Monday, February 18, 2013

Rudi Mogl vs. Kingston Bureaucrats

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In September of 2011 I moved to Kingston, Ontario. I lived there for a year, first in the suburbs, then downtown, then in the Queens University “student ghetto.” I particularly liked the last two spots due to their close proximity to Tara Foods, a grocery business that emphasizes local food. Now I’m aware of the 100-mile diet and its counter 10,000-mile argument. Nevertheless, as an individual with self-ownership and subjective preferences, I like my meat locally-produced and grass-fed. Although I no longer live in Kingston, Tara Foods remains one of my favourite businesses in the city’s beautiful downtown. Hence my horrid disgust at a news item that I came across the other day. Rudi Mogl, the owner of Tara Foods, is engaged in a frustrating battle with city bureaucrats.

Kingston city bureaucrats plan to alter the sidewalk and parking configuration in front of Tara Foods in a vain attempt to produce a “pedestrian-friendly” city. Now aside from the fact that Jane Jacobs demolished the “pedestrian-friendly” concept in her magnum opus The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the Kingston downtown is already pedestrian-friendly. Traffic is two-laned and one-way, the sidewalks are large (especially by the Wellington-Princess St. intersection where Tara resides) and for pedestrians, traffic lights act more as a guide than a lawful light one must obey.

Now the reason Rudi is concerned about the so-called “Big Dig” is that Tara Foods is housed in an old building complete with wooden floorboards and lack of a conventional receiving door where transport trucks can back up to. That means that all deliveries are made through the front door. That’s never been a problem before, as the sidewalk and parking spaces by Tara Foods are more than adequate to harbour deliveries without obstruction to traffic. As both a customer and a pedestrian, I never found the front-door deliveries to be a hassle. The shippers and receivers were always courteous to my coming and going, as I imagine they are to everyone – whether pedestrian, customer or both.

However the construction (or deconstruction) is only half the story. It’s not just inconvenient but “necessary” roadwork that is frustrating Rudi. Once the work is complete the sidewalk and road will be permanently transformed so that trucks will be no longer be able to park outside the business. Ergo, no more deliveries for Tara Foods. “The food business is a logistics process,” says Rudi, “It’s all money. The one who gets the stuff the easiest is the one who will be in business the longest.”

Frankly, there is little rationale behind permanently altering the road in front of Tara Foods. The city bureaucrats are justifying this $6.5-million boondoggle as an attempt to replace the below-ground sewer, water, phone and electrical connections. Rudi’s plea to the city bureaucrats is that his business, and the entire downtown economy, is as fragile as that hidden infrastructure. Hence Rudi’s shock when he attended a central planning board meeting last November to find that, “The plans were all changed.” He told the bureaucrats, “I said, ‘This is not going to work for me.’ They said to us, ‘go to the nearest bulge and bring the products up the street.’ ” Obviously, bureaucrats don’t understand the logistics of running a grocery business (or any business for that matter). Grocery skids can weigh up to 3000 pounds, and “up the street” is not a figure of speech. The Kingston downtown descends towards Lake Ontario.

Mark Van Buren, the city’s head planning bureaucrat, insists that the new design is all about road safety. Although he admits that traffic-pedestrian collisions “has not been a concern that is immediate to us at that intersection.” So why the change? Why not? Rudi finds the irony in the road safety justification, saying that pedestrians shouldn’t have to “dodge 3,000-pound pallets on a public sidewalk.”

Another local business, Vandervoot’s Hardware, is concerned with the city plan. Owner Bill Dalton doesn’t understand the disconnect between “those of us on Princess Street and those who design it… “You [the bureaucrats] talk about sustainability, you want to walk to a unique store and get good things. We have to look at his request and listen very carefully.”

Mark Van Buren insists that it’s about “trying to achieve an appropriate balance… if we surveyed each and every business, they would have issues unique to them.” Van Buren touches upon the core problem of bureaucratic planning. Like all bureaus, the planners remain ignorant of the dynamics of chaos and complexity in the free market, particularly in a city. Complex systems are inherently unpredictable and will produce unanticipated results. Van Buren and the Kingston city bureaucrats are attempting to impose static designs that assume certainty and unchanging data.

Hence the rationale behind privatization. Since taxation is clearly theft, it follows that the state is a criminal organization. This means that city bureaucrats like Van Buren have no legitimate ownership claim to the streets and sidewalks in Kingston. And since Rudi Mogl has been running Tara Foods for 15 years, it seems reasonable that he has a right to homestead the sidewalk in front of his business. Or at the very least, allow voluntarily-funded street, sidewalk or other “city infrastructure” companies to build and maintain these goods. This would give Rudi more power as private enterprise is dependent on consumer wishes, in contrast to the hegemonic relationship between city bureaucracies and the people “they serve.”

Nevertheless, Mark Van Buren said construction work will proceed as planned. “We believed we’d reached a consensus agreement that could work. It is somewhat disappointing that we haven’t been able to get full buy-in from Mr. Mogl,” he said. “I appreciate his business there. No one wants to see him suffer, but we’re balancing a whole lot of competing interests.”

As for Rudi Mogl and Tara Foods – the tyranny of central planning may have claimed another victim. “It just makes it much harder for me to operate,” says Rudi, “I have to consider if I can stay here or not.”

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