March 10, 2012 - 11:03 am

The Howard Theatre and the value of public investment

The Howard Theatre’s renovation, in which the District government invested $12 million, got us thinking about the role of public finance in development projects.  The use of public money or, alternatively, the granting of tax abatements to private projects, elicits controversy.  Opponents argue that such investments are give-aways to well-connected businessmen.

In the case of the Howard Theatre, the District’s investment in the venue, which the District government technically owns, is a good investment that is economically justified.  The new venue and streetscape in front will improve the perception of the area and thus improve property values in LeDroit Park.  The former is an improvement to the quality of life while the latter is an improvement to the District’s tax base.

Though the theater is technically just outside LeDroit Park, the path from the Shaw Metro Station to LeDroit Park typically brings people in front of the theater.  When the District-owned theater was decaying and vacant, it served as an awful first impression of the area.  A barbed wire fence under the awning and marquee made visitors well aware that a strong wind gust could cause the awning to collapse.  The heaps of litter and scurrying of rats certainly didn’t help perceptions, either.

Work crews are reconstructing the entire street, including sidewalks and lamp posts, and when the renovated theater opens next month, much of the former blight will be removed.  Smooth, wheelchair-accessible sidewalks will replace broken concrete. Lamp posts will provide ample light.  A statue on the sidewalk and a statue atop the theatre will add to the sense of place for this important historic venue.

The theater itself, renovated and gleaming, will attract patrons several nights a week and the building will have to remain in good order.  Clean surfaces and façade adornments will replace trash, decay, and danger.  The block will be unrecognizable from before.

These improvements will undoubtedly improve how visitors and residents view the block and perhaps how they view LeDroit Park. The quality of life improvements are certain.  From a financial standpoint, the improvements will likely boost surrounding property values and thus property tax revenues for the District.  In doing so, the additional revenue may far exceed the $12 million of public money invested in the site.

Correction: An earlier version of this post understated the dollar amount of the city’s investment.

September 29, 2011 - 1:44 pm

Historic fountains rot away in a local national park

Two century-old DC fountains sit decaying and neglected in the woods of a national park in Maryland. The fountains had been missing from the 1940s until they were rediscovered in the woods of Fort Washington National Park in the 1970s.

The top portion of the McMillan fountain, pictured below, was returned to Crispus Attucks park in the Bloomingdale neighborhood in 1983. In 1992 it was moved back to the fenced-off grounds of the McMillan Reservoir just a few blocks away.

The fountain was installed in 1913 at the McMillan Reservoir as a memorial to Senator James McMillan (R – Michigan), who is more remembered locally for his his ambitious McMillan Plan to beautify Washington. The fountain was dismantled in 1941, when the reservoir was fenced off from the public.

McMillan Fountain
Top of the McMillan Fountain today (left) and in 1912 (right).

Though the top of the McMillan Fountain had been restored to the reservoir grounds, a Bloomingdale ANC commissioner told me the base of the fountain was in the woods in Fort Washington along with the remains of the fountain that stood at the center of the now-razed Truxton Circle.

I went to Fort Washington in search of these discarded works of art. I asked a park ranger where the fountain was and she drew me a map, saying that it stood in the park’s “dump” and partly behind a fence.

I went to the picnic area nearest the site and walked into the woods a short distance where I found a fence. Behind it stood piles of bricks and other discarded building materials.

Beside the site is a dugout that serves as the back court to Battery Emory, a concrete gun battery built in 1898 to protect the capital city from enemy ships.

As I passed through the unfenced dugout, I immediately spotted few granite blocks that served as the cornerstones of the base bowl. Though they are strewn about the ground, a 1912 photograph can help us identify what pieces went where.

McMillan Fountain Cornerstone
A cornerstone sitting on the ground (left) formed part of the fountain’s bottom basin (right).

The elements of the fountain were stacked like totem pole. The bottom element features carved classical allegorical heads from whose mouths water gushed into the carved bowls below.

McMillan Fountain base
Fence material and tree debris cover the carved granite (left) that stood as the fountain base (right).

The next element of the stack is the fluted base to the top bowl.

McMillan Fountain collar
Upside down on the ground (left) is the fluted base for the top bowl (right).

Several other large granite stones are stacked and marked with numbers, presumably to help in reassembly.

McMillan Fountain pieces

The site also contains the rusting remains of the fountain that stood at Truxton Circle, which formed the intersection of North Capitol Street, Florida Avenue, Lincoln Road, and Q Street. The circle was built around 1901 and the fountain installed there originally stood at the triangle park at Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street in Georgetown.

Truxton Circle stood at Florida Avenue, North Capitol Street, Q Street, and Lincoln Road from 1901 to 1940, when it was demolished to aid commuter traffic.

A newspaper at the time described it as one of the largest fountains in the city. The circle was removed in 1940 to ease the flow of commuter traffic. At that time, the fountain, which may date to as early as the 1880s, made its way to Fort Washington to rust in the woods.

Truxton Circle fountain Truxton Circle fountain bowl rim
The metal pedestal (left) held up the fountain bowl whose rim rusts in pieces on the ground (right). Notice the classical egg-and-dart pattern.

The fountain was also noted for the metal grates that stood near its base. Now these grates sit rusting in the woods.

Fountain grates Grates from the Truxton Circle Fountain

If you want to see the fountain remains for yourself at Fort Washington National Park, go to picnic area C. Beyond the end of the parking lot is a restroom building and behind that is the fountain “graveyard.” A fence encloses part of the site, but you can enter through the large gap down the hillside.

Rather than tossing aside our city’s artistic patrimony, we should aim to restore these treasures to the neighborhoods from which they came. Public art is part of what differentiates cherished neighborhoods from unmemorable places.

These works remind us of the accomplishments and civic-mindedness of generations past and urge us to carry on the tradition of civic improvement for generations to come.

September 29, 2011 - 9:09 am

Civic association conditions zoning support on vacancy

Mary Church Terrell HouseAt Tuesday night’s meeting of the LeDroit Park Civic Association, the association voted 11-2 to support the Howard University Campus Plan.  Since several issues in the plan remain unresolved and unspecified, your author voted against supporting it.

Among many concerns are the several vacant properties that Howard University owns in the area.  Though Howard has made a commendable effort to refurbish and sell many of these properties in LeDroit Park over the past decade, we are worried that the university, after it moves students out of Slowe and Carver Halls might leave these two dormitories vacant for several years.

The university has been very adept at finding excuses for keeping several of its properties vacant in decades past.

For current vagueness in the plan, university officials say they haven’t determined a use yet or that they haven’t found the financing or that everything is the economy’s fault.

That may be true, but vacant buildings attract trouble.  They become safe-havens for criminals, vagrants, and rodents.  Some vacant properties become truly blighted with windows covered up with plywood or metal covers.  This blight drags down property values and lowers the quality of life.

For most private property owners, vacant properties (class 3) face a steep 5% annual property tax and blighted buildings (class 4) face a 10% annual property tax.  These punitive tax rates are meant to urge owners of vacant and blighted properties to return their properties to good order and productive use.

As a university, however, Howard pays no taxes on its land, so a punitive 5% or 10% tax on $0 is still $0 .  As such, the neighborhood needs a legal mechanism to ensure the university does not vacate Slowe and Carver Halls and then blame the economy as they board up the buildings for several years.

Whether the university keeps the buildings as student dorms or converts them to faculty housing is fine either way, but vacancy and blight threatens the progress the neighborhood has made over the past decade.

To prevent this, your author moved “To amend our support [for the campus plan] to prohibit vacancy of Slowe and Carver Halls for more than one year.”

The motion was property seconded and passed unanimously.

The civic association will submit this language to the Zoning Commission and urge the commission to attach it to the legally enforceable order that ratifies the campus plan.  This will ensure that these two large dormitories do not sit vacant for an unreasonable length of time over the next decade.

Howard University’s campus plan is an ambitious and mostly good plan, but it’s important that point out its shortcomings and to ensure the university does not get away with undue burdens on neighborhoods and the District.

Exemption from property taxes is a privilege, not a right, and residents are wise to ensure this exemption is not abused to the detriment of the public interest.

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June 27, 2011 - 8:45 am

Opposition to taxi medallions mounts

Yellow cab, green cabOn Thursday, July 7, ANC 1B will discuss and likely adopt a resolution (appended below) opposing the proposed taxi medallion system recently proposed by several councilmembers.  The medallion bill, written by lobbyist John Ray at the behest of some of the city’s big taxi magnates, seeks to halve the number of taxis in the city.

The issue came up in the ANC because many independent taxi owners live in the Pleasant Plains neighborhood and view the bill as a means by big taxi companies to force them out of the business.

The ANC 1B Transportation Committee held its inaugural meeting to discuss the bill and how it would impact taxi service for drivers and for passengers, i.e. the public.

Commissioner Tony Norman (ANC 1B10 – Pleasant Plains) proposed the committee adopt his draft resolution opposing the bill.  Mr. Ray, the bill’s chief lobbyist, was invited to attend but did not.

The Transportation Committee did, however, agree that the industry needs reform, but that this particular medallion bill is fundamentally flawed to the degree that it will harm the public.  The committee agreed to add to the resolution a clause expressing the need for meaningful taxi reform.

Radio reporter Pete Tucker, who hosts a radio show on taxi issues, recorded much of the meeting and aired select quotations on the June 19 episode of his program.

(Mr. Tucker himself became news at the DC Taxicab Commission meeting the week after the Transportation Committee meeting.  The U.S. Park Police, at the behest of the commission’s Chairwoman Dena C. Reed, arrested Mr. Tucker and other journalists for recording at the commission’s June 22 hearing.)

* * *

Left for LeDroit sees the bill as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, conflating real taxi reform with a severe reduction in the number of taxis.  The bill places costly barriers to entry for independent cab drivers and will likely lead to one or two cab companies holding all of the medallions.

Real reform includes mandating and enforcing a minimum quality of service.  This means ensuring the cabs are clean and air conditioned and that they accept credit cards.  Furthermore, the city should consider GPS tracking to alert customers with smartphones as to the availability of nearby taxis.  Furthermore, a centralized dispatching system should aid consumers looking to schedule a trip.

Medallions, however, are a deliberate attempt to limit competition.  This is ultimately bad for the public.  After New York, Washington is the easiest American city in which to hail a cab and the ability to do so aids our quality of life and increases our diversity of practical transportation options.

* * *

Here is the resolution the committee adopted and which the ANC will discuss on July 7:

WHEREAS: The Council for District of Columbia is contemplating an overhaul of the taxicab system by proposing a medallion system for taxicabs in the District of Columbia; and

WHEREAS: There is a clear and present need for the Mayor of the District of Columbia and the Council for the District of Columbia to review and propose objective reforms in the present taxicab system, in terms of taxicabs being modernized, i.e. energy efficient, gps, air conditioning, credit cards and drivers knowledge of best routes; and

WHEREAS: The present number of taxicabs in the District of Columbia is over 9,000, the proposed medallion system would place an arbitrary cap on the number of taxicabs at 4,000, this restricts the supply and creates barriers to competition; and

WHEREAS: The District of Columbia Chief Financial Officer’s Office studied in 2010 how the taxicab medallion system worked in other major cities and the study concluded that the system would result in windfall profits for a small group of people; an overall decline in service with longer waits and higher fares, create a system more amenable to corruption in the District of Columbia; and

WHEREAS: The substantial reduction of taxicab in the District of Columbia will have a negative effect on residents, in terms of the quality and quantity service, particularly in underserved low income areas, whom will have longer waits and face more service refusals; and

WHEREAS: The substantial reduction of taxicab in the District of Columbia will also have a negative effect on businesses: particularly small businesses, hotels, bars, night clubs and restaurants, as it related to customers quality and quantity of service, in terms of longer waits for an available taxicab; and

WHEREAS: The present proposals would result in loss of opportunity for would be entrepreneurs, most of whom would be low-income and/or minorities; and

WHEREAS: Over 900 hundred independent taxicab drivers (so far) have signed a petition to oppose the arbitrary regulations proposed to reform the taxicab industry;

NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, That ADVISORY NEIGHBORHOOD COMMISSION 1B requests that the Mayor of the District of Columbia and the Council for the District of Columbia reject the taxicab medallion system and adopt the findings of the District of Columbia Chief Financial Officer.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That ADVISORY NEIGHBORHOOD COMMISSION 1B requests that the Mayor of the District of Columbia and the Council for the District of Columbia review and propose objective reforms in the present taxicab system, in terms of taxicabs being modernized, i.e. energy efficient, gps, air conditioning, credit cards and drivers knowledge of best route.

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May 02, 2011 - 9:16 am

Statehood is the answer

We created this simple graphic to illustrate the disparity and unfairness we DC residents face. We are required to pay Federal taxes but are prohibited from electing anyone to the Senate or House of Representatives. Furthermore, our unique status gives a Congress we cannot elect the legal right to meddle in our local affairs to score points with various lobbying groups.

The American federal system separates the scope of local affairs from nation affairs. Americans duly elect one government for local affairs (the city, county, and state) and another government for national affairs (the House, Senate, and president). The 50 states collect taxes, pass budgets, collect garbage, pave roads, provide health services, and educate children without needing Congressional approval for every action.

DC residents elect a council and mayor, but Congress and the president may overturn any act of the elected DC government in a way they cannot for any state. Furthermore, DC residents have been able to vote in presidential elections since the 1964 election, but are denied the right to vote for any Senators, and are granted one non-voting (i.e. politically impotent) delegate to the House of Representatives.

On Christmas Eve in 1973, Congress passed a statute granting DC residents the “privilege” of a limited form of self-government.  The problem with this situation is that Congress can redefine or repeal this statute on a whim without any consent from the 601,723 people it actually governs.

Congress, however, cannot redefine or repeal statehood.

Statehood is the only way to guarantee DC residents our irrevocable and inalienable right to self-determination.  The time has come to admit the District of Columbia and its 600,000 residents as the 51st state.

April 11, 2011 - 9:35 pm

Explore DC’s zoning code with Google Maps

The DC Office of Zoning recently released a slick interactive zoning map of the District. Not only can you view a neighborhood’s zone boundaries, but you can also view campus plans, historic districts, and overlay zones, too.

Click to view the interactive zoning map.

The map also plots each individual property in the District and notes the square number (block number), and the lot number. When you click on a lot, a dialog opens displaying the owner’s name, a photo of the property as well as any zoning rulings that apply to the property.

The site uses Google Maps as a base platform, but overlays other city data on top. Displaying zoning, property ownership, and zoning ruling data in an easy interface helps demystify these otherwise obscure areas of public policy.

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November 08, 2010 - 8:46 am

Sharing in LeDroit Park

Pick a Bike

Construction is still moving along at the park on the site of the former Gage-Eckington School. In addition to the dog park, playground equipment, picnic tables, and field, there are two more amenities on their way to the site: bike sharing and car sharing. DDOT’s assistance in integrating both car sharing spaces and its own Capital Bikeshare (CaBi) system is a good example of collaboration between different city agencies.

ZipCar is a subscription service that places cars throughout several cities worldwide and rents the cars to members by the hour. The rental fee includes the cost of gas and insurance and each car has a reserved “home” parking space to which it must be returned at the end of the reservation. These spaces are in public streets, public alleys and in private parking lots and garages.

We occasionally rent ZipCars when we need to haul heavy items or need to travel to transit-inaccessible destinations. This arrangement is far cheaper than owning a car and relieves us of the normal hassles of car ownership, e.g. parking, maintenance, washing, fuel costs, and insurance costs.

CaBi is another subscription service and is a joint venture between DDOT and Arlington County. CaBi bikes are parked at numerous racks throughout DC and Arlington and more are on the way. A member inserts his key into the bike dock and the bike unlocks. The member has 30 minutes to ride the bike for free before returning it to any dock in DC or Arlington.  CaBi is perfect for short one-way trips and we routinely use the CaBi station at Seventh and T Streets to commute to work downtown.  It’s also useful for occasional trips to Whole Foods or Dupont Circle, which are just minutes away by bike.

Both bike sharing and car sharing benefit residents who don’t even use the services. The existence of these services reduces the pressure to own a car and thus reduces the parking demand placed on our streets. For those who would live car-less regardless of these services, it provides us with two more mobility options located close to home.  Bike sharing and car sharing are welcome additions to the park site.

Photo: “Pick a Bike” by M. V. Jantzen

August 07, 2010 - 8:43 am

Howard Theatre Brochure Subsidy

An early image of the Howard Theatre

The most contentious issue at Thursday’s meeting of ANC1B was the proposal to grant $4,000 to subsidize the groundbreaking celebration of the Howard Theater on August 22 and the proposal to spend $1,000 to purchase an advertisement in the celebration’s commemorative brochure.  Commissioners Brianne Nadeau (1B05 – Meridian Hill) and Sedrick Muhammad (1B03 – Cardozo) were particularly opposed.  Ms. Nadeau was displeased with the idea of a general subsidy for the event without knowing exactly for what items and services the money would be spent.  Mr. Muhammad didn’t think a one-time event warranted so much public money.

The ANC narrowly approved the $5,000 grant 4 to 3 (vote tally below) and then took up a grant application for the Banneker City Little League, which sought $3,000 to subsidize a little league for neighborhood children.  The commission approved the grant request without much ado.

As for $5,000 grant for the groundbreaking ceremony and the brochures, the votes were as follows:

Voting yea:

  • Ms. Myla Moss (1B01 – LeDroit Park)
  • Mr. Peter Raia (1B02 – U Street)
  • Mr. Eddie Ferrer (1B10 – North of Howard)
  • Ms. E. Gail Anderson Holness (1B11 – Southern Howard University & Southern Pleasant Plains)

Voting nay:

  • Mr. Sedrick Muhammad (1B03 – Cardozo)
  • Ms. Brianne Nadeau (1B05 – Meridian Hill)
  • Ms. Rosemary Akinmboni (1B08 – Southern Columbia Heights)

(See a map of the single-member districts in ANC1B)

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August 03, 2010 - 6:21 am

Shaw Library Opens

Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library

The Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library opened yesterday. We took a quick look inside this afternoon and will have a thorough report later this week.  Our initial impressions were positive.  The new library, though offering the limited collection of a branch library, houses it all in a pleasant, bright, airy building.  The new library contrasts sharply with its previous brutalist incarnation that resembled a prison for mischievous books.

Drop by and check it out.

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July 27, 2010 - 8:52 pm

Park Quid Pro Quo

Back in March, LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale residents mobilized to prevent Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. (D – Ward 5) from blocking the transfer of funding to the park project here in LeDroit Park.  Our hard work paid off: Mr. Thomas reversed his resolution in the face of an avalanche of angry calls and emails, a good number coming from his constituents in Bloomingdale.

Now Councilmember Marion Barry (D – Ward 8) has inexplicably placed a hold on the new park contract, possibly delaying construction by at least 45 days.  When reached by the City Paper, Mr. Barry responded,

The Gage-Eckington contract was one of those not authorized by the council, not voted on. The mayor in his shenanigans sent it over the council, and I have the responsibility to protect the taxpayers’ money…There’s no money available, and there’s no authority to do this.

Mr. Barry’s statement contains a half-true and a lie. This current contract is being submitted to the Council for passive approval, which is required of city contracts over $1 million.  If the Council does not act on it within a certain period of time, the contract is approved.  This is common method of review since the Council does not have the time to vote explicitly on every city contract.  So, yes, this contract with Keystone Plus Construction Corporation has not been voted on, but few contracts of this size are.

More distressing is that Mr. Barry is absolutely wrong to state that the money isn’t available and that the mayor doesn’t have the authority to build this park.  On March 2, Mr. Barry and the rest of the Council voted unanimously to approve the mayor’s request to re-appropriate $1.5 million for this park:

Sec. 2. (a) Pursuant to section 47-363 of the District of Columbia Official Code, the Mayor transmitted to the Council on February 19, 2010, a reprogramming request of $1.5 million from the capital budget authority and allotment from the Department of Parks and Recreation and the District Department of Transportation to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

(b) The Council approves the $1.5 million reprogramming request.

Sec. 3. The Secretary to the Council shall transmit a copy of this resolution, upon its adoption, to the Office of the Mayor.

Sec. 4. This resolution shall take effect immediately. (our emphasis)

Facts are stubborn things, Mr. Barry.

Mr. Barry’s new-found scrutiny (obstruction, really) of city projects is especially ironic considering he doled out d0-nothing city contracts to his girlfriend and when questioned on the conflict of interest, responded to the Post,

“You all think it is inappropriate to hire a girlfriend. I don’t think it is. In fact, there is no law against it.” When asked whether he would hire another woman he becomes romantically involved with, Barry said, “Unless the law changes, why not?”

The Council’s fair-weather watchdog is likely angling for a quid pro quo from the rest of the Council before he withdraws his resolution.  Perhaps he’s holding out for the Council to cut him a deal he can’t get by any other means than logrolling.

Or he may simply want attention, since his unanimous Council censure and ejection from committee positions has spared the city from much of his legislative influence.

But even if Mr. Barry’s stubbornly refuses to withdraw his disapproval, his huffing and puffing will be for naught since he likely doesn’t have the votes to defeat the contract.

Several civic groups in LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale are turning up the pressure on Mr. Barry and the Council.  He may not have realized what he has provoked.