Monday, June 20, 2011

Everything Spreads Out

Paradise Drive, begins with a description of a drive through the urban-to-rural transect of an American city, starting with the downtown "urban hipster zone" and ending in the exurbs, the domain of Patio Guy and Realtor Mom. Often riotously funny, David Brooks' narrative on Middle American culture is freewheeling and painfully insightful. One of the most piercing chapters, "Working," skewers the pop business world of motivational speakers and bestselling books, such as Who Moved My Cheese?. Brooks fantasizes that he might have been Ray Croc, creating a motivational empire around "Find Your Fry! Follow Your Fry," ultimately shortened through loving familiarity to Fry!. Good stuff.

Perhaps the most insightful proposal Brooks makes in the book is that the American suburbs are a reflection of a peculiar cultural phenomenon - finding new geographic space for personal interests. If you don't like your neighbors, find some you like and move there. This leads to the characteristic dispersal of the suburbs and exurbs, with the penultimate example being the gated community. Contrast this with the historical association with Place that is typical of urban life. If you consider your identity to rooted in a particular Place, then the motivation to resolve cultural tensions exist in situ. Certainly, there are innumerable enclaves within any city that cater to particular (and peculiar) tastes and people choose to locate and relocate according to those interests. However, these choices are exercised within the hierarchies of existing city fabric, not through dispersal. Furthermore, cities foster the idea that my Place is worth fighting for - the cause of much tension, both creative and destructive - but reinforcing the sense of Place nonetheless.

The psychological, sociological and cultural isolation that result from the suburban lifestyle has been widely discussed. Inverting the discussion, Brooks suggests that a culture of deliberate, cellular dispersal is reflected and empowered by the suburbs.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

A Back Room Deal for City Property?

Buried in the Code of Ordinances for the City of Richmond is a curious provision that permits the City to dispose of property in response to an Unsolicited Offer.

 The curious aspect of this provision is that only two conditions must be met for the sale: (a) that the Mayor recommends the sale through crafting an ordinance for City Council consideration and (b) the passage of that ordinance by City Council. That's it. No additional due diligence measures, property valuation to establish a fair price, or introduction of competition is required by the provision. Furthermore, the ordinance to authorize sale is a one-step process - the declaration of the property as "surplus" and the terms of the sale to the offeror are packaged into a single document.

How can this process possibly be in the best interest of the City? All of the other provisions for disposal of City property have the designation of "surplus property" as a prerequisite, followed by some kind of competitive process, such as requests for proposals or invitations to bid. The Unsolicited Offer route seems to circumvent due process and raises questions of possible impropriety. If an offeror manages to quietly convince the Mayor and a majority of Council Members to support the sale, then the way is clear for the offeror to acquire the property with minimal fanfare. 

This hardly seems consistent with the normal sentiments of transparency and market-driven competition in the affairs of government.