How can Obama really do more for DC?
Yesterday, President Obama and Mayor-Elect Gray met for lunch. According to Gray, Obama said he "wants to do more for the city."
How can he do more? Obviously there are a number of federal programs that give out funding, whether discretionary or formula, and Obama could push for DC in many areas of the federal budget. But the President is very concerned about the deficit, and Congress makes the final budget decisions. What could Obama do for DC that doesn't involve large spending programs?
President Obama already controls a lot of what goes on in DC. He heads the largest employer in the District. Agencies control a great number of buildings downtown. The National Park Service (NPS) controls most of the parkland in the District, from the Mall to individual neighborhood pocket parks.
The President controls, either directly or indirectly, half of the 12 seats on the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC): 3 direct Presidential appointees and 3 ex officio seats for the Department of Defense, the Department of the Interior (handled by the Park Service), and General Services Administration (GSA). The Park Service also holds one of the seats on the Zoning Commission.
If these federal agencies, especially Interior and GSA, had strong guidance from the White House and coordinated closely to improve the vitality of DC on and around federal property, they could create some big change. All it really takes is the will to overcome bureucratic inertia.
Here are some specific steps Obama could take right now:
Appoint a high-level DC point person. The simplest item could be a very significant one. There is no one person in the White House in charge of working with the DC government. Obama should appoint such a person at a high enough level to give him or her the power to really coordinate the DC-related work of the cabinet departments and push them to make changes when necessary and when they fit with the President's vision.
Appoint a DC resident to NCPC. Of the 3 Presidential appointees, the law requires one to be from Maryland and one from Virginia. The third appointee is currently Herbert Ames, a real estate agent from South Carolina appointed by President Bush. His term ends next year. The President should pick someone who lives in DC and who truly cares about making the District a better place.
Restrain excessive fortress design at federal facilities. Many federal agencies seem to want their building to be a fortress, partly because everyone is particularly sensitive to security, and partly because it makes agencies feel like they are more important.
Fortunately, NCPC and GSA have been pushing for more federal buildings to engage the street, like the upcoming GSA headquarters modernization which will include ground-floor retail. Require all new or renovated federal facilities in urban areas to contain publicly-accessible retail or food spaces, and avoid a bunker mentality unless it really, truly is necessary.
Direct federal agencies to encourage multimodalism. The President already issued an executive order instructing agencies to try to reduce their carbon footprint. He could specifically push agencies to accommodate bike parking inside their buildings and to put Capital Bikeshare stations outside, for example.
Encouraging transit use is not as simple as encouraging bicycle use. The best thing would be for Congress to extend the increased ceiling for pretax transit benefits, keeping it on an equal footing with the parking benefit. That also means federal workers get a higher transit benefit, helping workers better afford to take transit. Unfortunately, this isn't something Obama can do on his own.
Make St. Elizabeth's a good neighbor. The biggest immediate opportunity for making federal design fit with a community will come at St. Elizabeth's, where DHS is consolidating operations. That will have a lot of security, but there are many ways DHS can also encourage employees to interact with the surrounding community, foster nearby restaurants that are also open to the public, and take transit, streetcar, bike or walk to the complex.
Direct NPS to allow the Circulator and Capital Bikeshare. NPS has exclusive concession contracts for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, including ones for the Tourmobile and for bike rentals. They have been interpreting these contracts to prohibit allowing transit services, including bike transit (Capital Bikeshare), on the Mall.
However, $1 transit service doesn't compete with a $23 tour bus, and a bike meant for under 30 minutes of use to get from one place to another doesn't compete with an all-day bike rental. The White House should instruct NPS to find a way to allow these services immediately.
Direct NPS to treat urban parks differently from rural parks. NPS manages its parks in dense urban areas with the same philosophies as a natural wilderness like Yosemite. People from Colorado primarily wrote the National Mall Plan. But keeping spaces wild is not as paramount of a concern for urban parkland, which needs to contribute to the health of residents.
For example, NPS recently denied permission for DDOT to build a wooden walkway across a part of Fort Totten Park to help people walk to the Metro station. NPS needs a separate division with separate management policies for urban parks, staffed by people with expertise running parks in cities and a passion for making parks good public spaces.
Give DC control over local neighborhood parks. NPS plays a valuable role in our nation (some of my fondest childhood memories are from Minute Man National Historical Park), but it makes no sense that they decide all policy, handle all law enforcement, and have to plow the sidewalks (which they don't do) around most small neighborhood square, circle, and triangle parks throughout the District.
The President could instruct the Park Service to work out a way to turn day to day maintenance and policy of the small parks over to DC while maintaining ownership of the land and NCPC review for permanent changes to the parks. For example, NPS could essentially work out a contract with DC where it outsources park management to DC for these parks.
NPS could pay DC what it spends on those parks, including policing, snow and more. DPR could take over those duties, and handle things like permits for events or retail concessions, but DC wouldn't be able to decide to develop the park into housing, for example.
Local BIDs may also want to contribute to park beautification or "adopt" parks, as they do in many other cities. NPS is currently fairly hostile to public-private partnerships. Turning over the parks' immediate control would make such arrangements possible.
Unify management of lands around the Mall. The National Coalition to Save Our Mall keeps pointing out that nobody can really plan for the contiguous park space people generally call the Mall because control is fragmented between the Park Service, the Smithsonian, the Architect of the Capitol, the Secret Service, the National Gallery, the Commission on Fine Arts, NCPC, DDOT, DC DPR, the various memorial commissions, and more.
Create a board composed of federal, DC and citizen representatives to coordinate policy for the and work with NCPC, which could perhaps staff the commission.
And of course:
Publicly support voting rights. This was one of the primary asks from Gray at the lunch. Obama may have said he supports voting rights, but he has done little to make that a part of the national conversation, and most Americans still don't know that DC residents have no vote in Congress.
Obama should take public steps, whether symbolic like restoring the "Taxation without representation" plates to his limousine or meaningful like asking Congress for legislation, that will generate news cycles around DC voting rights. The Post also editorialized for the President to promise to veto Congressional measures that step on DC home rule.
It's great that President Obama wants to have a positive effect on DC. Fortunately, he is in a position to do so, easily and immediately. He can get started on the above initiatives right away.
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