News
03.04.2009
Comment: Margery Perlmutter
Architects storm the Capitol!
Just as suffragettes marched in 1913, so the AIA takes its plea to Washington.
Courtesy Library of Congress

On February 4, eight hundred AIA chapter presidents, vice-presidents, executive directors, and board members from around the country descended on Washington, D.C., to urge their Congressional members and Senators to direct stimulus funding toward well-planned, sustainable construction and development, and not merely "shovel-ready" projects. Throughout the four-day "AIA Grassroots" event, the attendees were trained by professional lobbyists and political leaders about the importance of concerted and enduring lobbying efforts in effecting change, how a proposal moves from an idea to proposed legislation, and how one "makes the ask" of an elected official.

Most delegates of the AIA New York chapter arrived on Wednesday afternoon, in time to assemble in the subterranean conference center at the Grand Hyatt Hotel to hear the AIA National leadership detail advocacy positions that AIA members would take to Congress. In short, the positions were aimed at creating more work in the construction industry and, by extension, in the architecture industry, and on improving existing legislation affecting architects. In addition to encouraging Congress to approve funding for projects that would have a more enduring impact on the quality of life in our communities and provide longer-term opportunity for employment in the construction industry, the AIA platform also recommended an increase in the federal tax deduction already available to incentivize investment in energy-efficient commercial buildings, an increase in funding to public transportation planning initiatives, and the elimination of fee-retainage rules as applied to architects for federally-funded projects.

A host of motivational speakers offered pointers on what we should expect at our meetings with Congress. In particular, they explained that we were unlikely to meet with officials directly, as House Democrats had been called unexpectedly to attend an emergency “retreat,” presumably to discuss the stalled stimulus package. Instead, and perhaps to greater benefit, we would meet with the aides and chiefs-of-staff of the electeds, who were likely to be well-informed about the areas we would be discussing with them, would take copious notes, ask intelligent questions, make useful suggestions, and report all that they had learned from us to their Congressperson. We were especially cautioned not to be surprised to find that most of the people with whom we would speak, indeed, possibly the entire staff in the Congressperson’s office, would be eager, intellectually advanced, recent college grads.

Finally, we were educated on the method of “the ask”: on the importance of precisely articulating, after a short explanation and background, what specifically we were requesting that the Congressperson do (sponsor a bill, change a rule, make a revision to a bill already under consideration on the floor) and how such action would benefit the officials’ constituency. A few role-playing practice efforts by Grassroots attendees revealed plenty of work to be done before most of us would be convincing in “the ask” portion of our presentations.

Futurist David Zack encouraged us not to “think outside of the box,” which would leave us weary and alone, but to “get inside of someone else’s box” as a way of linking and communicating seemingly disparate and divergent ideas. Over the course of the event, we were scolded often about the profession's inability to convey its broad knowledge and understanding to anyone beyond the cognoscenti. To be effective advocates, we would have to sharpen new communication skills.

The New York chapter delegation, which included current chapter president Sherida Paulsen, Tony Schirripa, Rick Bell, Laura Manville, Margaret Castillo, Venesa Alicea, Mary Burke, Terrence O’Neal, Burt Roslyn, and myself, debated separately how our presentations to elected officials might be modified to appeal more specifically to each official’s particular interests and Congressional committee foci.

At breakfast on Thursday morning, speakers from the AIA Advocacy Federal Relations team (who knew they existed!) brought us up to date on the status of the construction-spending aspects of the stimulus package that had been debated on the Senate floor the night before. Occasionally, “calls to action” were announced, advising AIA advocates to call and send emails to their Senators urging them to ensure that construction-related funding remained

in the package. News was out that green initiatives and education spending, in particular, were at risk and it was our job to do something about it. Throughout that day and the days that followed, similar announcements were made.

After breakfast, nearly eight hundred of us headed to the Capitol to begin the day’s pre-scheduled appointments with our regional representatives. Passing other AIA delegations with similar missions along the corridors of the Rayburn House Office Building, the New York Chapter’s 12 delegates assembled for their first meeting at Representative Nydia Velazquez’s office. Velazquez, Democrat from New York’s 12th Congressional District (Lower Manhattan, portions of Brooklyn and Queens) is chair of the House Small Business Committee and senior member of the Financial Services Committee, which concerns itself with housing and community development. Our presentation to Velazquez’s extremely able and attentive aide covered as many points as possible, with nearly everyone contributing a few words to reinforce our message and responding to her many questions: Construction of well-planned, well-considered projects will create jobs over the long term for more New Yorkers and more small business owners; funding should be directed toward affordable housing development, school construction, and sustainable development; tax incentives should be increased significantly to encourage owners to retrofit existing office buildings to meet sustainability standards; existing AmeriCorps programs should be expanded to include a DesignCorps to employ architects and engineers to assess and plan the retrofitting of federal buildings. Since small business development and affordable housing are of particular interest in Velazquez's district, most of our points resonated with her aide. She encouraged us to invite Velazquez to upcoming events at the Center for Architecture (located only a few blocks outside of her district).

When we spoke with the aides to Anthony Weiner (Democrat from the 9th District, parts of Queens and Brooklyn; health and the environment) and Eliot Engel (Democrat from the 17th District, Bronx and parts of Westchester; particularly interested in energy issues), we delivered similar messages, though admittedly found ourselves losing steam toward the end of the day. Our discussions about the DesignCorps were of particular interest to Weiner’s and Engel’s aides, and both asked us to provide them with more detailed information on the program.

We were extremely fortunate, however, to meet with Representative Carolyn Maloney herself (Democrat from the 14th District, East Side Manhattan and Queens; chair, Joint Economic Committee). Despite a flustered start as a result of this unexpected audience, our delegation focused its message on its belief that our proposed initiatives would create the greatest number of jobs, not just in New York, but throughout the country. Maloney was sympathetic and already well-acquainted with the number of construction-related jobs that have been and will be produced by the Second Avenue subway and the East Side Access “mega-projects.” She encouraged us to provide her with more specific data on the DesignCorps, sustainable retrofit incentives, and federal retainer issues.

At the end of this long day at beginners’ advocacy, we dispersed for tours of the Capitol and to take in some new architecture, including Polshek Partnership’s Newseum and the new Capitol Visitor’s Center (RTKL and Ralph Appelbaum). Although the stimulus bill that Congress eventually approved did not fund the scope of construction projects we had rallied for, we remain charged by that day in February when the architects stormed the Capitol, and ever-hopeful that our continued efforts will make a difference.

Margery Perlmutter

Margery Perlmutter is the public director of AIA New York.