Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Tommy Wells, Kelvin Robinson, and the politics of walkability

August 19, 2010 - 04:10 PM
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Tommy Wells (D.C. Council photo)

In yesterday's Post, the prolific Mike DeBonis had a piece breaking down the D.C. Ward 6 council race between incumbent Tommy Wells and challenger Kelvin Robinson. Wells has always run hard on an urbanist/green agenda. His motto, which he loves to repeat and paraphrase in conversation, is "Building a livable, walkable city."

So far, his opponent has taken a fairly predictable line of attack: Robinson casts such concerns as streetcars and bike lanes as the out-of-touch pet issues of a councilman catering to the crunchy granola crowd, at the expense of, say, long-time residents. As Robinson said to DeBonis: “The question is always asked, ‘Livable and walkable’ for whom?”

Taking off on DeBonis's story, Lydia DePillis, an admitted proselyte of "the gospel of walkable urbanism," offers some advice to Wells' campaign team on her Housing Complex blog at City Paper: "Instead of painting a picture of a rosy future, Wells might be better advised to depict the absence of excellent transit and walkable communities as a current ill that must be rectified, putting those deficiencies on the level of crime as a pressing issue."

When we sat down with Wells a few weeks ago, we asked him how he'd defend against an insinuation like Robinson's--that the livability and walkability issues simply don't stack up with perennial concerns like crime and unemployment. Wells did a fairly solid job of threading it all together, arguing that his motto is, in essence, about public safety and job growth.

After the jump, an abbreviated transcript of his monologue. But before that, here's a Tommy Wells fun fact: Because of its lack of street-level retail, he likes to refer to the stretch of Massachusetts Avenue NW from Union Station to the Convention Center as "the Mediocre Mile." We hope it catches on!

Building livable, walkable communities has been a transformative economic generator. On Fourth Street in Southwest we just opened up a Safeway and created more than 50 jobs. We did that by having a Fourth Street that's walkable, livable. We don't even have the restaurants in yet and you see so many pedestrians around. You create a sense of community when you have these public areas. We've generated more jobs there and more business will come in there.

We did this on Barracks Row. Barracks Row is the epitome of a livable, walkable street. And we've seen every storefront get filled with a new business -- local businesses hiring local folks. On H Street we're creating a livable, walkable street. We're not even done on H Street and we've already had more economic development on H Street than they've seen since the riots. We brought in more than thirty new businesses, locally owned businesses, over the last two years, pushing my vision of livable, walkable.

This vision puts D.C. folks to work. We're in the middle of a recession, yet in Ward 6 we're generating more local businesses than anywhere else in the city, in a record amount of time. This is an economic generator that's transformative because people want to live there. People want to shop there. And people want to play there and they want to work there.

The more people you put on the street, the safer that street is. Having people eat their lunch over at Safeway, it completely changes how that street feels. It's a safety measure. I've been aggressive about restaurants. I tell [advisory neighborhood commissions], 'Don't have them come in for permission to have outdoor tables. Have them explain to you when they come for their liquor license why they're not putting in outdoor tables.'

I remember when inner Capitol Hill was unsafe. We got the Hawk and Dove to put tables out there. You don't feel comfortable mugging people when there are a bunch of diners who can ID you. One approach is, Can't we find a way to lock more people up? That is a mindset. But how about instead you create safe areas that last a generation. I've gotten incredible results with this vision. We're going to go down H Street with this vision and go east with this vision.

Look at the area from Union Station to the Convention Center. All those new apartment buildings and it's one of the deadest pedestrian streets. You can't even figure out where the CVS is. All the amenities are inside the buildings. We've created an unsafe street with shortsighted development. The kind of development I'm pushing for is what you see in Southwest, with the Safeway opening up onto the street. There's first-floor retail. You've got to have people put tables outside and create a safe community that way. I think that smart urban planning proves me right, by the fact that D.C. is bringing these folks back in who want to give up their car. We've had an increase in D.C. population and a decrease in car ownership. That means this is working.

Anybody who wants to say that shouldn't be a priority – I don't care if it's my opponent, I don't care if it's developer -- they don't have my support. I will not support any kind of development that doesn't animate on the street level. Because that's what makes us safe, that's what generates jobs, and that's what makes D.C. a place where people want to live.

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