On October 2, 2014, Jack Porter submitted documentation to the Plan and Zoning Commission to designate the former Downtown YMCA building as a local landmark. City staff recommended denial of the application. The Plan and Zoning Commission voted accordingly.

The City staff recommendation was a disappointing demonstration in historic preservation understanding. While claiming to strike a "balance," they built up a straw man conflict between historic preservation and economic development - and then proceeded to demolish it. All without honestly responding to the question at hand: is the Riverfront YMCA building architecturally and historically significant?

Staff recommends that the “Riverfront YMCA” building at 101 Locust Street not be designated as a local Landmark.

Downtown YMCA Building: Designed by William Wagner of the noted Des Moines architectural firm Wetherell & Harrison, the YMCA (1957-60) is one of the city’s largest and most important examples of International Style architecture. The building is composed of an eight-story residential tower facing the Des Moines River and a lower section containing community rooms, auditorium, natatorium and other public facilities.Downtown YMCA Building: Designed by William Wagner of the noted Des Moines architectural firm Wetherell & Harrison, the YMCA (1957-60) is one of the city’s largest and most important examples of International Style architecture. The building is composed of an eight-story residential tower facing the Des Moines River and a lower section containing community rooms, auditorium, natatorium and other public facilities.Sure, why is that?

While the building may be eligible for designation, staff believes that the site is the most important feature in light of numerous plans and implementation activities.

Translation: "We've had conversations with people who have lots of money and want a vacant piece of riverfront property. So, even though the building meets the requirements for historical and architectural significance, we're going to go ahead and go with the money."

The overall interest of the City is to insure that development of the site is maximized from an economic and aesthetic standpoint regardless of whether the building is saved or demolished.

Translation: "We don't really know yet what will go in place of the historic building, and honestly don't really care, but we'll just keep going with the money for now. You've heard the saying, 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,' right?"

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Today marks a decision point in the fate of cities. The two candidates for President of the United States present starkly different views on urbanism and the role of government in promoting sustainable development.

Which Romney to Trust

Throughout his decade-long pursuit of the White House, Mitt Romney has consistently advocated for a "devolved" government - moving responsibility for decision-making and service provision from the federal government to the states and to the private sector. No doubt, there are certainly policies that are best decided at a lower level. Too much proscriptive regulation and funding restriction at the Federal level can diminish innovation.

While his governing tenure in Massachusetts indicates a willingness to explore urban policy and sustainability, his long-term campaign rhetoric says otherwise... the question is which one would occupy the Oval Office? I think it is safe to assume that we would see much more of Candidate Romney than Governor Romney. There would be much more pressure from the right, and Romney has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to fold to such pressure (case in point: the hard right turn he took in the Republican primary season).

I fear the Tea Party wing will not let him reset the Etch-a-Sketch.

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We Drive Too Much

In Des Moines, one gallon of gasoline now hovers around $3.50, almost $.50 less than a few months ago. Oil companies continue to rake in record profits based on the fear that supply is unstable and growing short (which it is, but that is another discussion).

Toyota Prius: File source: James Benjamin Bleeker via Wikimedia CommonsToyota Prius: File source: James Benjamin Bleeker, Web Master of http://www.AutoOnInfo.net and http://CarsOnInfo.net [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia CommonsOne of the effects of relatively high gasoline prices is that people have perhaps started driving less. For many of us, when we start paying something closer to the true cost of driving each mile, driving less begins to look more appealing.

Of course, the problem with the high price of gas is that the extra money we spend at the gas pump goes straight to the pockets of the oil producers. very little of the fabulous sums of money generated by skyrocketing prices go towards actually dealing with the externalities of pollution, road maintenance, and traffic safety which are generated and/or exacerbated by driving.

Drivers tend to believe that the only prices associated with driving are cars, insurance, and gasoline. Why? because those are the costs that are most immediate.

Solutions we should work towards:

  • reduce the subsidies for new infrastructure and increase spending on maintenance of existing infrastructure.
  • Increase investment in mass transit.
  • Incentivize connected and compact development/redevelopment
  • Tighten emission standards
  • Tighten CAFE (fuel efficiency) standards
  • Increase the taxes on gasoline
  • Support engineering innovation for alternate fuel sources
  • Explore taxing gasoline per dollar rather than per gallon

It is my hope that we can reduce dependence on oil as a driver (so to speak) of our economic and social systems before it becomes an emergency - and it is pretty clear that it will.

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Everything old is new again.

I watched "Milk" last night and find it disconcerting that thirty years later, many people still exhibit the same prejudices backed up by the same tired arguments. I'm looking at you, Iowa House of Representatives.

Today, the Iowa House Judiciary Committee is expected to forward on HR6 to the full chamber for a vote. HR6 seeks to amend the Iowa constitution to add the following:

Marriage between one man and one woman shall be the only legal union valid or recognized in this state.

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Iowa Supreme Court Building: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iowa_Supreme_Court.jpgIowa Supreme Court Building: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iowa_Supreme_Court.jpgThe November general election ballot covers both sides of a legal-sized sheet. Elections range from Senator and Governor to the County Agricultural Extension Council. (Have you ever heard of the County Agricultural Extension Council? I haven't either.)

The most important election is on the back side of the ballot: Iowa Supreme Court judge retention. More important than Governor? Yes, and I'll tell you why:

  1. This election deals with fundamental legal rights. The court found that the Iowa Constitution did not permit discrimination by the State in the issuing of civil marriages. The push to recall the three justices up for retention is organized as part of a larger effort to circumscribe Iowan's civil rights. This should be of concern to everyone - not citizens who are gay or lesbian.
  2. This election will determine whether we are people want to be governed by religious doctrine or the civil rights granted by the Iowa Constitution. The arguments put forth by people opposed to the Varnum decision are fundamentally (so to speak) religious in nature rather than civil/logical. The court found no substantial logical basis in restricting civil marriage to heterosexual couples. They are correct. I discuss the actual arguments here.
  3. This election will affect the balance of power between the three branches of State government. Independent judicial review is critical to balance the law-making and administrative powers of the other two branches. Particularly when it comes to civil rights, the job of the Supreme Court is to protect citizens against incursions by the legislature and governor. This is a place where political conservatives, libertarians, and liberals should all align - except for the injection of religious doctrine.

The importance of this particular question is perhaps the only thing that Bob Vander Plaats and I will ever agree on.

It is critically important all people who are committed to equality and the rule of civil law be vocal about their opinions - before the election, in the voting booth, and as we sort through the post-election rubble. It is a mistake to view this issue through the narrow lens of gay marriage. The impact of enshrining specific civil rights discrimination in the State constitution should scare everyone.


In a related ballot question, it is also important to VOTE NO on CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION 2 (Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution, and propose amendment or amendments to same?) - This is a related effort to address the Varnum decision through a constitutional amendment.

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The phenomenally bloated 2010 Iowa Democratic Party State Platform has an entire section devoted to planning and zoning:

We support:
201. “Leadership in Energy and Efficient Design” requirements for publicly financed building construction.

While energy efficiency is a laudable and necessary goal, requiring all publicly financed buildings to conform to LEED standards is in my opinion an ill-advised and expensive approach. A better approach in my opinion would be to determine a set of targeted performance-based criteria and encourage creative solutions.

"LEED" is sometimes used interchangeably with "energy efficient" and "green", but it refers to a specific set of standards and procedures implemented by the US Green Building Council. It is an expensive process simply to go through the certification, let alone meet the criteria. There are other established standards that should be explored as well before committing to LEED as a goal.

Even better would be to encourage reuse and renovation of existing structures!

202. Reducing urban sprawl with two-rate property tax on commercial properties.

I'm not sure what this means, but it is not the right way to reduce suburban sprawl. The form of our cities is largely determined by transportation investment. The way to promote centering of development is to invest in transportation infrastructure that encourages density.

Comprehensive transportation and land use planning should occur within a framework of incentives that shift public subsidy from suburban expansion to urban revitalization. Such a revision in priorities would also preserve valuable farm land.

203. Counties issuing zoning permits.

I'm not sure what this one means either, or what problem it is trying to solve. Zoning is primarily a City function. I do believe that comprehensive planning should happen at multiple levels, including state-wide. A discussion on exclusionary single-use zoning is a topic for another post.

204. Enforcing laws protecting ambient air quality.

Yes. We should enforce existing air quality laws.

205. Sustainable, low-impact development.

A laudable goal. The implication here is perhaps that the consequences of "development" can be mitigated by green building. The greenest, most sustainable building is the one that doesn't get built. I believe that it is nearly impossible to have "sustainable" development at the fringes - there are simply too many developable and redevelopable sites within the existing developed areas.

206. “Complete Streets” legislation that promotes safe community transportation networks accessible to all users.

Yes, yes, and YES!

On a side note, one of the few places the Republican and Democrat platforms agree is in opposing Eminent Domain.

Another side note: the Iowa Democratic Party platform is just plain poorly conceived, poorly written, and poorly formatted online. Not only does it weigh in at a hefty 382 platform statements, but almost all of them are way too specific to serve as guiding principles - particularly because most of them have no explanation. My advice for the next round: cut it by half and hire a graphic designer to design the publication.

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Victorian Home in Danger of Demolition: This home is on the City's "Public Nuisance" list and may be demolished if deficiencies are not corrected in a timely manner.Victorian Home in Danger of Demolition: This home is on the City's "Public Nuisance" list and may be demolished if deficiencies are not corrected in a timely manner.The Iowa legislature recently passed a bill more than doubling the Iowa historic rehabilitation tax credit. The program had previously been capped at $20 million; it is now capped at $50 million - 10% of which is dedicated specifically to "small" projects of under $500,000.

As a revitalization stimulus and economic engine, historic tax credits are an excellent investment. Not only do they leverage significant private capitalized investment, but they also encourage preservation of historic buildings. Because the tax credits are not issued until the project is complete and put "in use", the economic return to the state actually precedes the tax credit payout.

Historic tax credits can be used throughout the state in both urban and rural areas. In urban areas, qualifying buildings can be located in a designated historic district, individually nominated, or eligible for nomination. In rural areas and small towns, bridges, barns, and other potentially eligible properties may qualify for the credits.

While large rehabilitation projects often steal the limelight, even a privately owned single family home can qualify. With the expanded credit, I look forward to a new professional infrastructure developing to help shepard projects of all sizes through the process: architects, engineers, tax credit consultants, and accountants.

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Yesterday, the Iowa Supreme court issued a unanimous ruling declaring the state's "Defense of Marriage" act unconstitutional. I am not a legal scholar, and must pull my understanding of this ruling from other sources. In essence, the Court has determined that the State Constitution forbids discrimination in issuing marriage licenses based on the sex of the people applying for the license. By specifically defining marriage as between a man and a woman, the DOMA took on the state constitution and lost. Big time.

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Iowa Senate ChamberIowa Senate ChamberIowa State Legislature class of '09 opened, as it does every year, with prayers by local religious leaders. It almost sounds like the start of a bad joke, "A priest, a rabbi, and an imam were invited to speak the the Iowa Legislature..." But there is no punchline.

While I could make a case that state-sanctioned prayer at the Legislature's opening ceremonies, regardless of how many different religions are represented, violates a couple of the most important amendments to our Constitution, I won't. Instead I will discuss my problems with legislative prayer from a more pragmatic standpoint.

First and foremost, it is ridiculous and grandiose to think, as across the world people die from starvation, children work their fingers to a bloody pulp sewing shoes, and entire towns are eradicated by disease, that any God would spend its time helping the Iowa Legislature debate the finer points of the state gas tax. Any God that would devote time to helping the Iowa Legislature over any number of more pressing world problems doesn't deserve our praise or respect.

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Twice a year, during the NPR fund drives, I switch my car radio over to conservative talk radio right-wing blathering. It reminds me why education, knowledge, and logical analysis are so important. I make no apologies for being a strong progressive on both social and economic issues (many of which are interrelated, of course). On the other hand, I also see merit in open, substantial, and reasoned debate over difficult policy decisions. Such debate doesn't happen on right-wing radio.

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