In the future, we'll study different cities for how they managed the great urban turnaround at the end of the 20th century. We'll go to Philadelphia to learn how to revive a downtown and manage homelessness. We'll study Chicago for urban vision and street beautification. And, of course, we'll turn to New York to learn how to drive down crime. But there may be another thing we'll study in New York: How to encourage housing construction in places that had been urban war zones. New York is in the midst of a startling residential building boom. Last year, the city approved building permits for 25,200 units, up from 4,010 in 1994. And it's going on in unexpected places. Queens is king of the housing boom, with 6,853 building permits last year. Brooklyn is a close second. And the construction is going into neighborhoods that were all but abandoned to crime in the early 1990s. "There has been development activity in places that would have been inconceivable 10 years ago," said a city official. Why? The big credit goes to the fact that New York's economy is strong, and the city continues to gain population. But give New York's government some credit. It made deals to draw developers into blighted neighborhoods, and as the pioneer developments prospered, others followed.
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick hosted a conference recently that was aimed at shaking up citizens, city employees and other elected officials. Its message, repeated over and over: Detroit is too small for its government. The immediate problem is that the city faces a $216 million deficit in the coming year, but that's just the start. Because population has plummeted and the tax base has eroded nearly as fast (just 12 percent of the city's revenues come from property taxes now), the deficit will only grow in the future. The answer, participants agreed, was for Detroit to have a government sized for a 900,000-person city rather than a 2-million-person one. "We're not hitting the [revenue] numbers," Kilpatrick said. "People need to understand the depth of the problem." And the solution? Kilpatrick's plan: layoffs, pay cuts, service reductions, changes in pensions and other benefits to employees and some new taxes. And that probably still isn't enough, the mayor said. What's needed, he said, is a thorough rethinking of government operations with an eye toward reducing labor costs. "A lot of administrative spending is because we have little technology," he said, "so we use 100 people to do what Chicago is doing with three people, because we don't have the technology infrastructure."
Want to hear a Boston resident rant? Ask him where he parks his car. In the past four years, the city has eliminated 700 parking meters, about 10 percent of the total, to help make government buildings more secure, establish new loading zones, create valet parking for restaurants and so on. At the same time, record numbers are driving into downtown. In the neighborhoods, parking stress levels may be even higher. Since 1990, the city has raised the number of residential parking permits it issues by 75 percent, with no increase in street parking. Result: Nightmare problems finding a parking spot close to home. So how many legal parking places are there in Boston? Nobody really knows. (They know the number of metered spots, but no one counts the unmetered ones.) Says the city's transportation commissioner, "Obviously there aren't enough. It's less than it was 10 years ago before the influx of SUVs." So how can the city continue handing out residential parking stickers, given the shortage of spots? "The program was never intended to guarantee a resident a parking space. It's more to give them a fighting chance," says the commissioner.
When you run for public office in the Miami suburb of Miramar, you do the things candidates do everywhere: You solicit donations, talk to civic clubs, file paperwork to be on the ballot. And you drop by the police department for fingerprints and mug shots. Miramar may be the only city in the country that requires candidates for local office to submit to a criminal background check, including fingerprints and mug shots, and it has done so for nearly 15 years. Why? There were some ugly incidents involving city officials in the late 1980s, and the commissioners felt that doing the background checks might help lift a cloud of suspicion over the government. Interestingly, none of the commissioners or candidates for the commission seems to mind the requirement. Said the mayor, "I would like to know if someone I would be contemplating [voting for] has a clear background check." Not surprisingly, civil liberties advocates have a different view. "I don't think gathering this information serves any useful purpose," said the director of the state ACLU chapter. City officials said they couldn't think of a single citizen who has ever asked for the reports, which are public record.
You may use or reference this story with attribution and a link to