Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Comments to Governor Markell -- March 30, 2010

My comments to be shared with Governor Markell today during a meeting with advocates for equal relationship recognition for Delaware.

Two years ago a certain candidate for Governor quoted Martin Luther King Jr's 1963 Letter From A Birmingham Jail. It includes the passage: “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

Full relationship recognition in Delaware is held hostage for many reasons. One major stumbling block during these tight economic times for our state is the financial impact, including the cost of providing health and retiree benefits to domestic partners equally as we provide to spouses of state workers.

What is the cost to Delaware to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act? What is the cost to Delaware to comply with the Family and Medical Leave Act? Why do we accept those costs but reject paying the cost for full relationship recognition? We pay the cost to comply with those Acts because it's the law, and it's the law because brave leaders convinced the country that it is the right thing to do. Full relationship recognition in Delaware is also the right thing to do, and Delaware needs leaders to make this the law, and to pay this cost.

In addition to simply being the morally right thing to do, adding Delaware to the list of states that provide equal relationship recognition strengthens Delaware economically.

Large employers in our state, such as the University of Delaware, have already made the case that in order for our state to compete economically, we need to publicly stand for true equality.

Jack, when you were recruiting members to your Cabinet, didn't you want to be able to choose the best people? What if the state only provided spousal benefits to right-handed employees, and your best candidate was left-handed? Stop this injustice, and free state employers from the shackles of operating in a state that is unwelcoming to same-sex couples.

New Jersey offers civil unions, and Washington DC provides marriage to same-sex couples. How long can Delaware afford to refuse to offer equal relationship recognition? The time is indeed “ripe to do right.”

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Letter to Newark City Council--03/08/2010

I'm sending this out on Monday (this is a current draft--I could edit it before it is sent).

March 8, 2010

Dear Newark City Council,

I have testified before city council a few times, as a resident (since 1990), as a business owner (Mallard Advisors was established on Main Street in 1996), and as a representative of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark (established over fifty years ago). Today I am writing to you about the proposed UD Bookstore.

Last week I attended the Newark Planning Commission public meeting, to learn more about the proposed UD Bookstore on Main Street. I have several significant concerns with the proposal, and was pleased that the commission agreed that the proposal was not worthy of adoption. I encourage you to learn more about the project, and to give serious thought before approving it.

I was very disappointed in the behavior of Roy Lapota at the meeting. During much of the meeting he adopted the role of project cheerleader. I found this very inappropriate and unhelpful. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought that he was on retainer for the University. He was certainly advocating against the city’s best interest in acquiring the best negotiating position to obtain the most favorable position in working out a parking resolution with the University for this project. His actions that evening will make it more difficult to obtain valuable concessions from the University.

Parking is a very serious problem with the proposal. Given how much building they are proposing to place on this site, there is only a minimal amount of parking The parking possible in their proposal would be even smaller if they solve the ‘truck delivery problem.’ As currently proposed, deliveries would involve the complete blocking of Delaware Avenue. Somehow they place the responsibility of this on the city with their solution—let us eliminate even more parking spaces and we’ll add a truck turnaround in the plans. Why is insufficient planning on their part the responsibility of the city?

They are therefore asking for more than a $1 million waiver, for their plans calls for only a small fraction of the parking spaces that such a large building requires. Their argument for the miniscule need for parking (as cheer-leaded by Mr. Lapota, thankfully without the pom poms and skirt) is that most of the clientele will be pedestrian. This is despite the fact that the entire third floor of the building is for academic purposes, and UD staff rarely gets to/from work on foot.

Those of us who have been in Newark for decades recognize that UD students have significantly increased their use of automobiles over time. When the 21,000 current UD students come to the UD bookstore to purchase a semester’s books, for hundreds of dollars, many will come and go by car. The handful of proposed parking spaces will be overwhelmed, as will the nearby parking lots. The city of Newark should insist on receiving the full dollar amount called for in our building code for this plan with woefully insufficient parking.

At a minimum, the city of Newark should insist that the University place the full amount called for with the parking waiver into an escrow account. If the eventual project does not cause measurable parking problems (and Mr. Lapota is correct and I am incorrect on this point), then release the money—no harm, no foul. However if the parking provided is indeed woefully inadequate, then the city will have the financial reserves to provide some remedy. The city will have no later opportunity to ensure that the University pays for the likely damage to downtown’s parking from this project. DO NOT LET THIS OPPORTUNITY SLIP THROUGH YOUR FINGERS.

Another weakness in the proposal is the refusal of the University to commit to paying fair real estate taxes on the property and paying the same utility rates that other Main Street businesses pay. Well over 50% of the proposed space will be used for commercial enterprises, enterprises that compete with area merchants. It would be a grave mistake for the city to approve of this project without obtaining a legally-enforceable commitment that this primarily-commercial space compete on a level playing field with the neighboring commercial spaces.

The University flexed its muscles to ensure that it could purchase the old Christina School District building without competitive bids. Part of the justification was that the deed indicated that it would be used for academic purposes. The proposal calls for the building to be retained (which is wonderful for the city), but to be used as a commercial cafĂ©. This certainly violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the deed restriction. The proposal should insist that the historic school building be used for the academic offices, and that the third floor (and the ‘tower’) be therefore eliminated.

The building is too tall. While the ‘pocket park’ sounds good, and looks good in the artistic renditions, it will be forever in the dark, for it is on the north side of a three-plus story behemoth. Local architect Will Hurd spoke up at the commission meeting, noting that a proper ‘shadow study’ would make this clear. The ‘tower’ is another mistake. It gives the impression that the designer was making a lego building, and had one block left, so they stuck it on top. There is no character or sufficient function for it, and it is sorely out of place.

The project is indeed completely out of character with that block, a block rich in historic buildings. It would be criminal to introduce such a grey, blocky, institutional monstrosity to this block. It was described as ‘adding architectural diversity’ to the town. That is merely a nice way to say that it fails miserably at fitting in. The Downtown Newark Partnership noted that it failed to meet its zoning guidelines. The Planning Commission refused to approve its plans. The artistic renditions make clear that it crowds out the wonderful firehouse on Academy street, that it uses colors and materials completely foreign to that block. The sheet metal on the Academy Street wall is atrocious. This is the most historic of Newark’s downtown blocks. This location requires respect to the surrounding historic sites. The proposed project thumbs its nose at its architectural neighbors, and destroys the wonderful historic feel of that section of downtown.

You can’t put a genie back in a bottle. City council has one opportunity to roll up its sleeves and consider both the immediate and long-term ramifications of the proposed UD bookstore. There are many very significant problems with it, and the University, in its haste to get it up by this fall, has failed to truly partner with the city, its businesses, and residents, in creating a superior property design. A good design can complement and enhance this critical block. The current design would permit development that we will regret for decades. Please ensure that Newark’s future is not rushed as the University is striving to do with the deeply flawed UD Bookstore project.

I apologize for sharing only negative factors about the proposal. I leave it to Mr. Lapota to speak breathlessly about its positive traits.