Diary for 9 July 2021: Origin Park is the green space equivalent of Jeff Speck’s streets plan


Diary for 9 July 2021

Earlier in the week I mentioned to a few friends that a new ON THE AVENUES column was forthcoming. However, for the third or fourth time since I ceased blogging at NA Confidential, it occurred to me that the climate in New Albany remains unsafe for me in terms of speaking openly without first taking care to censor myself.

In this diary entry, I’ll be doing just that. I’ve extracted a mere 1,100 words of the column I’d written, these being the crux of the argument. The polemic has been toned down and de-personalized.

Also, allow me to register a caveat: these thoughts are not aimed at a wider readership, even if I welcome all viewers. Rather, I have a specific audience in mind.

You’re a progressive who has tended to support the Democratic Party’s 17-year-long dominance of municipal government in New Albany, and yet recently you’ve expressed confusion, asking why the mayor opposes the amazing plan for Origin Park that you personally support. Why has he referred to the park as “radical”? Why is City Hall seeking to use the legal system in an effort to halt Origin Park’s planned Blueway on Silver Creek? 

I’m going to explain why this should neither confuse or surprise you. First, let’s consider a few headlines.

We see them every day, or at least we do if we care about the positive, progressive outcomes to be generated by reformatting public spaces to serve a wider range of potential users than serving drivers alone.

These headlines remind us of the attainable and sustainable ways we might choose to tilt the balance of our urban areas back toward people, and not tailoring the vast majority of public space to accommodate their cars.

If you care about such matters and you also live in New Albany, it surely has occurred to you (without my help) that there is very little chance of headlines like these being written about our city.

It may or may not have occurred to you that small-pond pillars of the community in a place like New Albany, which might be defined as those interconnected elites, elected or otherwise, whose collective viewpoint carries more weight than yours or mine, have made a good many decisions aimed precisely at precluding the sort of re-urbanized outcomes that I (and at least some readers) would prefer.

In the past, I took the position that naming the names with regard to these elites was the most honest and forthright thing to do. I persist in thinking this way, although there comes a time when you realize the extent to which community “consensus” of the sort purposefully intended to trickle down from top to bottom is largely the province of group-think, obviously characterized by traditional economic clout, yet not entirely.

Group-think emphasizes certain political affiliations, schools and families, and New Albany’s group-think has a very suburban orientation as it pertains to living, working and socialization patterns.

Our elites didn’t invent these precepts; they’re a very American kind of response, but the point is that my previous interest in identifying individuals, while justified, probably erred in imagining that any one of the various power elites locally could be responsible without force in numbers. In addition, it angered them, because they don’t appreciate being called upon to defend precepts they barely understand — publicly, which why I’ve had so very many “private” chats over the years.

Significantly, just the other day I was introduced to a friend of a friend, someone I was meeting for the very first time. We shook hands, and he said, “so you’re the guy who hates the mayor.”

I was taken aback by hearing this, as it is certifiably untrue. My correction was immediate.

“I don’t hate the mayor or anyone who works for him or supports him. What I hate is mediocrity masquerading as genius.”  

That’s the essence of it. it isn’t one politician or another who is parading around town naked. Rather, it’s our community pillars, en masse, who’ve gotten in the habit of thinking they’re fully clothed in the sharpest of threads, when the truth is a great deal more sordid.

New Albany had the chance just a few years ago to pole-vault ahead of the pack, to anticipate the barest minimum of grassroots-level changes necessary to ameliorate the effects of climate change on a local level (they’d have assisted small businesses during the pandemic, too), to use the city’s existing urban infrastructure to its maximum intended purpose, and to create a positive example for other communities.

Instead, we chose suburban-oriented, vroom-vroom-usual mediocrity. To be honest, we abjectly failed. It doesn’t make me angry, and I don’t hate anyone for it. However, it saddens me immeasurably. New Albany is the civic manifestation of the assassin John Wilkes Booth’s dying words, looking at his hands, and muttering “useless, useless.”

I wrote the column in question, the one I’m willfully truncating in the hope that it won’t elicit nastiness, in response to those confused by the mayor’s opposition to Origin Park. It’s actually very easy to understand.

To the mayor and our elites, Origin Park is the green space/parkland equivalent of Jeff Speck’s street grid plan.

Seeing as City Hall was hostile to Speck’s demonstration of how two-way streets might help spawn a multi-modal transportation revolution, retaining only the two-way traffic retrofitting (which is about drivers, after all) and discarding the entirety of the plan pertaining to walking and bicycling, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the mayor presently sees a similar threat to the established order in Origin Park’s transformative plan.

In short, the mayor has been opposing ideas like Origin Park all along. He most assuredly does so because our pillars and elites view such opposition as the best way to keep the power where it belongs: with them. If they didn’t, then wouldn’t they do something about it?

My fellow progressives, your confusion stems from cognitive dissonance. It hurts me to say this, but quite a few New Albanians who are enthused by Origin Park’s principled approach never really bothered trying to understand what Speck was saying about walkability and bikeability in a New Albanian context.

In turn, this owes directly to the way car-centrism has a vise grip on all of us, even if it’s at a barely discernible, subconscious level. In addition to critical race theory, schools should include a curriculum item about Critical Automobile Theory.

Progressives, had you held elite feet to the fire when the Speck plan still might have been implemented, instead of losing interest five minutes after the discussion began, we might be cooperating in Origin Park’s gestation, and not complicit in City Hall’s zeal to abort it.

It wasn’t important enough for you to go to the mat then.

Why should Origin Park be any different, now?

That was merely the introduction. Here’s the excerpt. 

We must judge City Hall not by what it says, but by what city officials actually do — and don’t do.

City Hall clearly considers a bicycle to be a disruptive machine intended by writ on a stone tablet (the 13th commandment, perhaps) to be loaded onto a vehicle, along with one’s own two feet and any other wheeled device lacking an engine, then driven to a purely recreational area meant for confining its use, because as such, user experiences can be controlled.

And, if walking and biking are kept inside the city’s scattered park units, none of which are connected to each other except by car, it further justifies the astoundingly pricy Disneyesque parks infrastructure, which in turn is capable of being monetized for campaign finance in a way a lone walker or bicyclist simply cannot.

The side benefit to City Hall?

It’s that any proposals about meaningful changes to produce multi-modal uses of the urban street grid downtown can be effectively precluded, and drivers constantly reassured that the city center belongs to them, to their cars, and also to the perpetual need to guard the sanctity of the many parking spaces there, as though these storage places were repositories of Fort Knox gold, when in fact too much parking has rendered vast patches of real estate into the least valuable spatial areas in existence downtown.

Because: buildings generate tax revenue, not vacant (parking) lots.

You’ll be unable to convince me, ever, that these dreary foregone conclusions weren’t pre-planned and hard-wired into the way City Hall rejected Jeff Speck’s transformative street grid plan, although to be fair, a little bit of showy Potemkin window dressing was added. HWC Engineering winked-winked, nudged-nudged, and built into its wholesale alteration of Speck’s plan a few examples of good-looking objects with little practical utility.

Gaudy painted crosswalks, useless and frankly hazardous biking “sharrow” (share the road) symbols and plainly ridiculous beg-button-powered, yellow-caution-light pedestrian street crossings were deemed suitable to appease “progressives” while giving a pleasant illusion of bikeability and walkability, without any serious obligation on City Hall’s part to actually make streets safe for non-automotive users.

At a very deep level, it is clear that a majority of New Albany’s civic power elites possess no understanding whatever of bicycles, or pairs of feet, being deployed as part and parcel of an active urban lifestyle, thus enabling people who live in or near the urban core to move back and forth without cars.

And yet doing so would be beneficial to the city as a whole. As an aside, consider this report from Australia in 2019: “If you walk for 20 minutes to and from work, the economy benefits $8.48, a new report has found.

That’s about six and a half American dollars at the current rate of exchange, and the article goes on to cite a study suggesting that for every Australian dollar spent on encouraging walking, governmental entities would eventually gain $13 back through savings on automotive maintenance and health care.

Now imagine a city like ours, getting serious about generating such a return by combining the health, fitness and quality-of-life benefits of an enhanced municipal parks department with investments in biking and walking infrastructure, making it possible for the citizenry to reach its park units without driving their cars.

Consider this strategy as a way of compounding dividends. Much of New Albany inside the beltway would then be reachable by bike and by foot. Instead of purpose-building infrastructure to encourage recreation, the city’s existing infrastructure would perform much of this same function, with added paybacks for workers able to commute, and residents finding it possible to accomplish aspects of daily life without driving.

It would be tantamount to a quantum leap in “quality of life,” except that the city’s elites seem determined to insulate us from modernity. The mayor had a window to launch this paradigm change, and he did not hesitate to slam it shut.

The primary reason for doing so is simple: New Albany’s ruling elites possess a stubbornly car-centric worldview that exactly mirrors the prerequisites of its all-important political patronage system, in the sense that both are suburban in orientation, not urban.

This is important.

While Speck’s plan envisioned a large part of the street grid downtown scaled to use by human beings outside their cars, having the effect of launching an urban lifestyle-change’s ripple-effect merely by retrofitting quite a lot of existing infrastructure, rather than building new objects, City Hall’s parks buildout approach is invariably suburban, adding shiny objects, and not repurposing the fabric already in place.

By doing so New Albany is creating new long-term maintenance obligations both for the parks and the car-centric transportation system being exclusively relied upon to reach them. Charles Marohn of Strong Towns explains why this approach is suspect:

“What we have found is that the underlying financing mechanisms of the suburban era — our post-World War II pattern of development — operates like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.”

The city’s historic business district, its older downtown neighborhoods and even some of the newer ones are perfectly aligned to avoid the suburban Ponzi scheme Marohn describes, and yet out city’s pillars adhere to suburban dogma like prickly nettles to a frolicking collie.

Why? Part of it is a colossal lack of imagination testifying to an absence of education, but Occam’s Razor insists we must follow the money.

The single most reliable private sector political patronage partnership in the context of public works projects is the one that alchemizes campaign donations from car-centric construction and maintenance expenditures. Sewer decrees come and go; coddling drivers with money thrown at streets and roads creates dependable annual beak-wetting revenue for politicians in a way that helping walkers and bikers to stay alive can’t ever achieve.

I wish it were different, but that’s the way the system works as currently constructed.

The city just might have gained $6.50 every time I’ve walked or biked back and forth to work, which has occurred literally hundreds of times during the past 20 years because I’ve planned my life and living places accordingly, even when my commute basically is unpleasant owing to the sociopathic behavior of drivers, but these benefits are simply incapable of being woven into a political patronage network, which in essence cannot adequately profit from humans capable of using the street grid under their own power.

I’ll stop there, repeating just this: We must judge public officials and power elites not by what they say, but by what they actually do, and don’t do.

Reality as we experience it, out in the streets?

That’s what they’ve done. It’s what they want. If it weren’t, they’d try to change it. If they don’t, then we can assume it’s part of the plan.

If they emphasize a rails-to-trails project on the city’s north side, 97% of which would be situated outside the city’s boundaries, while not even providing a demarcated bike lane from the Greenway to the historic business district, that’s obviously because they’d rather have bicyclists take their money out of town in route to Bedford than spend it here, if spending it here means altering the automobile supremacist model of the downtown street grid.

If they scatter a couple dozen beg-button-powered, yellow-caution-light pedestrian street crossings through the downtown street grid, and do nothing as weeks, months and years of experience plainly illustrate the ineffectiveness of these $25K machines amid untamed traffic, and yet nothing more happens, it has to be because they want crossing the street in New Albany to be a “Hunger Games” proposition.

Reality? Everything I’ve discussed here today currently exists in plain sight, in reality. It isn’t hard. I live on I-SpringStreet, you know. I’ve merely described what I’ve seen while walking and biking around New Albany since the late 1990s.

C’mon, progressives.

Stop accepting their bait ‘n’ switch.
Stop accepting that useful outcomes can’t happen here.
Stop accepting lip service in place of demonstrable improvement.
Stop accepting second best, and at least make the pillars work for their privilege, for once.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll have a shower and shave, and prepare to surrender myself to the authorities.