Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Strange Death of Renaissance Square

An Investigative Report

Former Mayor Johnson's essay in City News reminds us again of how Mayor Duffy torpedoed Renaissance Square at the eleventh hour, squandering a prime opportunity to improve a part of the City the private sector won't touch.

We supported Renaissance Square. That doesn't prevent us from asking the question:   Why didn't the County administration and the Regional Transit Authority see this torpedo coming?

We also wondered, what motivated the Mayor and City Council to act as they did?

In looking for the answers, here's what we learned.

Not On Our Turf, You Don't

Remember how the City needed to take action involving a strip of land in the project footprint, in order for the project to proceed?

We've learned from sources on both the City and County sides that nobody at the City, the County or the Transit Authority knew until about March of this year that action by the City was required, and, if denied, would end the whole project.   This is why the Mayor had been such a passive participant in Ren Square through all the years of its planning.   His understanding was that the City couldn't do anything to stop it, so he smiled for the cameras and went along for the ride.

Then, this Spring, the Mayor learned that the project could proceed only if City Council took action.   Duffy, who at one point phoned Assemblyman David Gantt for help in killing the project, only to be rebuffed by Gantt, now needed no help other than City Council's.   Neither Duffy nor Council liked the idea of Maggie Brooks getting credit for improving part of the City, even though that credit would be shared with the Mayor.   As Gore Vidal said, "Success is insufficient.   Others must fail."

All the public posturing about details of the design were just camouflage for the underlying motivation that, despite the project's obvious merits, and the time and money invested, City politicians weren't going to allow a project that could give Maggie Brooks credit for an improvement on their turf.

So strongly did they feel on this point that it had an effect substantially broader than the fate of Renaissance Square.   It became a unifying catalyst, bringing back together and reconciling City Council and Mayor Duffy, whose relationship had been troubled ever since Council passed the Rural-Metro ambulance contract over Duffy's veto.

In the last stages of negotiation, the County and the Transit Authority finally offered the City this:   we'll clear the property, build the bus station and the MCC campus and give the City -- as in give, for free -- the land reserved for the performing arts center, to do with as you wish.   Environmental and related issues make the clearing of that property a major impediment, even a showstopper, for private development on the site.   Here the City was offered a parcel much more likely than otherwise to attract private investment, because it already would be cleared.   And, significantly for the the City, cleared at someone else's expense.   But to the politically motivated, such considerations are trivial compared to a larger purpose such as denying a triumph to Maggie Brooks.

Persona Non Grata

Or to Mark Aesch.   He's chief executive of the Regional Transit Authority.   Opinion on Aesch is divided.   On the one hand, apparently, are people who passionately detest him.   This group includes half the City Council and half the County government other than Maggie Brooks.   On the other hand are people who regard him with white-hot hatred.   This includes the other half of City Council and the other half of the County government, except for Maggie Brooks.   Each camp claims Mayor Duffy as its own.

The reasons for this are unclear to us, but even supporters of Ren Square have said that if its demise has a silver lining, it's that a prize was denied to the transit chief.

We've been able to confirm the story that about the middle of July, Duffy offered to approve Ren Square if Brooks would fire Aesch, but Brooks turned him down.

The episode raises some tantalizing questions, to which we have no answers.   In any event, they're beyond the scope of this report.

Transit Authority:   Asleep at the Switch

After all the years, all the planning, all the public dog-and-pony shows, all the architects, consultants and lawyers, how could both the County government and the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority have missed the fact that the City had to take action on that troublesome strip of land?

It was a failure that hung Maggie Brooks out on a limb and left her dangling.   Brooks's popularity is a central pillar of Republican political success in Monroe County.   Even in last year's big anti-Republican, pro-Obama tide, Monroe County Republicans took nearly all of the seriously contested races county-wide.   A lot of that has to do with Brooks's political strength.   That's why the Democrats' Holy Grail is to force Brooks into having to raise property taxes.   It's why Joe Morelle understands that his job is to try to undermine her popularity.

Of course it is.   He's the Democratic chairman.   He's supposed to cause his party's candidates to win.   Making Maggie Brooks look bad is an important part of that job, in an environment where her popularity impedes his candidates from winning.   That's what an intelligent and conscientious party chairman does, for heaven's sake.

Morelle's Republican counterparts and their staff understand this well.   Had they known the entire Ren Square project depended on the City's approval, they'd have assumed it would be DOA.   Neither they nor their top office-holder would have invested such political capital as they did.

Instead, uninhibited by the discipline of the (unknown) political reality, County Executive Brooks was free, under every rubric of intelligent governing and politics, to adopt Renaissance Square as her own project.   In this regard, Brooks was fully committed.   Her investment in Renaissance Square was political, personal, emotional and deep.   Even in the face of skepticism and a certain bewilderment on the part of her core constituency -- suburban Republicans -- she persevered in the project.   In retrospect, it seems to some to have become, in the words of one observer, "Maggie's 'Bridge On the River Kwai' " -- a massive personal and emotional investment in a project that, despite her best efforts, was frustrated by forces outside her control.

It turns out that the Transit Authority took the leading role in the planning of the project.   The County administration depended upon it for all aspects of planning.   It was the Authority, for instance, that hired nearly all of the consultants and lawyers engaged on Ren Square, either directly or through Main and Clinton Development Corporation, the entity established as the owner of the project, and which the Transit Authority effectively operated.   It will be interesting to see if changes are made at the Authority in light of this monumental error.  However, if such changes were to be made, we think they'd have been made by now.


Mayor Duffy walks away from the debacle unscathed, perhaps with a marginal uptick in suburban support.   Once cities degrade to permanent one-party rule, decay accelerates without political consequence.   Improving Main and Clinton would have given Duffy no better prospect for continued election than failure to improve it would decrease that prospect.   Suburban Republicans who paid enough attention to Ren Square to get to the point where it baffled them may think better of Duffy for killing the project.   Also, Duffy's congressional ambitions are well-known in political circles.   It won't hurt him to have earned Louise Slaughter's gratitude for spiking a project she opposed all along.

RGRTA Chief Aesch might pay the price for his agency failing to identify the need for City approval of Ren Square.   We'd bet against it, though.   If Brooks wouldn't fire him to get the project through, she won't fire him for this.   Aesch is now writing a book, perhaps about this experience.   Precisely why City Council and the Mayor have taken such a burn to him we didn't learn, but they have.   RGRTA is about to ask the City for permission to build a parking lot on vacant land next to its bus facility on Main Street.   Anybody want to bet on the outcome?

County Executive Brooks also walks away unscathed, though no doubt disappointed and saddened to watch a real chance to improve life in the City destroyed so recklessly.   The urban electorate wouldn't vote for her or the Republicans whether she built Ren Square or not.   In that regard its failure changes nothing.   Suburban Republican voters continue to like and trust Brooks.   All along they viewed her devotion to Renaissance Square as a tolerable, harmless eccentricity.   They never really cared.   To most of them, its demise is meaningless.

(Mustard Street's Lucy, the Archbishop and the undersigned all contributed to this report.)


Burocrat said...

You talked to the right people. The part of this I know, you nailed it.

Lucy said...

We lost three comments in the process of approving them for appearance. We apologize to the commenters.

One stated that we accused the bus company of incompetence in failing to know about the need for City approval earlier, and asked about the role of the bus company's lawyers in this.

Another said we're biased against the transit authority CEO, Mr. Aesch.

The third praised us for our political analysis. (Why'd we have to lose that one?)

Sorry we lost these, but I'll respond to the first two in a separate comment.

Lucy said...

In response to those lost comments ...

I had the transit authority part of our story. What we said in it comes from the input I got.

The transit authority has it's own legal department that took the lead on the legal side of Ren Square. They gave some slices of it to a law firm in DC, maybe more than one, but they had hands-on control, according to a source who knows the bus company from the inside.

Mr. Aesch is basically an unknown to us. I was not expecting the negativity to him, but it is a powerful feeling expressed by people who shared information about the transit authority. They weren't shy in bringing it up. When people feel this way, you ask why. Answers were along the lines of "If you worked with him, you'd know," or else raised issues we can't verify and that were irrelevant to our report. The strong feelings about the transit chief were relevant to the attitude of the Mayor and City Council and to the fact that the Mayor asked Brooks to dump him. I was surprised that Republicans spoke of Aesch about the same way as the city Democrats.

Anonymous said...

If Duffy would support it if Brooks would fire Aech, then bottom line looks like Brooks CHOSE to kill this project. If everybody hates this guy why does'nt Brooks. If she wanted her project so much why not get rid of him like the mayor wanted, then give him a county job someplace else?

TomT said...

This is a very interesting post. Good work.