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Michael Brown: quality of life for whom?

As most news articles explain, Michael A. Brown has run for many political offices in DC, including mayor (in 2006), Ward 4 Council (in the 2007 special election), and now Council At-Large. The son of former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, Michael Brown is the least convincingly a non-Democrat, as he served as Finance Vice-Chair for the DNC and a surrogate speaker for Clinton, Gore, and Kerry's Presidential campaigns. In DC, he's running largely on his work with disadvantaged African-American youth; his name similarity to incumbent Kwame Brown and his resume don't hurt.

Michael A. Brown. Image from his campaign site.

On many issues, Brown seemed reluctant to articulate specific beliefs. He kept talking about sitting down with members of the community to build consensus around what a community wants. That's great, of course, but what if a community doesn't speak with one voice? Most of the time, residents don't all agree, and the most vocal residents may not share the views of the majority.

It took several questions of pushing to get an answer about when, as an elected official, Brown would exercise leadership to make a decision. For example, I said, what about development around Minnesota and Benning, or at the Brookland Metro? Then, Brown admitted, "the interest of the city is important too," and wouldn't leave fallow "major acreage ... where nothing has been done on it for years."

Brown would only push development with great hesitation; even in the "major acreage" cases, he would demand traffic studies and hesitate to do anything that might inconvenience others, saying that "quality of life will be affected if takes you 10 minutes more to get to the grocery store" (by which he means, to drive.)

Likewise, Brown wasn't so confident in a position on inclusionary zoning, where he "would like to learn more" and "doesn't know if it fulfills its purpose." He supports Fenty and Rhee "100%" in their school reform efforts... except, he wants to see more "due process" for firing people. He may be right, but that doesn't sound like 100% to me.

In one area, Brown had no trouble taking a stand (rather than planning to just listen to the community): road capacity. He always came down firmly on the side of more lanes over fewer lanes, more car capacity over less. Without hesitation, Brown would vote to rebuild Klingle Road. Brown's platform extols his work pushing for weekend closures of Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park, but when I asked if he'd close the rest of Rock Creek Parkway on weekends, he wasn't sure, saying he "would err on side of how the current system is." And he's absolutely opposed to any weekday restrictions.

Brown does like transit, and wants to expand transit options, including bike-bus lanes. He's a supporter of streetcars. He thinks the Convention Center plans could have had at least a small park, and would restrain a bit the city's enthusiasm for developing every single available parcel to allow a few parks as well.

As for stadiums, Brown thinks the city got a bad deal on baseball. "I studied municipal finance in law school," he said, and "the terms of the deal weren't great." He's like to keep DC United in the city, but doesn't feel the city ought to "be the ones on the hook" to pay for a stadium. "For a city that has one of the worst school systems in America, one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, and the highest poverty rate in the world," he said, "to have three stadiums doesn't seem like the right priority."

I asked his three top specific objections to the baseball deal. Number one was bad financing, number three the way DC doesn't control its own ballpark (for example, we can't put a "taxation without representation" sign on it." But number two? Insufficient parking. He'd have built a lot more parking, and at the convention center as well. Brown held up Montgomery County's large, cheap municipal parking garages as an example to emulate, such as on upper Georgia Avenue: "We have the opportunity there to do some heavy municipal parking."

Isn't parking working well around the ballpark, I asked? After all, most people are taking Metro. Wouldn't more parking stop that? I got the sense he'd never really thought about this issue that way. Like many people and politicians, he hadn't considered transportation policy as a tradeoff between more land for parking and more land for housing or retail, or between more car trips and more Metro trips. Instead, he just sees that there could be more parking, and thus concludes there should.

In politics, it's not possible to make everybody happy. We can't solve our development problems by sitting down together, holding hands, and all agreeing. Either the Wisconsin Avenue Giant will happen as is, irritating some people who want less development, or it'll get smaller, upsetting the people who want more housing and vibrant retail at that corner. Building housing at Takoma Metro will please those who can live there, and those who don't want more auto commuters choking North Capitol Street instead, but it'll displease those who want a quieter, lower density neighborhood. Closing roads through a park makes the park more usable for recreation and less for high-speed transportation.

Given that Michael Brown is currently favored to win, I hope we can educate him on these issues. He wants a good quality of life in DC for all residents. At the moment, though, he sees quality of life in terms of the needs of suburban-style auto commuters. That's common in his neighborhood of Chevy Chase DC, but uncommon east of the river (where less than half of people own cars) and in the dense and growing mid-city area, where recreation space is precious and traffic creates pollution, noise and hazards. If he is elected, we should work with Brown to help him see the beyond the classic suburban conception of the city, and if he doesn't, work to replace him. In the meantime, I'm voting for Patrick Mara, who already gets it.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Ugh. More parking at Nationals Park? The single biggest flaw in the parks design (of many) is those hideous and unnecessary parking garages.

I guess if you say it often enough, the predictions of traffic DOOM actually come true (in your mind, at least).

by Alex B. on Oct 31, 2008 1:08 pm • linkreport

Everything I've heard Brown say before this made him sound like a train wreck. This seals it. It's a shame that non-thinkers and non-leaders are the only people who can get elected to office around here. One of the main reasons that Washington is such a dysfunctional municipality.

by CP on Oct 31, 2008 2:18 pm • linkreport

I'm not familliar with the parking situation around the ballpark, but couldn't structured underground parking with mixed development on top provide part of what he was looking for, yet allowing for mixed-use development on the land surrounding the ballpark?

by Froggie on Oct 31, 2008 6:17 pm • linkreport

Froggie -- When the stadium was first being built, the plan was to do exactly what you say -- build parking underneath and have mixed development on top. However, the final cost projections for building the underground garages was more than the city could afford, plus there wasn't enough time to build the underground garages before opening day. So the city went with the current above-ground garages. Personally I think they're a waste of perfectly good street level space that could have been better utilized. I guess though, that their hands were tied.

One thing that has annoyed me to no end is the hundreds of Michael Brown campaign leaflets littering the ground. Some of his campaign workers come through my neighborhood every few days and place these in fences, on doors, in mailboxes, on cars, and leave them on doorsteps. With all of the high winds lately, there are (I'm not kidding) HUNDREDS of leaflets everywhere. There is enough litter in my neighborhood from H Street, I don't need more from some campaign workers who frankly don't care about the neighborhood.

by BiLL on Nov 1, 2008 12:24 am • linkreport

I thought I heard underground parking was not as feasible for the stadium because of the high water tables near the river. They might have been able to do two levels of underground parking but I don't think it would have been possible to build half the parking they did above ground.

by Paul on Nov 1, 2008 6:13 pm • linkreport

That may be true, Paul, but even a couple levels worth of underground parking would have cut down on the amount of surface-and-above-level parking that was or needed-to-be built.

by Froggie on Nov 1, 2008 8:10 pm • linkreport

The stadium was a rush job ordered to be completed in time for the 2008 season which was incidentally the final season that US President GW Bush could have gotten to perform the ritual of throwing the 1st ball.

by Douglas Willinger on Nov 1, 2008 9:36 pm • linkreport for anyone but michael a. brown, please! make sure to use both of your votes, neither for him!

by IMGoph on Nov 3, 2008 7:26 pm • linkreport

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