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Reflecting on the Washington trip as it sunsets

Thu, Oct 1, 2009

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Breakfast this morning at the spectacular, LEED platinum building that houses the National Association of Realtors.

The building is spectacular for the best of reasons. It’s not some hulking stone monster that tries to express the power and magnificence of its tenant, nor is it a coldly anonymous glass tower. It’s a modest, light filled structure, brilliantly designed to fit on a site so strangely configured that it would seem unbelievable. LEED platinum means that it’s as green, as energy efficient, and as sustainable as the state of the art permits-and that’s quite a statement by NAR.

An organization housed in such a building has made a statement about itself, and about the future of the real estate industry that sends a more convincing message to policy makers and the public than any press release.

We listened to one of the founders of the Center for Creative Leadership, who spoke of change. CCL, as you may know, has multiple campuses throughout the world, one of which is in Colorado Springs. CCL sponsors/was instrumental in founding the Colorado Springs Leadership Institute (CSLI).

He led us through half a dozen exercises. I was baffled. My comment: “I’ll sit on the porch and shake my cane at change!”

After breakfast, A dozen of us joined K Street lobbyist Mark Plotz of the National Center for Bicycling and Walking for – what else? – a walk through the neighborhood surrounding our hotel, and periodic street corner discussions of how cities can become more bike/pedestrian friendly.

For cyclists, Washington is a nightmare. There are no bike lanes to speak of, the streets are clogged with trucks, aggressively driven taxis,and frantic political staffers talking/texting simultaneously on two cell phones. Despite this, Washington has a “free bike” program, with a dozen locations from which you can, with a swipe of your “bike card,” unlock a bike and ride away. There was one such location, complete with a dozen bikes, on Massachusetts Avenue at Dupont Circle.

That’s fine – except that, as Mark admitted with an amused smile, to ride a bike on Mass. Ave. would be not just risky, but suicidal. Nancy Lewis, who for many years ran our city’s Park & Rec Department, was in our group. The modest Lewis said nothing, so I felt obliged to gloat a little bit about our notably bike-friendly city. In this respect, at least, we’re light years ahead of our nation’s capital!

Walking back, Plotz told Lewis, and other group members about a grant program for which El Paso County would be eligible, which might bring the region several million dollars during a two year period, some of which could be used for bike/pedestrian related purposes. It was a perfect example of the kind of unplanned, unexpected and potentially beneficial outcomes that the Chamber hopes for/expects from this trip.

For me, the best feature of the trip has been meeting/interacting with the other participants. Theoretically, I could have done that in Colorado Springs. I could have won a $5 bet with Larry Liston, or spent an hour or two talking politics with Wayne Williams, or learned how Shawnee Huckstep built TechWise with nothing but perseverance, intelligence, and her own refusal to fail. Lisa McElvaney might have told me about sustainable business practices in Abu Dhabi, and Steve Imke would have been glad to tell me about the risks of drilling for gas on the Western Slope. But they’re busy folks, and it’s unlikely that we would ever have had occasion to talk for more than a few minutes.

That is, I guess, what they call networking … who knew??!!

Yet more random thoughts:

-There may be, as I snidely implied the other day, a lot of bad neoclassical architecture in Washington, but there are others. I had forgotten that the Capitol literally takes your breath away, and that Union Station may be the grandest public building ever erected in America.

-Did I see President Obama? Yup! At least I think so … coming back from Union Station early this afternoon, traffic was stopped by a motorcade led by (count ‘em!) seven police motorcycles and two police cars, and consisting of three limos and a hulking black SUV, and followed by two more cop cars. Who’s important enough for such a motorcade, other than POTUS? Or maybe it was Joe Biden.

-Will I leave tomorrow with my disdain for/suspicion of “Washington” intact? No. I leave with respect and admiration for the people, appointed and elected, who are doing their best to “preserve, protect, and defend the United States …” That’s part of the president’s oath of office, and that is, I perhaps naively believe, what motivates all the players in our daily national political drama. Things move swiftly in Washington nowadays, as our energetic young president attacks problems which have proved insoluble for a generation or more. Maybe Obama will fail to deal effectively with health care, with nuclear proliferation, with climate change, or with Iraq/Afghanistan/Pakistan. But it won’t be for lack of trying, and it won’t be because all the actors in this grand drama, from Tom Donahue to Doug Lamborn to Mark Udall, haven’t played their roles in shaping the nation’s future.

We don’t know what the future holds – but during a bright fall afternoon in this beautiful city, anything seems possible.

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