• D Lane

Stephen Kessler's Tragedy

According to Sentinel columnist Stephen Kessler, there are few things more horrific than the spectacle of former mayors continuing to stay involved in the community and advocating for things we believe are positives for the community. In his poetic imagination, we are just up to no good. Abusing our power. Destroying downtown. Eliminating public space. Cutting trees. I enjoy a bit of hyperbole as much as any former mayor with a blog, but none of us can compete with Kessler. [Check it out here... if you can stand to read another one.]

Once Kessler doesn’t get his way and gets teased for his over-the-top commentaries on things he knows surprisingly little about, his hyperbole goes into hyper-drive. (Hyper-hyperbole?) Please note that, in Kessler's extensive lexicon, cutting down the same kind of plants that delivered the wood that frames Kessler’s home is now called slaughtering trees. I guess that means he lives in slaughterhouse?

(And did you like how I used a word with Greek roots…hyperbole! Kessler is right about this one thing: I am a classicist!!)

But he doesn’t stop at hyperbole. Even though his memory has been refreshed by at least one local wit about the actual content and language of Measure S, he continues to claim there was some kind of “bait and switch.” All that really happened is that a giant of literacy in our community seems to be embarrassed that he didn’t actually read and/or understand the language of Measure S. I guess he needs to deflect onto someone else for his lapse and then repeats an appealing falsehood. And then repeats it redundantly over and over again and again, more and more. (Poetry!)

Next, Kessler incorrectly claims that no one has provided information that the community has, in fact, been provided with. It's the answer to the question: why do housing advocates and nonprofit housing professionals consider the current proposed site a better housing site than the mythical project ODOF imagines on a different lot on Front Street. (Do you like the way I got the word myth in there to stay on the classical theme?) This information is out there already but I’ll quickly summarize here.

1) Housing funding has already been secured for the project at this site. The search for funding would begin from scratch at his alternative site.

2) A tremendous amount of work has now been done to ready the housing part of the project at the Cedar Street site. Larger housing projects seem to take 5 to 7 years to come to fruition so years will be added onto the timeline if its moved to Kessler’s preferred site.

3) There are cost savings on building the affordable housing when the ground preparation and infrastructure costs are shared in a 3-part mixed use project. Switching to that new site will eliminate those savings. (Affordable housing projects need every penny they can scrape together in order to be financially feasible.)

4) Because the current proposed site is deeper, the taller housing portion can be set well back from the street and put closer to an existing building that is relatively tall. The same multi story housing on Kessler’s preferred lot would either not be set back or have to have a lot fewer units. (Yes, some of us have a bias toward getting more apartments for more people.)

This is also an exciting opportunity to double down on my use of the term “smoke and mirrors” to describe “Our Downtown” / Kessler shenanigans. Kessler’s preferred alternative housing site has trees, too. In other words, he continues to decry the slaughter of trees on the “Troy” parking lot while offering up trees for slaughter on the “Athens” lot. Kessler the writing magician wants you to look carefully at the trees on one site while he saws the other trees in half! Next, he wants you to look at a pretty picture some talented students made for the alternative site and assume that this is real housing in which real people could live in the foreseeable future. Poof! I have to wonder if Kessler will be handing out pictures of apartments to people without housing, believing that these images will take care of their needs.

Then there’s what has become the main arrow in the quiver of the anti-library Greek Army: putting quotation marks around the term public process to make sure we all realize that it didn’t happen. Small problem with this framing: There have been at least 25 different public meetings about the current project over the past 5 years. Almost all of them have had opportunity for public participation. Some of those meetings were set up exclusively for public participation. The most engaged part of public process was led by two city councilmembers that had explicitly spoken against the project (Cummings and Brown). So what happened? The public process led to the following changes: It started with 0 affordable apartments… now it has 125 affordable apartments. It started with 600 parking spaces… now cut in half to 300 -- to roughly match the amount of spaces being removed around downtown. It started with a library with an unknown amount of open space…now a significant amount of outdoor public space on the green roof. It started out as a monstrosity (according to Kessler)… now it’s something even project critics have recognized as an attractive, appealing public building. It started with the supposed blasphemy of parking spaces above the library and now those parking spaces are gone. They were worried about the future of the Farmers Market and wanted commitments from the City…now those commitments have been made to sustain the Market and improve its facilities.

In other words...critics, by invitation of many public officials, including two openly skeptical city councilmembers, weighed in during a public process and caused major changes to the project.

While I know it wasn’t sinister in the manner Kessler and his colleagues portray it, I can understand how they might have viewed the very beginnings of this project as a Trojan Horse. They saw the library as the nice gift and the parking spaces as the sneaky soldiers hiding inside. But, because torturing metaphors (and Sentinel columnists) is my specialty, let me take another shot: Now the so-called Trojan horse library has a lot more windows so we can see what’s inside. Instead of a pack of armed soldiers, there are beds for former soldiers and their families to sleep in. There’s a permanent ladder on the outside so Trojan kids can climb up onto the saddle to read and play. It’s now a shared public treasure that Trojans and Greeks can enjoy together. (Yes, I do recognize this metaphor is sappy and Kessler might laugh at it and then twist it into another horror. I’ll stand by it anyway.)

No public process will ever be seen as perfect. But this project not only had a real public process-- it was a very good one. However, it’s on the first page of the advocates playbook to demean the public process when those advocates don’t get the outcome they sought. I’m not saying demeaning the process is always wrong. Sometimes the process is deeply flawed. But this time the process was sound and real. The dissatisfied critics who didn’t get exactly what they wanted are now just stomping their feet and blowing a lot more smoke.

And, one more thought about mirrors… I hope they will look into one as they reflect on the damage they’re doing to the effort to build a superior library, promptly build much needed rental housing for people we need in this community, and support a downtown that is vibrant both on Farmers Market day and every other day. I also hope they will look at the damage they are doing when they make incorrect claims about the open local government process that didn’t give them everything they wanted. When this happens, it is not the local officials who are undermining public confidence -- it’s the segment of community members who will say almost anything negative about public officials to get their way. In case you’ve been wondering why you sense some anger in my writing on this subject, now you know.

As my patient readers know, once I get started on a theme, I never seem to be able to stop… There’s one other word with Greek roots I’m searching for. It has to do with this question: Why are former mayors Mathews and Lane seen as doing something wrong to achieve positive goals for the community… while other former mayors who are on Kessler’s side (for instance, Krohn -- who has plenty of wealth and has many platforms of influence) are spared his scorn. Thank you, Bill, you’re right… it is hypocrisy.

In my next installment: I hope to come up with a snarky joke about Kessler as the “Achille’s Heel” of his advocacy army.

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