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Thursday, December 7, 2006

Candidates and the Built Environment

There will be many candidates for public office in St. Louis during the spring election cycle. The office of President of the Board of Alderman, aldermanic seats in even-numbered wards and two school board seats are on the ballot. The aldermanic candidates in particular are seeking or defending legislative power. They will make promises to voters about a number of issues.

Voters interested in urban issues need to make sure that candidates get their stances on the record. While a soft promise is better than none at all, the difference can be indiscernible. Aldermen introduce and vote on legislation impacting the built environment. Much of this legislation includes redevelopment ordinances -- most often "blighting" ordinances -- as well as tax abatement and tax increment financing. However, aldermen can do much more than dutifully respond to developers' requests for support. They shape, create and interpret public policies. They are more than the functionaries that they often claim to be.

We should ask candidates for specific promises. If a candidate wants to "preserve old buildings," we need to ask if that means that he would introduce a much-needed ordinance to reinstate city-wide preservation review. If a candidate thinks tax abatement is out of control, she needs to specify what legislative route she will pursue to address that. Talk is cheap, and either the elected candidates will do something to make policy changes their rhetoric endorses or they won't.

Our support for aldermanic candidates in the city should be contingent on receiving specific legislative actions he or she will take. Aldermen act through legislation, and candidates for aldermanic office won't talk in terms of specific bills we should be careful. Our support should hinge on firm promises based on the power that they seek. Even though many incumbents avoid advancing public policy change, aldermen have more power than other elected officials to determine what our built environment policies will be. No changes in LRA practices, preservation review, nuisance property enforcement or the zoning code can come about without an act of the board of aldermen. That's where a lot of power lies under the city charter. We should be wary of candidates for the board who won't tell us how they will use that power -- and those incumbents who claim that they don't have it.

4 comments:

Tom Duda said...

I fear Lewis Reed's candidacy is one of all talk and no action. Kind of like a certain Mayor I know...

Anonymous said...

What action did any candidate take to save the Century building?

gmichaud said...

I agree that it is important to find out how candidates stand on urban issues. It might be helpful to organize some potential questions to help people along. Every ward would be different, yet there are common issues around St. Louis. Zoning, setbacks, parking, transit, and a whole host of issues can vary in detail. But organizing it in a way that could help voters decide what is important to them would probably encourage asking questions.
The city demonstrates little or no vision and leadership regarding urban planning and design. It seems to me some mechanism to assist that effort from independent sources would be helpful. Maybe it is in the form of a checklist. I don't know, but I do agree that finding candidates that support a serious urban revitilization of St. Louis is the only way the environment is going to change. More of the same is dreadful to think about.

gmichaud said...

Here is a brief example why discussion on how to approach candidates might be useful. I will use the subject of the demolition of buildings.
I believe in most wards the alderman has final say. So does a citizen ask the alderman, are you going to tear any buildings down? Have you targeted an area to keep buildings up? Is there a city plan that indicates the buildings to save? Are you going to use your block grant money to rehab old buildings? Are you going to make buildings available to the general public before they are demolished? Are you going to invite comments on whether a building should be saved or not? How will that process work?
In this example there is a whole series of questions that are connected, and all are valid questions.
Pinning down a candidate requires an informed electorate, and urban planning has so many aspects that questions can become complicated very quickly. What type of question is most effective should be answered.