support!

More details here.

*** *** ***

Those of you who read the Vision Fairbanks article in today’s (Monday’s) News-Miner will have noticed that there is some division among the Borough Assembly over whether Vision Fairbanks should be adopted as a binding resolution, or as something more flexible where the Assembly could simply consult it for direction then take whichever course of action they believed correct.

The Vision Fairbanks plan — which includes very specific layout maps, street cross-sections, diagrams, and measurements –  is far more prescriptive than the existing Comprehensive Plan (PDF, 829 KB), which consists largely of goals, strategies, and considerations.  The Borough Assembly has long had a great deal of flexibility in what kind of development it allows.  Some of them would like to keep that flexibility.

I can imagine other circumstances in which a party preparing to enter into an agreement might like to keep some flexibility:

  • I’m sure that the bank that financed my house would like flexibility in setting the interest rate on my loan.  Perhaps they could take my mortgage as an “advisory” document.
  • If I were about to accept employment, I could tell Human Resources that I’d like for my contract to be non-binding — more like a set of preferred guidelines, really.
  • If I were getting married, I could tell my partner-to-be that I’d like some flexibility in sexual partners, financial responsibility, and commitment to raising children.

You all see the problems:

  • The bank that demands flexibility in setting the interest rate on mortgages will create such a feeling of instability among would-be buyers that they would not feel safe committing to the purchase of a house, and house sales would decline.
  • The employee who demands flexibility in his employment contract will be seen as too much of a risk and will not get the job.
  • The would-be spouse who demands flexibility in his commitments to his partner will be seen as a bad risk — perhaps a splendid person, but not reliable — and will never find somebody willing to marry him.

In each of these circumstances, the only way to reap the benefits (of getting lenders, landing a job, or winning a spouse) is to commit, to make a binding declaration of intent.  To some degree, such commitments are already flexible and negotiable, through communication, negotiation, and arbitration.  They can also end in complete dissolution, where both parties may settle their accounts and walk away.

So it is with Vision Fairbanks.

No less than any bank with its borrowers, any worker with a job, or any person seeking a lifelong partner, businesses need commitment.  They need to know that the good conditions that allow them to thrive in the short term will allow them to thrive in the long term.  If they are enticed to open shop downtown because it is being billed as a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly community center, they need to know that it will continue to be developed that way — for example, that their business relying on walk-in customers will not be surrounded by retail-killing parking lots.

There is already flexibility built into Vision Fairbanks: it is our process of public policy.  Changes to the plan would require public hearings and resolutions from the Assembly.  They would be difficult to make — rightly so — but they would be possible.

As far as downtown retail and civic improvements go, Vision Fairbanks is The Big Enchilada.  The plan was developed with principles that (when adhered to) have made city centers pleasant, just, and prosperous places for millennia. We have an opportunity now to have quality retail, civic, and recreational uses knitted tightly together, in pleasant public space that’s conducive to civic life.

But, if we want businesses to buy into our plan, we must commit.

To date, the Assembly, under the guidance of a vague Comprehensive Plan, has enjoyed the liberty of an unmarried person: perhaps mindful of some obligations to existing partners, but keeping the liberty to change its agreements and rules, to favor whichever partner it cares for at the moment.

Now, like a responsible adult, it must offer stability and security to those whose benefits it would seek.  It’s time for the Assembly to commit.

Please ask your Assembly members (their e-mail addresses are here) to make a true commitment to Fairbanks’s prosperity: ask them to pass Vision Fairbanks as a binding (or codified) ordinance.

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Friends, this is The Big One: The Borough Assembly will hold a public hearing on the adoption of Vision Fairbanks this Thursday, August 21, in a session starting at 6:00.  Be there, speak in favor of its adoption, and wear blue to show your support!

If you’d like to know why you should speak in favor of Vision Fairbanks, I have written four other posts on its virtues: the Action Alert for the initially scheduled (but canceled) City Council meeting, the Action Alert for the actual City Council Meeting when Vision Fairbanks was endorsed, my prepared testimony for said meeting, on “The civic education of your young“, and my prepared testimony for the Planning Commission, on the “Fairbanks Citizenship Tax“.

We have a chance to give Fairbanks back a functioning downtown: a retail, commercial, and civic center, with public space to be proud of.  Let’s reclaim our historic downtown as an honored place at the center of our community.

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The people’s thing?

What chance does Fairbanks stand of being — or being part of — a republic? Can we be a community?

In high school, I learned that the United States was not a “democracy”, as many people think, but a “democratic republic”. Certainly the CIA World Factbook describes us as a “Constitution-based federal republic”.

The word ‘republic’ comes from the Latin phrase res publica, which means “public matter” or literally “people’s thing”. It implies that a republic is, by definition, a common concern. Not that the republic is a matter of common concern, but that that commonality itself is the substance of the republic. Where there is no common concern — where the people have no collective thing — republic can’t exist.

Now, I know that meanings of words change, and that modern definitions of words need bear little relationship to their historical meanings. But I feel that ‘republic’ has an almost spiritual core, or a philosophical kernel, in this idea of “the people’s thing”. When it comes to refer only to specific outward forms of government, it loses this kernel and becomes merely an empty husk.

The word ‘community’ comes close. It is derived from Latin communis, meaning “common (to several persons or to all)”. It doesn’t just mean some aggregation of people; it means a group of people who live by sharing something. (The word ‘city’ derives from Latin civis, which means “a free inhabitant of a town, and implies no commonality.)

I’ve long felt that community is one of the most important guiding principles — maybe just behind family. So I’m always disheartened to see large-scale enthusiasm for political candidates who seem not to believe in any common goals of society. There’s one running in Fairbanks — though they exist everywhere — who claims to be all about “freedom”. He says he believes in the role of government only to provide infrastructure and arbitration, so that the people can pursue their own individual goals. On his campaign web page devoted to “principles”, he says nothing about community, common goals, shared fate, mutual obligation, or even duty. As far as I can tell, it is all about the individual: governments exist solely to further private ambition. John F. Kennedy urged us to ask not what our country could do for us, but to ask what we could do for our country. My guess is that this candidate believes we and our country should do as little as possible for each other; any more would constrain our freedom.

It should be no surprise that he seems to have a large following in Fairbanks. We have more than the usual share of members of the cult of the individual. There’s much distrust of “government” here, and people vociferously protest most proposed laws that would constrain the liberty of the individual to do as he lists — common interest be damned.

Of course, this raises the question: What is our common interest? What are our common goals? If we have a community, what is the substance of that community? By sharing what things do we live? What is our people’s thing?

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