Friday, July 31, 2009

Such an underrepresented group, too

A former road builder is joining the GDOT Board. I'm actually pretty speechless. Not in awe. Just.... business as usual, right? What is there to say that hasn't been said already?
I was reading an article about a proposed new pedestrian bridge across the 'Hooch so Sandy Springs residents can have access to national parks on the Cobb side of the 'Hooch. No big deal, I thought, makes sense. No plans on how to pay for it, but still, I was ready to close the window out and move on when I read this piece about Cobb residents who oppose the bridge:
Some opposed to the bridge worry that crime from Fulton County will migrate over the bridge to Cobb County, Brown said. “Some fear a bridge — even if it’s a pedestrian bridge,” he said.
Sigh. Some things never change, huh? I have this image of somebody dropping a TV into the 'Hooch after tying to carry it for miles on foot in Cobb County...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Vick indicative of bigger issues

I agree with Mark Bradley regarding Michael Vick's conditional reinstatement to the NFL:
But why have him on an NFL roster if you don’t want him playing — at least not yet — in NFL games? Either ban him or reinstate him fully. Why drag this into October? Why spend 2 1/2 more months reminding everyone of one of the sorriest chapters in league history? Why not just clear him and be done with it?
Now, Terminal Station isn't a sports blog, despite the occasional post about Michigan football in the fall. This post is less about Michael Vick, and more about how we treat ex-convicts in our society. Recidivism is a serious issue when it comes to dealing with crime:
Released prisoners with the highest rearrest rates were robbers (70.2%), burglars (74.0%), larcenists (74.6%), motor vehicle thieves (78.8%), those in prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4%), and those in prison for possessing, using, or selling illegal weapons (70.2%).
It stands to reason that we should be paying attention to how we reintegrate ex-convicts into our society. The Vick case is a great example of how we largely seem to fail at this.

Like Mark Bradley, I don't get this 'conditional reinstatement' business. Michael Vick has spent 18 months in prison, and has been out of football for two years. What could possibly be the point of allowing him to be on a team, practicing, but not allowing him on the field for six games? The only reason I can think of is the same one Bradley came up with - the PR of not being "too nice" to an ex-convict.

The whole point of prison is to pay your debt to society, right? Well, that is part of the problem actually, because I don't think our society can decide if prison is to rehabilitate you, punish you, deter you, or what. Comedians joke about what happens to people in prison, but the reality is that our prisons are brutal places where the chances of actual rehabilitation seem pretty minimal to me.

Either way, we release people from prison and the general understanding is that they have paid their debt, either via punishment or rehabilitation, and that you are no longer a threat. I mean, why the hell would we be releasing people from prison who we think will just commit more crimes, right? Um, right? (Don't answer that.)

Our society then proceeds to make it as difficult as possible for these ex-convicts to reintegrate into our society. We pass laws making in practically impossible for sex offenders to live in the state. We make it difficult to impossible for ex-cons to get a job. When it comes to Mike Vick, we have to publicly parade him through the streets for a few more months before we let him play football again.

If we don't think these ex-convicts are capable reintegrating into society, why are we letting them out of jail?

If we do let them out, don't we have a responsibility to give them a fighting chance at living a normal life? Making it hard for ex-cons to get a job and a place to live only increases the likelihood that they'll turn to crime again, right?

Of course, without reforming our actual prison system, the reality is that many of the people we let out of jail have simply become tougher, more damaged versions of the same criminals we locked up. The way we treat ex-cons is understandable given how miserable our prison system is. But at the end of the day, the system clearly isn't working. Decades of enacting "tough on crime" legislation and ignoring the brutality and failure of prisons hasn't really worked.

I'm not trying to be some bleeding heart liberal who only cares about poor ex-cons and doesn't care about victims. I am ranting about this because at the end of the day, our system hurts us in the form of recidivism. We can't afford to not care about ex-convicts, because if we don't then they become convicts again.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Not a big deal

The AJC reports that the city's Parks department is about to sign a lease at Peachtree Center:
Atlanta could soon be leasing office space in one of the city’s fanciest buildings...

Department commissioner Dianne Harnell Cohen defended the arrangement, saying she couldn’t find adequate space for her staff of about 100 employees at City Hall or surrounding buildings.
Seriously, this does not strike me as big deal. For one, Peachtree Centers ISN'T one of the fanciest buildings in the city. It is a 1970s building that has been maintained fairly well. It doesn't, and can't, compare with the fanciest buildings like 191 Peachtree, 1180 Peachtree, Terminus, etc.

Also, the rate quoted seems about standard for what a government office should pay in rent. $17 over ten years (and $8 the first year) is far from exorbitant. Further, I'm fairly certain there are already government offices already exist at Peachtree Center. I think a classmate of mine worked for the federal DOT in Peachtree Center. GDOT has offices at One Georgia Center.

I don't see why the AJC wants to make this a big deal.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My problem with the BeltLine put simply

I've long been a supporter of the BeltLine, but I have often complained about both its long timeline and its order of implementation - I hate, hate, hate that they have focused on parks first and transit last. I have always felt that the key selling point of the BeltLine was transit, and we have to wait 20 fucking years for it. I mean, it is great that we will get some parks soon, but we NEED transit.

Thomas Wheatley's recent article contains a quote from a Ga. Tech professor that clearly enunciates one reason leaving transit on the backburner is a bad idea: it slows the momentum of development around the project, which is supposed to help pay for the whole thing.
Mike Dobbins, a former Atlanta planning commissioner who now teaches at Georgia Tech, thinks developers will be attracted to neighborhoods that aren't directly served by the Beltline and already have dense development and public transit options: downtown, Midtown and Buckhead.

He says of the Beltline: "There's not going to be any type of transportation in any kind of near-term framework. The market's not going to be effective where there's no transportation."
So it is good to see Kasim Reed at least talking about making things happen quicker (see the CL article). Lisa Borders says not to rush things because you might sacrifice quality for speed. But.... we are talking about YEARS here. Surely we can get a quality project done in 12 years, which is what Reed wants to look at as a possibility. We are talking about almost decade of planning already.

Monday, July 20, 2009

UPDATE: Atlanta City Council Moving Forward with Streetcars

I certainly didn't plan for my article last weekend to have such an impact on the Atlanta City Council! The city has approved a plan to seek $300M in federal stimulus funds for the Peachtree Streetcar project. At roughly $12.4M per mile, we could build 24 miles of track with sleek, modern streetcars - more than enough to cover the 8-mile stretch between Lenox Mall and Downtown Atlanta.

No, but seriously, I'm glad to see this initiative moving forward - my prior article just happened to be a timely coincidence. The Peachtree Streetcar project is being promoted by the Midtown Alliance, Buckhead Improvement District, and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District.

The article is published in that Atlanta Business Chronicle: City Council OK's Streetcar Study

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Urban environments with streetcars

After returning from a fantastic trip to the city of New Orleans, I thought it would be prudent to download some of my thoughts about some of the fantastic urbanism there. I loved the streetcars there - although the system needs some serious upgrades.

The city center of New Orleans had time to evolve as a pedestrian-oriented environment; New Orleans' heyday was before the time of automobile sprawl. Also, New Orleans did not succumb to the destruction of the streetcar system in the 1950s and 60s (at least not entirely - many lines were removed).

Unfortunately, Atlanta's strive towards progress in the 50's and 60's led to the entire streetcar system being removed. At one point in time, there was a streetcar system that led from downtown to Ponce Park and Inman Park. Now, with the Beltline, we may have the opportunity to re-create this environment.

The masterplan for the Beltline looks incredibly promising. I hope that during the creation of the Beltline, we can create environments that replicate the following photos. These photos were taken from my library, throughout cities in the U.S. and Europe.

If we want to create an environment where people want to come and visit our city, then Atlanta needs to pay attention to the details. Most visitors will not recognize all of this detail, but they will be able to tell you whether the place was memorable or not, whether they felt like it was special. Atlanta desperately needs special, memorable places - places you want to take your friends who are visiting to - places we can be proud of.

St. Charles Streetcar in N.O. Notice that it runs in a "park-like" setting, with a row of trees separating the tramway and the two lanes of traffic.

Streetcar in Amsterdam. Through a "node/town center" the streetcar can run adjacent to pedestrian traffic. Note the absence of cars here.
In a more residential setting, the streetcar can run along the edge of a park.
A streetcar in Delft, NL. The stations are nothing more than a bus stop (albeit with a screen that gives you an ETA for the streetcar - very nice!). Great buildings framing this space too, well-behaved modern architecture that sits on the street.

A light rail system in San Jose, CA. Although I like the adjacency to residential, this system does not run in the street here (ironically, it does in downtown SJ) This is a much more investment-intensive mode, as it requires station infrastructure. In addition, I think our culture has become a bit safety-obsessed. The streetcars do not exceed 25mph through the stations - is it necessary to have a fence down the middle of the line?

I'd like to see us use more of an at grade / in-street system through the denser areas designated as "nodes," to better interweave the parks, streets, and transit components. In between, we can use a separated system.

This will likely be my last posting to Terminal Station, at least for some time. I am moving to Boston to attend Harvard's Masters in Real Estate program. It has been a pleasure working on this blog, although I would have liked to do much more. I will remain an avid reader.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Krazy Jim was on to something

Despite the publications that say Atlanta has the best burgers in the country, and despite my rampant hometown boosterism soul, I still think the best burgers around can be found at Krazy Jim's Blimpy Burger in Ann Arbor. The place has even been on that show on Food Network where the guy drives around eating greasy food. That's where I found out that they double grind the meat to make it extra tender.

I have to confess that I don't really get what is so special about steakhouse burgers or whatever "fine dining" places call 'em. I like my burgers the old fasioned American way - salty, well done, greasy, and with skinny patties. When I yearn for a burger, I don't yearn for a Vortex burger, although they make a very good burger. I only get a yearning for fast food style burgers.

For the most part, I've cooked my burgers the 'traditional' way - made fat patties, grilled them (or used a skillet), and turned them a minimum number of times. No pressing on 'em cuz the juice will get out. Yet I was always fairly disappointed with my burgers. I mean, they weren't bad, and sometimes they were even quite tasty. But I didn't get the satisfying "this is sooooo fucking good" feeling I usually get at a McDonald's, Burger King, or most definitely Blimply Burger.

So tonight, I made burgers Krazy Jim-style. Well, until I get a meat grinder the double-grinding thing is going to have to wait (soon, my precious... soon). I just used some Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper to prep the meat. Now, the key feature to a Blimpy Burger is that the meat is cooked on a griddle, in small patties, and it is mashed flat and turned over several times before being mashed flatter. The onions and buns are grilled on the same griddle, and the onions are grilled with some Worcestershire. Throw a little slice of cheese on each patty before stacking 'em up and topping em with the lettuce, tomato, et al.

THIS is what a burger should taste like. MAN. Sooo good. I'm never cooking on a skillet or even a grill again. I'm going have to improve my technique a bit - my patties were a bit too small, so they didn't fall out of the bun, which is important. A good burget should be messy. My patties started out about the right size, but I didn't mash them flat enough. I think the double grinding is important to get the patties to mash right. And I need to get a solid metal spatula so the meat doesn't squeeze through the slots in my current one.

Next time I'm going to have to get some old favorites - banana peppers and a kaiser roll. Also, I am gonna let it sit for maybe 5 minutes before I eat it, so the cheese does a mind-meld with the meat and become a fatastic new being. Maybe I'll throw an egg on top...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sigh... I guess it was only a matter of time

Terminal Station is now on the Twitters. We will be twitting about stuff. Or whatever one does with this thing. Perhaps about the hippity-hop that the kids are so in to these days....

Find me @bkingATL. As el hermano said, hopefully I can avoid the "just took a great poop" syndrome. Also, I promise not to tweet the police in case of emergency, lest I avoid public embarassment.

See how this works?

One reason I think Atlanta residents rather begrudgingly accepted a tax increase is because we knew that the alternative was a round of massive cuts. After the first round of cuts left fire stations closed and reduced the number of police officers on duty, citizens weren't interested in seeing what would happen next time.

Gwinnett citizens, on the other hand, practically rebelled when their government suggested increasing taxes. So, and I'm sure readers of this blog will find it a big surprise, Gwinnett is proposing a series of massive budget cuts:
All told, the proposal, leaked in a memo over the weekend, calls for $225 million in cuts through 2014. It recommends eliminating up to 250 current jobs this year — including 53 police positions — and decreasing benefits to remaining employees....

Major capital projects scheduled over the next four years would be deferred. These include: seven fire and EMS stations; two police precincts and at least five parks. It also includes elimination of funding to operate the new $7.4 million Hamilton Mill Library, which is scheduled for completion early next year.
Pretty much the same stuff Atlanta ended up cutting - police and fire stations, parks, and (perhaps most importantly) police officers. I wouldn't call the cuts catastrophic or anything, though. Perhaps, "painful" is appropriate.

I don't pretend to understand the suburban mindset, and I think it is quite possible that folks there will react basically the same as folks in Atlanta did. Perhaps Gwinnett citizens will just say to themselves, "well, it was either this or a tax increase, so I guess this was the better option." Ordinarily folks don't like it when you cut police and other emerency personnell, but these cuts don't strike me as being enough to really piss off Gwinnett citizens, at least not on par with their reaction to a tax increase.

You can find more about the budget cuts on the Gwinnett County website, including a PDF summary of the cuts.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Democratic gubernatorial update

I previously said that I didn't think Thurbert Baker would have announced for Governor if he didn't think he had a real shot at winning. Well, he's currently leading the Democrats in fundraising. In fact, he's leading by a long shot - Baker has raised over $700k, and DuBose Porter is second with $230k. It appears Barnes hasn't started raising money yet (his disclosure statement shows nothing at all raised), but Baker has a pretty strong lead, even if he over-reported.

We are at the stage of the race where fundraising is as much about showing you can be a serious candidate as it is preparing your war chest. If Barnes and Baker are the only candidates who can prove to raise money, donors aren't going to be very interested in donating to folks who will just be also-rans. This means that Porter and Poythress need to raise some serious hay or they'll probably just fall by the wayside and never have a real shot at the nomination.

It was only a matter of time

I had been wondering when Novare was going to get into trouble with all the empty condos it has around town (and elsewhere). Looks like Novare will be lucky to restructure its debt without going into bankruptcy. The whole story is worth a read, but it is something I've speculated on a little bit here in the past.

It might be too early to write the obituary on Novare - who knows if they'll make it. They've been around a lot longer than some folks realize. Jim Borders converted a number of Midtown and Downtown office buildings for the Olympics, including what is now the Metropolitan at Five Points, and Peachtree Lofts where the Vortex is. He also did Renaissance Lofts on Ralph McGill and Centennial House, too. He really was a pioneer for Atlanta urban housing, although I don't want to give the impression that he was alone in this regard.

It is probably worth comparing Novare with another Atlanta giant - Cousins. Cousins made a number of poor timing choices, too. Their Terminus project has a lot of empty units and office space. However, Cousins didn't use a construction loan for the project. They don't run the same risk of foreclosure that Novare does and can ride out the recession a little bit easier. Because they are a large REIT, they can now raise more capital and be in a position to buy other assets on the cheap.

h/t: Jeanne Bonner

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Model for neighborhood policing

I didn't realize it had been almost a week since I posted - so this is a quick thought to keep things moving.

I wonder how much the Downtown Ambassador Force could be used as a model for neighborhood quasi-police forces. The Ambassadors are officially 'hospitality' workers who provide downtown workers and visitors with assistance for dealing with events, etc. In practice I think they are a quasi-police force that does quite a lot for residents peace of mind.

I didn't really appreciate the Ambassador Force until I started going to GSU and getting out of class at 10pm regularly. Almost every night when I get out of class and walk alone a few blocks to my car, there is at least one Ambassador standing on a street corner keeping a look out. Given the numerous crimes around Georgia Tech, I am very grateful to have an extra pair of eyes on the street keeping an eye out for me. Knowing that the Ambassadors have direct radio contact with APD dispatch is nice, too.

So could the Ambassador Force be a model for increasing the number of public safety officers in Atlanta? I presume that an Ambassador is cheaper to both train and keep on salary than a police officer, so the city's money could go a longer way. They are obviously most effective in pedestrian friendly areas, but could you focus a similar force in neighborhood commercial areas like Virginia Highland, Castleberry, and East Atlanta Village?

A lot of these areas currently hire off-duty police officers for similar services, but I kind of like the idea of having a separate force to do this kind of 'public presence'. On a simple level, the Ambassador's white shirts stand out at night a lot better than a dark police uniform. I also dislike the fact that off duty cops aren't getting enough money at their regular job, nor getting enough rest and down time off duty to be effective officers during the day.

I'm sure this idea needs LOTS more thought (including who the hell would pay for it) but it was something that occured to me as I left class today. I'm not entirely convinced it is a good idea, of course. Criticisms very welcome.

Friday, July 3, 2009

More tax increase ranting

Councilman Ivory Young has the following quote in Creative Loafing:
...Council members agree, the newly un-furloughed city workers are going to need to step up their game in order to meet heightened taxpayer expectations.

“There can be no excuses now for poor service delivery,” says Young. “From here on, it’s zero tolerance for mediocrity.”
See, I think it is unfair to simply expect city employees to "step up their game". Perhaps this is just poor phrasing by Scott Henry, but it likely is a result of a lack of imagination on behalf of many politicians and even residents. I'm referring to the idea that city (and government) services suck because the employees are stupid, lazy, or otherwise crappy. This might be true, and in many cases IS true, but that doesn't mean the answer is to simply expect more of them.

One of my professors told the following anecdote that I suspect is pretty commonplace in the HR world. He was referring to companies with poor employees, and he asked people to consider, "Did you hire them that way, or did you make them that way?" The general idea being that if you have bad employees, something is wrong with your hiring criteria or something is wrong with your operations. Either you are hiring people that don't really match what you need, or you have created a culture and environment that breeds poor habits, etc.

One takeaway I got from the anecdote is that managers have to take some responsibility in the performance of their employees - in some way, you helped put them in a position to fail. I'll guess that the city employees have a bit of both - it isn't like the city is hiring the cream of the crop (remember all those police officers with criminal records?), and I'll bet most of the city's departments are as infuriating to work for as they are to work with.

So we cut everyone's budget, raised taxes, and then are asking employees who we heretofore believe are lazy, incompetent, or otherwise "mediocre", as Councilman Young put it, to simply "step it up". Let me know how that works out.

Why don't we try and figure out WHY we have "mediocre" employees in the first place?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

By request: tax increase

Some readers have asked about my take on the city's property tax increase. So I'll try and get some thoughts on paper, so to speak.

For whatever reason, I don't always get worked up by the big ticket items. For example, I don't blog too often about the BeltLine specifically - usually I just reference it when making another point about transportation or greenspace. There have been any number of big stories lately that I haven't written about. The tax increase kind of falls into that category

Sometimes, like with the Georgia Tech robberies, I just don't know what to say. I don't think there is a lot more to add. It reinforces my point that 'more cops on the street' isn't really a solution to crime - police are a naturally reactive force, and and crimes can still happen even when cops are specifically targeting an area for more patrols. The odds that a patrol intervenes on a crime in progress are so low, we can't look on this as a solution. Mostly, though, my reaction to these robberies has been to keep my mouth shut and let the situation play itself out before saying too much.

So, the tax increases. It seems there are two basic opinions to have on the issue:
  • The city has laid people off, eliminated positions, and cut some services. They mayor has said we are 'cutting into the bone'. There really isn't any alternative to a tax increase. It sucks, but it needs to be done.
  • The city has been mismanaged for years, there HAS to be fat that can be cut, we should go through the budget and "find the money". We are in a recession, and people can't afford any more money.
Some folks try to split the difference and suggest a 1 mil, rather than a 3 mil, increase is all that is truly necessary, and that the rest can be "found". I do think that Ceasar Mitchell deserves some amount of credit for voting in favor of a property tax increase while running for a city wide post. His opponent, Clair Muller, voted against it. I don't think voting against it is necessarily cowardice or opportunism, although what one decides to do afterwards might be.

On a certain level, I'd like to take the politics out of it. I mean, it is quite fun to speculate on how various candidates' votes and positions will shake out down the road. There has been plenty of that elsewhere, but all I'll say is that especially in races like this raising taxes can be seen as the mature and responsible choice. It certainly worked for Mark Warner in Virginia. It isn't always as clear cut as some think.

Another reason I haven't written about it before now is that, well, I don't know what to cut from the budget. I haven't had the chance to dig through all the city's budget documents, and I'm not sure that I'd come to any solid conclusions if I did. I simply don't know enough about what is truly essential to the city's operations. So the Mayor has budgeted $14,000 in business travel for next year. I have NO IDEA if that is exhorbent or what.

I wouldn't know where to begin to cut the budget in order to fill the budget gap. Finding $56 million by trimming things like that line item by say, about 30% to about 10,000 saves a whopping 4,000. Is there enough stuff in the budget like that to get to $56 million? The gap is about 10% of the entire budget. That is a lot to just cut. Normally you'll see government ask departments to cut 3%-5% of their budget in a year, not 10% across the board.

Sure, I'd like to see the council really dig through the budget and make some difficult cuts. I mean, who wouldn't like to hear the city say, "hey, we took another look, and we can pay for all the police we want without having to raise taxes". Personally, I think that is a much longer term solution - the city probably needs to get better at doing its daily business, and more and more I don't think simply cutting budgets is a magical way to get to "good government".

Good government requires all the things good business does - including quality management, a strong organizational culture, a consistent attention to improving performance. You can't just cut a department's budget, say, "well, recessions suck, we all have to get by," expect them to suck it up, and then act like you've sorted out all the kinks. I think a lot more focus could get spent on HOW the city delivers various services (including internally), and trying to improve people's jobs. Again, I don't know enough about how the city operates, so I could be talking straight out of my ass here, but too much of politics gets focused on simply the budget and magically "cutting the fat".

In the short term, property tax increases suck. I don't think its the end of the world, though, and I think that is one reason you haven't seen the kind of revolt that happened in Gwinnett County. Atlanta residents know it isn't an easy decision, and they know there aren't many alternatives at the moment.