White House Urban Affairs Chief: Promising Words But Little Hint of a Plan

Adolfo Carrion Jr., director of the White House’s new Office of Urban
Affairs, today vowed to begin reconnecting Washington with the needs of
the nation’s cities — even as he offered few tangible plans for
breaking through the morass of the federal bureaucracy and effecting
change in the near term.

alg_adolfo_carrion.jpgWhite House Urban Affairs director Adolfo Carrion Jr. (Photo: NYDN)

Carrion, addressing a small crowd at the Open Cities conference (which you can follow live right here)
linked the Obama administration’s effort with the urban policy review
initiated by former President Carter, which began with grand hopes but
ultimately narrowed its focus to smaller renewal projects.

"We’re
taking what he did in ’79 and revisiting it," Carrion said, crediting
Carter with "thinking forward" and predicting he "will be treated,
after he’s gone from the stage, in a much more generous way."

The
urban affairs office, created in March, is promoting a nationwide tour 
highlighting cities that have hit upon groundbreaking uses of economic
stimulus money, such as Kansas City’s Green Impact Zone. In coming months, the tour will take a look at high-tech development in Atlanta.

And
Carrion’s promise, as he put it today, of "shifting from a top-down
culture to the federal government serving as a supporting actor to
local protagonists" has caught on with advocacy groups and analysts who had become accustomed to urban priorities remaining out of the political spotlight.

But
when it comes to the most pressing challenges facing cities,
particularly those connected to economic recovery, Carrion’s office has
yet to advocate for urban priorities. Transportation Secretary Ray
LaHood recently all but ruled out
two reform proposals long sought by the nation’s cities — channeling
federal aid directly to municipalities and putting the federal
contribution to highway and transit projects on equal footing.

Indeed, despite telling Politico in July
that he soon would "explain [his office's] strategy publicly," the
urban affairs chief appeared content with starting an open-ended
discussion about investing in cities rather than setting a timetable
for accomplishing specific goals.

The administration’s "punting
on the [transportation bill]," he told Streetsblog Capitol Hill today,
happened because "everybody recognizes our transportation investments
need to be rebalanced. We need to have more time for discussion."

On
that note, Carrion made a direct appeal to the advocates and bloggers
at the Open Cities conference for help in crafting an agenda for his
office, which utilizes staffers from the White House Domestic Policy
Council. The gesture was well-intentioned and well-received, but it may
come to serve as a harbinger for slow progress on building bridges
between Washington and the large cities that more than half of America call home.