28 December 2010

Will Thomas push for local business and good urban design?

Harry Thomas, Jr. will lead the DC Council's Committee on Economic Development next year. In a press release, Thomas notes his plans to continue "building on what he has accomplished in this area for Ward 5." The trouble is, Thomas' development record in Ward 5 is spotty, at best.

Councilmember Thomas. Photo by mediaslave on Flickr.
Suburban-style, big box-anchored retail development is scattered throughout Ward 5, such as Rhode Island Place, Rhode Island Avenue Center, and Hechinger Mall.

With part of Thomas' new duties including oversight of the Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD), one might expect him to focus on revitalizing the city's struggling commercial corridors. Instead, we have a Councilmember who has often championed more of the status quo.

In his November 15 testimony before the DC Zoning Commission on proposed car and bike parking regulations in the zoning code, Thomas said,

"I have recently spoken with representatives of several retailers who are interested in developing large, multi-tenant shopping centers in the District.... There are ... a number of locations in Ward 5 and other outlying Wards with blocks of land large enough to accommodate these developments, but without convenient access to Metrorail. Placing a cap on parking citywide, in a one-size-fits-all approach, would limit the desirability of these locations and have an adverse economic impact on the District."

We now know that Thomas was alluding to Dakota Crossing, with a planned 3,000 surface parking spaces, as well as the still developing plans for four Walmarts.
At the same time, Thomas knows very well what progressive urban infill looks like, and has helped usher it in during his tenure in Ward 5. Rhode Island Station, The Flats at Atlas District, and developments near Catholic University build on a multi- and mixed-use platform with retail space for small, local businesses.

While we continue to hear Thomas' lip service about the jobs and tax revenues that will be brought by new big boxes, our main streets continue to flounder. The Rhode Island Avenue Great Streets Initiative, for example, seems to have fallen off of DMPED's radar.

Can Thomas, who will have oversight of DMPED as Chair of the Committee on Economic Development, push for movement on a plan that could link the District's side of this important gateway with the revitalization that is happening just across the border in Mt. Rainier and Hyattsville?

While Brookland's 12th Street NE commercial strip received streetscape improvements, it still struggles to attract new businesses. North Capitol Main Street, Inc. continues to make strides in promoting local businesses, but will it find itself competing against a suffocating surge in big box, large-scale infill?

Will economic development East of the River under Thomas be focused on a blend of large- and small-scale development, or will bigger continue to be touted as better?

Thomas has proven an ability to work with developers and corporations on large projects. He knows the language of urban design and of Main Street commercial revitalization.

Unfortunately, a disconnect appears to exist between Thomas' advocacy for the bigger players and the smaller operators necessary to foster vital, dense cores in our neighborhoods. As he leads the Committee on Economic Development for the next four years, his actions will speak louder than words, particularly as we work our way out of the current recession.

Without a balance of both local and national retail outlets, small- and large-scale development, we will continue to see big box nodes favored to the detriment of our underutilized retail corridors, and we simply cannot afford that.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

06 December 2010

UPDATED: "There's a killer on your block"

Note: I have closed the comments for this post, because I'm concerned about the tone that has emerged there. To those who believe that we are casting a verdict in this case, please note that we simply wanted to show what we believed was a strange, and ultimately not productive, letter that we received. We fully believe in the presumption of innocence of anyone who has been accused of a crime. Mr. Kearney will have his day in court, and only then will innocence or guilt be determined. We have also made no judgments about the family, and will continue to remain unbiased observers of this story as it unfolds.

Original post continues below:

The deaths of Jamal Wilson and Joseph Alonzo Sharps, Jr., have been in the news quite a bit lately. The news hit close to home (literally) for us a few weeks ago when we heard the name of one of the accused in these crimes: Kwan Kearney. The Kearneys live down the street from us.

Things have been quiet on the block since the night that Kwan was arrested for these two homicides. News spread from neighbor to neighbor, and we've assumed that everyone nearby knows what has happened.

Apparently, though, someone wanted to make sure that we were fully aware of the situation. This arrived in the mail today:

It's an envelope with no return address (and no recipient name, just our address), containing a photocopied printout of this Washington Post article. As you can see, a note was added in large, bold print, alerting us that the accused lives on our block.

The note should have said "lived," because Kwan is currently in jail awaiting trial.