Deconstructing City Council


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by Tyler S. Clark   | 92 entries


Last week, I called out The Vindicator for a lede it failed to support: that the hiring of 24-year-old planning intern Steve Novotny was a matter of contention. No opposition was cited in the original article, but that opposition has now surfaced.

Novotny has been working with the city and with deconstruction experts to explore how the city can make use of the strategy, which in comparison to demolition has the potential to create more jobs, recover more building materials for reuse and reduce waste generation. Novotny wrote and won a state grant for $39,000 to create a plan for incorporating deconstruction into the city's arsenal for dealing with blighted structures.

Old Mindset

City Council, specifically Third- and Second-Ward Councilmen Jamael Tito Brown and DeMaine Kitchen, are balking at letting the planning move forward. The chairman and vice-chairman of both the finance and CDA committees "demanded that more information be provided" and questioned whether the man who has been working on the project for the last year and won the grant to create a concrete plan is "the best person for the position."

Kitchen said, "There may be someone laid off who could do this job. The job wasn't open to anyone besides this guy." First of all, it's not a salaried job, it's a short-term contract: $39,000 to write a plan. I'm sure someone who's been laid off would welcome the gig, but will scouring the rolls of laid-off civil servants find someone more capable of tackling the niche topic of deconstruction than Novotny, who has demonstrable and documented experience and expertise with the subject matter?

This mindset reveals a problem we still face in city administration: experience in government or connection to a politico is not necessarily a qualification to be effective in the execution of a city program or department. The primary consideration should be a person's bona fides as a subject-matter expert. (To be sure, as it's not uncommon in the private sector to favor one qualified contractor over another based on personal connections or references, no practical person would deny that connections or previous experience working with the city is also a consideration in the public sphere.)

In other words, hiring for city work should be no different than hiring anywhere: we should look for qualified people with relevant skills. That Novotny is qualified and has the skills is clear; he's already been doing it.

What's the Alternative?

If Brown and Kitchen have another candidate in mind, they should submit him or her for consideration. If not, they should let the planning proceed as proposed by the individual who has gotten the project this far and who won the grant. When the time comes to manage and execute the plan, we can revisit the personnel issue.

But is this really about Steve Novotny and his qualifications for the position? Or is it a power struggle between certain individuals in City Council and certain managers in City Hall?

The Vision

"Rather than the new business of deconstruction, we need to take care of an old business: demolition," Kitchen said. "Now is not the time to get fancy. Let’s not get cute. Demo now and worry about deconstruction later."

Note to Mr. Kitchen: that's already the plan. No one's stopping demolitions while we figure out deconstruction. Is there no communication? Or is Mr. Kitchen not listening? I'm asking because one doesn't have to listen hard to hear how the city views deconstruction fitting into its operations.

Mayor Williams on June 24, 2009: Deconstruction is "another tool for us." "Demolition will be the first option. This would be of some help if used appropriately."

Bill D'Avignon (same article as above): Deconstruction "doesn't make sense in most cases" because many houses have already been stripped of valuable materials.

The message is clear: Deconstruction will have a limited, targeted use in addressing blight.

So, why not let this planning process proceed? Remember, we're talking about state grant money specifically earmarked for deconstruction planning. What exactly are Mr. Brown and Mr. Kitchen afraid of? Are they afraid—as some have suggested—that they won't be able to give a new city job to someone that will help advance their personal agendas?

If they're really concerned about jobs, they'll let the city's deconstruction program planning begin immediately, since deconstruction creates 20 times more jobs than demolition.

This isn't some "cute" technique or movement. After all, the Department of Defense advocates for deconstruction of military bases, rather than demolition. You can even watch Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in January or February to see deconstruction in action with Buffalo Reuse. At home, deconstruction will increase the reuse of priceless historic materials in buildings in our city. It's not cute, it's vital.

But is this really about the appropriateness of deconstruction as a city program? Or is it a reality check as to which councilpersons are serious about the tenets of 2010—that plan which was touted at home and around the world but has slowly lost its compass over the last year?

Plan without a Planner

The first indication of troubles for 2010 came last summer when City Planner Anthony Kobak announced his resignation. Almost a year and a half later, the city still has not refilled the position, and no movement to do so has been made public. Without question, the city is in deficit mode and can ill afford to take on more salary. However, the irony is unmistakable: the city renowned for its plan is without a planner. Is there no way to shuffle positions so that this priority position is one that's filled?

What of the promises of 2010: rezoning, repurposing, neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis and planning? In addition to these tangible outcomes, a significant component of the 2010 spirit is a responsiveness to and direct coordination by the city to its residents.

One recent example of this came in 2007, when the deputy director of public works directed that West Federal Street be stripped of its tree-lined medians and converted to diagonal parking. Citizens packed City Hall and urged for a new plan preserving more of the trees. A compromise plan was forged, and in the process a new coalition formed along with an implicit understanding that the city's decisions and actions would be subjected to greater scrutiny going forward.

Another example came late in 2008, when the windows were removed from the historic Stambaugh Building in Central Square. Exposed to the elements, the picture of the windowless brick skyscraper led to an outcry for increased oversight and enforcement over historic downtown structures.

Sea Change

It goes back to the theme of the last presidential campaign. Whatever the voters who elected Obama may think of whether he is adequately fulfilling his campaign promises, the election said more about the voters than about the elected.

By coming together, organized voters raised small-money donations, got out the vote and beat back the old guard. First, they pushed back on the insider cult of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Then, they silenced the right-wing machine surrounding the McCain-Palin circus. This grass-roots attitude, ambition and apparatus are alive and well in Youngstown, and now we're looking for results from our leaders.

Crucial Missteps

The city's bulldozing this summer of a community park just east of Wick Park has gotten little press, but it is another blemish on the city's reputation with regards to 2010. Residents poured hours into digging the soil, incubating trees and creating walking paths—beautifying a neighborhood in a depressed area on the North Side.

Apparently lacking for anything more constructive to do or other blighted properties to raze, city employees killed the park. Yes, there should have been signage at the park clearly identifying its mission, but how many calls would it have taken to find out what was going on? How much effort does it take for one city department to coordinate with another? Are these employees in tune with the big picture?

Earlier this month, city representatives sat down with Wick Park residents and stakeholders and pledged to prioritize its security and preservation. The next week, its crane picked apart the historic carriage house behind the charred remains of 259 Park Avenue—the oldest structure on Wick Park—claiming it was structurally unsound. This destruction occurred without any communication to residents or invitation of public comment and despite a pledge to work with residents toward securing and preserving the historic district.

The Outrage

The carriage house destruction may be an important tipping point. Some reactions:

"It begs the question: Who is in charge?"

"If the street dept said the carriage house was not sound, what makes it their right to tear it down, unless they were given the order to. What about the other [historic] homes around Wick Park that are boarded up?"

"Why are they wasting resources and offending caring citizens over something as simple as a carriage house?"

"Either the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing in City Hall, or the City is just paying the community lip service. Either is unacceptable. … A large part of it is about the growing disconnect between City Hall (both between departments and with the community) and where we stand in regards to making the fundamental decisions that need to be made in order to self correct (e.g., landlord registration, code enforcement reform, strategic demolition policy, establishment of charter review commission for ward redistricting/consolidation/at-large City Council representation, etc.)—important components that should have been established by now."

"[A] blunder, any way you look at it. ... Would [the carriage house] have lasted a couple more months until a plan could be developed for its re-use? Well, it stood for about a hundred years without a problem—so I tend to think that a couple more months would not have caved the place in."

"[W]hy not organize a large funeral for the Park? Take a lot of people down to City Hall dressed in black to ask the mayor and City Council members to act as pallbearers for Wick Park's funeral."

"I am furious about the city's failure to honor their agreement to the citizens of the northside. This is about far more than a carriage house being taken down; this is about the city's responsiveness to its citizens. … I prefer to work with the administration, however my patience is running thin, and I am no longer so inclined to do so."

Next Steps

Can the city regain the trust it has lost? I think it can, by demonstrating that it understands and prioritizes programs and actions its constituents are advocating for. Through events like Grey to Green in Wick Park and through organizations like CityScape, Youngstown's residents are laying out the kind of progressive, green city they are interested in pursuing.

We deserve councilpersons who don't play politics with the future of our city. We deserve councilpersons who have done their homework on the technologies and practices of today and who recognize legitimate opportunities to advance the city's capabilities. We deserve councilpersons who understand the desires of their constituents and who work to further those goals above their own personal agendas.

Furthermore, we are asking the city and councilpersons to work with neighborhoods to understand the residents' priorities. If they lack the resources to do that, at least recognize parties who are engaging at that level and coordinate with them to move the principles of 2010 forward. Further obstruction and carelessness will jeopardize political careers in an era where voters are demonstrably organized, powerful and willing to stand up, organize their money and get out the vote for change.

Your Suggestions

In closing, I asked around for ways that residents are looking for the city to do better with 2010:

"Hold landlords and homeowners to property maintenance standards. Really, it's appalling. And this one item, if enforced, could result in enormous change for the better." – Chris Barzak

"Stricter standards for our convenience stores, neighborhood markets." – Amber Foster

"I would like to see a comprehensive downtown planning effort. Make downtown a living neighborhood everyone feels welcome to enjoy. Target specific projects for investment, and set standards on design, function and placement of buildings (i.e., like any future courthouses)." – [Name Withheld]

"The city needs to address the decrepit state of the Uptown area. This used to be a nice business district and it's still part of the main Market St. corridor going downtown. This is an issue that needs to be looked at." – Sean Posey

"Having a City Planner would be cool." – Clint Joste

"Streamline the building permit process so it takes less than a year to obtain a building permit." – Rick Rowlands

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