Friday, January 12, 2007

Random January thoughts

I've always found January to be a rather boring and dreary month. Perhaps it's a natural reaction to the passing of the festive holiday season, but January is my least favorite month of the year behind August.

Anyway, I'm sorry about the lack of recent posting activity. I'll try to put up some new material (inlcuding my recap of the college football season) over the weekend. In the meantime, here are some random thoughts and observations that have been rattling around in my head over the past few days:

David Beckham is coming to the Los Angeles Galaxy. The English soccer superstar's contract is reported to be five years and $250 million, inclusive of commerical endorsements. Beckham, who is one of the world's most recognizable athletes, hasn't had a great career at Real Madrid and his best days are clearly behind him. But his marquee value is unquestionable, and at age of 31 he definitely has a few productive years left in him.

While it's great to see one of soccer's greatest names come over to play on this side of the Atlantic, isn't signing international superstars to huge contracts the exact thing the MLS said it wouldn't do when it was formed over a decade ago? Hasn't professional soccer in the United States traveled down this road before, when the NASL of the 1970s signed Pele and other aging soccer standouts to outrageous contracts that the relatively small US soccer fan base simply couldn't support? How did that turn out? (hint: the NASL folded in 1984)

For all his popularity on the other side of the Atlantic, Beckham has his work cut out for him over here:

After all, Beckham's cult of personality has few believers in America. The superstar, whose best playing days are likely behind him, has helped sell millions of European tabloids but has been able to walk American streets in relative anonymity.

"I realize I'm not as recognized in the U.S. as I am around Europe, around other parts of the world," he said. "Hopefully playing for the Galaxy will change that."

His mandate calls for raising the profile of an average team in a soccer league that has little respect overseas and less recognition than the University of Southern California football team.

Good luck with that. While Beckham's appearance in Los Angeles will certainly pique interest, sell seats and create some buzz for the MLS, the Galaxy and its owner, Anschultz Entertainment Group (who also owns the Houston Dynamo), it's going to be much harder for Beckham to substantially raise the popularity of soccer within the United States or the reputation of the MLS outside of the United States.

The British media is already ridiculing Beckham's move. The BBC says, "it seems he has effectively admitted his serious career is finished and so has opted for a last slice of the showbiz lifestyle in the United States." And the title of a Guardian entry on the subject says it all: "Like an old dog looking for a quiet place to die."

The Los Angeles Galaxy are scheduled to open their season in April here in Houston, at Robertson Stadium against the Dynamo. However, local sports fans who want to see Beckham bend it at this game might be disappointed; it's likely that he will not begin playing for the Galaxy until August, when his contract at Real Madrid expires.

New espisodes of Jack's Big Music Show are finally airing on Noggin. Yippie! There was only so much more of Sheldon the Grumpy Squirrel, Jack's fear of Dixieland-playing bugs, Cathy Richardson singing to Mary's Daddy-O flower, or Laurie Berkner's "I Know a Chicken" video that I could take. It will be good to finally have some new material to listen to as Kirby gets his daily Jack fix.

It's amazing how having a child opens you up a whole new realm of entertainment and culture. A few years ago, before Kirby was born, I couldn't have told you who The Backyardigans were or what Stephanie's hair color was. These days, with your toddler happily sitting in front of the television, your exposure to these programs is unavoidable. Hence, our intimate familiarity with Jack, Mary, Mel and all the other characters and performers on Kirby's favorite show. As Kuff notes over on his blog, that might not be such a bad thing.

Streetsblog has an interesting entry about Dubai's transportation network. The blog notes that the rapidly-growing Emirate's transportation infrastructure is almost completely dependent on the automobile:
Dubai's transportation system depends almost entirely on the ever-widening Sheikh Zayed Road. The city lacks the smaller, more distributed and diverse destinations of a more organically developed city. With limited destinations scattered up and down this road there is little possibility for walking or bicycling (neighboring Qatar is building a network of mist-cooled bike lanes). Mass transit is planned and the current burst of development is creating density but nothing is being designed to be transit- or pedestrian-compatible.
This is, more or less, the truth. It's also why I'm part of a team hurriedly working to implement station context plans for Dubai Metro stations in order to make them more transit and pedestrian friendly. Dubai's Roads and Transport Authority has been working with developers to encourage transit, bicycle and pedestrian connections within new development as well, but it remains to be seen how sucessful that endeavor will be and it doesn't speak at all to the considerable amount of auto-dependent development within Dubai that has been already been completed. The article correctly notes that "rapid changes are setting a course that will force Dubai to confront many difficult transportation and development policy decisions in the coming years," especially as it continues to grapple with is phenomenal rate of growth and development.

Staffing plans for the next phase of the station context planning project I've been working on have yet to be finalized, but it's very possible that I could find myself in Dubai - again - before the end of the month and for as many as six or seven weeks this spring. I'll, obviously, keep everyone updated as to what happens.

Cities are reaping rewards from decking below-grade freeways with parks, according to this article in Governing magazine. The article says that there are something like 20 parks above freeways in the United States, and specifically mentions projects such as Freeway Park in Seattle, Hance Park in Phoenix and Lake Place in Duluth, Minnesota, as well as future projects such as the possible decking of a portion of the Woodall Rodgers Expressway on the north side of downtown Dallas.

I found this article to be rather interesting, since I actually wrote about the decking of underground freeways with parks as a means of better integrating them into the urban environment, and specifically explored the Duluth project, as part of my report about urban freeway aesthetics that I generated several years ago when I was in graduate school.

While the cost of decking below-grade freeways and placing parkland atop them is high, the article suggests that economic benefits in terms of increased property values and new development also appear to be substantial. There is, also, the aesthetic benefit of replacing a loud, smoggy concrete canyon full of cars with public open space.

And finally, I note with sadness the passing of a former Denton City Councilmember. Carl Young, Sr. was a lifelong Denton resident and a Vietnam veteran who served on city council from 1995 to 2001. He died earlier this week at the age of 59.

Young was a member of City Council during most of my tenure in Denton's planning department. He was generally a supporter of unfettered local development and was a proponent of affordable housing in Denton, even if thet meant supporting developments that other Denton politicians found unpalatable. In one instance, Young was so angered by his fellow councilmembers' rejection of a zoning change for a proposed manufactured home park on the north side of town that he, later in the council session, blocked an otherwise uncontroversial voluntary annexation petition. He told the rest of City Council that he didn't want Denton to incorporate any more property into the city if those property owners and developers were going to be treated as poorly as the applicant of the manufactured home park that was just rejected. That meant headaches for me, as I was the case manager for the annexation petition and had to completely restructure the case (the property was later annexed into the city).

Indeed, Young's tenure at City Hall was not without turmoil and controversy, especially as it related to his fellow councilmembers:

Young served on the council during a divisive era in city government. As the only black member of the council, Young in 1999 publicly accused the other council members of being racists, a comment for which he later apologized.

Former council member Mike Cochran, who often sparred with Young, said in a written statement Wednesday that the two were friends despite their disagreements.

“On council he was one who was always looking out for the ‘little guy’ because he never forgot what it was like to have been a little guy,” Cochran said. “His was a classic American story of a man from humble beginnings who worked hard and became a successful community leader and a tireless advocate for Southeast Denton.”

Cochran sat next to Young on council; neither he nor the Denton Record-Chronicle mention the "village idiot" debacle, which is the time Cochran got so annoyed at Young that he said something to the effect that "Carl, you prove that even the village idiot can be elected to city council" during a council meeting.

The outburst actually got some traction in the Dallas-Fort Worth press, signs immediately went up throughout Denton neighborhoods stating "I SUPPORT THE VILLAGE IDIOT," and Cochran later apologized to Young.

There were, to be fair, also times when Mike Cochran showed support to his neighbor and opponent on council. In one instance, Cochran visibly - and wisely - calmed Young after he became agitated by a hateful and racist local crackpot who showed up at a council meeting and verbally assaulted Young during the citizen comment period.

Term limits ended Young's political career after his third term, representing a largely-minority district in southeast Denton, expired in May of 2001. He remained involved in the Southeast Denton community after his stint on council ended, and was a supporter of current Denton Councilmember Charlye Higgens, who occupies the City Council seat that was once his. Funeral services for Young will be held next week, and he will be buried at Dallas / Fort Worth National Cemetary.

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