Wondering about Wal-Mart

Earlier this week, the City Council approved a site plan for a new shopping center in East Albany.  This development proposal came to the City about a year ago and has gone through many changes since it first arrived.  Building location, traffic patterns, off-site improvements, and landscaping have all been adjusted to conform to city and state standards.  The process, from the developer’s perspective, has not been easy or quick.

Albany’s Development Code does not require a property owner to reveal who the user of a building will be after it is constructed.  The City regulates land uses but does not have the authority to exclude businesses by name.  Some communities have limited the size of commercial buildings which effectively keeps out companies that only locate in extremely large structures.  Albany’s City Council, like the overwhelming majority in the U.S., made a decision some years ago not to do this.

The Council heard testimony from a small number of citizens about the development in East Albany, with some speaking in favor of the project and several in opposition.  A few, but not all, who opposed the shopping center were concerned about the possibility of a Wal-Mart in Albany.  While the City Council can deny approval for reasons such as traffic congestion or infrastructure capacity, they cannot deny a proposal because they think the anchor tenant will be a Wal-Mart.  The argument about whether Wal-Mart is a force for good or evil in the world cannot be considered in a quasi-judicial land use proceeding if the local decision is expected to be upheld on appeal.

Recently, a developer met with staff about another proposed development.  Near the conclusion of the meeting, the developer said something to the effect that it was good to know that staff would be an advocate for the project.  I assured him that staff would not be an advocate.  Our role is to make as objective a determination as possible as to whether the project conforms to the requirements of the Development Code.  If it does, staff is obligated to recommend approval; and if it does not, we will recommend denial.  The large policy questions about whether development in general is good or bad need to be made by elected officials in close consultation with the community.  Unfortunately, when elected officials hold hearings to consider broad changes in the Development Code, very few people choose to attend.  People understand and relate to immediate development plans in their neighborhood.  Most of us have a more difficult time getting excited about zoning designations that may not occur on the ground for many years.

I do not know if the new development in East Albany will include a Wal-Mart, but there’s a good possibility that it will.  I do know that the development will meet the requirements of the Albany Development Code and the Oregon Department of Transportation.  If Albany residents feel that the Code is too permissive, or too restrictive for that matter, then that message needs to be delivered to the City Council for their consideration.

The View from Beirut

Not long ago, I received a DVD in the mail warning of the dangers of radical Islam.  I’m picky about my propaganda and chose not to view the report, even though I’m fully aware of the threat posed by religious extremists.  There are many dangerous people and places in the world.

This week, I’m making some presentations about community development in Zahle and Tripoli, Lebanon, on behalf of my professional association, the International City-County Management Association.  Many friends have asked me why I choose to work in the Middle East, given that there is so much hostility against Americans.  I’m sure my ego plays a part in the decision because I’m flattered that people are interested enough in what I have to say to invite me back to this part of the world.  I also like to travel and see what’s going on outside of Albany, Oregon, and the United States.  Finally, I think the best thing I can do to help change attitudes about my country is to be willing to talk with and get to know people who might have those attitudes.

Part of any visit is negotiating transportation systems which provide great opportunities to see people at their worst.  The flight from Frankfurt to Beirut included Lebanese families and relatively few Europeans or North Americans.  It should come as no great surprise that families look a lot alike no matter where they’re from.  Language, clothing, and customs may vary; but children and parents seem to share many similarities.  The parents I’ve seen on this trip have been concerned about how their children are behaving on long flights or in crowded airports.  Most of the children I’ve seen have been very good, and even the smallest ones were pretty quiet under circumstances that would try most people’s patience.  It occurred to me during the trip here that the nature of the traveling public does not seem to change much from place to place.

I have a nice room in a good hotel in Beirut.  I stayed here in March and have always been treated well. I’m meeting a friend this afternoon and will be doing workshops throughout the remainder of the week.  My friend and many of the people I will be working with are Muslim.  Being Muslim does no more to describe a person’s attitude toward me or the United States than being Mormon does to define how someone feels about the Middle East.

The “situation” in Beirut is much better now than when I was here a few months ago.  I’ve seen many more Americans and Europeans, and my friends tell me that there is far less anxiety over violence.  I’ve even heard that Lebanese banks followed a conservative course in recent years and have avoided many of the problems experienced in the U.S. and Europe.

I know that I do not see the whole picture as an occasional visitor to the Middle East; however, I think it’s a mistake to promote fear and misunderstanding about people here.  My experiences have generally been positive, and I’m grateful for the latest opportunity to be here.

Halloween and Elections

I arrived at work this morning to find people dressed like pirates entering the back door at City Hall.  I wasn’t surprised, of course, because this is Albany where “Pirattitude” was invented.  Later this morning, Cruella DeVille, a group of Dalmatian puppies, and their owner appeared in my office.  Some kind of ghoul also stopped by and handed out candy.  Bob Woods in the office next door looks like a cross between Mary Poppins and Bozo the Clown.  Diana Eilers is attired in stripes, and I noticed an angel operating the copy machine as I walked by a few minutes ago.  Dressing up in strange costumes is not rational behavior; yet, every year at this time, young and old alike engage in the practice.

This year we are also on the verge of a critical national election.  We face grave economic challenges; our country is at war; and we must make choices that are likely to have a profound effect on our future.  I think it’s fitting that Halloween falls so close to the election.  The celebration should serve as a reminder that human beings are not entirely rational and neither are most of the choices we make.

Whether it’s dressing up in strange costumes or picking a candidate because we like something about him or her that we can’t really define, our choices are a reflection of the fact that there are many things about the world and about ourselves that we don’t fully understand.  As a city manager, I think part of my job is to push for rationality in how we conduct city business.  We devote many of our resources to this effort, and we are always working on ways to do it better.  As much as I believe in the importance of rational, evidence-based decision making, I also realize that it’s not a bad idea to recognize the importance of feelings, crazy impulses, and having a little fun.

I think that’s how I will deal with any results from the upcoming election that I don’t like.  I will never control all the variables in life and make it conform to a rational model.  I remind myself that my challenge (and a big part of what I am paid to do) is to make sure the model gets to the table.  I think the other part of my job is to reconcile the rational with the irrational.

So Happy Halloween and best wishes for Tuesday’s elections.  Regardless of the outcome, I plan to remain hopeful and continue working for my family and my community.  My attitude may not be entirely rational; but it feels right, and I think it beats the alternative.