Counting the private sector construction cranes hovering over the city in recent years has become a sort of political blood sport in D.C. Arguing over ascribing political responsibility for them is one of the sillier debates in an otherwise lackluster mayoral campaign.
Embarrassing, too, because the answer is simple. D.C. politicians don’t deserve much credit for them.
It makes as much sense as believing they’re also due homage for recent and continuing population increases. As if people move here for the high taxes. Or households with children decide to relocate to the District for the quality and performance of the city’s hyper-costly public school system. Uh-huh.
The real question they should be asking themselves and challenging one another over is how they might best get out of the way so that the number of cranes might actually proliferate.
The irony is that a shift in focus to eliminating the city’s infamously arcane obstacles to development, density, and business and economic growth would have real benefits. Improvement in those arenas would provide more needed housing that would allow continued population growth, mitigate upward pressure on housing prices to improve the city’s affordability, create more jobs particularly for low-skill and entry-level workers most in need, and expand the city’s tax base to generate the public monies officials are so wont to lust over and freely spend.
Outdated zoning laws, obtuse development restrictions and obsessive approval regulations the city has largely retreated from fixing – instead proposing only modest and inadequate revisions inching forward at painfully slow pacing – are no help, either. Why aren’t voters hearing any bold proposals for reform in these areas?
The time-consuming and costly hurdles that developers must surmount, and the outsized powers of interference wielded by tiny groups of objectors and special interest citizens associations, exact extraordinary delays incurring exorbitant costs that also encumber finance sourcing. Parking build-out requirements alone add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of both residential and commercial units. This further inflates sale prices and rents in an already housing-expensive city and inhibits growth in the number of locally originating small businesses.
To sit down with local developers and owners of small and moderate sized community businesses to discuss the impacts of counterproductive city regulations and counterintuitive processes is instructive. It does, however, require packing a lunch and bringing a seat cushion – the tales they’ll tell are not only frustrating to absorb, they take a while to recount in full.
Try not to get them started on detailing the cumbersome and complex regulatory administration by an improved yet still languid and unsympathetic city government bureaucracy that too often appears to delight in exacting pain for pleasure. Otherwise, bring a lantern, too. This little chat will run long and late.
In a city brimming with national politicians who suffer from more-than-adequate delusions that government is the source and provider of all things good, it is to be expected that local candidates are drinking from the same well of hallucinogenic liquid. That, however, doesn’t make obsessive crane counting appear any less foolish.
Mayor Vincent Gray deserves much of the let’s-play-this-game blame on this. As is all-too-natural for incumbent politicians, independent market development progress occurring on one’s watch is commonly embraced for political benefit. The mayor often exalts in a current tally of the exact number of cranes jutting skyward across the city at any given moment. He tasks an executive staffer to keep contemporaneous count.
Less forgivable are Gray’s re-election challengers righteously claiming either greater personal responsibility or assigning credit to prior administrations. Some among the four D.C. Council members challenging Gray in the April 1 Democratic primary have more of a tendency to do so, but they all engage in this gamesmanship to one degree or another.
Instead of counting cranes candidates, how about telling us how you’re going to improve the business and development environment in our city.
That’s what we’re counting on.