Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Some good news for downtown

I am super busy these days, so just a quick post to highlight some positive news for downtown.  Looks like the downtown office market is doing pretty well:
The report, published Monday, noted Atlanta’s downtown office vacancy rate stood at 12.6 percent on Dec. 31, 2008. This compares with a rate of 13.5 percent at the end of 2007.

However, suburban Atlanta office vacancies were a different matter. The suburban office vacancy rate was 15.8 percent at the end of 2008, compared with a rate of 14.4 percent at the end of 2007.
It wasn't that long ago that a lot of people were writing off downtown as an office destination.  191 Peachtree was mostly empty, and overall vacancies were 22% or so.  Cousins Properties bought 191 and leased it up, Barry Real Estate did well with Allen Plaza, and new owners at Peachtree Center must be doing something right.  It is good to see the office market doing well, and I hope it is a sign of future success.  More people moving intown means they don't want to drive to Alpharetta to work, and downtown still has the best transportation infrastructure in the city.  Now if we can just get that multi-modal station going....

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Toyoko Inn renderings

A friend passed along some renderings of the Toyoko Inn that is being planned for the corner of Luckie and Forsyth downtown.  I've got one up right now, and I'll try and remember to upload the rest to a Picasa album later (no gaurantee on that, though).  This pic shows it just a little shorter than the Equitable building across the street. 

Overall the design looks rather pedestrian, and is reminiscent of the many suburban hotels the architects have done.  It isn't horrid, but I'm still unenthused about the project.  The building materials are a snooze-fest.  I'm trying to keep an open mind, but it looks pretty much like what it is - a budget hotel for office workers.  Hooray, welcome to revitalization, downtown!

In my earlier post, I questioned what they would do about parking - the plans I've got show 12 stories of parking, an amenity level on the 13th floor, followed by 25 stories of hotel rooms.  I don't have a document hosting capacity at this point, but you can get an abbreviated version of the PDFs at the Phillips portfolio site.  Scroll through the images until the end, when the Toyoko Inn project comes up.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I'll try and get to this eventually

Posting this week will be light, what with lots of school work and extracurriculars.  However, a reader requests that I let it loose on tort reform.  I'm actually going to try and do a little research since tort and medical reform are dense subject matters and I'd like to do them some justice and make sure I get my facts right.  

The short version is that I think tort reform is a sham cooked up by the insurance industry that unfairly makes a pariah of lawyers and ignores the role of doctors.  For a taste of what I'm talking about, here is a blurb from a recent post by Ezra Klein about how a 19-item checklist drastically reduced surgical error:
19 questions -- questions as simple as whether the patient's identity confirmed been confirmed and his surgery site marked -- dropped the death rate by 40 percent and the complication rate by a third. That means not only that more people lived, but there was less need for follow-up care, for rehabilitation, for corrective surgeries. It's possible that some of that improvement came because the surgery teams knew they were being studied but that simply underscores the point: More attentiveness means fewer deaths.
Klein is focused on the cost of providing health care, but it is easy to take the research and see how focusing only on trial lawyers and victims of malpractice misses the larger picture.  Of course there are opportunistic lawyers, but there are also plenty of crummy doctors who repeatedly screw up.  We don't focus on an industry where 24 hour shifts are the norm, and where the use of a simple checklist drastically reduces the number of deaths and serious screw-ups.   Tort reform isn't about improving health care, it is about protecting the insurance industry.

Full disclosure: A family member is a trial lawyer, and I was working at the State Senate when the first round of tort reform went through in 2005.  I am biased.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Connect Atlanta

My friend Aria, an Urban Design student at Georgia Tech, was kind enough to take a look at the city's new transportation plan for me. Indulge your inner urban planning geek below. That's part of why you read this blog, isn't it? - bk

At the beginning of December the Atlanta City Council unanimously adopted the Connect Atlanta Plan, a long term transportation plan for the city. It's the first comprehensive transportation plan Atlanta has ever had, and in my opinion it lays out some amazing possibilities for this city. The plan has the potential to transform the city into a much more walkable, well-connected city while preserving the special character of Atlanta. To someone like me who has been dealing with the difficulties of walking, biking, or taking MARTA around this city since she was 12, the plan feels almost too good to be true.

I was lucky enough to snag some of former planning commissioner Steve Cover's time. He gave me a good overview of the plan and what's needed to carry it out. I'm going to address the plan in broad strokes, but you can download the whole thing, which is quite easy to understand, here:

The plan focuses in on some problem areas, but it's comprehensive and looks at the entire city. It incorporates many other studies—the beltline, the Piedmont corridor study, the LCIs, and the Peachtree streetcar—and ties them all in. You can download maps of the entire plan on the website. Here's the piece that covers most of downtown. The major recommendations, which you can see on the maps, are:

  • Increased transit, which is its major focus
  • A new bicycle network (!)
  • Better pedestrian facilities
  • New streets to improve connectivity and efficiency
  • Road widening to increase capacity and road diets in some cases
  • One-way to Two-way street conversion
  • Design guidelines for various street-types
  • Reduced block sizes
  • A series of recommended projects (check these out!)
  • A focus on circulation within the city rather than in and out of it.

Imagine that! A city with a network of bike paths, sidewalks, and transit options! We all know these are great things to have--no shockers there--and the plan does a good job of integrating all of them and dealing with some real problem areas. But, I think there a couple of points on which the plan is tailored really well to Atlanta and shows a lot of originality. For one thing, I am excited about how the plan conceives of the city's urban structure: Connect Atlanta breaks the city into a network of nodes, which are major activity centers of varying density (downtown, Glenwood Park, etc.), corridors, which connect the dots (Dekalb Ave.), and districts, the areas between corridors that are primarily single family (Atlanta's neighborhoods).

Each of these components of Atlanta's urban structure has its own transportation priorities and needs. To me, this structure is perceptive and smart, because it allows for a good amount of flexibility and specificity within what is still a well defined, cohesive system. It strengthens what I love about this city; while Atlanta's specific configuration is part of what causes our transportation problems, the plan deals with that while celebrating the peculiarity instead of eliminating it.

Another one of the more original pieces of the plan is the way it proposes funding the recommendations because it allows the city to pay for the entire proposal without state or federal funding. The plan proposes a parking fee or tax; buildings with parking will incur a fee for it. They'll be offsetting the infrastructural costs that are currently unaccounted for, and they'll be supporting development around them which will ultimately help their business and the city as a whole. The report makes the point that the city, with all its free parking, is subsidizing really harmful practices. This tax will correct that, and it will raise $70-80 million a year.

So, what does this all mean for us and for the future of the city? The plan gives the city a document that can guide our development in the future, as well as some specific, realizable projects. The council's adoption of the plan means that they're signing off onto the principles and goals it lays out, but the components of it will still need to pass council individually. And that's where we come in: As we move closer to an election season, the plan's realization should be a major part of the platforms of the people we're voting for. If carrying out the Connect Atlanta plan isn't part of someone's campaign platform, that's a big problem. Make sure you support candidates who are explicit in their support of the Connect Atlanta plan.

The plan represents a major accomplishment by the Planning Department. Looking at it, we see that Atlanta will never be Manhattan, but I don't think we want it to be. What it will be, instead of the nightmare of traffic and sprawl that it has been threatening to become, is a denser, healthier, better-connected, and more legible version of the uniquely lush, historically complex city that it already is.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

*Face palm*

I missed this the other day, but Perdue didn't include funding for the Atlanta-Griffin commuter rail in his budget:
The Georgia Department of Transportation requested $15.1 million to start a commuter rail from Atlanta to Griffin. However, Perdue included no money in this year’s budget for the train....

The federal government has already allocated $119 million to the project. However, the federal grant requires state money to move forward....

Governor’s spokesman Bert Brantley said Perdue still supports the commuter rail, but is looking for the DOT and local governments to identify other funding options.

“The state is in the middle of a serious budget situation. Our latest revenue forecast shows the state collecting $2.2 billion less than was originally budgeted for FY2009,” Brantley said. “A statement of support does not mean a project has a blank check to be funded at significant higher amounts than originally proposed.”
Really, a statement of support doesn't mean you are going to fund it?  I mean, we can quibble about the "blank check" language, but we are talking about $15 million in order to receive $119 million.  What exactly did it he mean, then, whe he said support?  Sure, it is cliche, but let's see what the dictionary has to say:
2 a (1): to promote the interests or cause of (2): to uphold or defend as valid or right (3): to argue or vote for
3 a: to pay the costs of; b: to provide a basis for the existence or subsistence of 
By witholding funding, I'd suggest that Perdue is NOT supporting commuter rail, by a conventional definition of the word, and especially within a political context.  

I don't get why Perdue said he'd support it over the summer - no one expected him to support commuter rail, he doesn't need to get elected again, he could have just maintained his previous position and this article would never have been written.  Well, it'd have been "Perdue still doesn't get it," instead of "Argh!?!"  All he did was raise expectations, and then let them down.  

I really don't get this governor.  All he does is frustrate me (and I'm not even getting into tort reform.  OMFG, don't get me started on tort reform).  

Friday, January 16, 2009

Paging John Lewis

I was thinking about the Obama stimulus plan and which projects were going to get included. Wouldn't it be great if Atlanta had a congressman with gobs of seniority, who was well respected, had a leadership position as senior chief deputy whip, and had announced his support for Barack Obama at a key moment during the presidential campaign?  The kind of guy who had two challengers recently who criticized that he didn't pay enough attention to local issues and his district?  That kind of Congressman would be in a great position to bring home the bacon. You know, if we had that kind of a Congressman.  

Crime and police department ad nauseum

I was busy with class-related work when I read about Shirley wanting to hire 200 new police officers in six months, and 400 officers by the end of the year. She'd raise taxes to do it. There is the usual political back and forth, although it is not about taxes but about how realistic the idea is:
Later Tuesday, International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 623 president Scott Kreher laughed at the idea and said it’s implausible for the city to hire and train several hundred officers by Dec. 31.

Franklin responded by writing a letter to Kreher on Wednesday.

“You chose to make fun of the idea and not give serious consideration to the changes we’ve implemented in the last seven years,” wrote Franklin, who took office in January 2002. “Your comments may lead the public to believe you don’t think the goal is laudable whether it is achieved partially this year or next year.”
The mayor also took some snipes at council members who opportunistically blamed her budget cuts for an increase in crime:
All of the officers, however, were furloughed by Franklin late last month and are working 10 percent less due to an ongoing city budget crisis. The city council is scheduled to vote on a resolution next week to end the furloughs for police officers and firefighters. Franklin has questioned how the council will fund their plan.

“Show me the money,” the mayor said.
The biggest problem I see is that all this squabbling over money and timing misses the real problem with the Police Department, which is lack of management and leadership which contributes to low morale and performance by officers. We've been trying to get to 2,000 officers forever, and one reason we haven't is because we can't find quality recruits who will stay at the APD. Of the 200 new officers Shirley wants to hire, how many will have criminal records?

This is one reason I don't like to use high-profile incidents to set policy. I have no doubt that the response to the Standard murder played a role in this announcement, and it feels a little like an attempt to get the problem off of the desk. It is all reactionary. It is like the mayor is asking, "What can I do to quell the public on this?" not, "What can I do to really fix this problem?"

I'd love to have an extra 200 police officers on the street, I just don't think it addresses the real problem.

I'm not always good at reading tea leaves

Not being a capitol reporter, I don't always have the back story on what the players are up to. Thankfully, Jim Galloway helps explain what Perdue's comments the other day were really about:
Keen has had a bill in his pocket that would take the power to choose member of the state transportation board out of the hands of ordinary lawmakers and hand that authority to a triumvirate: the governor, the House speaker, and the lieutenant governor.

The governor would be given the authority to appoint the agency’s top executive — the state transportation commissioner. That duty now falls to the transportation board.

But Keen said he’s backed off his initiative after conversations with Perdue, who likes the idea and intends to incorporate in a sweeping overhaul of the state’s transportation system that will be presented to the Legislature this session....

The state currently has multiple transportation agencies — GRTA, CRTA, etc. “They were all created by past governors because they couldn’t get DOT to do what they wanted them to do. I’ve had two past governors both confirm that for me. You can never really get anything out of there,” Keen said.
Pending seeing the proposal, I am actually very impressed. Sure, it's a power move to give the Governor, Speaker, and Lt. Governor more authority, but the DOT is something that the Governor should have more power over. We elect governors (and presidents, mayors, etc.) with the idea that they can bring about big changes. This may not always be fair, but it is true.

The structure of the DOT makes it very difficult to change anything, like Keen said. The commissioners treat the DOT as their fiefdom and piggy bank, and there is practically zero accountability. Consolidating all the state transportation agencies makes sense, too. I've seen good ideas die because the various agencies got into a turf war over who got to (mis)handle the funds. I can't believe I'm saying it, but if Perdue could pull of reorganizing the state's transportation it would be a huge accomplishment.

In regard to Tuesday's post, perhaps I didn't give Perdue enough credit. I still would like to see more leadership on the funding issue, and I'm not a big fan of the statewide tax vs. a regional one. I don't trust the DOT to do much for Atlanta issues, although a reorganization could be interesting. Cagle and Richardson at least come from the greater metro area (Paulding and Hall), so there could be a new dynamic on the board and in the department.

I would also support consolidating MARTA with CCT, GCT, and GRTA (if it isn't part of Perdue's plan) but I'd like to see the representatives proposing it approach things differently. Whenever they talk about it now, it seems like an excuse to withold funding, not an attempt to improve service. I can't find any bills that have been filed proposing such a consolidation, which is one way to judge how serious someone is about an idea.

UPDATE: I should not that Jill Chambers has said she would drop a bill to merge MARTA with GRTA, but to my knowledge has not done so and all reports indicate it doesn't involve CCT or GCT.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Perdue takes a pass

Governor Perdue gave the annual "Eggs and Issues" speech this morning, and this is what he had to say about transportation.  I am probably pushing fair-use doctrine here, but the ABC didn't actually do any reporting on this, they just transcribed the speech:
A thriving business climate also includes a transportation network that supports commerce. Early in my first term, I was assured that the solution to our transportation needs was to spend more money. Like many government programs, the only diagnosis was lack of money and the only prescription was to spend more of it.

But, just as I discussed earlier in education, too often we measure government programs by how much we spend instead of measuring the results of spending. As many of you remember, I launched the Fast Forward program in 2004, an idea that would speed up construction of needed projects.

This chart shows federal and state transportation spending over the last five decades when calculated as a percentage of GDP. There have been several points in our history where we ramped up our investment – in the 60s when we built out the interstate system, in the 80s when we added lanes to those interstates and constructed MARTA, and in the last several years under Fast Forward.

This next chart looks at the last 12 years – the six years of my administration and the six years prior. When you look at the data, it is clear that we have made a significant investment, and that our failure to keep up with an increasing demand is a problem decades in the making – not one that is fixed overnight.

On Friday, I met with the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker for a very productive session on our mutual commitment to address our transportation needs. We all agree that the most important thing for our citizens is delivering value for their tax dollar.

With our increased recent investment, one might expect our transportation problems to be solved. But we didn’t get the value that I was looking for from that money. That is why I commissioned Investing in Tomorrow’s Transportation Today, or IT3, to provide a “needs assessment” of where we are today and understand whether there is a business case for new investment.

The results came back loud and clear. There is great promise that we can deliver value if we can execute on the findings of IT3, but there is no sense in investing if you cannot be assured of a dividend, of a return.

We have proven that more money by itself is not the answer. It is clear that we need a functional, efficient system for delivering value, and the results of IT3 illustrate that it is possible.

Once I feel certain that we can deliver transportation value to Georgia citizens, I will support prudent, responsible measures to raise additional revenues. I believe we will come to consensus on funding, and I believe we will stand up a system that can take that funding and provide the value Georgians deserve.
I'm not really sure what this means. Basically that we've spent a lot of money recently, it didn't help as much as we thought it would, so we are only going to fund projects that will bring the most relief.  The big old caveat is that we'll spend more money and raise taxes when Perdue believes "we can deliver transportation value".  What exactly does that mean?  

It is like when state Reps say they'll fund MARTA when it "cleans things up".  The bar is so vague, you have no idea when you've passed it.  Even if you demonstrate improvements, they still say its not good enough, and give you more vague language.  It lets Perdue promise nothing, in effect.  Perdue hasn't been as awful as he could have been on transportation - he recently came around on commuter rail, and he has shaken up a DOT that desperately needed shaking up.  Those actions notwithstanding, Perdue still seems afraid to take a stand on anything controversial, especially regarding transportation.  

Political Insider's take on the transportation debate is here, but basically it looks like Perdue isn't interested in a regional tax.  He doesn't take a strong stand on anything, though he is playing footsie with Speaker Richardson's statewide sales tax idea.  I, of course, have little faith that a state-administered transportation tax would help transit in the least.  
The speaker said the problem requires a statewide tax that goes for everything from road projects and rail in Atlanta, to figuring out routes to steer traffic away from the city. Of the regional transportation idea, he said, “I believe that plan will not fix transportation.”

Afterwards, Gov. Sonny Perdue told reporters, “The speaker made some good points. Transportation is a statewide issue. I want a statewide solution to transportation as well.”

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said he couldn’t comment on Richardson’s proposal because the speaker’s comments were “general.” He added, “A statewide, one penny increase in the sales tax just for transportation would probably be difficult to pass in the Senate.”

Politics of crime

Karsh 's post touched on something I had been thinking about regarding crime in this city.  Karsh says:
It was yet another act of senseless violence, but what was needling me was why this particular murder is getting so much coverage and public organization. This happened in East Atlanta, a quickly gentrifying area of the city. Now I'm all for urban progress, but let's be honest here: middle-class people suddenly moving into neighborhoods were crime rates are traditionally high kinda spells a recipe for a "crime wave".
While calling Grant Park East Atlanta needles me, I half agree with Karsh.  Crime in certain parts of Atlanta has been ignored and accepted by the powers that be for quite some time.  Just drive down Boulevard some night.  The Standard is about a block away from the Azar, which in high school was the really ghetto place to buy alcohol if Buddy's or Rocky's wouldn't sell to you.  You only went down Memorial if you had no other options.  Of course, Capitol Homes and Grady Homes were still around and Grant Park has improved immensely in the last 10 years, but it still isn't a huge surprise that something happened there.  

Where I disagree with Karsh and some commenters is that this means concern is less valid or that neighborhood perceptions are unfounded.  I have spoken to people who have lived in Grant Park or East Atlanta for 5-10 years, who say things are getting worse.  Hiding behind the "gentrification card" misses the big picture of why this particular crime got so much attention -not because of the location, but the extreme nature of crime.  Someone was shot after he complied with all the robber's demands, in what was first reported as execution style.  It was completely unnecessary and capricious.  

What freaks people out the most about crime reports is the classic fear that they could be minding their own business, and someone would hurt them.  It stokes an unchecked paranoia that is hard to shake, and this particular crime touched that nerve hard.   The guy wasn't buying drugs, or doing anything wrong, he was just trying to earn a living.  Community reaction shouldn't get dismissed just because it takes place in a gentrifying area.  Crimes like these are what get people jumping at any sound at the front door.

Karsh did skirt around another issue that is worth mentioning, however.  As we've both said, crime isn't new in this city, and lots of communities have been sounding the alarm for a long time.  It is completely understandable if there is a backlash when crime against middle-class whites gets more attention than crime against poor black Atlantans.  Practically nothing came out of the Kathryn Johnston case aside from some less-than-half-assed reforms at the Police Department.  Organizers would be well advised to reach out to other Atlanta communities that have been shouting about crime for years.  (Somehow I missed this event dispite signing up on the email list.  I guess I need to check my Facebook email more often, but still, what was the point of signing up on the website?)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Asleep at the wheel

Jay Bookman has a great piece in the AJC that covers all the bases on transportation and state politics:
It’s hard to know what to expect. Even in more prosperous times, the governor wasn’t exactly a visionary. His biggest initiative to date has been his “Go Fish Georgia” program. The current economic climate gives him the perfect excuse to once again “go small,” even at a time when much bigger steps are required.

However, the roots of our transportation problems go deeper than mere money. For example, Georgia’s 13-member transportation board — one member for each of the state’s congressional districts — is archaic. It was designed as a means to distribute patronage around the state, and that’s exactly what it does. Traditionally, board members have seen their first responsibility as diverting as many transportation dollars as possible back to the home district; setting policy to create an efficient statewide transportation system was a distant second. 
The whole piece is great, but it ties into a bigger issue, which is the lack of leadership in this city and this state on key issues.  We simply don't have leaders who are willing to take risks anymore.  

Atlanta has a great history of civic involvement, which perhaps reached its peak during the civil rights movement with Mills B. Lane at C&S and Robert W. Woodruff at Coca-Cola.  These were guys who worked behind the scenes to make sure that Atlanta and Georgia came out on the right side in the end.  Lane help negotiate Atlanta's school desegregation, helped found the Action Forum, helped get Hosea Williams out of jail, and helped Carl Sanders defeat segregationalist Marvin Griffin in a gubernatorial race.  

Woodruff bankrolled MLK's Nobel Peace Prize dinner and rallied local businesses to do the right thing and support the event.  He also raised millions for the United Negro College Fund, the Atlanta University Center, and numerous other organizations.  Just take a look at all the institutions and landmarks named after him to get an idea of his impact.  

The biggest civic figures I can think of now are perhaps Tom Cousins, Bernie Marcus, and perhaps Arthur Blank.  The Aquarium is great, and Tom Cousins has done great things with his foundation, but these issue don't compare with the Civil Rights Movement (or the other issues mentioned above).  

We used to have some political giants, as well, but that is another post.  Suffice it to say that it took significant risks and leadership to get through the Civil Rights Movement, get MARTA started, pull off the Olympics, and establish (and expand) the world's largest airport.

Who is going to step up and take on the Police Department?  Who is going to deal with transportation?  Will someone step up and find a way for the BeltLine to take less than 25 years?  Atlanta had a great run economically during the 80's and 90's, but we need to do more to get ready for the future.  Our economic base is getting stagnant, and our high profile companies aren't as robust as they used to be.

We can't afford to have leaders who are asleep at the wheel any more.  I don't think any of the current candidates for mayor (or governor in 2010) have the vision or the tenacity to handle these big issues.  Atlanta has real challenges, and our current Mayor is not wrong when she says we are on the cusp of greatness.  There is no lack of opportunity for leaders to step up.

h/t Joe M

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Who has any answers?

I'm not sure what more there is to say about a rise in crime in the city.  I'm personally not a fan of using high profile incidents to drive public policy in place of facts and data, but the shooting at the Standard seems to have gotten people worked up.  It seems like a good idea to actually look at the data, since we are all going to be talking about this stuff anyway.  

The Mayor and the Chief of Police will tell you that crime is down.  Thomas Wheatley's article has lots of quotes from neighborhoods saying the opposite.  And you get this gem from the article on theMayor's State of the City address the other day:
But Atlanta police Sgt. Scott Kreher told reporters Monday property crimes are rising, largely because the department needs more officers. He said the recent furloughs of police officers will result in more crime and lower morale among officers.

“It’s in the tank,” Kreher, leader of Atlanta’s police union, said of morale. “It’s the worst I’ve seen in my 17 years.”
There is obviously some political angling there, as the police union has a motive to talk about cuts to officer compensation, but it is no secret that morale is in the ditch at City Hall East.  Just look at the department's retention numbers.  Finally, if you go to the comments in the linked CL article above, you'll see that Andisheh has cut through a lot of the Police Chief's obfuscation to look at the real numbers:
The fact is, after historic declines, crime in Atlanta has risen sharply in recent years.

In 2007, crime declined nationally, but jumped double digits in Atlanta.

There were 89 murders in Atlanta in 2005, but 129 murders in 2007.

As of Oct 2008, overall crime in Atlanta was up 6% from the previous year.

Atlanta had fewer murder in '08 than '07, but it's still up from '05.

And property crime in Atlanta continues to soar.

Burglary and larceny, the crimes that most often effect regular people, were both up more than 10% from the previous year as of Oct 2008.

source (PDF, see page 23)
I've tried to keep up with what has been going on with the Police Department and the rise in crime, and you can see my previous posts on the topic by scrolling through the Police Dept. tag.  Buzz at Peach Pundit asks how much of an issue the police department and crime will be in the Mayoral race this year.  This is what I wrote in June:
None of this changes the fact that crime and perceptions of safety are major, major issues for the city of Atlanta. They are issues that will be defining my opinions on the next mayoral race. Unfortunately, at this point, I don't have any new ideas. I don't want to vote for someone who thinks they are "tough on crime" - I need a candidate who actually has a solution.
Obviously I agree that this is an issue that needs to be debated, and that I'm hoping Mayoral candidates will talk about.  I'm not an expert in public policy on this issue - heck, I hardly know anything about the nuts and bolts of crime prevention.  So what follows is a layman's take on things.

It is important to realize that the debate can't just be about needing "more cops on the street."  That is obviously an important piece, but the police are an inherintly reactionary force.  This isn't the Minority Report where we can predict where people are going to commit crimes and go prevent them.  

The police only get a call once a crime is committed, and then we hope they can catch the folks who did it.  The ability of police to catch these folks should be able to have an effect on crime, because violent felons tend to have prior convictions:
Fifty-six percent of the violent felons convicted in the 75 most populous counties from 1990 through 2002 had a prior conviction, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Of the offenders with prior felony records, the study found that at the time of the new crime 18 percent were on probation, 12 percent on release pending disposition of a prior case and 7 percent on parole.
Wouldn't this suggest that we need more detectives and officers in special units like the Narcotics division, rather than patrolling officers, which tends to get all the attention?  I'm not excited about the idea of living in a police state where cops drive by all the time because we think they can interrupt a crime in progress.  

I would just like to have enough cops on duty so they can respond to calls in a timely manner and catch the criminals.  What are the odds that the guys who shot the server at the Standard had never committed a crime before?  Having said that, I'm wary about mandatory sentencing and political efforts to increase penalties on convicts.  I think we need to decide if we believe people can be rehabilitated, or if we are sending them to jail simply keep them away from society.  In a lot of ways, our prison system basically teaches minor ciminals how to be serious criminals.  

We also have to look at other issues, like housing policy.  Foreclosure have a real effect on crime:
Galster theorizes that every neighborhood has its tipping point—a threshold well below a 40 percent poverty rate—beyond which crime explodes and other severe social problems set in. Pushing a greater number of neighborhoods past that tipping point is likely to produce more total crime.
I'm not really sure what the answers are, but it is time we start talking about them instead of hiding behind toothless review boards and bogus statistics.  The first step is admitting there is a problem.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

In case you weren't paying attention

Recessions sure are fun.  It seems like the city is falling apart:
  • Intowners are getting fed up with an increase in violent crimes
    But residents of intown Atlanta say those statements and statistics don't mesh with reality. Violent crime, they say, has grown more frequent and brazen, a worrisome trend at a time when the department is actually scaling back officers to offset the city's $70 million budget shortfall.
  • Our neighborhoods are falling apart because of the real estate bust and the recession
    A map at city hall shows virtually every neighborhood south of I-20 and a number of others facing a dangerous combination of falling property values, increasing foreclosures, abandonment and crime.
  • The suburbs are stealing our police officers because the APD is a total mess
    In Dunwoody, preparing for a relative hiring binge, police applications are arriving from several communities, including Atlanta.
  • MARTA is going broke and facing drastic service cuts, and transportation funding is disappearing
    MARTA, which depends heavily on a sales tax collected in Fulton and DeKalb counties and the city of Atlanta, may have to stop service on one rail line, Walls said.
  • Downtown is falling apart
    The city is looking into three locations in and around Underground Atlanta where ground surfaces have given way in recent days...

    The largest and most obvious is a 14-foot section of brick walkway on Underground’s upper plaza that separated just after midnight on New Year’s Eve

    Another is a half-block stretch of Forsyth Street, just south of Alabama Street. Part of a Forsyth Street sidewalk nearby also is buckling.
But hey, don't worry, the Mayor says everything is going to be fine
Franklin used her final State of the City address to the Atlanta City Council to outline a list of accomplishments she said has put the city on “the threshold of greatness.”
I wish I could say something else, but I think these articles pretty much speak for themselves.  I wish the vigil at the Standard was at a realistic hour, because I can't get to Grant Park that early.  

Another great idea from Robb Pitts

Robb Pitts wants to give abandoned homes to police officers as an incentive.  The cop has to chip in a small down payment for the house, and gets the deed after living there and working on the police force for 15 years.
“Since most jurisdictions cannot pay police officers what they deserve, providing free homes to them would be a substantial supplement to their salaries and a good tool for recruitment and retention.”
On its face, this isn't an awful idea.  There are indeed a lot of empty, foreclosed homes, and Pitts is correct that jurisdictions can't afford to pay officers good salaries.  The problem, of course, is that the same funding problem that affects salaries will affect Pitts program.  How, exactly, is Pitts proposing to pay for these homes, which are typically owned by banks?

Take it one step further.  Suppose you could get the money to buy these homes.  Wouldn't it make more sense to just give the cops a raise, or better health care?  If I were a cop, I'd rather just get a raise to spend on what I want, instead of committing to 15 years on the force and having to move into a vacant (and likely dilapitated) home.  The average American moves something like every five or six years.  Why would we expect a cop to stick it out for 15 years in one place?  I don't see it as much incentive.  

Monday, January 5, 2009

This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship

The Atlanta Police department has turned over documents for an investigation that the relatively new Citizen Review Board had requested before the board could ask city council for a subpoena. Regular readers will know that I am in favor of major overhauls at APD, so I'm not pleased to read about how they act like a little fiefdom over at City Hall East.
He stopped short of acknowledging that city law requires the Police Department to release the documents, but said the department decided to do so last week.

“It’s the right thing to do for now,” Hagin said. “We made the decision to turn those documents over and wait to see what council does with the new ordinance.”

Police officials asked the city last month to allow them to only turn over documents and information that are public records, usually a small portion of a case file when the investigation is under way. The amendment not yet been voted on by the City Council.

If the change is approved, it would allow the Police Department to withhold most information from the Review Board until after the department conducts its own internal investigations.
In case you were having difficulty remembering, the Citizen Review Board was created after the Kathryn Johnston shooting, took a year and a half to get staffed, and doesn't hear cases of bribery or corruption. The Johnston shooting also prompted the wholesale re-staffing of the entire narcotics division because of what the FBI called a "culture of misconduct."

What is the point of having a Review Board if they can't get unfettered access to the APD? It seems pretty clear that the CRB was just a PR stunt. At the very least, the APD needs to get some better PR people so that their attempts to avoid scrutiny aren't quite so obvious. There are really no checks on the APD. The chief reports directly to the mayor, and Atlanta hasn't had a mayor interested in getting control of the department in maybe 30 years. I frankly feel a little ill about it all, and the entire city (especially the mayor) should be embarrassed that this has gone on for so long.

Side benefits of real estate busts

I like that Habitat for Humanity has begun buying foreclosed homes to renovate. The availability of homes depends on the area, of course, but a side benefit of horrible market conditions is that it becomes possible to expand affordable housing into new areas.

We know that concentrating affordable housing ends up with ghettos, but that means that other areas have to carry their fair share of affordable housing. As Habitat expands this new model, it becomes a little more feasible:
In affluent Atlanta suburbs such as east Cobb and north Fulton, finding suitable, foreclosed homes for renovation remains difficult. Even in foreclosure, single-family properties may be priced above the $90,000 to $140,000 range considered Habitat-affordable.

And many are two to three times larger than a Habitat house’s typical 1,200 to 1,500 square feet, leaders say.

But even in these pricier neighborhoods, chapters hope to turn some older houses quickly, and relatively inexpensively. They are fielding more calls from sellers — including homeowners on the cusp of foreclosure — and developers eager to unload some of their unfinished lots.

If the pattern continues, advocates say more spots in higher-end communities could open to modest-income earners.
There are obviously more policy changes we need to see to increase affordable housing across the metro area, and I'll try and have a post on that eventually. I'm not that much of a policy wonk that I wouldn't need to do a bit more research on the topic, but it starts with things like inclusionary zoning.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Sam Olens begins jockeying for position

So, is Sam Olens going to finally throw his hat in for the governor's race? He hinted at it back in May, and he was featured prominently in an article a few days ago concerning light rail transit.
As of this week, Phoenix has light rail, and metro Atlanta mass transit boosters are jealous.

“I continue to be frustrated that we can’t seem to move in that direction,” said Sam Olens, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission and the Cobb County commission. “We’re losing our competitive advantage.” ...

Olens said plum employers with skilled jobs are slipping away. “In the last two years, I’ve had two major corporations tell me they would not move their headquarters to the Cobb Galleria area because all we had are buses,” Olens said this week.
Consider this quote from the business community, as well:
On Wednesday, Sam Williams, president of the chamber, said in a statement that “cities that have made transportation a priority, like Phoenix, Dallas and Charlotte, continue to leapfrog Atlanta with respect to regional mobility. … While these areas make progress, we seem choked in congestion with little leadership to get us out.”
Sounds like Sam Williams wants someone like Olens at the capitol. See this Political Insider column for more on Olens' conflicts with the state GOP. The next two legislative sessions should be interesting to watch as folks jockey for position.

I don't know if he could win a GOP primary, but Olens strikes me as the kind of candidate that in-town Dems would flock to in the general election. He is about as good as a Dem could hope for on issues like transportation, and has a reputation for working well across the aisle. If I had to choose a Republican for the governor's mansion, I'd choose Olens. If I have to choose between Dubose Porter and David Poythress (who I know next to nothing about), I might vote in the GOP primary for Olens.

Regulations? Really?

The AJC has an article about how lots of homebuilders are going bust because of foreclosures. The article focuses on banks foreclosing on properties, and is full of quotes like this:
Mounting loan losses erode a bank’s worth and put it at risk of running afoul of regulators, who can order a bank to make changes or even shut it down.

“The regulators are hammering the banks for not following the strict interpretation of all the rules, especially as they relate to residential real estate construction,” said Joe Brannen, president of the Georgia Bankers Association. “Unfortunately, this gets perceived and portrayed as banks not being willing to work with our borrowers.”

A bank that modifies a troubled loan to help a builder still carries a troubled loan, so its financial picture hasn’t improved.
I'm glad they've figured out that regulations are why homebuilders are going bankrupt. It wasn't that they overbuilt, or that the banks made bad loans in the first place, or that no one is buying houses right now. Nope, none of the basic market facts. Regulations.

What sort of regulations are they talking about? I am not a banker, nor am I that familiar with the particular regulatory codes for commericial real estate loans. So I could be way wrong on this, but I glean from the article that it is the same mark-to-market accounting practice that helped tank banks carrying sub-prime loans:
“It appears that there is not-so-subtle pressure from regulators to get new appraisals and immediately write down loans based on them,” said Steve King, president of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association. “When that occurs the banks often decide that they are better off foreclosing, since they have already been forced to reduce the value of the loan on their books.”
So the onerous regulatory pressure killing homebuilders is an accounting practice forcing banks to mark all these bad loans down to their current value. They are forcing banks to carry the actual value of the loans on their books, instead of pretending that acres of vacant home sites are still worth what they were a year ago.

I call B.S.

The article notes that 40% of Georgia banks are unprofitable, and that five Georgia banks got shut down last years. I'm guessing that just trying to stay solvent has a much greater effect than regulations on the rate of foreclosures. Banks need cash right now (remember that whole bailout thing?), and reworking loans to wait for homes to sell doesn't bring in any cash. Foreclosing and selling the developer's home, even at a loss, does.

The issue isn't how they "look" to regulators, it is whether they can survive. If I were a banker, I'd want to reappraise my bad real estate loans regardless of whether I had to for regulators. I'd want to know how much I stand to lose, and whether it was realistic that the loan would ever actually perform. Even the GAHBA president notes that regulations aren't forcing banks to foreclose per se, but that once banks realize how bad these loans really are they decide it makes more sense to just get out of them and move on.

I guess the Banker's Association point is that regulators can seize a bank if their financial picture gets too bad, but I have a hard time blaming regulators for banks that get themselves into such bad positions. If the banks hadn't made tons of bad loans, then they wouldn't have to worry about whether regulators thought they were going to collapse or not.

I have commented before that as a blogger, it is very easy to make a fool of myself. I would love if someone with banking experience corrected me if I'm wrong since there isn't that much to go on in the article, and my own knowledge of banking regulations is limited to an intro accounting class.