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Too busy to blog?

Whatever I’ve been up to lately, it’s clear I haven’t been doing much blogging. So what have I been up to? Here’s a partial list.

  • EQAB is about to finalize the first report on Oak Ridge’s progress in implementing the climate action plan and meeting the greenhouse gas reduction goals that City Council adopted in 2009 and 2010. The city and the community are on track to meet the first greenhouse gas goals that we adopted for 2015. That’s good news, but the goals for 2015 were modest ones — baby steps toward what needs to be done over the longer term.
  • I’ve been fretting about events surrounding the May 6 county primary election in Anderson County. The way things used to be, our local newspaper would publish profiles of the competing candidates in local elections — so voters could see a factual  report on who was running (at a minimum, the paper would provide basic facts like name, address, age, and occupation). Apparently those days are over — it looks like our local newspaper is no longer attempting to provide election guides. (I hope I’m wrong on that — but since early voting is almost over, a guide published now would be almost too late.) It used to be that the League of Women Voters would hold campaign forums where people could hear all of the candidates in an impartial setting, but this year one of the county’s political parties decided to schedule its own “forum” the same evening as the LWV’s forum. It used to be that local candidates tried to deliver positive messages about themselves, rather than publishing attacks at their opponents, but this year we’ve even received attack ads from candidates for judgeships. All in all, I think it’s harder than ever for voters to make good, informed decisions about the election.
  • And I joined a volunteer crew that pulled up garlic mustard in the greenbelt behind the Garden Apartments (now known as the Rolling Hills Apartments). Garlic mustard is an introduced plant from Europe that’s an invasive weed in this area — it threatens to out-compete our woodland spring wildflowers. It’s not common around this areas, but there’s a population behind the Garden Apartments, in an area that has a pretty amazing collection of spring wildflowers. After several years of volunteer effort, we just might manage to eradicate this weed.

Repopulating Oak Ridge

One of The Oak Ridge Observer‘s weekly questions for Council candidates was “What do you feel is Oak Ridge’s biggest problem? And how do you plan to try to fix it?”

My answer (75 words or less) was:

Oak Ridge’s biggest challenge is repopulating our neighborhoods to replace our founding generations (the people who arrived in the city’s first decades, built the city, and are now passing on). There is no simple solution. We must continue recent progress against drug crime and neighborhood blight, maintain excellent schools and services, revitalize retail, promote our quality of life, use “land bank” authority to rejuvenate homes and stabilize neighborhoods, and much more (see www.ellensmith.org/blog for details).

Now for those promised details…

Background. Our city’s founders were bright and hard-working young people who came from all over to help win a war, remained after that war in the government-issue neighborhoods and housing that Skidmore Owings & Merrill had laid out, and invented many aspects of community as they went along. They were joined over the post-war years by other young people much like them. Early residents treasured their government-issue homes and the unusually egalitarian neighborhoods (mixed by income, profession, and “social class”) in which they were set. These founding generations have largely “aged in place”, giving our city an unusually large senior population. No one lives forever, though, and these founders are leaving us. Most of their bright and hard-working kids — products of our city’s fine schools — have found opportunities elsewhere in the U.S. and the world, and they aren’t particularly interested in their parents’ homes.

The goal. As I see it, Oak Ridge needs to repopulate itself in the coming years — add new people in both the original neighborhoods and the newer ones that were built over the decades since the war.  Ideally we can find new residents of the same caliber of the ones who are leaving us. In particular, this means increasing Oak Ridge’s “market share” of the people who come here for new jobs, as well as attracting retirees and making this a “community of choice” for people throughout the Knoxville metro area.

Doing this means ensuring that our city is an attractive residential location, particularly for members of today’s younger generations who come to this area for jobs. New residents need to be attracted to inhabit existing neighborhoods, whether in well-kept older homes, homes renovated to meet the needs and wishes of new residents, or new houses built on “infill” vacant lots or to replace homes that aren’t good enough to renovate.

What we need to do. This is a big and complex challenge with no simple solution. (Goodness knows that I’ve attended numerous meetings about measures to help address various pieces of this challenge!) My answer to The Observer outlined some of my thoughts on what can and should be done. Here are some more thoughts:

* Confront the city’s negatives. This is the focus of city manager Mark Watson’s “Not in Our City” initiative — a collection of efforts aimed at eliminating conditions that are “turn-offs” for visitors and prospective residents. Talking to Oak Ridgers in this election season, I’ve been pleased to hear that people all over Oak Ridge are seeing real progress. More effective law enforcement has eliminated hot spots of illegal drug activity and is helping people feel safer. The enforcement of new ordinances on parking (no parking on sidewalks, no regular parking or storage of boats, RVs, and oversize vehicles on public streets, no parking in front yards except on legitimate parking surfaces, etc.) has removed long-existing eyesores from several neighborhoods, reduced parking-related conflicts between neighborhoods, and made it easier to use city sidewalks.

Those are by no means the only negatives to confront. There are other types of eyesores (like kudzu in greenbelts, other types of junk in yards, and weeds growing along the curb) that ought to be tackled. Lack of shopping opportunities is a longstanding concern that the new Kroger Marketplace will help to address, but will not fully resolve. Other types of negatives exist and should be recognized and addressed, such as people’s fears about living in a city that is a center for nuclear activities. I think that city leadership needs to identify and address the city’s negatives. It was to help address some negative perceptions that, during the 1990s, the Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB) crafted a brochure and created a website to disseminate a positive message about the quality and safety of the city’s environment. As an EQAB member and contributor to that effort, I felt it was important for both residents and outsiders to know that the serious contamination that DOE is working to clean up is isolated to DOE-controlled areas and is (with few exceptions) not in our residential community. For example, almost all of the land we live on was never used for any kind of industry, the water we drink is clean (and obtained upstream from any federal facilities), and our environment is exceptionally well investigated and monitored, giving us a solid basis for being confident that it is safe (we know more about the safety of our environment than the residents of most U.S. communities do).

The rebuilt Cedar Hill Park playground is a positive feature of the city for new residents and old.

* Maintain and enhance the city’s positives. Positive attributes of Oak Ridge for residents include our excellent public schools, our full range of quality city services, our unique history, an exceptionally large amount of public open space for a community our size, an unusual array of human-powered outdoor recreation opportunities in our public open space and public lakefront (for example, the excellent rowing course, mountain biking at Haw Ridge, and many miles of greenway trails), the diversity of our population (people came here from everywhere and tend to be open to other newcomers), and exceptional arts/culture (think symphony, playhouse, art center, etc.) and adult education (think ORICL) resources for a city of our  size. The local legacy in science and technology is another asset that forms a basis for future job growth — an important ingredient of residential growth.

That’s a partial list of Oak Ridge’s positives — other people would add to it. We need to recognize these positives so we don’t neglect them, so we enhance them when appropriate, and so we can celebrate and promote them. City government has a particularly important part in ensuring that schools, city services, and recreation facilities continue to be positives for Oak Ridge.

*Improve the housing stock and our older neighborhoods. There are many positive qualities in Oak Ridge housing, but there’s also much room for improvement. On the positive side, much of our existing housing qualifies as “affordable” by most definitions of that term. Many homes — in all price ranges — are in locations (quiet, secluded settings; mountain views; etc.) that are prized in most real estate markets. There are many available lots in recently created subdivisions. On the negative side, today’s homebuyers are looking for features that often are lacking in our existing homes, many homes lack off-street parking, too many houses are in a deteriorated state due to neglect, and most of the very temporary units remaining from wartime (I don’t mean cemestos, but the more temporary housing that is concentrated in the Highland View neighborhood) have outlasted their useful life. Much of our existing housing lends itself to renovation/modernization (for example, the interior walls of cemesto homes are not load-bearing walls, so it’s not hard to knock out a wall to reconfigure the rooms), but the high cost of new construction discourages this. Neighborhood blight issues — including properties owned by negligent landlords — can discourage potential buyers, as well as owners’ efforts to improve individual homes.

Legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2012 authorizes Oak Ridge to establish a land bank — essentially, a nonprofit corporation that could own, maintain, renovate, redevelop, or sell under-utilized property in the city. This is not a cure for every issue with local housing, but it offers a means for keeping newly vacated homes from becoming low-end rentals and for reconfiguring existing homes and neighborhoods for new owners. City Council needs to work with staff to formulate a charter for the land bank that will ensure that it can work for the maximum benefit of the city and its citizens.

* Foster change to make the city attractive to new residents, including “millennials” and future generations. Tastes change over time, and a community that seemed ideal to past generations might not have any appeal for future generations. The “millennial” generation, including my 25-year-old son, has an overwhelming preference for walkable urban neighborhoods. Oak Ridge was like that in its early years when few people had cars, housing was clustered around neighborhood shopping areas to which residents walked, and buses took people where they needed to go outside their neighborhoods. Since then, we have lost the buses and most of the neighborhood shopping, and we have spread (yes, sprawled) away from the original compact neighborhoods. I support efforts to reconfigure and revitalize the Jackson Square shopping center and surrounding areas as a means to reinvent that area as the kind of place that younger generations will want to  be. I have been delighted to watch Jackson Square begin to become a center for dining — particularly for unique local establishments like the Soup Kitchen, Razzleberry’s, the Homeland Food Cafe, the Market House, and Dean’s Restaurant. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing — which is one reason why I am supporting amendments to city ordinances to ensure that restaurants that lack liquor licenses (under Tennessee’s difficult liquor laws) can allow patrons to bring wine to enjoy with their meals. The pedestrian improvements that the state and city have made recently around town, waterfront improvements, and expanded greenways also should help make Oak Ridge more attractive to rising generations. One of the reasons I’ve been engaged with the Plan ET regional planning initiative for the 5-county Knoxville region is my conviction that regional cooperation is necessary to position our city for the future.

* Tell our story effectively. If Oak Ridge is a great place to live, we need to tell the world (or at least the Knoxville metro area, particularly including new hires in Oak Ridge) about it. The Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau both are involved in crafting and communicating the city’s message (to businesses, prospective visitors, and potential future residents), but I’m not sure that we and they are doing the best job we could. I think the city needs to hear and consider new proposals (from these organizations and from others) for doing that job more effectively.


A new kind of car

Our new Nissan Leaf

After much waiting, our new Nissan Leaf is finally here. I picked it up this afternoon. It’s definitely a new kind of car — not only is it fully electric, but in many respects it seems a bit like a computer on wheels. It goes faster than any computer, though. Driving on Oak Ridge Turnpike, I noticed that I was going too fast — my guess is that since there’s no engine noise, I wasn’t getting the auditory feedback that I’m accustomed to.

One thing that will take some getting used to is the fact that many of the major controls of the vehicle seem to be closely related to the controls for the radio — it’s all about communication, I guess.

The Nissan Leaf dashboard display is both totally familiar and totally strange.

The dashboard display behind the steering wheel includes the speed and the odometer reading (just like a gas-powered car), some interesting symbols that measure current power utilization — how hard the car is either using power or regenerating the battery while decelerating or braking, a display that looks like a gas gauge but indicates how much charge is left — measured in miles remaining on the battery, and a temperature gauge that shows the temperature of the battery. I don’t yet know what we are supposed to do if the battery starts getting “too hot.” There’s a coolant reservoir under the hood, but I still don’t know where the coolant circulates and what part of the car it cools (maybe it cools the battery — or maybe it’s part of the HVAC system).

There’s a touch screen with a complicated collection of displays — far more than in our Toyota Prius. I think that it’s probably best to ignore this touch screen while driving, as the Google navigation maps, energy use details, radio station displays, heating/cooling details, etc., could be very distracting. The touchscreen display is where I saw a readout indicating that the car was getting 3 miles per kilowatt-hour, on average.

Electronic display on the EV charger mounted on our carport wall.

Both the car and the plug-in charger are programmable devices that can be told when to charge the car (I don’t know which device takes priority if they have different programming), so the battery is scheduled to get recharged in the middle of the night, when baseload electricity generating facilities (nuclear power plants, plus some coal-fired plants) typically crank out more electricity than the grid needs. At this time, Oak Ridge residential customers pay the same price for that off-peak power as we do for peak power during the day, so we’re not saving any money by charging at night, but over the next few years that’s expected to change. TVA recently started charging the city a dual rate that has both a monthly usage (kilowatt hours) component and a peak demand component (based on the hour each month that the city had the highest usage). Over the next several years, they’ll introduce peak and off-peak rates, and the city will begin to pass differential rates on to consumers — encouraging us to shift the timing of some of our electric use. Until then, I guess we’re practicing for that future — and our car and our charger will be sending data to Department of Energy researchers to help them understand and model how electric cars will interact with the electricity grid and the transportation system in future years.


Climate Action Plan — it’s time to comment

The Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board’s long-awaited Climate Action Plan is available in draft form for public review — download it here. The plan describes recommended measures for reducing energy consumption (and thus emissions of greenhouse gases) by city government and by the community at large. I missed last Tuesday’s public meeting about it (I was out of town), but I’m definitely looking forward to hearing what people think of the recommendations. City Council is scheduled to receive the final plan in October.

I’ll be interested in receiving people’s comments, but people who want to affect the content of the final plan should send comments on the plan to Athanasia Senecal — her e-mail name is asenecal and the city e-mail domain is cortn.org.


YES to household energy efficiency, NO to imposters taking advantage of TVA program

It’s great news for local homeowners that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is promoting home energy efficiency through in-home energy evaluations and rebates for certain kinds of energy improvements. Details are on the TVA website (and there are also tax credits available for work done this year). I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that unscrupulous people are taking advantage of this, according to this message from TVA:

Recently, TVA was informed of a situation in which an individual falsely posed as a TVA energy evaluator with the In Home Energy Evaluation (IHEE) program pilot. The imposter gained access to the customer’s home but did no harm. In efforts to prevent this situation going forward, we are asking you notify your customers of this situation and communicate to them that TVA-certified evaluators will not visit homes without pre-scheduling evaluations. TVA is adding the following language to all versions of the IHEE fact sheet as well as the TVA website.

In-home evaluations are scheduled in advance at the request of a homeowner and performed by TVA-certified evaluators. Residents should report any uninvited persons claiming to represent TVA or the local power company to local authorities immediately.

Please share this information with your customers as soon as possible. If you have any questions or need my assistance, please let me know. Thank you for your continued participation and support.

Tom Irwin
Senior Power Utilization Engineer
TVA Comprehensive Services


Whither retail Part 2 – the 3/50 Project

The 3/50 Project is giving us all a simple recipe for preserving and promoting commercial activity in our communities: pick 3 independently owned local businesses that you would miss if they disappeared, and spend $50 each month at those businesses ($50 divided among all three). The basic idea is to commit a total of $50 each month to locally owned independent businesses.

The promoters point out that the money spent in independent local businesses returns more money to the community — in taxes, payroll, and other expenditures — than the money spent in big-box stores and franchises. (And the return to the community is infinitely greater than when we spend our money in out-0f-town businesses or online.) Ideally, it also means that local retail areas thrive because they contain one-of-a-kind independent businesses that  customers seek out. (This is particularly important for older shopping areas — like Jackson Square and Grove Center. )

All this is consistent with the concepts of a sustainable local economy and a sustainable environment — for example, the Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board‘s draft climate action plan calls for “increasing the local velocity of money” (basically, keeping more money in the local economy and moving it around faster) as one strategy for making Oak Ridge more self-sufficient — and thus more sustainable. With the Jackson Square and Grove Center merchants, Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce, and several other local businesses signed on as supporters of the 3/50 Project, it appears that different elements in the community are all together on this.

Thinking about the 3/50 concept, I quickly realized that some independent local businesses that are important to me are unlikely to get my business every month. For example, I’m wearing shoes that came from Edwards Shoe Store and I drive a car that was last serviced at Chuck’s CarCare Center, and even though I value these two businesses, I’m unlikely to spend money with them every single month. On the other hand, in any given month I’m likely to spend $50 or more divided between several independent local eateries (places like Homeland Food, the Magnolia Tree Restaurant, Mediterranean Delight, the Flatwater Grill, and the various Mexican restaurants). Most people are likely to have different “threes” in different months — and spend more than $50 in some months.

I’ve also pondered a bit regarding some of the 3/50 Project’s criteria  — for example, the idea that locally-owned franchise businesses don’t qualify because they have advantages, like preferred vendor lists, specially negotiated vendor pricing,  and a regionally/nationally recognized brand name, that true independent businesses lack. Franchises are less in need of customer support than truly independent businesses. However, if my goal as a city leader is to maintain a vital retail sector and keep money in town, I have to care about the success of locally owned franchises —  partly because they are more likely to succeed (and thus provide a stronger retail sector).

For me, the key idea of the 3/50 Project is that we consumers need to be conscious of where the money we spend is going to end up — and try to make spending decisions that keep more of that money in the local economy. I like having one simple message that tells us to do all that.

I hope that our local independent business owners will return the favor by paying attention to customer needs and wants (different operating hours to better serve two-earner households? offering special ordering to better meet customer needs?) — so we will have more and more reasons to spend our money with them.


The Community Forum for Shaping a Green Future – Part 2

The process used at the Saturday forum was based on the process followed to elicit community input to Chattanooga’s climate action plan, which had been published two days before the Oak Ridge forum. Jim Frierson of the Chattanooga Green Team spoke at the forum regarding Chattanooga’s experience, helping to set the stage for our discussions.

Group discussion at sustainability forum, led by Ruby Miller and recorded by Chuck Agle The heart of the forum was a set of six facilitated discussion groups focused on six different general topics. Attendees spent 15 minutes in each topical area, sharing their ideas on things that Oak Ridge possibly could do to reduce energy use or otherwise promote sustainability. Volunteers from the community served as facilitators, and ideas were recorded by EQAB members who volunteered to be scribes. It was clear that the interactions between people stimulated a lot of good thinking. Within about 2 hours, each topical area had a list of roughly 100 ideas. There was minimal discussion of the ideas — the purpose was to generate ideas, not to evaluate them. Evaluation (for example, of cost, feasibility, and potential reduction on greenhouse gas emissions) will come later.

After the small-group sessions, participants were asked to go around the room and give votes (in the form of stickers) to their favorite ideas. Because each person had only two votes and little time to scan the lists, I don’t think this part worked very well — there were far too many ideas for most people to be able to make a meaningful choice of just two “best” ones.

Discussion at the end of the Sustainable Oak Ridge workshopI heard a lot of positive feedback about the process. People enjoyed meeting and interacting with their fellow citizens — this was not a crowd in which everyone already knew everyone else, so people were seeing new faces and hearing new perspectives. I think people particularly appreciated that the request for their opinions was essentially open-ended, rather than being framed in a way that narrows the range of “acceptable” answers (and may not allow citizens to say what they really think). Several people said that this type of format should be used for other City efforts to involve the public in decision-making — such as planning for the Melton Lake waterfront and marina area.

People have been asking me about what ideas that were generated, and which were the most popular. I can’t answer those questions very well yet. The volunteer scribes are not finished typing up the lists of ideas they recorded. Here’s a sample of some of the ideas (and themes of groups of more specific ideas) that I recall:
* Give residents incentives or financial assistance to make their homes more energy efficient
* Provide public transit
* Make the city more bike-friendly and more pedestrian-friendly
* Encourage LEED certification for new development
* “Make lawns unfashionable”
* Restrict tree-cutting in new developments
* Hire a city urban forester
* Convert city vehicles to alternative fuels
* Promote the farmer’s market
* Reduce vehicle idling by modifying intersections to reduce waiting time
* Put photovoltaic solar panels on the roofs of schools and city buildings

All of the ideas need to be reported publicly soon, and there will be more opportunities for public input — as well as evaluating ideas to find the ones that make the most sense practically, economically, and to achieve environmental goals.


The Community Forum for Shaping a Green Future – Part 1

Athanasia Senecal describes results of Oak Ridge's greenhouse gas emissions inventory By most measures, Saturday’s forum “Greening Oak Ridge: A Community Forum for Shaping a Green Future” was a smashing success. There were about 100 people there, with a diverse variety of perspectives, and those people seemed to be thoroughly engaged in generating ideas about what Oak Ridge needs to do to make Oak Ridge a sustainable community for future generations.

Sustainability is often about the environment, but more broadly it means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is no small challenge. The global financial collapse unfortunately means that we are now depending on those future generations to rescue our present economy. This forum was focused, however, on an environment-related sustainability challenge: sustaining the future environment and the future economy in the face of the impacts of the continuing buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — and taking action toward stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations and the climate.

On Friday, I heard the news that a group of 26 big companies and several environmental organizations calling themselves the U.S. Climate Action Partnership had declared their support for reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050. That’s a frighteningly ambitious goal facing us, our children, and our children’s children. It’s even more frightening to realize that climate experts say that the goal of 80 percent reduction from 2005 to 2050 is not nearly ambitious enough.

In May of last year, the City Council passed a resolution committing Oak Ridge to take action to address greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions, and to take a leadership role in addressing of climate change as an issue. The Environmental Quality Advisory Board was charged with advising the City in the development and implementation of milestones to accomplish these objectives.

As a first step in reducing Oak Ridge’s impact on the global atmosphere, EQAB needed to figure out how big that impact is and what we do that produces that impact. At the forum, Athanasia Senecal (photo), a UT intern working with the City, told about the inventory of greenhouse gas emissions from City government and from the community as a whole. The biggest source of City government emissions is (surprisingly) the water and wastewater sector — mostly pumping water uphill in our beautiful but hilly terrain. City government emissions are, however, only about 1 percent of the community total.

Part of the crowd at sustainability forumTo help define actions for the community to take, part of EQAB’s task is to make recommendations on city actions and policies to help ensure sustainability in the coming years and decades.
Saturday’s forum was held to gather input and ideas to feed into those policy recommendations. Participants were asked questions like:
* What steps do you think Oak Ridge should take to become a greener community?
* What should the city do to reduce our carbon footprint and build environmental sustainability into our infrastructure?

[To be continued]