Sunday, April 3, 2016

Downtown Bentonville & Its 2nd Place Trophy

I spent some time in downtown Bentonville recently. Great things are happening, as pointed out in this recent New York Times article. Tusk & Trotter, Bentonville Brewing Co., Oven & Tap, and more all surround a classic courthouse square - the finest city layout in the U.S., in my opinion. As a preservationist & design snob I could take issue with how the downtown buildings have been muddled but I'll skip that detailed critique for now and applaud the city's focus on its downtown & the cultivation of  unique, local businesses.

Breweries (one of the Fallows 11 Keys to a City Succeeding), chef devotees of Alice Waters, a boutique hotel, a downtown grocery story - all the pieces of the formula for greatness. But I couldn't escape the fog of shame & intolerance the shadow of the Confederate Soldier Monument cast across every street and sidewalk.

By Bobak Ha'Eri - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

In Something So Dim It Must Be Holy: Civil War Commemorative Structures in Arkansas the author writes: 
"Southern patriotic organizations were not merely quaint, backward-looking groups satiated and sedated by nostalgia for a bygone era; instead, they were a potent cultural and political force that attempted to regenerate, apply and preserve the antebellum social order based on the notion of man's (both white and black) innate inequality"
It goes on to read:
"Through commemorations and sponsorship of oratories and written histories of the War Between the States, Southern patriotic groups engaged in cultural warfare to establish a "Confederate tradition," a dominant complex of attitudes and emotions that constituted the white South's view of history and its application in contemporary times.xiv"
In less scholarly terms Confederate monuments are often referred to as "2nd Place Trophies".

Removal of Confederate monuments is controversial, to say the least. There is a valid debate that removal is a whitewashing of history. There's an equally valid debate that maintaining the monuments is celebrating treason and bigotry.

One city that has had the courage to act on the removal is New Orleans. However, they've had a bit of trouble in getting a contractor to actually do the work. So much trouble that one contractor had his Lamborghini set on fire. People have been threatened with death, business contracts have been canceled.

Removing the monument in downtown Bentonville is beyond unlikely. There have been attempts in the past but as the Daughters of the Confederacy was deeded the park in perpetuity, removal or perhaps better, it being place in a more appropriate locale, seems challenging.

Bentonville was the home of world commerce for decades, at least until Amazon (& with it Seattle) surpassed it last year. So much work has been done to transform this one-time cow town into an international destination. But when visitors come for Crystal Bridges and stay at 21C they see a monument that essentially celebrates America's original sin.

I think that's a shame. We are better than that.

The shadow of 1957 still looms large in this state. Our Central High memorials are not to our shame but to our path forward.

I'm not one who believes that history should be ignored, disregarded or whitewashed. But I also don't think we should celebrate our shame, particularly in a place so important to this state's place in the world.

We should ask ourselves: why are we honoring something so publicly? One local advocate is speaking out about this issue. He calls for dialogue.

In June 2015 WalMart chose to stop selling the confederate (battle flag of  Northern Virginia) flag in stores and online. But in their hometown, this monument to our troubled past remains.

"They fought for home and Fatherland" is etched on the monument. Fatherland. Home of and to the lost cause.

It reads wrong to me and it feels misplaced in a locale aspiring to become the next international city.

It's not a monument, it's an anchor.

A first class downtown deserves something better than a second place trophy.

But there's the issue of the in perpetuity lease. I suspect it would take a lot of money to convince the Daughters of the Confederacy to give up there lease. Giving to the Daughters of the Confederacy might be distasteful to some but it might be the only way to re-home this symbol of a lost cause.  

It's too bad there's not a lot of money in Northwest Arkansas.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Correction and an Origin Story

The local efforts to shape the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department's 30 Crossing project to better suit the needs of tomorrow's economy instead of last century's got some national attention this week via The Atlantic. The author found me by way of this here blog, and we got to spend some time together walking along, under, and over Interstates 30 and 630 in Little Rock and North Little Rock. I gave her as much background info as I could with all the various interconnected entities and people involved, including the overlap between today's fight and the one against I-630 back in the 70s and 80s, and hopefully the continued overlap when the 630 Fight 2.0 develops over the next couple of years. I sent her Tom Fennell's plans and offered to help her contact others on the ground here, and I believe she did hear from multiple people.

But, as always happens when complex stories run headlong into a publication's limited time and space, the richness got condensed, in this case with the local voice being represented solely by Rep. Warwick Sabin and me. Standing alone, that's understandable. However, the story incorrectly credited me with creating the Improve 30 Crossing Facebook group that has served so well as a gathering space for those interested in what's happening with Interstate 30. That group functions like a 21st century single-issue Greek forum where are all welcome to discuss and learn (so long as you don't loudly regurgitate the Department's dogma.) To correct the information presented in The Atlantic article, I definitely did not create the group. Starre Haas gets all the credit for that. 

In fact, I have to give Starre a lot of the credit for getting me involved in this effort in the first place. But before I get to that, I'd like to go back a little further, to the mid-1990s...
Like many kids who grew up with Bill Clinton as governor, I attended AEGIS camps during junior high and high school. For the uninitiated, AEGIS was a series of a few dozen free summer educational experiences for students from across Arkansas. There were theater camps, language immersion camps, computer programming camps, music, robotics, biology... if you name a field of study, it probably had a camp. I attended a French day camp, Project GO (geological orientation) and Project CAVES (I have no idea what that acronym stood for, but it consisted of three weeks devoted to exploring and learning about caves deep in the Ozark Mountains). All three were amazing experiences. Imagine crawling around in the mud while learning how to map a cave with the closest thing to a spelunking celebrity that exists or floating the Buffalo with the State Geologist who could name every little stratum of rock on the bluffs, then having some laid back classroom time at night, and finally just hanging out with all the other weird kids from across the state who thought nerd camp sounded like a fun way to spend part of our summers. The teachers liked it too- they earned in-service hours, took home a small stipend, and got to share their passions with interested students outside the bounds of the normal all-testing-all-the-time regime of the regular school year. Plus, many of the camps served as economic development initiatives for small communities. I doubt anyone thought about this role consciously, but we had to eat and sleep somewhere, and many of the camps involved local activities paid for by the state. Plus, at least in my case, I've been going back to many of the places I first learned about through AEGIS for years. Despite the huge variety and high quality of the programs, I think the entire AEGIS budget was still less than $700,000 per year. Suffice it to say, there was almost nothing negative. I'd be hard pressed to come up with a more efficient investment in the state's future than to provide memorable learning experiences for countless students from all walks of life that enabled them to make connections with like-minded people and fall in love with physical locales that we may not have known about otherwise.

So why am I rambling on about summer camp for nerds in the 80s and 90s on a transportation blog, and what in the world does this have to do with someone named Starre Haas? Well, let's take another quick detour...

I grew up in Morrilton, Conway County, Arkansas (also known as the Center of the Universe, though the further we get away from Sheriff Marlon Hawkins' political machinations, the less apt that description seems to be). By the time I got to high school the local community college had reached a point at which many of its courses could be transferred basically anywhere, so a lot of my friends were taking Comp I or Western Civ at UACCM during their senior year, earning dual high school and college credit, and transferring those credits to whatever college they ended up attending full time the next year so they could get a little breathing room later in their schedules. Win-win for everybody. Now, I've never met a status quo I wasn't willing to question or push a bit, so during my junior year I started wondering what the logical limit of that dual credit path was. Some calls were made, Mom and I met with Norb Schedler at UCA, and the next thing we knew, I was enrolled in just one class at Morrilton High School and a full college freshman load in Conway for my senior year, with a full scholarship and absolutely no commitment to stay. (I think the only thing that kept me from getting punched by the anti-nerds during this time of my life was my sheer size and quick-ish speed on a road bike).

In all honesty, the plan after my dual-purpose year at UCA was to leave Arkansas and probably never look back. A few factors came together to conspire against that notion though: (1) I got invited to work as a counselor of sorts at Project CAVES during the summer of '99, which brought back all the feels of how the State was at least investing in its people's future in some ways despite government's other warts; (2) two of my still-favorite professors at UCA both attended Hendrix College for undergrad and both spoke warmly of it (Arkan-small moment: one of the profs was Maurice Webb, brother of LR City Director and fellow AHTD questioner Kathy Webb); (3) as another strong showing of investment in the future, the State of Arkansas enacted a scholarship program in the late 90s that paid full tuition, room, and board to any school in the state, public or private, to any in-state student who made a certain score on the ACT or SAT. Being pretty handy with a #2 pencil and a bubble sheet I made said score, so Hendrix was going to be completely free; and (4) much like my situation today, I really had no idea what I wanted to do or be when I grew up, so it was hard to justify going into a mountain of debt just to have a certain name on the diploma when a perfectly good name was available down the street for effectively no cost. So, I stayed in Arkansas.

Also in the late 1990s the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department realized that its maintenance schedule and budget were not up to the task of dealing with a rapidly deteriorating interstate highway system. They hatched a plan to raise fuel taxes a little and devote the increased revenue to paying off bonds that would cover the cost of rehabbing a lot of miles of highway. Raising user fees, rebuilding/maintaining existing roads, not really adding any new capacity that would require additional future maintenance... 'ok, that's cool' I remember thinking. It passed overwhelmingly. The weird thing was that newly-elected Governor Mike Huckabee was pushing the idea pretty hard leading up to the vote, and lots of boosters were touting how innovative the financing and construction techniques were. Admittedly, I wasn't paying too much attention to transportation policy at the time, but I do recall thinking that bragging about how we'd finally figured out how to do basic maintenance on something we chose to build years earlier was probably not something that leaders of a successful, well-oiled economy would do. In other words, I knew that having a road was not the purpose of an economy but rather just played a supporting role for said economy. To see the tv ads and the newspaper headlines though, you'd think the repaved roads were going to be the curer of all problems, even though the development and new tax base spurred by their original construction had failed to pay for their basic maintenance over time. Some small inkling of the Strong Towns message got through to me.

In conjunction with the first Interstate Rehabilitation Program, the State of Arkansas decided that it could no longer afford the summer AEGIS camps. Many moons have passed since then, but if memory serves me correctly, the total annual budget for AEGIS was less than the cost of repaving one mile of freeway in one direction. Huckabee, et al, were out in public very openly talking about how pouring some new asphalt on roads that already existed was going to make everything peachy keen in the future, but that nominal look forward didn't jive in my mind with also cutting programs like AEGIS. Then, to top it all off, the State decided that it also couldn't afford the scholarship program that sent me and many others to Hendrix, OBU, Williams Baptist, Lyon, Harding, in addition to all the public colleges and universities that the original law drafters assumed everybody would attend, so they cut the program back pretty drastically. They did honor the commitment to my class and maybe one or two behind me, but the kids I'd counseled at Project CAVES a couple of years earlier were not going to have the same incentive to stay in state that I had been fortunate enough to receive.

Then, to really hammer things home, one of the 'innovative' pieces of the Interstate Rehabilitation Program was to turn the existing concrete pavement into gravel to act as a base for a new layer of asphalt on top. That process required a machine like this to pound the concrete into submission:
A 'Rubblizer' from
My college dorm room was within close earshot of I-40 in Conway, and that beast was loud. And dusty. And they ran it at night to avoid disrupting traffic too much. So, suffice it to say, I had a near constant aural reminder of the state's priorities and lack of foresight during a time of day when there weren't many other distractions.

Ok, this is taking a lot longer than I thought it would. Let's fast forward a bit...
I wrote an opinion piece back in 2012 for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette basically wishing a movement into existence to oppose that November's vote to raise the statewide general sales tax to eventually pay for much of the 30 Crossing project. I had lived through the 1998 Interstate Rehab Program vote, witnessed a subsequent one from afar, and still had seen no acknowledgement at any level of state government that maybe, just maybe our development patterns and the infrastructure requirements to support them should pay for themselves without the need to raise taxes again. If the promises of increased prosperity from increasingly expensive highway projects was't actually penciling out in the real world, maybe we should reevaluate the entire way we build things and the kinds of physical development we subsidize with out public expenditures. But alas, no movement came to be. The opposition to the constitutional amendment in 2012 was mild, especially compared to the all-hands-on-deck media blitz put on by the highway lobby (remember Governor Mike Beebe telling you from your tv to vote to Move Arkansas Forward?). I got pretty disillusioned by the whole thing and put this blog to bed later that year before I'd given it much of a chance to start making a difference. The amendment passed easily, some other really bad stuff sailed through the legislature and across the Governor's desk, and by 2015 my wife and I were seriously considering moving to a place that had its priorities in a more economically sustainable alignment than Arkansas's seemed to be.

But then, Starre Haas and her husband invited my wife and me to dinner last July. At the time I knew that 30 Crossing was percolating, and that the proposed plan to be presented in the fall was likely to be a disaster. I had heard from a few folks doing yeoman's work in the citizen involvement planning meetings that the Department was ignoring the good comments and just falling back on their the tried and true old fashioned ideas. Resistance seemed futile to me though, so I really wasn't devoting any effort to it. But over dinner at Starre's someone brought up downtown or interstates or parking or something else that I had a strong opinion on, and the conversation went from there. Like most of us, they hadn't really questioned the assumption that highways must always be expanded when congestion reaches some point. That's just the way of the world. We explained our views though, and by the end of the evening we had two solid converts. I still thought it wouldn't go anywhere, but at least I had one more data point suggesting that people could be swayed on the issue. It truly was inspirational. Not that my words were well chosen or anything, but that what I've long seen as obvious really did make sense outside the cloistered world of people who read transportation blogs for fun. It was inspirational to see two open minded people confront a new idea that called into question a foundational assumption, wrestle with it for a bit, and then see the value in it in a pretty short period of time. We left that night with a loose agreement that I would at least restart this blog (which I did, sort of) and that we'd all keep our eyes and ears open for opportunities to push the conversation out into the broader public.

We had dinner again in September; the Department unleashed its 10-lane monstrosity soon thereafter; and Starre formed the Facebook group. I wrote a few pointed posts about misinformation coming from the Department (which I still plan to get back to soon), and everything just sort of gelled. The group is up to nearly 1300 members now, and hopefully something a little more formal and organized will come together soon.

And the rest will be history.

To summarize: early interactions with the State of Arkansas's investments in education were formative experiences for me; the priorities communicated through those investments motivated me to develop a stronger commitment to this state than I might have otherwise; those programs and others were slashed at the same time the state was pulling more money out of the economy to rebuild infrastructure that wasn't paying for itself; later in life I tried to do a little something to nudge those priorities into a different order, but nothing much came of it; one dinner with Starre Haas convinced me to rekindle my interest and jump into the fight.

So, if there's a sappy moral to the story, I'd say it's this: go to those dinners; meet that person for a cup of coffee; have those conversations; send that email. You never know what might come out of it, and you never know how a little idea might grow into something much bigger. That's really all this movement is at this point- people sharing ideas and using them to keep moving forward.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Lessons From Successful Cities

If you haven't read Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed or How American is Putting Itself Back Together, do so now. Great articles that echo my thoughts on the fact that cities can & do work. When they have strong & visionary leadership along with people willing to talk to each other things can get done. It is in cities that people put aside partisanship & ivory tower philosophy to make their community a better place to live. In Congress too often obstinacy & brinksmanship stand in the way of service. Not in cities. Wanting to be a mayor makes sense to me, wanting to be a congressman, not so much. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Citizens Hire Firm to Evaluate Highway Department's Work and Make Recommendations

Several members of the Improve 30 Crossing community have come together along with a few key donors to hire a transportation engineering consulting firm to help strengthen the independent, citizen-led voice in the broader 30 Crossing debate. The firm retained is Smart Mobility, Inc. The founder and principal of the firm, Norm Marshall, has a math degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a Masters degree in engineering sciences from Dartmouth College. Norm has decades of experience with traffic modeling, evaluating government agencies' proposals, and developing alternatives to address a region’s needs with a variety of transportation solutions.

Smart Mobility's work in Central Arkansas will be completed in two broad phases over the next few months. The first step will be to analyze the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department’s technical data and traffic modeling to determine if any problems, oversights and incorrect assumptions might exist in their work. The second phase will be to develop specific recommendations for addressing Little Rock's, North Little Rock's and Central Arkansas's transportation needs in the I-30 corridor, including options beyond simply expanding the highway. Smart Mobility will be able to fit pieces together that may have been passed over in isolation during the Department's Planning and Environmental Linkages study in order to produce affordable transportation solutions for downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock that increase value and livability by expanding freedom, choice, and opportunity for residents, property owners, and visitors alike.

It is important to note that not only will Smart Mobility, Inc. and Norm Marshall be providing an independent perspective regarding the Highway Department’s proposals, the firm will also be working independently of the City of Little Rock’s recently hired planning consultant. Smart Mobility will be accountable only to concerned citizen volunteers. The contract with Smart Mobility lists Tom Fennell, Eddy Moore, and Tim McKuin as members of the local team designated to help the staff at Smart Mobility complete their work, and there will be several opportunities for input from the larger Improve 30 Crossing movement over the next few months. People interested in learning more should join the Improve 30 Crossing Facebook group, read, and watch for additional details soon.

The crowd at tonight's Capitol View Stifft Station Neighborhood Association meeting heard Tom Fennell present some boulevard ideas and Tim McKuin share information about the consultant.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Boulevards, Architects, Elected Officials, and Me

Little Rock Ward 3 Director Kathy Webb has arranged a public meeting tomorrow night, February 23, 2016, at 6:30 at the Capitol View - Stifft Station Resource Center, 2715 W. 7th Street (across Appianway from Say Macintosh's restaurant). Architect Tom Fennell will present a couple of proposals he's worked up as alternatives to the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department's 30 Crossing plan. One is the boulevard idea that's been floating around the media (including attention on the front page of today's Democrat-Gazette) over the last few weeks. The other is a newer, updated version that he thinks might have an even better shot at a getting a favorable response from the Highway Department.

The last few days have also seen some exciting developments quietly bubble up out of the Improve 30 Crossing Facebook group, and I hope to share some of the details with those in attendance tomorrow night.

Q&A will follow.

Come on out and be part of the movement!

Drive-by Planning

Directors Kathy Webb and Ken Richardson introduced a resolution to the City Board (Little Rock's version of a city council) several months ago that would respectfully ask the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to reevaluate some options that many of us feel were not properly vetted earlier during the preliminary phases of deciding to do with the aging Interstate 30. It's about as mild as a resolution can be. It is not a statement of opposition to AHTD's 30 Crossing plan, but rather a recognition that this could be one of the most important decisions facing the region for a very long time and we need to make sure we get it right. For more info take a gander at the line-by-line deep dive I did over here.

The resolution should have sailed through unanimously, in my humble opinion. But, as is often the case when there's a difficult topic requiring a very public decision, quite a few of our elected City Directors seem to have their fingers up in the air trying to figure out if there's a prevailing direction to the political winds kicked up by this issue and now swirling inconsistently around them. I don't think it's a stretch to say that future elections could be partially decided by how all of this shakes out, and I doubt I'm the only one who's made that connection. The result? Delay, delay, delay. They've taken a couple of votes now to postpone voting on the resolution itself with the most recent delay pushing a decision off to April. The City has also recently contracted with a planning consultant to look at downtown and 30 Crossing, so I wouldn't be surprised if the decision on Webb and Richardson's resolution gets pushed even further back in the calendar pending the results of the consultant's work. 

I see three possible hopes that might be motivating the Directors' efforts to keep kicking the can down the road: 
1. We the people will just get bored with the whole thing and move on to adopting sprawls of abandoned marmot pups or something else to make the world a better place.
2. The highway lobby's marketing arm will p.r. their way to an overwhelming voice of support for business-as-usual from the quiet masses who haven't been paying attention yet.  
3. Someone will come up with a compromise that will appease enough people that the opposition will  simply evaporate. Resistance needs a critical mass, and defeating it doesn't require convincing everybody. 

All three of those are real possibilities, and I understand the desire of elected officials not wanting to take a stand on controversial issues if they can avoid it. I don't like it, but I get it. 

Out of the three, the last one seems to be something that Mayor Mark Stodola (up for reelection in 2018, btw) has tried to latch onto. News came a couple of weeks ago that he spent a big chunk of time riding around downtown Little Rock with Jerry Holder, the engineer at Garver who's in charge of shepherding this project through the multi-year planning process. Apparently around the time the classic rock station looped back to the beginning of its playlist again, Stodola and Holder agreed that moving the Highway 10 / 2nd Street interchange further south warranted a closer look. Stodola holds a little more sway in the big scheme of things than others on the City Board because he also holds a voting position on the Metroplan Board of Directors, a body that will ultimately have to sign off on whatever AHTD decides to move forward into the concrete-pouring stage.

I'm glad that there is some dialog occurring with movement happening on the AHTD/Garver side of things. However, the Mayor's little drive-about with Jerry is emblematic of precisely how we've spent the last 50+ years working ourselves into the transportation pickle in which we now find ourselves. When you design for traffic you get traffic, and when you're evaluating the design from inside a car it's difficult to see the world we've created from any other perspective than that of a driver. Instead of driving around or just looking at maps and traffic counts, everyone with a hand in shaping this project needs to spend time on the ground walking around the neighborhoods on both sides of I-30. They need to see what it's like walking from the Holiday Inn Presidential to Lost Forty Brewing during the evening rush. They need to walk from the Comfort Inn to the Arts Center. Stroll from Eastview Terrace Apartments to MacArthur Park, Argenta's Main Street to the forgotten commercial node on East Washington in NLR, hop on a bike and ride from the Creative Corridor to Berg & Sons Machine Shop or Mizell Signs, ride a bike from Cumberland Manor to Mann Magnet or Booker Arts or Rockefeller in time for school to start in LR, or from Melrose Circle to the 7th Street Elementary in NLR, walk from Our House to the East Roosevelt Kroger. And so on. All of these trips are absolutely miserable today precisely because of Interstate 30's imposing, people-unfriendly presence. Making the freeway even wider will only exacerbate its anti-city, wealth diluting essence.

The negative externalities of urban freeways are undeniable, so over the next few months we will be presented with a sidewalk here, a new tree there, and other similar attempts at greenwashing as an 8 or 10-lane option further solidifies in the AHTD planning apparatus. Moving the main downtown interchange as Stodola proposes would be a huge alteration to the original plan, but the overall picture would still the same: an enlarged, high-speed, grade-separated limited-access highway running right through the heart of the capital city of Arkansas. 

And this, this moment when the powers-that-be start touting some half measures of a compromise, is when I hope the merry band of loosely affiliated friendly agitators fighting 30 Crossing stands strong. There are going to be countless little tweaks that will be brought up over the next few months with people saying "Hey, looky here! We're listening to public input! By golly, we moved this off ramp two whole blocks." Or, "Wow, aren't these new light pole designs awesome?! We were going to go with something plain, but because of our solemn responsibility to respect the public we've made them bold and iconic." And, "Check out this cool natural tree motif we're going to stamp into the concrete bridge supports! The students in the free after-school arts program for underprivileged kids designed it! You support kids' artwork, right? Right?! Well, then how can you be against 30 Crossing?" 

You get the idea. 

Most of the folks fighting this boondoggle of a project want something fundamentally different from a 10-lane freeway dividing the heart of downtown, and not just a minor variation on a theme. We, along with countless others around the country, recognize that urban freeways were generally a mistake from the beginning, and not learning from that mistake would be a travesty. We recognize that tomorrow's technology is very likely to upend our relatively new single-occupancy vehicle commuting paradigm in dramatic and unpredictable ways. We recognize that putting all of our transportation eggs in the same outdated basket is bad public policy. We recognize that the existence of large urban freeways is in many ways responsible for the very congestion that needs to now be 'solved'. We recognize that AHTD's insistence that they can only do highways is simply a policy choice that can be changed by just updating a few words on a few pieces of paper down at the State Capitol.

We recognize that just because things are a certain way doesn't mean they should be.