A Focus on What Divides Us

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Democracy is messy. Big surprise! There are no philosopher kings with boundless wisdom available to make decisions for us. We are on our own and each citizen must decide for him or herself what is truth and falsehood and what is reasonable or what is unacceptable.

Battles between neighborhood residents and real estate developers are at this moment playing themselves out in cities across the country. Literally in my back yard, the fight in which I am most interested is over the use of a public school site in a mixed residential-commercial neighborhood which also is part of an historic district. Add that the centerpiece of the controversy is the development’s proximity to the recently (2009) renovated farmers market originally completed in 1873 and you get some sense of the scope of the challenge.

At its core, the battle is over the character of my Washington, D.C., neighborhood – an existing mixed-use and transit-connected neighborhood a mere seven blocks from the U. S. Capitol building. In contrast to the orderly street grid laid out by Pierre L’Enfant, the issues in this case are far from simple.

  • How dense is too dense and what is the proper proportion of mass to density?
  • How much parking is required for a development less than 300 yards from a public transit stop?
  • What is the right mix between residential, retail and other commercial space uses?
  • Will a planning process be allowed to reach its own conclusion or will one side push for legislative or judicial intervention?
  • What protections are essential when the historic structure at the center of a thriving neighborhood will be impacted by whatever development is finally decided upon?
  • What should neighbors expect from each other when lines are drawn and sides are chosen over an issue that undoubtedly will shape the future of civilization and all human kind as we know it from now until kingdom come?

The institutions of local government – advisory commissions, planning and zoning boards and city council committees – will have the chance to address these questions over the coming weeks. I am just idealistic enough to believe that a transparent process can harness competing interests and yield an outcome that accepts the will of a majority while protecting the views, interests and rights of a minority.

That hope is boosted by the latest writing from E. J. Dionne. In his new book, Our Divided Political Heart, Dionne suggests that our society has a proven capacity to find balance between the competing needs of the individual and the community. This theory echoes the view of Robert Putnam who also expresses his faith in the role of individuals and neighborhood groups to carry out efforts that achieve civic renewal. Now all that needs to be done is for the competing parties to agree to the size and shape of the bargaining table.