(Summer ’13) Annemarie Gray, G

Annemarie spent the summer interning at the Washington, DC Office of Planning working on a comprehensive sustainability plan for the city called Sustainable DC. She produced a report advising a local university on sustainable economic development strategies for an area being considered for new investment. She also developed her master’s thesis topic around a city-wide living wage bill and its effect on economic growth in underserved sections of the city. 

 

Update #4- August 30, 2013: Next Steps and Thesis: Walmart vs. the District of Columbia

 

My experience this summer has also been useful in leading me into a thesis topic for this coming year. Which, because I find it fascinating and am eager to dive into research this fall (and because you, dear reader, can choose to stop following this when you get bored), I will take a stab at outlining the issue and my next questions.

Back in July, DC City Council passed the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA), requiring large retailers—defined as those who run stores over 75,000 sq ft and whose parent company makes over $1 million in revenue—to pay their employees at least $12.50 an hour in combined wages and benefits. The city’s current minimum wage is $8.25, pegged one dollar higher than the federal minimum wage. The LRAA exempts employers who agree to collective bargaining agreements by allowing terms set in those agreements to override the $12.50 requirement. While the LRAA will apply to a handful of large retailers such as Target and Costco that already operate in the city, many regard the bill as specifically targeting behemoth that is Walmart, which is making its entrance into the District’s economy with not one but six planned stores, three of which are already under construction.

The day before the bill was set for a second vote in City Council on July 10, a representative from Walmart wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post essentially threatening to reconsider its plans and potentially pull out of the city if the bill passed. The Council passed the bill anyways with an 8-to-5 vote, one short of veto-proof, requiring Mayor Vincent Gray’s signature for it to become law. After a long delay transmitting the bill to the Mayor (as a way to buy time and build support for a potential re-vote), it is on his desk as of Friday, August 30th and he has __ days to sign or veto it. If he vetoes it (which many expect), it will go to Council for a re-vote. However, local law in DC allows Congress the final say, so the federal committee overseeing District affairs may also step in and force a veto.

No one knows if Walmart is bluffing. No one knows what would actually happen if it passes. No one knows whether or not Walmart is threatening to leave the District as a cover for what it wants to do anyways—particularly abandoning plans for the three stores that are in three parts of the city marred by disinvestment and high poverty and unemployment rates, i.e. the three stores the Mayor nearly twisted its arm to include in its plans but likely have the lowest proven market potential of all of its stores.

My opinions on the issue are mixed. On one hand, a policy only targeting particular stores selected on somewhat arbitrary characteristics is not good policy. If the purpose is to raise the minimum wage and the standard of living for low-wage workers, the city should adopt a comprehensive minimum wage increase that applies to everyone. Furthermore, unlike other cities, companies considering developing in DC can easily move across the border into Maryland and Virginia and access what is essentially the same metropolitan market, complicating DC’s approach to attracting retailers within its borders. However, on the other hand, Walmart has proven far and wide its ability to use its muscle of size, scale, and political power to marginalize workers by not allowing collective bargaining agreements, consistently hiring workers part-time and strategically using contracting services to avoid providing benefits, and essentially relying on federal welfare policy (EITC, food stamps, etc) to subsidize the wages of their employees. It is not unreasonable for DC to hold a company as large and profitable as Walmart to the standards it wants for its residents if they are to benefit from the city’s growing economy. The federal minimum wage is also horribly out-of-date, far below what it used to be when adjusted for inflation and productivity, as a renewed national focus on inequality has pointed out in various studies. Any effort to remedy this, be it piecemeal and imperfect, is something to get behind.

 

My big questions moving forward are:

  • Does DC need Walmart, or does Walmart need DC?
  • Now that cities across the country are becoming dynamic, attractive places to be, what is—and what can be—the role of city government policies in affecting labor market standards?
  • What is the most effective way of improving the low-wage labor market in a particular area? (i.e. through an increased minimum wage, some type of minimum income policy, local hiring mandates, etc.) Can this be done on the local level, or is it predominantly a question of national (and international) policy?
  • Who would be getting these jobs at Walmart anyways? What are the realistic alternatives?
  • Even if it is not the most efficient policy measure, given the political support of LRAA (mainly organized labor, which is less inclined to lobby for a city-wide minimum wage increase), will targeting the largest companies to change their labor practices set an example that will snowball down the line into increased wages in other industries, and eventually the region overall?
  • In an under-retailed urban market, can a Walmart store actually increase opportunities for economic development, including small and local businesses, by acting as an anchor and leading to positive spillover effects in a new retail cluster (as some claim)? Or does it always drive down wages and drive out independent businesses (as research on Walmarts in rural markets has claimed)?
  • Would DC be better without Walmart in the first place?
  • Would this level of increase in wages actually result in lower employment, incentivizing automation in stores, for example? Where is the sweet spot for companies to actually pay higher wages and employ at least the same number of people (and the people with the greatest need)?

Update #3- August 16, 2013: Last Days

 

My summer internship at the DC Office of Planning has wrapped up and I have moved out of my house in DC and back to Cambridge. It has been a wonderful summer, full of explorations of cities and issues and potential future steps and new people.

During my last month in the office, I worked on a new project around the future development of Galludet University, the nation’s only institution of higher learning dedicated to the deaf and an important anchor institution in Ward 5, one of the lower-income wards of DC. With the recent snazzy revitalization efforts in the neighborhood now called NoMa to the south and the opening of foodie-centric Union Market in the wholesale market area neighboring the University, Galludet is looking to develop some of its land bordering the campus. Within the next month or so the development team at the University will issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a mixed-use development that will integrate with research and entrepreneurial ambitions for the long-term trajectory of the University. With DC growing rapidly and facing serious concerns regarding affordability, job opportunities for local low-income residents, and gentrification, the University as an anchor institution has the opportunity to direct development towards a more equitable and inclusive approach than the real estate market would deliver.

At the request of the economic development planner at the office (who also happens to be a DUSP grad), I completed a memo highlighting lessons learned from RFPs targeting entrepreneurship- and innovation-focused development that contributes to more equitable economic growth through small business incubation programs, job training, and cooperative ownership schemes. I did an in-depth case study of the nearly 100 pages of New York City’s Economic Development Corporation’s (EDC) RFP for the Applied Sciences campus on Roosevelt Island, which resulted in Cornell Tech’s future campus and innovation strategy linking research with economic growth in applied sciences technology. I decided to focus on EDC’s RFP due to its exceptional specificity and high expectations, though I also included appendices of case studies outlining innovation district and business incubation approaches in other cities. The memo walked through how EDC framed the opportunity of the project, explicitly spelled out their expectations for the respondents, and clearly explained what they had to offer as an agency and development partner. This memo will (hopefully) be passed along to Galludet (as well as other anchor institutions interested in this type of development) to improve their RFP to receive more ambitious and targeted responses.

Overall, when friends have asked me about my experience at my internship, I’ve noticed that the adjective I use first is “useful.” Not always interesting, not always intellectually stimulating, but a practical exercise in observing and absorbing how a typical planning office—and city government more broadly—actually works on the ground.  Useful because I thought a lot about professional opportunities after graduation and what type of environment would fit me best. Useful because of the moments when some of the people and projects in the office were less energetic and engaging than I hoped—sometimes learning what you don’t like is just as important as learning what you do like. Useful (I hope) in what I was able to contribute to the office, however humble. Perhaps most importantly, it has been useful because I have noticed the gaps in my knowledge and skill set to think critically about many of the issues I care about (such as real estate finance, the labor economics and job creation, and the breakdown of federal, state, and local powers and responsibilities), and will be more targeted in how I allocate my time this coming academic year. Let it begin.

Update #2- July 9, 2013: On Pace and Critical Mass

I’m halfway through my internship at the DC Office of Planning. (Already?!) The fog is steadily lifting as I develop a clearer picture of what is going on around me: the power dynamics within and between city agencies (more convoluted than necessary), the pace and expectations of pace (slow), the level of rigor and critical thinking in the office (a mixed bag), the degree to which I could see myself doing this as a job down the road (an enthusiastic maybe), the value of grounding my studies in practice and absorbing the world of city government in real time (high).

Highlight recently: Witnessing the early stages of implementing a comprehensive and quite ambitious sustainability plan through many different agencies in a city government.

The Sustainable DC Plan has been the brainchild of the current Mayor, Vincent Gray, and, after two years of exhaustive public engagement processes, the plan was released this past February. Complete with over 140 “action items” across all different sectors through all different agencies, the plan takes a broad stroke to the term “sustainability.” These action items include everything from energy-efficiency programs to incentives for green-focused businesses to healthier and locally-sourced food in school lunches to retaining diversity and affordable housing in parts of the city threatened by rising property values and an influx of newcomers. It sounds great. All these ambitious goals, spelled out with bright colors and happy faces on a clean layout for the finalized Plan, are hard to argue about. So now what do you do?

Well, today, we had a lot of meetings. Seven, to be exact. It is the week of one-on-one meetings between the Sustainable DC team—two representatives from the Office of Planning, two from the District Department of the Environment, and one from the Office of the City Administrator, who keeps tabs on District agencies’ progress and holds them accountable for their core services and performance plans, and then me and the other intern—and representatives from twenty-one District agencies, one by one. (This process has also improved my ability to remember an excessive number of acronyms.) We are matching up action items in the Sustainable DC Plan with specific efforts, existing or proposed, that must be included in the performance plans for the coming fiscal year for each agency. Basically, trying to put our money/time/priorities where are mouth is, and get it in writing. Most agencies were receptive (or just polite) to the new initiatives, others were hesitant (or outraged and just polite). But we talked about specific goals—building a green jobs element into an existing program at the Department of Employment Services, developing a feasibility study for a local food incubator at the Deputy Mayor’s Office of Planning and Economic Development, targeting new green industries through the revolving loan fund at the Department of Small and Local Business Development. Then over the next few months the team follows up about specific targets and confirms that it is worked into the performance plan submitted to the Mayor’s office. Then at least these efforts get onto the books and onto people’s radars, and accountability measures keep the projects moving forward (I hope).

People don’t like change. Large groups of people organized into a formal entity often really don’t like change. That’s nothing new. Newton’s first law of motion made that perfectly clear: “An object that is at rest will stay at rest unless an external force acts upon it. An object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless an external force acts upon it.” (Perhaps later meetings will be more contentious and Newton’s third law will  prove its relevance as well: “When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that of the first body.”) Shifting this momentum towards something new takes energy, time, and patience. It takes a lot of meetings. It involves a lot of acronyms. It takes a keen awareness of which pieces of the over-saturated, green-washed world of “sustainability” actually matter out on the ground. It takes a constant revision of metrics and value. As the representative from the Office of the City Administrator said today, “I couldn’t care less how many Twitter followers you have. Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it’s a good measure.” But it’s happening. Slowly. This city is already seeing the confluence of initiatives with an explicit reference to the triple-bottom line approach to development (environmental, social, and economic), and doing it in a way that is challenging my typical cynicism.

When do individual efforts become a critical mass? We’ll find out.

(More specifics into some of the particularly promising projects in later posts.)

 

Update #1- May 28, 2013: The Big, the Bad, the Future

It starts tomorrow. Years of working around the fringes—with small architecture offices and non-profit organizations and hip design firms and local community groups in 5 different countries around the world—has resulted in what I figured was inevitable. It was only a matter of time before I had to dive head-first into the world I always associated with The Big. The Bureaucratic. The Slow. The Inefficient. The Opposite of Sexy. Yep, I am working for Government. In my hometown.

And I am thrilled. I am thrilled because this past year as a graduate student at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) has reinforced the importance of systematic thinking, of critical analysis of every angle of an issue to identify leverage points for change, of the nature of good policy in theory versus the political and financial challenges of implementation, and of how cities are humanity’s most fascinating inventions. And, despite all of the negative stereotypes I previously attached to the public sector, it is an integral player in every interesting project or piece of urban social policy that I find important. If I am to truly understand both what these leverage points look like and where my power lies as an individual, I better understand how city government makes decisions.

I am also thrilled because it’s only for a summer. So if it really is a terrible fit for me, at least I will have learned that. What do I have to lose?

So Why DC, you ask? First, a little important history.

According to George Clinton, lead singer of the classic funk band Parliament, the real chocolate city—that is, a city with a majority black population—is the nation’s capital, Washington, DC. The District has been a special place for black Americans since its creation in 1791. Nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln freed the slaves in DC and spurred an influx of new blacks from the region. The city is the birthplace of jazz music legend Duke Ellington, artist Zora Neale Hurston, and go-go music. Its population was around 72 percent black in the 1970s, and it has been led by black politicians and shaped by local black institutions for decades. However, the last decade or so has seen rapid transformations in both the city’s physical form, demographic makeup, and, some worry, historical black character and culture. In early 2011, the black population slipped below 50% for the first time since 1957, when it first gained a majority.

My family’s trajectory fits into the city’s evolution. My parents moved to the region in the early 1980s for the professional opportunities the city had to offer in their fields of international development and public policy. They settled in the comfortable Maryland suburb of Bethesda, widely regarded as one of the most highly educated cities in the country with an affluent population and excellent public school system. I grew up there my two brothers in a very safe, stable environment, surrounded by families with similar backgrounds. We went into DC regularly for cultural events and class trips, however my life revolved around my friends, school, and activities in the suburbs. I also held the impression that many neighborhoods, particularly on the east side of the district, were dangerous and blighted, or just had nothing that interested me, so I never went there. After my brothers and I left for college, my parents had little reason to stay in their large, suburban house, particularly when new developments in the city were making it an increasingly attractive place to live. Four years ago they moved into a townhouse in the historic Georgetown neighborhood, and today they sing the song of the city. They are watching neighborhood after neighborhood transform as new luxury condominium developments pop up, new restaurants and bars create nightlife districts out of thin air, property values steadily rise, and new bike lanes stitch together a city now famous for its wildly successful Capital Bikeshare program. I have become familiar with the city through the eyes of both my parents and a handful of college friends who fit into the “creative class” demographic—young, hip, well-educated, often white, creative professionals—which has come to be recognized as a driver of economic development in modern American cities.

I begin with gentrification and racial politics because they have become uncomfortable topics to talk about in recent years. While the city’s resurgence is leading to much-needed investment in many neighborhoods in the city, who is benefitting from the new development and how is a more complicated question.  A recent New York Times article “Farewell to Chocolate City” captured the mixed feelings of the black community: “As residents finally get the city they have always deserved, many black Washingtonians are feeling the rage of the loyal first wife, kicked to the curb as soon as things started looking up.”  How long-term black residents and low-income populations are affected by these changes depends on many factors: are they renters or homeowners? Are economic development plans and education and workforce development initiatives aligned to expand job opportunities for minority and low-income residents? Are the interests of these populations effectively represented in decision-making processes?

Starting tomorrow, I will be interning at the DC Office of Planning, the agency in Washington, DC’s city government responsible for neighborhood revitalization, zoning, historic preservation, and a slew of major urban development projects. Under its current director, Harriet Tregoning, the agency has had a big hand in some initiatives that have gotten much attention in recent years, particularly the Capital Bikeshare program. I will be working on the newly-launched Sustainable DC Plan, as well as doing a whole lot of exploring as I narrow down my topic for my Master’s thesis. I am particularly interested in how the city can link employment and procurement needs for the major public investment projects underway—such as environmental protection and energy efficiency programs through the Sustainable DC plan, or construction and entry-level jobs for the huge St. Elizabeths East redevelopment. How can cities both implement innovative approaches to sustainable living and still retain diversity, affordability, and equity for everyone?

This summer is ripe time to reconnect and dive in head-first. Here we go.