Archive for April 2012

Bias or a New Public Square? — 12/28/06

April 28, 2012

From Riversideinfo, a discussion arose as to bias in the forum, the new public square… 

dear xxxxxx,

since i am not anti-tif to begin with, and since i have begun to use this site to share my thoughts, i would like to point out that this site’s great utility is that it is allowing people of various views to exchange them in a respectful setting. kim [an originator of the forum] says she is anti-tif, and that is her right and i beleive that to be her sincerely held position, which i respect. but her labor has allowed me to propagate my two cents on the question, which i also appreciate. so, even if kim has her own opinion, i think it undervalues the contribution of her workand of this site to categorize it, let alone dismiss it as “agenda” driven, except if that agenda is described as public conversation.

as to your comment on tif’s over all, please take a few minutes to read my posts, as i will read yours.

tifs are neither good nor bad in themselves. they succeed when well-planned and fail when not. they are only a tool and like all other tools in the municipal tool box, they can be used well or not, and they can be planned well or not.

the great opportunity we now have thanks to the trustees postponing action is to institute the appropriate level of planning so that our confidence level in riverside’s next steps, whether they include a special tax district, a fight for home rule, a tif or anything else, a combination of these or none of these, will significantly increase relative to a shared vision for what riverside should be for the next 20 – 40years.

and in that this forum, i think, will play a terrific part.

POSTED THURSDAY DEC 28, 2006 17:39 #

Better Planning Needed Before TIF — 11/22/2006

April 28, 2012
  1. dear riverside info reader,

    below please find an 11-22-2006 email i sent just prior to the village’s tif hearing, which failed to address most of these points.

    it is gratifying that the village pulled the tif. however, now we MUST focus attention on an appropriate planning process.

    at the end of november and into december i wrote a series of emails that i am now going to transfer here. once i get that done i will write some new reactions to what has happened since the board pulled the tif. thank you for any amount of time you are able to spend on these and the other posts here as you consider this very serious re-development matter before us as a village.

    —best regards, chris
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    dear all,

    on monday night i spoke to the village trustees in opposition to the tif district. specifically, i asked them to table, or defer action, on the district, pending development of an agreed-to vision for the town and completion of a comprehensive village plan.

    because of other commitments i will not be able to speak at tonight’s hearing. i pass along this overview of my argument for deferring action in the hopes that someone will find it useful in understanding what is at stake and how we may proceed together as a village from where we are. (because i am dashing this off, it won’t be as neat as it shd be. please forgive me. i will make a clean copy. thank you.)

    quickly, what’s a tif district and how is it used?

    tif districts allow municipal bodies to make certain decisions about development. typically, and certainly here, the municipality, after meeting procedural requirements, cabins the property taxes from a certain zone —“ the district —“ and supports development in that zone with expenditure of funds raised from the public finance markets against the anticipated growth in property taxes that will take place in the specific district.

    so, there are several distinct aspects of a tif program that are of vital significance to its viability and ultimate success. these include the district plan itself, the context within which it is utilized, the financing steps taken in support of the district and the judgment of the officials who have control over the funds raised by the sale of bonds in the public markets.

    (this is an extremely brief overview of tifs and probably does not do them justice. they have spawned an academic literature of their own. an award winning local expert in the press is greg hinz at crain’s chicago business. if you go to and search for hinz and tif you will find a lengthy list of articles that may serve as a primer. the experts he quotes are, i believe, a good place for concerned citizens to go for more in-depth information.)

    in any case, i am personally unconvinced that the tif proposal now before riverside succeeds on any of the above bases, planning, finance or judgment. my opposition is not personal. i think the board of trustees is comprised of good people who mean well. unfortunately, they are down the wrong road at the wrong time.

    I. planning

    1. tif districts are neither good nor bad in themselves, they are simply one of many tools in the municipal tool-box, so to speak. i have consistently said we shd take steps to see if a tif district is a correct option for Riverside. however, i think the way the village has propelled this conversation is fatally flawed.

    2. the success of tif districts fiscally and substantially depends almost entirely on the acuity of their underlying vision and the refinement of the comprehensive plan within which they are executed.

    3. riverside has neither an agreed-to vision, nor a comprehensive plan.

    4. instead, the village suggests tacking a tif district program onto a transit-oriented development study that was completed earlier this year.

    5. this is creates numerous problems:

    a. no one participated in the TOD study on the basis that it was a visioning exercise, so employing it as such draws invalid conclusions to issues that were not anticipated at the time it was executed

    b. the TOD study is merely that, a sober and serious assessment of strengths and weaknesses as well as transit / pedestrian oriented solutions to strengthen our downtown

    c. the TOD study thus is silent on a community-wide expression of preferences for types of downtown development, mobility beyond metra service, needed services to enhance the riverside living and visiting experiences, anticipated forms of development and their relation to other issues pending in the village (iow, square footages versus class size problems at central), and more—¦

    d. the TOD study did count parking spaces, and it found we have a lot. however, because of an ill-considered element in the downtown re-zoning, most of which is very sound, the village imposed the idea of a parking structure in downtown riverside. this definitely causes me to question the judgment of the trustees. no one should ever consider a downtown parking structure in riverside. our town has no place in and around Guthrie park and environs for a parking ramp (one cannot believe we have to actually say these things.)

    e. this is not planning for planning’s sake: this is setting expectations based on community consensus so that subsequent delegated decisions will be made in accordance with agreed-to terms of reference and not on a random or willy-nilly basis.

    examples of such subsequent decisions:

    shd we exercise the eminent domain power to take homes for construction of a multi-level parking ramp—¦?

    shd we spend money on planters at street level or restoring the spires atop the arcade building—¦?;

    should we allow first floor commercial at times or only first floor retail—¦?(this is somewhat a zoning issue, but in the district may arise anew—¦);

    what are our design guidelines for downtown?

    shd we provide funds to assist a strapped-but-noteworthy architectural bookseller to move to town to capitalize on anticipated tourists coming to see olmsted’s masterpiece, or shd all such inducements be directed toward new brick-and-mortar developers—¦?;

    shd a permitted building under construction be allowed to change features it agreed-to before various village board and commissions based on a staffer’s choice, or shd permitted buildings have a commissioner-level process for changes their developers think necessary—¦?;

    and on and on—¦

    f. all of these decisions have a direct impact on riverside’s viability as a place for investment and thus on the financial success of the tif. none of them have been addressed formally because we have not done our necessary tif homework of visioning and planning. how this happens in any community is a mystery. how it could happen here —“ in a globally recognized national historic landmark —“ is beyond my understanding. i think it gets to my reservations about judgment.

    g. the TOD study is not our comprehensive plan. (it never said that it was.) we also know it is not our visioning exercise. so it is not the correct basis for grounding a tif program. to the extent that the village’s tif district proposal refers to and relies on the TOD study, which is on nearly every page, it fails

    6. Riverside has for years had one of the most highly respected planning commissions in the six county region. under this planning commission we re-wrote both the central business district and residential zoning. numerous other issues have been resolved by this planning commission and the result is a dramatically modernized zoning code for the village. the tif proposal, which is at its heart a planning program, has NOT been referred to the planning commission.

    i find it impossible to construct a rationale for not sending such a proposal to the planning commission. i believe the village’s step here shows a genuine disrespect for the planning commission, its jurisdiction, expertise and members, to say nothing of —“ at best — a cavalier attitude on the part of those pushing the tif district program, essentially saying that it does not need / would not be helped by reconciling with all of the other planning activities of the village.

    7. What do i mean by a comprehensive plan based on a vision?

    a comprehensive village plan with a design year would show everyone how we want riverside to look in that particular design year, say 2026. it would index the existing population, demographics, structures, uses, roads, parks, approaches, traffic patterns, inflows, outflows, school sizes, and more and more, and then it would re-state where we think we should be in the design year, and how we intend to get from here to there. the planning process would be based on a vision, which is to say a shared understanding of the community we intend to build. the visioning exercise that i have seen as most effective for communities like us is professor tony nelessen’s ( visual preference survey, which wd present every resident who chooses to participate with a series of photos depicting choices about how things should look in riverside, from the curb cuts to new houses. each participant would rate the images, and each resident’s total ratings would be compiled with everyone else’s. i have seen this work in numerous states and communities and —“ if i may say —“ never was there a better town for this approach to visioning than riverside.

    for reasons known only to them, the trustees have decided it is OK to revise the codes, ignore the main street project of several years ago, approve the largest development in downtown riverside in history, do the TOD study, and then jump into a tif without completing the planning basics of vision and comprehensive plan. thus we have a tif cart placed well in front of a now-non-existent planning horse. this is planning madness. it gets to me questions about the judgment exercised by the trustees.

    II. finance

    1. a tif district’s vision and planning basis speak mainly to its substantial success, iow, its ability to attract the type and level of development that would not happen but for our tif district. if the tif district is successful in attracting that development, then it will probably be successful in the fiscal sense as well. that means it will repay the bonds that the village intends to sell if we allow them to do so.

    a. but we have no spreadsheet on the record that actually shows this —“ just a few charts

    b. in fact there is very little on the record now as far as i am aware about the financial commitment the village wants us as taxpayers to accept as part of this plan

    c. which commitment —“ as our oak park neighbors learned to their chagrin — is to repay the bondholders if the property tax increment generated by the designated tif district fails to achieve the original underlying assumptions of the bonds.

    d. this means that we may be liable for considerable sums at the back end —“ or even before the back end —“ of the tif district’s life. in a small village like ours, the consequences of such a default would be very serious indeed.

    e. the simple answer to this issue is —¦ sound and sober planning! but as we saw above, we have not taken that path.

    f. so an additional reason i propose tabling this idea for now is it makes no sense to take proximate steps toward establishment of a tif district without a full set of financials independently verified

    2. everyone shd understand that the main reason we are pursuing the tif idea is to increase revenues. this was the principal justification advanced last night by president jack wiaduck and trustee kevin smith. none of the other trustees present disagreed.

    a. tif districts generate more money now through sale of bonds sold that are backed by the increment in tax collections.

    b. they also generate —“ when they succeed—”more money at the back end because they have fostered development which, but for the tif district, would not have arrived.

    c. but they also deny government bodies tax revenues: the schools and other local districts would receive no funds from the pin’s in the designated zone for the life of the tif district. (there are some exceptions to this)

    d. as a taxpayer for districts 96 and 208, i am concerned about the extent of impact on these two fine districts. i believe the impact can be overcome, but that once again requires sound and sober planning, this time in the finance area.

    e. yet as recently as august, neither district had been involved in any formal discussions with the village about the tif or its financial impact on their operations.

    III. judgment

    i question this board’s judgment on key matters:

    n it failed to include the henninger development in the tif, leaving perhaps $1 million to $2 million on the table

    n it approved the henninger project’s absurd size in return for nothing

    n it gave away our zoning code and alley way for the henninger project and received a blot on our town in return, which actually will hinder the re-positioning of riverside that we should be pursuing.

    n it has begun the practice of buying developers out of their obligation for parking spaces under the downtown zoning code, for $5000, whereas new parking spaces typically cost $15,000.

    n it quietly REVERSED our time-honored ban on sub-dividing lots in a greedy pursuit of revenue at the expense of riverside’s character. at a time when our town shd be promoting lot combinations for larger homes, to say nothing of preserving all the vacant property as-is and as was agreed to in the 1990-1992 period by all concerned, as well as all subsequent purchasers. this is a genuine outrage.

    n when the trustees were asked about overturning the sub-division ban, they said that the new residential zoning code would cover the matter, but the planning commission then said it had never encompassed the issue of lot sub-division because no one had any idea the trustees would overturn our landmark ordinance banning further subdivisions.

    n it failed to recognize that the natural spot for a tif in riverside is on harlem avenue, in conjunction with Berwyn if possible, where we have considerable car traffic and thus customer traffic, and which is removed from the heart of olmsted’s plan

    n it has countenanced the idea of a parking ramp in sight of the water tower and Guthrie park

    n it has failed to co-ordinate the pendency of the tif district with the high school, with dist. 96, or with anyone else as far as i can tell

    n it has cavalierly put fellow residents’ homes into the district without telling them, and subjected them to fear of eminent domain proceedings, while saying publicly that eminent domain will not be used, but pursuing it just the same.

    n it has put us all in the position of dealing with a tif proposal without an agreed-to vision or comprehensive plan with a design year.

    (and more—¦)

    the movie they are showing us is: riverside redevelopment is all and only about money, and when what makes riverside special gets in the way, too bad.

    i do not think these people have the judgment needed to operate a tif that serves riverside. certainly not without the constraints that a normal process would create.

    i am not anti-tif, nor am i anti-development. but i am for visioning, planning and all of the usual serious and sober disciplines taken by municipalities before they get this far down the tif district road. riverside has not done so, so i propose tabling this and proceeding with visioning and planning.

    i challenge any one of them, or all of them, to debate on any of these points.

    thanks and have a great meeting tonight.


    chris robling

    POSTED THURSDAY DEC 28, 2006 10:31 #

“Pro-referendum Ad Pulled from RBTV” — 3/4/2011

April 28, 2012

On Wednesday evening, March 2, 2011, at the Komarek Forum, I questioned the propriety of RBTV’s ad campaign for the referendum.  By Friday, March 4, it was pulled.  A taped 30+ minute referendum ad featuring Dr. Bonnette and Pam Bylsma has never been shown.  Here is a link to the RB Landmark article announcing the pulling of the ad.

Komarek: “Now they want more than $100 million” — 3/3/2011

April 28, 2012


Points on the referendum
“Now they want more than $100 million”

I thank Komarek Parent University for inviting me March 2 to provide a contra view, with reservations, about the proposed more than $100 million RB referendum.

Esteemed D95 board president Jim Landahl (pro) and I were to take the stage. As it happened, Jim decided to share his time with RBHS board member MariAnn Leibrandt, RBHS curriculum and instruction chief Tim Scanlon, RBHS financial advisor Elizabeth Hennessey of William Blair and Co., parent and community leader Darcy Lewis and, in the question-and-answer period after the presentations, RBHS superintendent David Bonnette.

I am looking for a place to post my presentation on the web. Here are points that I made or tried to make:


1. We all love RB.

2. We deserve the finest Illinois public high school of its size.

3. Our past is important only as it defines the present and limits our future.


1. Vision matters

2. Limits matter

3. Governance matters

Great governance brings great support, poor governance brings poor support.

And for us, “Governance” means the “RB Board.”

I am neither anti-union, nor anti-teacher, nor anti-referendum:

1. I was a union (AFTRA) organizer at WMAQ-AM radio.

2. The only reason I know anything is great teachers penetrated my thick head.

3. I did my tiny part to assist passage of the 2006 RBHS building referendum, by working on and endorsing the project first on the FLRSPCC committee and later on the Citizen’s Committee.

4. My point about our board is I believe it should represent us in negotiations with the teachers’ union as well as the teachers’ union represents RB teachers. That is the only way to a fair deal for both sides.

The tax hike itself:

1. This is the largest single local permanent tax hike our community has seen in recent memory.

2. The April referendum authorizes a permanent tax hike that is larger than the building fund tax hike we passed in 2006.

3. RBHS itself says it raises taxes by slightly more than $4.5 million per year. At 20 years, that is $90 million. At 30 years, it totals $135 million.

4. But remember, this tax hike is permanent. It does not go away, as the 20-year 2006 building fund tax hike will go away in about 16 years, or as short-term district obligations go away after set short periods.

5. The proposal hikes our rate by 20.2 percent, or 44 cents, from roughly $2.17 (Source: Wm. Blair).

Contract-as-cause of the tax hike:

1. This tax hike is necessitated by the Larry Herbst/Jack Baldermann contract with RB’s teachers.

2. The contract provides cumulative raises of more than 30 percent, with annual average-average raises of more than five percent.

3. Roughly, we spend $20 million at RB every year.

4. Of that, roughly $16 million is spent on salaries.

5. And, roughly $14 million of that is spent on wages for certified staff under the Herbst / Baldermann contract.

6. At annual raises of more than five percent, the $14 million grows by roughly $700,000 per year.

7. State funding, county tax procedures, the property tax cap, property tax abatements, inflation and other external factors are neither the proximate cause of nor legitimate excuses for RBHS spending under its contract with teachers. They are significant but separate issues that will not be resolved by a vote either way in April.

The bad governance backdrop of the Herbst / Baldermann era, relevant as a limit on our present / future:

1. The RB board is our governing unit at RBHS.

2. Under Larry Herbst’s board presidency and Jack Baldermann’s superintendentship, RBHS experienced an extraordinary series of governance failures, including but by no means limited to:

a) Wasting $500,000 to $700,000 on the Paw and Cyberdog without a curricular plan,

b) Allowing the superintendent and others in the school without legal certification to be there,

c) Failure to execute appropriate background checks on volunteer personnel,

d) Giving insider non-employees health care and other benefits at our expense,

e) A January 2009 Suburban Life report on an investigation finding rampant disregard of Illinois Freedom of Information Act at RBHS,

f) Hiring in contravention of board nepotism policy,

g) Safety failures and

h) many more, referred to here and in the Riverside Brookfield Landmark and the Suburban Life.

3. These shortcomings led to our community’s desire for reform at RB.

RB finances of the Herbst/Baldermann period sadly reflect the governance ineptitude, relevant because it resulted in the contract that is driving the more than $100 million local permanent tax hike:

1. Under Herbst/Baldermann financial controls were almost nil.

2. By 2008, the situation became dire:

a) The board spent reserves down to less than 60 days of obligations in 2008. By July 1, 2008, RB was within 60 days of insolvency.

b) Well managed Illinois schools maintain reserves at more than twice or three times that level.

c) The board ignored 1800 citizens who petitioned for a referendum in August 2008.

d) And the board in August 2008 adopted a plan to raise taxes on district taxpayers by more than $4.9 million in September 2008 with no referendum and hold a 2010 referendum on a 20 cent tax hike.

e) The board then raised our taxes –- without our consent — in September 2008. Now it says it was wrong about a referendum for 20 cents, it needs 44 cents – an error of 220 percent.

4. Most distressingly, in the spring of 2008, as RB’s reserve funds dwindled, insolvency loomed and the board’s financial advisor ran numbers on the hiking-taxes-without-a-referendum, Herbst / Baldermann and the board adopted the above-described contract.

5. Simply put, Herbst/Baldermann wrote a check the board could not cover. Presumably they thought we would not notice.

6. Note very well points 2.d. and 2.e. above: The board and its financial advisor told us after they signed the teacher’s contract that with the no-vote $4.9 million tax hike, the eventual referendum would be only 20 cents. Either they did not know what they were talking about or they did. Obviously, they did not care that the 20 cent figure was less than half of the 44 cents they actually proposed.

7. Either way, this sequence of events instills concern, not confidence.

Why would the board do this?

1. Ask Larry Herbst.

2. In 2007, Larry and the incumbents were endorsed by the teachers for re-election.

3. In 2008, Larry and the board gave the teachers a very generous contract.

4. I have no idea if these events are connected – please investigate and decide for yourself.

With the departure of Superintendent Baldermann and the ascension of Jim Marciniak to the board presidency, an RB turnaround has commenced in earnest.

1. Interim superintendent David Bonnette was recruited.

a. Superintendent Bonnette conceded last night that the Paw/Cyberdog expenditures brought no significant educational benefit

b. Superintendent Bonnette said that had he negotiated the contract it would not have turned out as it did.

2. Hazard, Young and Attea was hired to conduct searches for senior-level personnel.

HYA highlighted the need to “restore integrity” to the district after Herbst/Baldermann era.

3. Principal Pam Bylsma was hired.

4. Dr. Skinkis has been signed up.

5. With support from president Marciniak and new board members, Dr. Bonnette has pursued many administrative improvements to repair damage done in the earlier period.

What we need is simple:

1. Ongoing reform in all directions at RBHS. The reform mandate has begun. It is not complete.

2. An independent complete project accounting to budget and plan of the $60 million building project. The board must keep faith with us by showing exactly where each penny went – not in the overall audit that’s conducted for state purpose, but a true and accurate report on project goals, objectives, budgeted costs, actual and variances. We deserve a complete accounting of every hard-earned dollar we gave them.

3. The same for the no-vote-$4.9 million-tax-hike. Also, the Herbst / Baldermann administration refused to comply with FOIA requests for Wm. Blair and Co. /Elizabeth Hennessey’s compensation and retainer. That must be put on the record.

4. A genuine financial plan for the district, to be revised and updated annually, to build public understanding and support for the Board, the staff and all of the great things that happen every day at RBHS. Only ongoing reform and this finance plan – with all financial issues put on the table — will ground public support for a new referendum.

5. I believe the referendum will be defeated. But that will not end this story – it will transform the story. In fact, it will be the end of the beginning; it will complete our break from the Herbst/Baldermann era. The sooner the better.

6. The more important part will come about when the new board sits with the teachers, and with us, and with its new financial advisor to chart a new course for RBHS. A return to the voters for a new referendum is inevitable, but it will be done with greater respect to our financial circumstances and our rightful expectations of accountability at RBHS. This will not be easy. All of it will be demanding and tough. We have heard a lot about a “partnership.” This will test that partnership – and show us just what we need to succeed as a community in establishing the finest Illinois public high school of RB’s size, within our ability to pay.


1. If after this you think the referendum is a great idea, by all means vote for it, and thank you for your public spiritedness.

2. If after this you think the referendum is a bad idea, by all means vote against it, and thank you for your public spiritedness.

3. In this recession, with its effects, it is not for any of us, least of all the most privileged and successful, to tell the rest of us that “if you do not vote for the referendum, then you do not properly care for RB.” Caring about RB does not equal supporting the referendum. Opposing the referendum does not equal ignoring RB.

4. But all of this does point to an undiminished public responsibility. Each of us owes it to ourselves and our families and each other to work hard to get to know the seven candidates for RB board and select the four we think are best qualified for the job. Because whatever happens to the referendum, we will need a first-class board to bring us a first-class high school.


POSTED THURSDAY MAR 3, 2011 18:09 #

Thoughts Before the Komarek Referendum Debate — 2/27/2011

April 28, 2012

From, after a notice about the Komarek parent’s association debate.

I would like to make the point that the Komarek forum hosts Jim Landahl, highly esteemed District 95 board president and supporter of the referendum and yours truly.

I have made it clear to the organizers and to Jim that I will not urge anyone to vote one way or the other. I have been asked to raise the same questions, and the same sort of questions, at the forum that I have raised here and elsewhere, mainly at RB Landmark. And that’s what I will do with my slide show and remarks.

I will urge everyone there, as I do here, to vote their conscience and family pocketbook. I do not think it is appropriate in this recession for any of us to tell others how to vote on this. Many in our communities of Broadview, Lyons, North Riverside, Brookfield, La Grange Park and Riverside are struggling. Jobs, incomes, homes and indeed families have been lost to this recession. To the privileged among us, such a permanent tax hike is a matter of utter indifference. Others face starkly different choices.

If you think the referendum is a good idea, and your family can afford it, I will be the first to encourage you, as I have personally encouraged leaders of the pro-referendum campaign, to vote for it. But no one in this District should be made to feel that their commitment to or concern about RB depends on affirming this question. If you do not agree with the referendum, or how we arrived here, or you and your family simply cannot afford to say “yes,” then I am the first to agree that you should vote “no” without a moment’s hesitation.

Caring about RB does not equal voting for this question. Voting against this question does not equal ignoring RB.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed RB matters for the last nine years that on Wednesday i will look critically at the Board’s assertions, raise questions to which I see no answers coming from the Board, and suggest steps for the future.

I thank Komarek and its “Parent University” series. As far as I can tell, this is the only such forum planned. Why?

Similarly, the high school chose to bury its candidate night by excluding the pubic and denying open questions. These are troubling indicators that the turnaround at RB for which we have long fought is not yet fully established. Jim Marciniak and the SWIM team have taken key reform steps, and the discredited Board members who allowed things to get so far out of hand each decided not to run for re-election. That’s to the good. But when we see candidates closed off in a studio, with no public audience or open questioning, or we see the school doing nothing to promote dialogue on these issues, we must take note.

This is exactly why I wrote in the Landmark last fall that regardless of what you think of the referendum — be sure you find the most qualified candidates for the Board and be sure you vote them in. We have seven public-spirited candidates. That’s great. I think four are well qualified. But decide for yourself. Decide who we need to direct Dr. Skinkis to reform RB away from the remaining remnants of Herbst-Baldermann-ism and on to the new path shown by President Marciniak. A lot of folks through the years have explained away problems at RB, but no one has convinced me that we do not deserve the finest Illinois public high school of its size.

But that starts with us. And it starts with our voting in the best Board we possibly can.

See you Wednesday !

POSTED MONDAY FEB 28, 2011 07:25 #

Washingtonians, Mies and Design — 3/27/2012

April 28, 2012

Some D.C. people got into a snit about Google’s homage to Mies van der Rohe on his birthday.

This is from March 27, 2012:

It is always sad to hear Washingtonians post about architecture.

The Google Doodle depicts Crown Hall, named for Sol Crown, who was Henry Crown’s brother. The Crowns were west-siders like their friend and longtime client… Hyman Rickover. It was for Admiral Rickover, himself a product of the Chicago Public Schools, that one of their companies, General Dynamics (Electric Boat division) built the earliest elements of our nuclear U.S. Navy, which went on, as 1/3 of the strategic triad, to win the Cold War.

Crown Hall transcends any number of architecural precepts.  For instance, it is a clearspan building, in which its skeletal support is actually exterior to its space (an exoskeleton).  This not only eliminates interior columnar supports, but it unifies the interior in a room of grand purpose. In its case, teaching young designers.

This is essentially the idea behind the Washington landmark known as the Capitol Dome, itself creating a unified space — the Rotunda — which represents not only the United part of United States but also the unitied legislative branch (that works in theory…).

If you care about this stuff, the point here is a Miesian step to a future discussed by a great influence, Frank Lloyd Wright.  Wright’s quest after spatial unity is embodied in Oak Park’s Unity Temple, and his design of broad open rooms in Robie, Coonley and Tomek.  Mies said Wright saved him 20 years — because they both headed in the same direction.

Unified space and exoskeletal design also distinguish the Farnsworth House, Mies’s temple of a weekend retreat in Plano, Illinois, and a great day trip from Chicago. (But it’s classical and Crown Hall is gothic.)

Mies’ D.C. Public Library, alas, lacked the budget for this type of design, so in it you will find great design, and trademark attention to detail if you care to look, but also columns and rooms.  It is still a stunning legacy and deserving of support and protection.

I lived in D.C. 11 years, and love the city very much, though the fact is very little of its architecture is distinguished. The best bet is probably the East Wing of the National Gallery, or parhps the Hirshhorn.  Generally one finds FDR-era late classical revival blah.  Friends like Ollie Carr never saw the point of great design, and D.C. has the built form to show for it.

I’d point out the Metro was designed by Harry Weese, who studied every line Mies ever drew, and there is a new Mayer Brown building, I think by Helmut Jahn, on the wretched K Street that gives Washingtonians a hint of what is going on elsewhere.

Mies’s greatest honor — as an immigrant son of the U.S. — was receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Johnson. (I wonder if the Crowns attended.) I have no sense that President Johnson knew anything about architeure except the words “Brown and Root,” but he did all of us proud by acknowledging modernism’s greatest force, as Google did again today.  Thank you, Google.

Answering the “Georgetown Letter” to Paul Ryan — 4/27/2012

April 27, 2012

April 27, 2012

Dear former professors and others who signed the “Georgetown Letter” to U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan,

Your note brings sadness.

I expect more from each and from all of you.  I think you were respectful, not condescending, to responsible points of view when I studied under you or your predecessors in the 1970s, and especially views sincerely espoused, even if they were at odds with your own.  It is certainly what we were taught.

Two recollections: Dr. Kissinger’s hiring and Farah Pahlavi’s speech at Gaston Hall.  Neither Fr. Henle nor Fr. Healy would abide – institutionally – the cursory, opportunistic, conclusory and, frankly, basely political denunciations these events provoked.  However, you strike the notes today that our presidents taught us then were countenanced neither by Christian hospitality nor by Jesuit praxis.

How like the 17th century local wise men in Tibet, China, the Philippines, or for that matter Wisconsin you sound, reacting to a Desideri, Ricci, Xavier or Marquette, upon the campus arrival of one who sees things differently than you.  I wonder if you think this signifies confidence in your position – or alarm.

Your letter’s thin welcome leaps to a conclusory assertion, with neither evidence nor references, that Rep. Ryan ‘misuses’ Catholic teaching by occasional application of its terms to describe his plan for our unsustainable federal spending and $15 trillion national debt.

But it does so in the terms of a press release, or 100 press releases, from interested parties and true believers, who say the same thing.  Are your descriptive powers those of a campaign press secretary?  Are you ashamed to crib their copy?  Frankly, it is embarrassing that your characterization is indistinguishable from those repeated constantly by a national political party that appears primarily focused on… attacking Rep. Ryan’s plan.

I know several of you, and I know the grades we would have earned – or forsaken – for originality or its absence.  I leave to your own honest personal assessment how you would grade yourselves – or your students – for such work.

In substance, about subsidiarity, you appeal to Rome.  I instead appeal to Athens, in substance, about unsustainability.

In Athens these days electricians are fighting merchants because they have not been paid in six months, but if they fail to report to work they will lose their claim to their jobs and the pensions they thought were secure.

In Athens’ Constitution Square, on Wednesday, April 2, a pharmacist, whose support checks were lost in the unwinding of Greece’s insolvency, shot himself to death rather than leave his family in debt, according to the Chicago Tribune’s John Kass.  Protestors gathered throughout the day.  Eventually, in front of the parliament building, the demonstrations turned violent.  Greeks hammered the marble steps and started throwing chunks at Greeks.  Troops arrived, tear gas was sprayed, as at Healy Lawn in the 1970s, and, in Kass’ words, “The situation appeared to calm down, at least for a few hours overnight, until the nation awakens and sees that its economic agony remains unresolved.”

If you think we are not hurtling to that moment, then please offer to exchange views with Congressman Ryan.  I suggest you check your arithmetic first.

If you think that moment awaits us, then please state, unlike the U.S. Senate, which has not adopted a budget resolution for 1100 days, or the president, whose budget received zero votes in the House of Representatives several weeks ago, your better plan to avoid it.

Or, if instead you choose to quibble about Mr. Ryan’s description of his plan, then you might consult Rhonheimer, for instance, who as you know recites and refreshes Thomas’ best lessons – and emphasizes that an “integral common good” is based on a “practical common good.”

And then you might describe to all of us, in detail, what in Athens looks to you like a “practical common good.”

Citizenship’s requisite rationality demands that we listen to those with whom we disagree.  Of course, it is easier to disqualify than to learn an opponent’s position better than they know it themselves, as Lord Acton admonished.  Your preemptive snit over interpretive nuances of subsidiarity, coupled with your insulting stunt of enclosing Rerem Novarum, teach your students to disqualify, rather than to listen.

Thus, the sadness your letter brought, on an otherwise glorious John Carroll Weekend here in beautiful Chicago, for as we were taught to listen above the din, the din now comes from within.

I hope – pray actually – to see better from each and all of you, as well as from Georgetown University, institutionally, itself.

Utraque unum,

Chris Robling

A.B., philosophy and economics

[Text of “Georgetown Letter”:] 

Dear Rep. Paul Ryan,

Welcome to Georgetown University. We appreciate your willingness to talk about how Catholic social teaching can help inform effective policy in dealing with the urgent challenges facing our country. As members of an academic community at a Catholic university, we see your visit on April 26 for the Whittington Lecture as an opportunity to discuss Catholic social teaching and its role in public policy.

However, we would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has wisely noted in several letters to Congress – “a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.” Catholic bishops recently wrote that “the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.”

In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.

Cuts to anti-hunger programs have devastating consequences. Last year, one in six Americans lived below the official poverty level and over 46 million Americans – almost half of them children – used food stamps for basic nutrition. We also know how cuts in Pell Grants will make it difficult for low-income students to pursue their educations at colleges across the nation, including Georgetown. At a time when charities are strained to the breaking point and local governments have a hard time paying for essential services, the federal government must not walk away from the most vulnerable.

While you often appeal to Catholic teaching on “subsidiarity” as a rationale for gutting government programs, you are profoundly misreading Church teaching. Subsidiarity is not a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices. This often misused Catholic principle cuts both ways. It calls for solutions to be enacted as close to the level of local communities as possible. But it also demands that higher levels of government provide help — “subsidium”– when communities and local governments face problems beyond their means to address such as economic crises, high unemployment, endemic poverty and hunger. According to Pope Benedict XVI: “Subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa.”

Along with this letter, we have included a copy of the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, commissioned by John Paul II, to help deepen your understanding of Catholic social teaching.


[Signed by some 90 Georgetown personnel, mostly professors]