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Some musings on governance

2023-09-09 16:36:19.304653+02 by Dan Lyke 2 comments

Back when the Internet was much younger than it is now, Johannes Ernst published a mechanism for allowing someone to use a website to log into another website, called LID. Much like "log in with Google or Facebook" is today. I saw it, thought it was a good idea, and implemented it for my blog. Shortly afterwards, Brad Fitzpatrick at Six Apart implemented something similar for LiveJournal, and discussions about creating standards started happening.

I was part of these discussions, and remember asking for a single feature to support a single use case, one that I thought was the most immediate and obvious use case. The conversation wheeled into places I didn't care about, that I thought were way overly complex and byzantine, but I thought "there's no way that my one feature won't make it into the spec".

So I tuned out. Ended up writing some authentication software for a portion of the spec that had been finalized, published that, got a whole lot of "but that's not how it should work!" feedback, said "well, that's what the spec so far says, and y'all are part of that process, so..."

Anyway, the short(!) version is that by the time the OpenID spec came out, it didn't have my one feature, the one thing that would have made the use case of "use this identity to comment on a blog" super easy. Had a *whole* lot of other complexity though.

So I think about this a lot as one of the failures of my career, of not wading through all of the social bullshit and maneuvering, and of failing to get my feature in, and how that lack of a feature led to slowed adoption and to my mind the failure of OpenID to create the sort of meaningful change I thought it should have.

And I think a lot about the mechanisms and processes by which the successful products and standards of my career have occurred.

I had lunch yesterday with someone who has way more experience in local politics than I do. Who's been in the trenches for years, in multiple places, with some pretty challenging projects. The discussion was great, and went on for a long time, and it's bringing up a lot of questions for me.

Measure U has given Petaluma a brief respite, but sales taxes are a crappy way to fund a city, and the city is cash-flow negative without it. There are a number of reasons for this, probably more complexity than I understand.

The core one is the basic issue with American sprawl: lots of people bought into the racist auto-oriented suburb development pattern propaganda, and as a result we have a lot of geometry that's impractical to navigate without an automobile, with all of the costs of infrastructure per resident that stems from that.

A contributing factor is Prop 13. Beyond screwing individual ownership and young people, it specifies how funds get split between cities, counties, and schools in a way that if a city was doing fairly well at the time it was passed, the city got a smaller proportion of the property taxes relative to those other two. Petaluma was doing *great*. It doesn't get much of the property taxes these days.

The culture of Petaluma is also one of activism and consensus. I've often commented that if you've got 3 Petalumans interested in a cause, you've probably got 4 non-profits. Many of these efforts are successful. The moratorium on new gas stations is something that I didn't think was practical, and yet it happened.

Projects here get studied to death. Getting change enacted takes decades, and wears people the fuck out. Charlene and I are currently involved in Mountain View Ave safety improvements, and as we knock on doors and go up and down the street we hear "oh, yeah, I've been asking for [X] for 30 years, and we've only gotten an increased speed limit. But good luck on your efforts."

There was a recent Grand Jury report over how the city has structured its Planning Department for outsourcing, the conclusion of which was that the city has created an incentive for the Planning Commission to create too much opportunity for public comment and feedback, to bill the developers for endless public meetings.

And Petaluma lately does not have a good record on development. Before we got here, the city got screwed by a bunch of car lots in a deal so complex nobody knows what actually happened. We have two big-box developments that got watered way down by consensus, created a lot of traffic and haven't brought the promised revenue,. One large residential development that was supposed to be mixed-use with a walkable retail core has been watered down to a hotel in a sea of single-family homes in with an exit from the area that crosses a railroad track, but somehow we're gonna build a bridge that dumps some huge number of cars into this residential area.

Petaluma does have a fantastic asset: Back in the day of the automobile, a very popular mayor proposed bulldozing a bunch of downtown in order to widen the main drag, there was pushback, and eventually some city assistance in restoring the iron fronts to the downtown buildings created a quaint downtown district. The sidewalks aren't as wide as they once were, but it's there. And even more recently, during my time here, the main drag was reconfigured from two lanes each direction to one lane, which makes it more pleasant to walk downtown.

And right before we moved to town, downtown was expanded with a movie theater, some more retail, a parking garage, and a little bit of residential. And is configured in a way that does provide some more public gathering and foot traffic spaces, the sorts of spaces that build community, where you might walk and run into people you know.

Of course there's also still a lot of downtown that's a remnant of the old days: many buildings that were there in the early '60s were demolished or burned down, and redeveloped into large parking lots with one story buildings. A lot of banks.

Back to the lunch conversation: There's a vacant lot in between old downtown and new downtown. Used to be a gas station. I believe that the first hotel proposal on this site went before the Planning Commission in 2008, and that developer is a local who was pitching his idea for several years prior. It's been around for a while. Meanwhile, the lot has been vacant. Various aspects of the city jerked the developer around for a long time, some wrangling over parking aspects that weren't openly documented. The developer finally said (as developers often do), fuck it, I'm gonna sell to someone who has the assets to fight this project through.

That developer came back and said "yeah, I can't make it work unless it goes up a story", and started writing checks to the outsourced (remember that Grand Jury report that suggests too much public engagement) city Planning Department to write up a proposal for a Zoning Overlay that would create an incentive, in the form of height, for that lot, and some of the other ugly asphalt and one story buildings, to be developed.

The Planning Department folks aren't political, they saw a catalyst for change and brought forward a proposal. And *all* of the ugly came out.

So the conversation was about the processes of building city plans for an area. How to do public consensus building. How the Central Petaluma Specific Plan was developed. And as I went to sleep with all of this in my head, I started wrapping back to that OpenID discussion.

Because it's great to have a goal of public consensus, but that also privileges the people who have time and resources to spend endless meetings going back and forth. It's great for everyone to feel included, but after a while the people who actually do stuff go off and start doing stuff in the places they can do stuff.

And how in the end what we end up with may not be great.

Anyway, Charlene and I are going to sit down and read the Central Petaluma Specific Plan closely, because that's a plan that covers the Theater District, which I believe has a far too low residential to retail ratio but generally feels like an okay direction, and Riverfront, which I see as a massive failure for the city, and a bunch of vacant lots with proposals that aren't inspiring.

But I'm also interested in learning more about municipal decision-making processes in cities that work. Because I like the story of the big consensus building process, but does it give us a city with character? A livable city? Or does it give us a city in which it takes decades to improve livability, and bland out the culture such that it really doesn't matter if you get a Round Table or a Pieology?

What creates a culture in a city? If you create more retail, does that really drive the price of retail up as everybody wants to open a wine bar, or does the higher supply mean that nobody wants to rent in the old buildings that still don't have good fire suppression systems and other modern amenities, and lead to a downtown slum?

I mean, I realize that this is a complex system, that the macroeconomic effects of creating a vibrant city mean that housing and retail interact in ways that simple supply and demand don't apply in obvious ways.

But I find myself looking at a mess, with a bunch of different narratives of what's wrong, how to fix it, how different portions of the residents of the city get served, and how various former residents get driven out, and am trying to see what kinds of processes will actually build the kind of city I aspire to live in.

And whether I was right, in my earlier years, to just treat a place to live as a commodity to be bought, and be prepared to pick up my roots and go find a place on what I see as a saner path, or if I ask my neighbors to give up substantial portions of their leisure time to try to set this city on a stronger path.

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comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: Some musings on governance made: 2023-09-10 15:04:14.14963+02 by: DaveP

Well, that sounds like a bit of a mess.

I know that Minneapolis in the 1990s was doing pretty well, and that’s when I was involved. Neighborhood associations were mandated, and funded by community development money. The strong neighborhoods had active residents on those associations and were setting aside some of the funding for when the community development money dried up.

Nowadays, that money is, as far as I know, gone. A few neighborhoods have strong associations, but many don’t. They’re still mandated but not funded, which leads to developer capture in places where anything new is going to happen.

My impression of Minneapolis from a distance is that things are not headed in the right direction.

Where we live now, we’re in a development which was done in the 1970s. The city of Santa Fe wanted nothing to do with it, so governance is by the county or by the HOAs. It works pretty well unless you want to raise chickens, and then the rooster police will mobilize on NextDoor and make your life miserable. Retail is tough, but the last available retail-zoned lot recently sold, and some others that have been tied up in development plans for decades may finally be seeing some activity.

So anyway, I don’t really have an answer, but I feel your pain. I’ve backed away from getting involved after some very heavy involvement in the late 1990s in Minneapolis. Where we’re at now, I can’t get involved in the HOA, because my sweetie owns our house, so I’m not allowed to have a position in the HOA. That’s fine with me, since I knew enough to get my shop built after we bought the place and now “I’ve got mine.” Sounds horrible when I say it that way, but I really don’t want to dive back into neighborhood politics, especially since the HOA is dues-supported, and those dues need to at least double, but a majority of the residents are retired and a vocal majority of those will pillory anyone who suggests raising the dues.

#Comment Re: Some musings on governance made: 2023-09-11 03:38:20.341545+02 by: Dan Lyke

Some of the question for me, especially in discussions of process, goes to "who do you engage, and who do you write off".

A few KBYG (Know Before You Grow) meetings ago our speaker fell through, so we had a discussion on how to engage, and we came to the conclusion that we needed to actually go on Nextdoor. So we did, took on some of the most vociferous agitators by just calmly pointing out where they were factually wrong. I think it diffused a lot of the energy.

Which I think means we need to have a similar approach here. Framing is tough, but a "so, yeah, you think that restricting supply is going to keep prices down. How's that work?" seems like something we need to say more often.

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