Post 312: Tooting my own horn

I recently received a comment about this website to the effect of “nobody knows who I am or what I have done”.  And my immediate response was “that’s fine by me”.

I’m not here to toot my own horn.  I scorn people who are full of themselves but short on substance.  I loathe individuals who would use public forums to stroke their egos.  And so I try to lean in the other direction when possible.

That said, my wife has convinced me that there may be value in explaining a) what I have accomplished so far, with this website, and b) why I am capable of doing the difficult technical analyses that you may see posted here.

This will be the one and only time I do this.  And, in hindsight, I have fewer concrete accomplishments than I thought (or I have forgotten some), so this has been a good reality check for me.  Click the links if you care to read the writeup.

1:  Timely posting of recordings of Town of Vienna public meetings.

2:  Solid garage walls for MAC projects adjacent to neighborhoods.

3:  Wall behind the Wawa.

4:  Parking for Sunrise (a near miss).

5:  Increased public awareness of MAC zoning and its implications.

6:  Countered disinformation with objective analysis.

Brief biography.

 

Accomplishments (in no particular order)

1:  Timely posting of recordings of Town of Vienna public meetings, and posting of recordings for a larger set of public meetings.

Why I claim credit:  I embarrassed them into it.  A year ago, there was no timely record of what occurred in Town of Vienna public meetings.   The Town typically took months to post the few recordings that it made public, or the minutes to the meetings.  If you didn’t attend the meeting, or catch it via live streaming, you had to wait months to know what had gone on, in detail.

After writing about Town meetings for close to half a year, I started recording the meetings and posting that the audio the next day.  And yeah, the part in red there, that was on purpose.  I wanted to make a point.  Using cheap equipment and free software (Audacity), I could get an intelligible recording posted with no wait time.  By inference, the fact that the Town took months was a matter of choice, not a technical constraint.

Although no one has ever explicitly told me this, I clearly struck a nerve.  Soon after I began posting my recordings, the Town announced that their recordings would be posted within two days, and that audio recordings would be posted for a much broader range of meetings.  And they have largely done so.

Additional takeaways:  A) My right to do this is guaranteed by the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.  B) My “index file” (notes on what was said, when) remains a significant value-added if you are trying to locate some particular passage within the recording.  C) I consider this an example of the benefits of private-public competition.  Breaking the Town’s monopoly on publicly-posted recordings not only forced them to post in a timely fashion (else I would have the monopoly!), it also freed interested parties from having to rely on my writeups (and spin) to know what went on in these meetings.

2:  Solid garage walls for MAC projects adjacent to neighborhoods.

Why I claim credit:  I did the math and presented the argument.  The original proposals for 380 Maple West (37 condos plus retail, Maple and Wade Hampton) had open garage walls.  I did a bunch of fairly difficult homework on acoustics in this posting, and made the argument that solid garage walls were the proper analog of the noise protections that had been in the existing Town code for decades.  Some Planning Commission members were convinced, and the design was changed accordingly.

Additional takeaways:  A) Sometimes science and reason work.  B) I consider that posting  to be the best piece of analytical work on this website.

3:  Wall behind the Wawa.

Why I claim credit:  I did the homework and presented the solution.  And Wawa adopted their version of it.  You can see the full writeup of the sequence of events in this posting, this posting, and this posting.

Additional takeaways:  Wawa has my business from now on.

4:  Parking for Sunrise (a near miss).

Why I claim credit:  I suggested a way to break an impasse at the Planning Commission level.  At one point, the proposed Sunrise assisted living facility was hung up at the Planning Commission level for two reasons:  Skimpy parking, and five floors via a sketchy “mezzanine” floor.  Even though I don’t want MAC buildings in Vienna, I figured a) the downtown core is where they belong and b) it was better to have a good one rather than a poor one.

I spoke up in that Planning Commission meeting to remind them that Sunrise was not required to have retail space, and then to suggest that Sunrise could solve one or both problems by reducing the proposed retail space.  The Planning Commission worked that over, and then suggested that Sunrise consider coming back with something along those lines.  You can see the full argument laid out in Post #254, posted prior to that meeting.  The upshot is that Sunrise did come back with a much better design, albeit still crowded (Post #279).  I then went so far as to suggest how the Sunrise could be used to add much-needed publicly-available parking at that site (Post #289), design.

Town Council then turned them down, nominally on the basis of parking.

Additional takeaways: Please never claim that I am knee-jerk anti-MAC or knee-jerk anti-development.  Not unless you can show me that you’ve done more than I have to try to get a MAC project passed.

5:  Increased public awareness of MAC zoning and its implications.

Why I claim credit:  This website, postcard mailings, yard signs, and a weekly email reminder.

Here’s the text of my first postcard.

 

My first postcard mailings contributed materially to the huge turnout for the Town Council meetings on 444 Maple West (Tequila Grande).  I sent a postcard to nearly every address in Vienna (which ain’t cheap to do).  But I note that a) the idea for it wasn’t mine — my wife figured out the importance of Giant Food, b) I was the one who uncovered the Giant Food issue by checking the Fairfax County tax database, and c) it was all to no avail — packing Town Hall with angry residents was not enough to get that project defeated.

As a sub-benefit, I’m the one who got Giant Food dragged out into the open.  I was the one who found it it was in play by checking the Fairfax County tax database.  (The new owner is G.R.I. Maple Avenue, and I’d bet serious money that stands for Giant Redevelopment Investors).  For more than half a year after this postcard, the Town would not publicly acknowledge that the Giant Food property might be up for redevelopment.  I called them out on that ludicrous policy of secrecy (search “oops” in this posting).  And following that call-out, various Town boards and commissions finally began discussing the Giant Food property and the issues it posed for MAC zoning.

Additional takeaways 1:  Notice how non-inflammatory that text is.  I have taken a lot of crap — mostly second-hand — about this website and other things I have done regarding MAC zoning.  For example, I was publicly (but indirectly) accused of “poisoning the debate” on MAC zoning.  But I don’t get that abuse because I get the facts wrong.  I get that from people who don’t like what I have to say.

In particular, I point out inconsistencies and logical fallacies in what the Town and its various actors say and do.  Not by taking quotes out of context, but by recalling, from month to month, what has been said and done.  And I think that infuriates the people involved.  To which my response is, I’d be a lot happier if I had less to write about.  And you can see to that by being logical and consistent in dealing with MAC.

Additional takeaways 2:  How crazy is it that the Town has no viable system in place to notify people intelligently about public meetings of interest to them?  This is a long-standing issue for me.  At one point, I signed up for a system on the Town website that would at least tell me when meetings had been added to the Town calendar — only to find out that they had abandoned it years before (but it still was there, and still functioned sporadically).

Here’s a page on the Town website with all the ways you can “stay connected”.  None of them provides the service that I would like to see.

Let me describe what I would like as a notification service for public meetings.   Let me check the box next to some set of keywords.  When the Town posts a document containing any of those keywords, I’d get an email with the name and URL of the document.  I could click the URL to see what it says.  All told, that doesn’t strike me as a radically difficult thing to do.

6:  Countered disinformation with objective analysis.

A lot of what I do on this website is just a matter of getting the facts straight, and doing my homework.  I do this mostly to counter incorrect information, sometimes incorrect information produced by the Town of Vienna itself, but frequently incorrect information circulating on social media.

Let me take pedestrian safety as an example.  For a couple of months, Town staff went on a roll about how unsafe the sidewalks on Maple were.  (So that they could claim that MAC zoning would make them safer).  The only problems were that a) the Town’s own prior traffic accident analysis said otherwise, and b) current data from VDOT also say otherwise.  (N.B. — all the pedestrian accidents along Maple for the past five years involved people in the roadway/crosswalk, not on the sidewalk.)

I didn’t pick a fight, but I didn’t let that stand unchallenged either.  I gathered the facts and presented them (see Maple Avenue accident rates below).

The Town now talks about how pedestrians feel unsafe on the Maple Avenue sidewalk.  Fair enough.  As near as I can tell, that statement is not based on anything objective and specific to Maple.  Short of a well-designed random survey, I can’t think of any way to address it.  All I can do is continue to make the case, as objectively as possible, that claims of enhanced pedestrian safety via MAC rezoning are dubious at best, and that in certain instances, it’s a fair bet that rezoned properties will result in a worse pedestrian experience than occurs now.

I’ll list a few topics where I’ve done some serious homework.  None of these is directly related to any one MAC project.  They are more typically topics that need to be addressed to put change along Maple in context.


Brief biography

My name is Christopher Hogan.  My email is on the splash page for this website.  I was a math major as an undergrad, and I have a Ph.D. in economics.  I’m 60 years old, married, with two kids.  Before I retired, I spent my career in the data-based analysis of health care issues.  For 10 years, I worked for a legislative-branch organization that eventually became the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.  Arguably, my only professional publication now worth reading is this article on end-of-life spending in Medicare, although I continued to do research in that area (.pdf) until near the end of my career.  For the final 20 years of my career I was a self-employed consultant working for Fortune-500 health care companies, professional associations, and government agencies.

That last bit sounds pretty slick, but in fact I was a glorified computer programmer.  That’s where my skills set lies.  Talk to clients, then write and run the computer programs (Statistical Analysis System or SAS) required to create the needed information from publicly-available data.

I spent my career conducting data-based policy analysis and then writing up the results in an easily-understood form.  What I do on this website is no different from what I did for my clients.  It just pays worse.

So that’s why you see some intense data analysis here.  I’ve spent my life converting data (a bunch of numbers) into information (an organized bunch of numbers.)  Hands on, by writing the programs and running them on some underlying data.  The data-based analysis on this website uses the same techniques that I used throughout my career.