Private Virtues Missing in Public Square

Read this article from last Friday’s New York Times.  Then, if you are a parent, imagine this scenario:

During a visit to the pediatrician, you learn that your child has contracted a serious degenerative illness.  For now, the symptoms are relatively mild – most of the time, your child seems perfectly fine – but the doctor says this condition will get worse over a period of years and eventually result in a severe, painful, life-altering disability.  The condition is curable, but the treatment involves costly medication and time off from work to attend to your child’s medical needs.  The doctor tells you that the longer you wait to begin the treatment, the more expensive it will become.  The exact timetable for the disease’s progression is hard to predict; however, it is certain that the illness will eventually reach a point when it is no longer curable at any price.  Research into the illness is underway, so maybe a cheap treatment will be developed at some point in the future, but that’s a long shot.

Because you have heard about some controversy surrounding this particular illness, you decide to consult other doctors before deciding what to do.  In fact, wanting to be extra-sure, you get opinions from twenty medical experts.  Nineteen of those experts strongly confirm the original diagnosis and show you reams of research to back up their opinion.  One of those twenty doctors disagrees, says this illness is hyped-up make-believe, that your child looks just fine, that you have nothing to worry about, and that you should not waste your money on any treatment at all.

So, as a parent, here are your basic options:

1)  Begin treatment as quickly as possible.

2)  Defer treatment until after the symptoms get worse.

3)  Take your chances on the eventual development of a cheap, miracle cure.

4)  Put your faith in the one doctor who says this illness is not real and do nothing at all.

5)  Decide against treatment, accept that your child will develop a severe, painful disability, and plan as well as you can for that future.

That’s the analogy that popped into my mind when I read the Times article about the latest U.N. report on global climate change.  In the scenario above, I feel pretty confident that almost every responsible parent would decide on option 1.  But when we scale up to societal challenges with virtually identical characteristics, our decision-making falls apart.

We are collectively sending our kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids into a world that will be severely disrupted by the human, environmental, and economic impacts of climate change.  Addressing this challenge will become more expensive and impractical the longer we wait.  Before long, it will be too late to do anything, and painful adaptation will be our only option.  And while climate change deniers are well-represented in the media and in politics, 95% (or more) of the scientists who have actually studied and written about the issue say human-induced climate change is a hard fact.

Is some action being taken?  Sure.  A wind farm here, a green building there, and lots of other steps that demonstrate creativity and commitment.  But it’s all way too little.  For the most part, we are acting like parents engaged in denial or magical thinking.

It’s not that people are indifferent to future generations or unable to make intelligent cost-benefit analyses.  Quite the opposite.  Most parents make sacrifices every day to ensure the well-being of a child.  In fact, lots of people make sacrifices for other folk’s kids.  Yet the moral impulse that guides us so impressively in family life and in our personal relationships often just breaks down in the much larger, messier arena of collective action.  Unless we are content to have our children bear an awful burden, we all need to find a better way to demonstrate private virtues in the public square.




New Corporation Counsel Hired: Mark Blanchard

City Manager Chuck Strome has selected Mark Blanchard to serve as the new Corporation Counsel for the City of New Rochelle, replacing Kathleen Gill, who accepted a position at Iona College late last year.

From the press release: “Mr. Blanchard has an extensive background in municipal law, including the operations of state and local industrial development agencies. Mr. Blanchard has previously served as senior counsel to the firm of Harris Beach PLLC, within their Municipal Law and Public Finance practice groups.  Prior to joining Harris Beach, Mr. Blanchard served in the Office of the Corporation Counsel of the City of Yonkers. Mr. Blanchard has been involved in a wide range of municipal law issues including land-use and environmental matters, civil defense litigation, and special assignments involving labor and employment issues, code enforcement, and licensing agreements between the City of Yonkers and local businesses.”

The Corporation Counsel provides legal advice and guidance to the Council and staff across the full spectrum of municipal responsibilities, making it among the most important positions in City Hall, demanding intelligence, good judgment, and the highest ethical standards.  If you watch Council meetings, the Corporation Counsel sits immediately to my left around the conference table and is often a key participant in Council deliberations.

It was a pleasure to work with Kathleen Gill, and I am looking forward to working with Mark Blanchard.  Thanks also to Deputy Corporation Counsel Brian Powers, who served on an interim basis during the selection process.


Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

MLKThis morning, I joined many neighbors at the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Drum Major breakfast, sponsored by the New Rochelle Community Action Program.  And last Friday, I attended the annual King observance, arranged by the Coalition for Mutual Respect.  Both were great, well-attended events, and I thank the organizers for their hard work.

At occasions like these or simply in moments of quiet reflection, our thoughts naturally turn to the struggles and accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement.  It is entirely right to honor the courage and leadership of Dr. King and the other heroes who labored at his side – just as it is right to celebrate the progress won by their sacrifices.

But it would be a mistake to wrap up the movement in a tidy box and stick it on a shelf labeled “history.”  Because we are still living it.  When we consider the stark, persistent, uncomfortable inequalities in every arena – from economics, to education, to public health – we know that there is still work to be done.  Work not just for some of us; work for all of us.


Look Closely

Check out this ad for Foot Locker, and then look closely at the opening and closing scenes to see if you can figure out why I decided to post it.

Thanks to Damon Maher for the tip.


Getting Better Value

Like businesses, governments purchase lots of things: supplies, equipment, services – everything from copy paper, to cleaning products, to police cars.  Unlike businesses, however, local governments must follow State rules that require us to accept the lowest responsible bid for any particular item or contract.  That rule is aimed at preventing abuses, and most of the time, it makes sense.  But a lowest-responsible-bid rule can also work against taxpayers, by making it difficult for purchasers to consider durability, quality, cost of maintenance, and other factors that determine long-term value.  Sometimes, what looks like a low bid, may actually cost us more.

So it is good news that the State recently enacted legislation allowing municipalities to undertake a more comprehensive cost-benefit analysis when making purchases.  The City Council here in New Rochelle is likely to follow suit this month.  Going forward, our staff will be able to choose products and services on the basis of best-value, which should save us money over time.



TOD! (What’s That?)

TOD Concept Image

TOD Concept Image

Yesterday, the City Council received the results of a TOD Study prepared by our development staff and consultants.

I know what you’re thinking – what the heck is a TOD Study?  Well, TOD stands for Transit-Oriented Development, a term much-used these days by planners and developers.  But whether you call it TOD, Smart Growth, or the New Urbanism, it all comes down to pretty much the same thing: build near the train station.

TOD is vital to New Rochelle’s future.  By attracting development to the area surrounding our transit hub, we can strengthen our local economy, expand our tax base, create new jobs, and enhance our civic image.  In fact, the capacity to absorb growth near a transit hub is among New Rochelle’s biggest selling points when it comes to attracting investment, especially as we look ahead to a new link between Metro-North and Penn Station.

TOD is also vital to the future of our region (and country.)  Why?  Compared to car-dependent new subdivisions or office parks at the periphery of metropolitan areas, growth in areas served by mass transit is much more energy efficient, costs less to build and service, reduces commute times, and facilitates the preservation of open space.

New Rochelle has already done quite a bit to promote TOD, with significant success, but we’re far from achieving our potential, which means there are still great opportunities ahead.

The devil, as always, is in the detail.  It can be a challenge simply to agree on goals for height, density and use, let alone take the specific, sometimes difficult steps, necessary to achieve those goals.

That’s why a careful planning study can be such an important tool.  The TOD Study presented yesterday looked carefully at land use and transportation patterns, and then suggested the general contours for a reshaped downtown.  Six potential development clusters were identified, including: the North Avenue Gateway (between Memorial Circle and I-95), the Central Corridor (between I-95 and the Metro-North tracks), Crossroads (the heart of the downtown, near the intersection of Huguenot and North), the West Gateway (where Huguenot and Main meet near Pintard), the East Gateway (around Echo Bay and Faneuil Park), and the I-95 Gateway (near the end of Palmer Avenue.)

As you review this document, please keep in mind that the proposals are strictly conceptual.  A real project would need detailed architectural treatment, uses that reflect the realities of the market, and a configuration shaped by land acquisition and other vital factors.  Some of the concepts in the study could be pursued in the near-term, while others are more distant.

These recommendations must now be linked to other planning documents, including a parallel analysis that New Rochelle is undertaking with Columbia University, a traffic study, and the City’s updated Comprehensive Plan.  Together, these could serve as the basis for changes in our zoning code and for master development agreements.  More to come.