Saturday, February 20, 2016

Rochester Agonistes: Holiday Din

The collapse Friday of Brutger Equities' plans for a $63 million hotel project across from Saint Marys Hospital was a big deal. A lot of powerful forces came together to challenge the developer, the city's planning and zoning process, city administration, the Destination Medical Center bureaucracy, and eventually the City Council's competency, and developer Larry Brutger decided he'd had enough. - Jay Furst, Furst Draft

This blog post by the managing editor of the Post-Bulletin does a pretty good job of naming the parts of a thing that happened. Most everything it concludes regarding those parts of the thing that happened is...ah...well, let's just say there's not much there that'd I'd sign on to. For one thing, this thing that happened may well be one of Rochester's finest hours and not the minor apocalypse it is being characterized as in some circles. Circles that circumscribe this piece as well.

Unless we take "apocalypse" in its original meaning as "lifting the veil" because this thing that happened is doing that for sure - renting it in twain is more like it. What worldview do we glimpse behind the veil when a private developer not getting enough public money (the TIF offer was even doubled by the city administrator) is called a "debacle"? Why is a loss of a project that would have amounted to roughly 1% of the projected public/private DMC investment so devastating?

It is really punching down to say it is not a community's finest hour when the small and the marginalized finally maybe get something like a win over the big and the well-connected.

Despite being cast as a loser in the blog post, the city council president can take some solace that it agrees with him that these neighborhood groups need to be de-legitimized.
Neighborhood associations have become organizations to reckon with in Rochester, which generally is a good thing. That said, it's reasonable to wonder whether neighborhood leaders always act in a way that reflects neighborhood interests, and how that community input dovetails with the elective process of running a city.
Well, wonder no more how that "dovetailing" works. Here's this from Chapter 6, Handbook for Minnesota Cities: "Council members have found that ignoring citizen concerns can result in their removal from office at the next election, or in the defeat of a program or activity as a result of citizen opposition."

Likewise, might we also wonder whether "[city] leaders always act in a way that reflects [city] interests"? In other reporting we learn that the city council president prefers the company of the developer over those noisome, noisy, overreaching neighborhoods, so weigh that in the balance as you wonder.

Speaking of de-legitimization: Why is it that the actions and activities of the challenger to the incumbent city council president are so often rendered suspect because he is "running for office" while the actions and activities of the incumbent are so rarely (ever?) regarded as suspect even though he is also "running for office"?

Siding with the city council president, the blog post makes one thing perfectly clear, "based on how this project was treated, that property might remain a parking lot for a while." Unless of course, as the blog post concludes "There'll be other developers and other projects, and that land across from Saint Marys won't sit vacant for long." So, in sum, this place will and will not be a parking lot for a long time. Kudos for balance there, I guess.

The blog post gets this much right: There were indeed "powerful forces" that "came together to challenge the developer, the city's planning and zoning process, city administration, the Destination Medical Center bureaucracy, and eventually the City Council's competency..." Let's hope they recall that "power" and make more use of it in the future. "Citizens who use their power to convene other citizens," writes Peter Block in Community, "are what create an alternative future."

An alternative future might just be what we need.


NOTE: A version of this post appeared first on my Facebook page.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Rochester Agonistes: Zumbro Transit Company

What men can do easily is what they do habitually, and this decides what they can think and know easily. They feel at home in the range of ideas which is familiar through their everyday line of action. A habitual line of action constitutes a habitual line of thought, and gives the point of view from which facts and events are apprehended and reduced to a body of knowledge. What is consistent with the habitual course of action is consistent with the habitual line of thought, and gives the definitive ground of knowledge as well as the conventional standard of complacency or approval in any community. - Theodore Veblen

Ghost of a chance

For a few hours last week, there was a specter haunting Rochester. A shadowy group announcing grand plans for the city. Unlike previous shadowy groups, like the “unnamed investors” of the Big New Hockey Arena Proposal a few months ago, this new bunch did not have another organization, like say the Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau, to front for them. All they had was a website builder, a Facebook account, and good old American moxy.

Interestingly, even though when it came down to it the group proposing the Big New Hockey Arena had little more to offer than expensive consultants with a slide deck, a few dogs, and a pony, it’s Zumbro Transit Company that is now being derided by city officials as a “hoax”.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that the Big New Hockey Arena should be called a “hoax”. When you are also asking for $65 million, “hoax” is not the first word that comes to mind. All I am saying is that a few expensive consultants, pretty pictures, and some locals to carry your water doesn’t necessarily make what you have to say more serious or assure anything will in the end get done.

Heck, if that’s all it took we’d be a you-know-what already, replete with glittering five-star hotels chock full of the wealthy healthy. And some bike racks.

That's not how we don't get things done around here

Well, we’re not you-know-what yet. Nor would anyone in their right mind expect us to be. Still, despite an act of the state legislature, a half billion in pixie dollars, a permanent collection of consultants, an urban swatch book of Rochesterland, and mounting millions in city tax dollars, the folks over at you-know-what can promise only another year of study by that permanent collection of consultants to produce yet another urban swatch book of gauzy nighttime streetscapes populated by demographically desirable photoshopped people who couldn't be happier to be there. Only this time they really mean it because they’ll be adding a consultant to help them establish metrics so they can measure all the stuff they’ll be getting ready to start thinking seriously about doing in a year a so. Hey, we're told, it's a Big Idea and Big Ideas don't happen overnight or even over a few years worth of nights.

This Big Idea is, of course, not a hoax. Who could possibly think so?  The Big Idea and its Grand Plan for all it's pages and press and pomp did not arrived fully formed and came without much of what is suddenly demanded of a considerably more modest proposal. With the Big Idea, it's all where do we sign! With Zumbro Transit Company it's: Where's the business plan? How you gonna pay for this? Clearly you don't understand how we do things around here, who the hell do you think you are?

Ask not for whom the bell tolls

I think the reaction Zumbro Transit Company is receiving in some quarters misconstrues what they are about. Some deride Zumbro Transit Company as a "hoax". Some think this derision not far off the mark. They all might do well to review recent events and what they let pass for Serious Proposals. They might consider why they have been willing to do so. They might give some thought to Kenneth Burke saying of "trained incapacity":
If chickens, by their scheme of orientation, respond to the ringing bell as a food-sign, and if the experimenter has this time changed the rules, so that the bell is in reality a precursor of punishment, we need not introduce the notion of escape mechanism to explain their "illogical" conduct as they come running in answer to the bell. We need not say that they have refused to face reality. We need only note - as seems experimentally verifiable - that their past training has caused them to misjudge their present situation. Their training has become an incapacity.
I'll leave to the reader to discern who here is hearing what in the bells.

For my taste the roll out of the Zumbro Transit Company last week was a little too coy with some needless demurring by many of the then “unnamed” who are now known to be involved. That’s style. The substance of what they are about seems to me to be one more ringing bell signaling that something new is happening in Rochester.

Those who say they are ready to listen need to be ready to listen differently. For one thing, the Zumbro Transit Authority Statement of Purpose is not a statement of purpose. It is a manifesto.