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"That's an old movie": Mayor Williams defends changing city

The District is changing, as people in their 20s and 30s seek to live in walkable urban neighborhoods their parents and grandparents moved away from. Yet the idea that "everyone" will choose a car-dependent lifestyle, and thus all transportation policy should cater to that lifestyle over all others, still persists.

Photo by sbma44 on Flickr.

I recently was invited to watch a panel discussion about DC streetcars at the Cosmos Club, a private social club in Dupont Circle, which included Dorn McGrath of the Committee of 100, former DC Mayor Tony Williams, his planning director Ellen McCarthy, and Downtown BID director Rich Bradley.

The discussion itself covered many of the familiar topics, such as how good the connection will be to Union Station and whether Bus Rapid Transit would work better than rail. The most telling moment happened near the end of the question and answer period, when one attendee sharply criticized the streetcar and, in fact, all projects that don't fall into the 1950s planning paradigm.

"It scares me to think of all the pathetic projects done in the name of becoming a world-class city," he said. These projects just take away from moving cars in the city, he argued, and everyone moves out to a suburban-style neighborhood as soon as they can.

Mayor Williams jumped in. "That's an old movie, man," he said. A few others murmured in agreement. The reality that only the rare person of economic means lives in the District's urban neighborhoods is long gone.

Linda Donavan Harper, head of Cultural Tourism DC, was attending the event as a guest of a member (as I was), and had earlier told everyone about the new H Street heritage trail. She also lent her voice against the sentiment from that member.

Cultural Tourism DC thinks about who their target market is, Harper said. "Who is the cultural tourist? We used to look around and say, it's you, it's me, over 55" year olds, as in fact seniors comprised most of the people in the room. But now, said Harper, it's not. One significant group is international visitors, who expect to ride transit when they visit a city. They don't expect to rent a car and drive.

Another group, more and more, is younger residents who want to make their permanent homes in walkable places. Many people I know want to stay in the neighborhoods where they live; if they leave, the most likely reason is because the quality of public education in a neighborhood they can afford is "not good enough."

As Herb Caudill said, living in urban places doesn't mean abandoning automobiles entirely, but it means having options so that one isn't entirely dependent on them or any other mode of travel. This concept, foreign a generation ago, still persists in many residents' minds.

Of course, no generation uniformly believes one thing, and this is no exception. Many empty nesters are now moving into the city. One woman at the Cosmos Club discussion talked about her experience visiting her son on H Street. Laurence Aurbach, the organizer of the panel (and the person who invited me) has been a smart growth advocate for a long time, and helped design LEED-ND has been supporting smart growth in transportation and planning for the better part of 50 years in San Francisco, Clevleand, and Washington.

We can all can help shake this "old movie" belief by talking to people of all ages and all neighborhoods about the ways our region is changing. It will take time, but as we are seeing with the zoning update, the "old movie" can still wield great force to stop planning and transportation decisions that can move the city and region forward.

Update: The Laurence Aurbach who is involved with LEED-ND is Laurence Aurbach, Jr. (and also in attendance). Laurence Aurbach, Sr., who organized the panel, is his father, and has been a supporter of smart growth for many years in his own right.


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Wonder who the attendee was? Which reminds me, there's a certain C100 member I noticed hasn't been around these parts lately.

by spookiness on Sep 25, 2012 3:20 pm

I didn't know the person and didn't catch the name. It wasn't someone I know from other events, though.

by David Alpert on Sep 25, 2012 3:39 pm

It amazes those of us in the know, but there is a HUGE population out there that thinks like this gentleman does.

I don't know the best way to help them see that the world has changed. Should we have some kind of an "internship" or "job shadowing" program, where they spend a day or three tied to the hip of someone who lives car-free (or -lite) to show them it's possible?

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Sep 25, 2012 3:51 pm

I miss that guy.

by Thayer-D on Sep 25, 2012 3:51 pm

I think we will see this cleave in thinking and living as we careen towards the zoning re-write process. Already, there are scores of Ward 3 residents up in arms over proposed changes to the zoning code that won't affect them in any way, shape or form. Yet, they are already contacting their councilmembers (including the Chair) and girding to do whatever they can to torpedo this multi-year process.

The fact is, when many currently over 35 turned 16, we couldn't wait to get our drivers licenses and earn enough money to buy a junker. Today, I am so incredibly impressed with the overarching return to the city, with the call for housing and transportation choices. It is the clear path to a truly sustainable future.

by Andrew on Sep 25, 2012 4:11 pm

Did Mayor Williams mean, "That's a clown remark, bro."

by Natitude on Sep 25, 2012 4:23 pm in urban places doesn't mean abandoning automobiles entirely, but it means having options so that one isn't entirely dependent on them or any other mode of travel. This concept, foreign a generation ago, still persists in many residents' minds.

This is dangerously close to a straw man argument.

I was never a foreign concept that city living was entirely car-dependent, a generation ago, or ever. People have always understood that in the city, there needs to be alternates to cars.

by goldfish on Sep 25, 2012 5:21 pm

With money tight, suburbs are not financially sustainable.

Urbanized communities can benefit from economies of scale that suburban communities cannot.

It's that simple.

by Capt. Hilts on Sep 25, 2012 5:47 pm

@goldfish...just wait until you hear the drumbeat from the Committee of 100 and others who will oppose the zoning re-write. For them, it is all about easy and free parking, preferably in front of their houses, and auto-centric uses of roadways. Mass transit is for everyone else.

by Andrew on Sep 25, 2012 7:44 pm

@Andrew has hit on the main point that angers folks from the Committee of 100. For them, everyone else has meant a very specific group, one that has been a majority in our City like forever. The 1950 era zoning rules continue to assure that the 100 folks need never ever run into those other folks on public transportation, on the street or in their car-centric neighborhoods. And now, that 60 year reign of privileged alone-ness is beginning to fray. "Have accessory units in my neighborhood? I think I don't want to see those folks who might live in them."

I'm not suggesting all those in Ward 3 opposing the rewrite are like this. But those who continue to believe in a divided city for the usual reasons will take advantage of those scared (through misinformation)they'll not be able to drive their car and park right in front of Rodman's or the American City diner.

The diversity issue is one that politicians who might oppose the rewrite need to understand - keeping the 1950s rules are anti-diversity. Sad to say, that is one issue politicians in this town understand very well.

by fongfong on Sep 25, 2012 8:05 pm

People moved to suburbs for many reasons- chiefly racial and social, but obtaining a car was the cost of doing so. I don't know of anyone who moved to the suburbs to keep their car, although today maybe some new hires do so.

As gas gets more expensive and congestion chokes commutes, the suburbs depend on an alternative transportation.

Metro saved the suburbs.

by Tom Coumaris on Sep 25, 2012 9:24 pm

Metro also saved the city. The plans of getting all the suburbanites to their downtown jobs in cars would have destroyed the city.

by Thayer-D on Sep 25, 2012 9:33 pm

You can't live where you can't get to your work. The first "suburbs" were along streetcar lines. Suburbs past streetcar lines required cars and then freeways to carry them. As freeways clogged another commuting method had to come along because under 5 mph commutes are impossible. If Metro completely closes for a day businesses and government have to effectively close because there's no capacity on the highways for everyone to commute by car.

People already commute from Frederick and Hagerstown to Shady Grove to Metro in to work. Soon they'll commute from suburbs in West Virginia to Metro in Loudoun County.

Since Metro auto congestion in DC has increased. Anyone who wants can live in car-centric suburbs and yet ride Metro to work in DC.

Metro was to facilitate commuting from further-out suburbs, the opposite of getting people to live closer to work.

by Tom Coumaris on Sep 25, 2012 11:00 pm

Movies? That's an old animated Gif, man. Nobody watches movies these days.

by TM on Sep 26, 2012 10:59 am

"That's an old movie": Mayor Williams defends changing city

Yep. That's the way to win people over. Insult them.

Meanwhile, Mayor Williams, thank you for pushing out DC's poor to Prince Georges County. We're happy with the extra crime and additiona; burdens on our social services.

Most of all, thanks for closing DC General and making Prince Georges Hospital DC's de-fact providor for DC's indigent and uninsured. PG hospital has gone broke as a result, but who cares?

We're greatful and we're here to help. So continute to "change the city". We'll be here to backfill for DC's poor while you concentrate on streetcars, dog parks, bike lanes, and density. Maybe we can get our elected officials to send DC a bill. DC can always pay us back out of their traffic camera revenue.

by ceefer on Sep 26, 2012 11:18 am

Who did he insult? He said that the argument someone else made was an old one. He didn't call the person an old movie (and, while that man was of greater age than the average, he definitely was a human and not a film).

by David Alpert on Sep 26, 2012 11:36 am

@Andrew: Committee of 100 and others who will oppose the zoning re-write. For them, it is all about easy and free parking, preferably in front of their houses, and auto-centric uses of roadways. Mass transit is for everyone else.

I detect a generational divide here. It seems like the younger generation, having discovered the wonders of city living, are lecturing the oldsters about it. Kinda like kids telling their parents about the wonders of sex.

I suggest that the C100 fully appreciates the need for public transportation, and how it contributes to urban living. Please remember that many of the best parts of DC that we enjoy today are due to the efforts of the C100.

by goldfish on Sep 26, 2012 1:19 pm


So you're line of reasoning is that as DC made itself more attractive as a place to live this has had an effect on the quality of life in PG county.

My question then is: so? What says that any particular jurisdiction has to house all of the poor people and crime? Moreover, to alleviate this problem of yours wouldn't PG county just have to respond in kind by building bike lanes and dog parks that way people from Charles county can start complaining?

by drumz on Sep 26, 2012 1:30 pm

Metro saved the corridors of downtown Washington that would have been sacrificed to massive parking lots if 100,000 federal workers had to drive into work every day.

by Dane on Sep 26, 2012 2:28 pm


The Committee of 100 is partly responsible for some of the major citizen sponsored pushback that helped make the District the great city it is. As this blog notes, as great as it is, it can and should be greater. This is, in my opinion, where the divide exists. Many Committee of 100 members/supporters are fine with the way things are and do not want any change. Others, including younger residents respectfully believe that the city can evolve in a manner that protects the good.

The zoning re-write, the acceleration of the implementation of the streetcar system, the expanded bicycle infrastructure are among the many elements of this potential change.

by Andrew on Sep 26, 2012 3:57 pm

Many Committee of 100 members/supporters are fine with the way things are and do not want any change.

If that is so, may I suggest that their reasoning is examined more carefully, instead of reckoning their opposition to this or that project to a general desire for stasis?

by goldfish on Sep 26, 2012 4:10 pm

ceefer -- well, even PG County had a kind of quality of life bonus paid for by DC, both in terms of the city having more than its fair share of the region's poorest, plus all those DC government employees making good wages living in PG County instead of the city, people like Leslie Johnson.

But yes, HopeVI displaced a lot of people to PG County from wards 7 and 8. The Gazette ran an incredible story on this probably back in 2004, maybe 2003, two full inside pages, about the impact on PG County. I can't ever find the URL for it though--they change their indexing system often enough to make it impossible to find.

WRT the point that someone made about C100 types also being responsible for saving the qualities of the city that make it attractive to live here, I agree.

The problem is that C100 and other community advocacy groups, in particular preservation organizations, came to the fore during the period of the shrinking city, when the primary objective was stabilizing neighobrhoods and staunching the outward flow of residents mostly (but businesses too) and the decline of the quality of DC government services.

Now that the city has the opportunity to grow, these groups lack the tools and perspectives necessary for being more judicious about how to go forward, how to surgically add density, how to work to reduce car use through TDM, expanded transit, more density, more services and amenities able to survive in neighborhood commercial districts.

At the same time, the SG folks can be so pro-development and lack historical perspective and appreciation for the hard slog members of groups like C100 did for upwards of 40 years--working to keep the city and its neighborhoods viable--long before the johnny come latelies figured out it was cool to live in the city.

I am not hopeful that the various perspectives/stakeholder groups/age cohorts can come to some sort of congruency on views.

So it will continue to be contentious. And it will be interesting to see how neighborhood groups change as the demographics of membership change.

Now, I heartedly recommend that people interested go to national meetings like the National Trust for Historic Preservation in order to learn not just about preservation but about other places, urban revitalization, and other topics. But yes, things are going to change regardless, and it will be contentious while doing so.

by Richard Layman on Sep 26, 2012 7:24 pm

Speaking of movies, I'd like to see Mayor Williams: The Sequel. I'm tired of the old Gray film that DC seems stuck in.

by Bob on Sep 27, 2012 3:08 pm

Has anyone mentioned the main reason folks move to the burbs nowadays? GOOD PUBLIC SCHOOLS.

Fenty was right that we need to fix the DC public school system if we want to attract families of middle to high income to the city. Until that happens, we won't see a total shift yet.

by LuvDusty on Sep 28, 2012 3:56 pm

@LuvDusty That's an old movie too.

by Tim Krepp on Sep 28, 2012 4:01 pm

younger people aren't interested in cars the way their parents were.

by pat b on Sep 28, 2012 10:13 pm

@Goldfish: I was never a foreign concept that city living was entirely car-dependent, a generation ago, or ever. People have always understood that in the city, there needs to be alternates to cars.

Maybe in some cities, but have you been to Los Angeles lately? Houston? Phoenix? Albuquerque?

Up until 5, maybe 10 years ago, the car was the thing, and the idea of a mass transit system other than a token bus system was a crazy dream.

Unlike some of its more northern urban compatriots (e.g., New York, Boston), DC has always seemed a little more car-centric. Wherein car ownership isn't totally discouraged by existing conditions and far too many people choose to drive. Improving Metro's got to be the first step to reversing this.

by WMATARage on Oct 1, 2012 11:24 am

@WMATARage: The cities you cite have long had public transportation -- even Albuquerque (which I am very fond of despite its shortcomings).

by goldfish on Oct 1, 2012 11:33 am

I move to re-elect Tony Williams

by overturf on Oct 2, 2012 9:47 am

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