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Posts from November 2010


Lost Washington: Childs fast food restaurants

On Massachusetts Avenue at North Capitol Street NW, close to Union Station, stands a rather striking SunTrust bank building. How did this stately little building with its big windows and rough, pumice-like walls land on this corner, and why is it put to such nondescript use?

Photo by the author.

It's lived a number of lives through the years. Designed as a restaurant, cheery and inviting, it ended up, among other things, as the setting for a protest demonstration in the civil rights movement and has had a number of tenants.

The building was originally a Childs restaurant. Long before there were McDonald's or Wendy's or Burger King restaurants, there was Childs, a highly successful, early 20th-century chain of lunchrooms that started in New York City and eventually spread nationwide. There were at least three in Washington; the Massachusetts Avenue restaurant, constructed in 1926, was the second.

Samuel (1863-1925) and William (1866-1938) Childs, two brothers from New Jersey, had opened their first restaurant in New York City in 1889, at a time when casual consumption of food at lunch counters was just beginning to become popular. As described by Virginia Kurshan in a 2003 landmark application for a New York building, the Childs brothers capitalized on a few simple ideas. They conveyed a sense of cleanliness by using white-tiled walls and floors, white marble table-tops, and waitresses dressed in starched white uniforms.

Their restaurants were designed in an "austerely elegant" style, with bentwood furniture, mirrors, and exposed ceiling fans "to complement and also to represent he simplicity and purity of the food," according to Kurshan. Childs emphasized fast service and made money by turning over tables quickly, in part because the hard surfaces discouraged people from lingering. Another signature feature of early Childs restaurants was a chef in the front window preparing flapjacks to catch the attention of passersby.

From an old matchbook.

Washington Post commentator H.I. Phillips summed up the style of these restaurants with characteristic wit in 1929:

The early Childs restaurants were so glaringly white it didn't seem right to enter them without a bath, shave and haircut. They were architecturally part laboratory, part squash court, part Roman pool, and part goldfish bowl.

Then the owners dressed their managers like hospital internes, put their waitresses into attire partly suggestive of child brides and partly suggestive of dentists' assistants, developed tray-dropping to a high art and prospered.

Speed was the keynote. Buttered toast set new heights in rapid transit, and all previous records held by eggs in flight between kettle and customer were broken....

The first Washington Childs was at 1423 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, just west of the Willard Hotel and close to the Treasury building. It was designed by company architect John Corley Westervelt in 1913 and built for $75,000. Seating 200, it conformed to all the classic Childs parameters, including the white-tiled interior and the flapjack flippers in the front window.

View of Childs Restaurant in 1917. Source: Library of Congress.

Like any good restaurant, it rarely made news. In October 1918, a minor tiff developed between Childs and the DC food commissioner when Childs raised its prices, contrary to the food commission's guidance. Childs eventually agreed to follow the DC wartime guidelines, which specified precise menu options at fixed prices, according to the Washington Times. For breakfast, among other options, one could order prunes, cereal, toast, and coffee for 30 cents. Lunch was cheaper; a sandwich—ham, tongue, cheese, salmon, or egg—ran just 10 cents.

Interior of the Pennsylvania Avenue Childs, c. 1920. Source: Library of Congress.

One fine day in 1925 a couple of young Texans were checking out automobiles along the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue near Childs, and they caught the eye of D.C. police detective Frank Alligood, who sensed that all was not good with the two out-of-towners. As they got to the front of Childs, Frank Tunnell, 21, left his buddy, Robert Resson Parker, also 21, out front as he stepped inside the restaurant. He approached the cashier, Freda Schwartz, 22, and asked to see the manager about getting a job as a waiter.

It just so happened that Miss Schwartz was counting the weekly payroll at the time. As he waited for the manager, young Tunnell reportedly felt an "irresistible impulse" to grab a stack of bills from the cashier's cage and run out the door. Miss Schwartz, being the fine young lady that she was, "reached for the bills, yelled 'Get him!' and fainted," according to the Post.

Fortunately, eagle-eyed Detective Alligood had been waiting outside, and he gave chase to Tunnell, capturing him in the men's room of the Willard Hotel. Order having been restored, the young man argued from his jail cell that the influence of narcotics was responsible for the irresistible impulse he had felt. It's unclear whether this argument helped his case.

Meanwhile, planning for the second restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue was underway, and it would be completed in 1926. By then, competition was forcing the Childs chain to evolve. The company had always made sure it constructed distinctive, quality buildings for its restaurants, places that would seem special to the common folk who were expected to dine there. But the white-tiled look was getting to be old-fashioned; it looked too much like what it was, a lunchroom. The New York Times reports that when William Childs was planning a new restaurant on elegant Fifth Avenue, he faced opposition from property owners who didn't want such a lowly enterprise in their neighborhood.

Determined to build a distinctive new structure, Childs hired the brilliant modernist architect William Van Alen (1882-1954), who created a tasteful but restrained five-story limestone building with bronze trim inside and no white tiles. It was an immediate hit. Bolstered by this success, Van Alen would go on several years later, in 1929, to design New York City's Chrysler Building, perhaps the ultimate art deco celebration of modernism in American architecture.

But before he worked on the Chrysler Building, Van Alen designed the Massachusetts Avenue Childs restaurant—one of his few works, or maybe his only work, in Washington. It too was clearly meant to be distinctive, and Van Alen knew this is what his clients wanted. Barely legible, Van Alen's name is proudly inscribed in the granite base at the southeast corner of the building. A Post article that appeared at the time of its opening raved that there was "a lofty dignity and an architectural beauty about it seldom seen in restaurants. It is the type of building Washington needs to make it the city of beauty."

A much later article stated that the Childs company "leased property as near as possible to Union Station so 'travelers coming to Washington will see the name Childs in lights as soon as they step off the train.'" While that goal may have been overly ambitious, the restaurant surely must have beckoned travelers as they came out on to Massachusetts Avenue, its huge, brightly lit windows sending a message of warmth on cold winter evenings.

"William Van Alen Architect" inscription. Photo by the author.

The building's exterior is finished in an exotic, rarely-seen stone. According to the Post article, it was one of only two buildings in the United States made of "Italian Doria limestone, a lava rock from Italy." Christopher Barr has studied this stone in detail and discusses it on his excellent website, Fossils in the Architecture of Washington, D.C.

Barr questions what type of stone it is. It is very soft and now highly eroded, with ancient marine fossils very clearly embedded in it, negating the possibility that it is volcanic. Round decorative medallions, now largely worn away, are carved on the upper part of the walls between the great bronze-framed windows, which were made in Rhode Island.

Inside, the walls are clad in expensive Italian travertine. The color scheme, as the Post pointed out, was a radical departure from Childs' white-tiled past. The ceiling was painted a robin's egg blue, contrasting pleasantly with the buff color of the limestone walls. Indirect lighting was provided by fixtures concealed around the edges of the ceiling. Travertine columns along the walls were topped with hand-carved scrolls, while wainscoting was of Hauteville marble. The floor was inlaid with Sienna, Cardiff green, Vermont white, and black Belge marbles.

The entire one-story structure served as the dining room, so that one was left wondering where the food was cooked. In fact, a large basement was built underneath, extending out much farther than the walls of the ground floor. In addition to the kitchen, storage rooms, washrooms, employee lockers, etc., there was also room for a cafeteria, although it may never have been used as such. All that imported marble and bronze fittings made the restaurant expensive to build, at $175,000, but it demonstrated the company's determination to create a monumental eatery.

The late 1920s and early 1930s brought more change to the Childs chain. William Childs, who took over after his brother Samuel died in 1925, was an avowed vegetarian and decided to adopt a purely vegetarian menu for the chain, to the dismay of customers and stockholders alike. He also instituted a policy of charging for glasses of water, an equally unpopular move. William was finally forced out in 1929, and the company soon brought back meat and free water.

In June 1932, wealthy heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean (1886-1947), owner of the Hope Diamond, was on Pennsylvania Avenue observing the Bonus Army, a ragtag group of World War I veterans who had descended on Washington seeking promised service bonuses that had never been dispensed. McLean wrote in her autobiography that she took pity on the marchers and decided to drop in to the Pennsylvania Avenue Childs to help them out. She ordered 1,000 sandwiches, to be served as quickly as possible. And 1,000 packs of cigarettes. As usual for her, she got her way. (The anecdote is retold in Douglas Evelyn and Paul Dickson, On This Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington, D.C.)

The mid 1930s saw more makeovers to keep the Childs restaurants fresh and interesting. The Post reported in January 1935 that the chain was redecorating its restaurants according to a variety of different themes. The Pennsylvania Avenue eatery went "Mexican, with adobe, irregular walls, iron railings, scenic paintings, Mexican posters and a hostess resplendent in ruffles and roses behind her ear."

Also mentioned was a New York Avenue branch that was taking on a neo-colonial look, "with paneled walls, wide boards in the floors, antique lighting fixtures and a hostess in hoop skirt." The Massachusetts Avenue location is not mentioned and was presumably already classy enough to keep up a strong clientele. A later Post article says it was at one time a fashionable eating place for late theater and movie goers.

In February 1949, a Legislative Assembly and Rally to End Segregation and Discrimination was held in Washington, attracting civil rights leaders from around the country, including W.E.B. DuBois and former vice president Henry A. Wallace. On the afternoon of February 13, a group of about 80 attendees at the rally, "members of New York and other out-of-town delegations," according to the Post, descended on the Massachusetts Avenue Childs and sat at most of its tables, demanding to be served.

This was apparently a very peaceful protest. The participants were not served, and they left after about three hours. But their demonstration was not in vain. Equal access to restaurant facilities became an important demand of the civil rights movement.

The following year, Washington activist Mary Church Terrell, along with three other African-American leaders, walked into a Thompson's restaurant, put soup on their trays, and sat down to eat. They were asked to leave. A lawsuit was promptly filed on their behalf, and it finally led to a court ruling in 1953 that segregated eating places in Washington, D.C., were unconstitutional. Thompson's was a Chicago-based chain and the main rival of Childs; its downtown D.C. cafeteria, now long gone, was located on the southeast corner of 14th Street and New York Avenue, NW.

The former location of the Pennsylvania Avenue Childs as it appears today. Photo by the author.

By the mid 1950s, the Childs chain was beginning to run out of steam. Its owners were occupied with developing and operating hotels and allowed the chain to languish. The Pennsylvania Avenue branch shut down around 1950 and was demolished to make way for a parking lot.

Matchbook photo of the building when it housed the R.A. Humphries company.

Childs backed out of its lease on the Massachusetts Avenue location in 1955, closing the restaurant after almost 30 years. The building was bought by the R.A. Humphries and Sons real estate firm for $100,000, only a little more than half what it had cost to build in 1926.

Humphries was there until 1969, when the building was sold to the Catholic War Veterans of the United Sates, which found it quite suitable as a war memorial, adorning the stately travertine walls with long lists of veterans' names. By 1987, they too were gone, to be replaced by a Popeye's restaurant. SunTrust Bank is the latest tenant.

The former Childs restaurant amid modern office buildings. Photo by the author.

The structure remains a unique architectural memento from the past. While not a major historical landmark, it was designed by a talented architect to stand out from the crowd, and it still does. If it played no pivotal role in the course of history, it certainly witnessed first-hand the seeds of social change. Its primary enemy at this point is probably the weather, which slowly but inexorably is eating away at its exotic stone facade.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.


Retail spaces "too big" or College Park population too small?

One of the main arguments for more student housing in downtown College Park is that there simply aren't enough people in the area to support all of the stores, bars and restaurants in the area. College Park's three-block business district is a revolving door of store closings, where new retail options open with great fanfare and close within a few months.

Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.

It's therefore not surprising to hear what Mark Srour, who owns local bar Cornerstone Grill and Loft, told the Diamondback about what some bars do to survive:

Here we are today; the building's sitting stagnant. A great clothing store like Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, Old Navy—somebody like that would be a great fit for that building," Srour said. "It's just too big of a place to have a bar because, unfortunately, you have to let all the underage people in just to survive. That's why that building is kind of cursed, I guess. It's just too big.

He's talking about Thirsty Turtle, which lost its liquor license last month due to a stabbing and a reputation for serving underage customers. As I wrote last month, Turtle and other bars in College Park need people within walking distance to get business. When the majority of those people are under 21, you're not going to discriminate.

Of course, even if the building that once housed Thirsty Turtle was turned into an Urban Outfitters or another clothing store, it might still have a difficult time staying open. There just aren't enough people living in downtown College Park to make it work, and the area isn't enough of a destination to draw shoppers who'd arrive by car. You need more people to justify the retail, and more retail to make the area a destination.

Having more stuff to do is a goal I'm sure everyone in College Park supports, whether you're a student, a permanent resident, on the University administration or the City Council. Unfortunately, they may not all agree that more student housing is the first step to getting there.


How can DC fix the liquor license process?

A number of businesses' recent tangles with DC's liquor license process has clearly shown the need for reform. The long saga of Hank's Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle clearly demonstrates the flaws as well as some strengths of the current system.

Photo by ZagatBuzz on Flickr.

Back in 2005, Jamie Leeds wanted to open a restaurant on Q Street NW just east of 17th Street. However, a number of residents oppose new liquor licenses on 17th. They fear, rightly or wrongly, that 17th could become entirely filled with bars, making it much noisier and pushing out other types of retailers.

Leeds negotiated a Voluntary Agreement with ANC 2B, specifying some limits. However, other residents weren't satisfied and wanted even stricter limits, and the ANC pulled out of the process. Leeds reached an agreement with a second group, and then yet a third pushed for even more, effectively "moving the goalposts" and stopping the restaurant from opening.

The Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC) Board, which adjudicates liquor license decisions, kept telling Leeds to continue negotiating with residents, as she explained at the ABC Board hearing (page 164-165). Her savings running out, she felt she had no choice but to agree to all of the demands, and finally opened the restaurant.

Today, Hank's is a very popular establishment that is almost always bustling and fills its patio in good weather with a mix of people having a good time and not causing trouble. Leeds secured the rights to expand into the vacant adjacent townhouse, but again faced the obstacles of the liquor license process.

The VA limited Hank's seating capacity, and some of the residents involved in the original VA weren't interested in allowing expansion. The ANC, on the other hand, didn't object to the expansion, and had previously endorsed the idea of some lateral expansions on 17th. The ABC Board had even extended 17th Street's liquor license moratorium only on the condition that up to 3 existing businesses be allowed to expand.

But in the VA process, any group of residents can force a hearing. After a months-long process, Leeds secured permission from the ABC Board to terminate the VA. All she had left to do was go through one more ABC Board hearing to actually modify the liquor license for an expanded business, and all would be well as far as most neighborhood residents were concerned.

However, another wrinkle suddenly appeared. In Dupont, the ANC habitually negotiates a VA with businesses in residential areas to end outdoor seating at 11 pm weeknights and midnight weekends, though they can stay open later indoors. This is a reasonable balance between the needs of residents and businesses; establishments can keep selling food and alcohol, but need to move inside to cut down on noise. This had been part of Leeds' VA.

The placards Hank's posted for its license renewal included the previous 11 pm and midnight hours. But when the ABC Board terminated the VA, they said Hank's hours could automatically revert to the maximum legal hours of 2 am weekdays, 3 am weekends as in their original 2005 application, and Hank's attorney Andrew Kline started suggesting the restaurant might stay open later. This threatened to undermine the neighborhood consensus in favor of Hank's expansion and the support of all those who had defended Leeds.

To preserve this neighborhood policy, the ANC suddenly had to reverse course and "protest" the license. Now the ANC, formerly an ally, suddenly looked to be an opponent. Fortunately, Hank's agreed to keep its hours at the neighborhood standard, and the ANC expects to support that at a special meeting Wednesday.

What's wrong with this process? Fundamentally, it hasn't effectively handled this situation where most residents support the license or the change with some limited restrictions, while others want no change or no establishment in the first place.

Some think VAs should be abolished altogether. However, DC can help businesses secure their liquor licenses more smoothly without throwing out this tool which is often very useful. Here are some steps the DC Council and/or the ABC Board can take.

Combine hearings and speed them up. If it concludes soon, the entire Hank's process will have consumed an entire year and many, many hours of legal bills. Yet the current proposal is identical to the original one. It shouldn't take so long to make a change.

This process included a number of separate hearings on different segments of the process, such as first removing the VA and then making the change to the license itself. All of these steps could be condensed into a single step. The establishment can put up its required placards to notify neighbors of the proposal, give a reasonable amount of time for people to weigh in, and then have one hearing to listen to testimony and make a decision.

Don't wait for agreement before holding the hearing. The ABC Board back in 2005 hurt Leeds by delaying action on her application until all protesting residents could agree. The fact is that in many cases, there are a few people who won't go along with even an overwhelming consensus.

The board should schedule its hearing and encourage the applicant to work out agreements with others, but if they can't satisfy everyone, the hearing should happen and the board can judge protestants' arguments for themselves. To its credit, the ABC Board has been moving much faster in recent years.

Clearly limit the parameters of VAs. Hank's VA not only regulated hours of operation and seating, but also prohibited any lettering on umbrellas besides the restaurant's name, and demanded certain kinds of materials in tree boxes. These issues should be covered by historic preservation, if at all, not enforced by ABRA (the agency that enforces liquor licenses) and negotiated in the VA.

Elsewhere, some neighborhoods groups of residents or ANCs have asked for requirements that the owner attend certain meetings, join certain organizations, donate to certain local nonprofits, or not play certain kinds of music. ABRA should define a clear set of restrictions that VAs may or may not contain.

VAs are often very long. ABRA could create a very simple one-page form that has checkboxes and spaces to fill in specific parameters: hours inside and out, amount of sitting and standing capacity, whether amplified music can be played, etc. A fairly small write-in space can accommodate any other items, but the vast majority of VAs should be able to simply use this basic form.

Require more residents closer to an establishment to protest. Today, as few as 5 residents can file a protest, and they can live as far away as 600 feet (1.6 football fields). With Hank's, the lead protestants lived 280 feet away and others lived even farther, while two directly across the street spoke in support. Protests other than ones filed by the ANC should require a greater number of protestants from a more immediate radius.

Encourage ANCs to define neighborhood-wide principles for VAs. Today, an ANC has to formally "protest" every liquor license application if it wants to get a VA. This makes the process unnecessarily adversarial. It also has to make this decision on a case by case basis. New business owners often don't know ahead of time what the ANC will or won't protest.

Instead of having every decision made case by case, ABRA could work with ANCs to define a reasonable and general policy about which VA parameters they'd protest and which they wouldn't. This could become a sort of default VA. For example, in Dupont, the general principle could be that outdoor hours are limited to 11 and 12 north of N Street or New Hampshire Avenue, but not limited in the Golden Triangle.

Applicants would get this information when first contacting ABRA. They wouldn't have to follow it, but could know that if the application fits within these parameters, the ANC wouldn't protest and ABRA could move a license application more quickly. The ABC Board could make a point to be more deferential to applications that do comply with this general policy.

On the flip side, if an application doesn't conform to them, ABRA would automatically assume there needs to be a hearing and the Board could give that more scrutiny. Prospective restaurateurs would know what the ANC is probably going to support and what they probably would not, and could write a business plan with more confidence about what would get approval.

Of course, ANCs shouldn't be able to set up a guideline saying that there should be no establishments at all, and applicants could apply for anything they wanted just as they can now. But if an ANC sets up reasonable parameters and is willing to apply them broadly, the ABC Board should give that "great weight."

Require the board to consider residents' needs when terminating a VA. The current law is vague about how the ABC Board should weigh the impact on residents when canceling a VA, as in the case of Hank's and the late night hours. They are required to consider it when granting a license, but that language lies in a different section of the law than the part about removing VAs. The Council should clarify this.

In theory, the process DC has makes sense. An applicant must notify neighbors. Neighbors can then ask for a hearing. Before the hearing, they can come to an agreement, which ABRA will enforce. If they don't, the ABC Board decides what to do at the hearing. The local ANC gets a louder say than others, but still doesn't decide on its own.

The problems come not from this process but when it doesn't work properly. If the ABC Board doesn't listen to reasonable ANCs pushing for sensible compromises, or refuses to overrule unreasonable neighbors, or allows outrageous provisions in VAs, or if the process takes too long, it can hurt businesses and neighborhoods.


Breakfast links: Stop the harassment

Photo by KCIvey on Flickr.
Metro PD harasses photographer: A Metro Transit Police officer detained a photographer for taking pictures from a public sidewalk in Alexandria. The officer and his supervisor then displayed ignorance of laws around showing ID and detention of citizens. (Pixiq)

DC Council considers bullying law: The Council is considering an anti-bullying law that is pitting gay rights and youth activists against the ACLU, who says the Council should be careful not to limit free speech, and DC Charter School representatives, who say schools should adopt tailored policies independently. (Post)

The plan changed, comprehensively: The DC Council approved amendments to the Comprehensive Plan with little fanfare, including provisions giving charter schools first dibs on vacant school buildings, allowing higher density in some industrial and low density areas and Poplar Point, and more. (Housing Complex)

Are parks a "public good"?: Responding to yesterday's NoMA post, Ryan Avent isn't so sure parks are a "public good" which wouldn't be adequately supplied without regulation. He argues that if people really wanted parks, then there would be more private parks, the way there are private gyms or golf courses, for example. (The Bellows)

Chesapeake Bay states wrestle with clean-up: The EPA is continuing to push Maryland, DC and Virginia to produce specific Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction plans. DC is still wrangling with federal agencies over stormwater treatment fees. (WAMU)

The latest anti-bike screed: "Local curmudgeon and bike hater" Gary Imhoff sees news that bike commuting has doubled to 2.2% as an argument against any bike infrastructure. TBD On Foot and WashCycle take apart the argument.

Melbourne bike share failing: While Montreal & London's Bixi based bike share programs are wildly successful, Melbourne's system, also from Bixi, has been a dud. The smaller number of bikes and stations is likely a contributing factor, but the biggest difference between the cities is Australia's mandatory bike helmet law. (This Big City)

Rich giving up the American dream: In another sign that the big house in the suburb is losing its former cachet, wealthy Americans are increasingly choosing to rent rather than buy. (CNBC, Ben Ross)

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Should DC dump the sales tax?

DC should consider getting rid of the bottom tier of the sales tax and replacing it with a higher income tax. This could stimulate business, help the working poor by removing a regressive tax, and retain more money within the District by taking advantage of federal deduction rules.

Photo by Tennessee Wanderer on Flickr.

Replacing this part of the sales tax with an income tax on higher earners would transform the bottom tier portion of the $973 million dollars DC residents currently pay in general sales tax, into a tax that is deductible from federal income tax.

This would return as much as $341 million dollars to the District's residents, serve as a tax break on the lower and middle class, and give DC businesses a competitive advantage over Maryland and Virginia, all while saving the District money.

There are five tiers to the DC sales tax. The 5.75% tier charged on tangible personal property is the bottom one. The others, on liquor, restaurant meals, parking, hotels, rental vehicles and sports tickets, represent luxury items or taxes on visitors and would not have the same effect if removed. When I talk about removing the sales tax, I'm talking about this bottom tier.

In 2009, the District raised $724,552,000 from its general sales tax, part of which came from the bottom tier. It is only tax-deductible from federal income tax by those who itemize, and only if they choose not to deduct their DC income tax. The sales tax deduction, which hasn't yet been extended this year, was designed for states without an income tax, primarily Texas, and is used rarely by DC residents, if at all. Thus, that entire sum of money is eligible for taxation by the federal government.

It is in the best interest of DC taxpayers as a whole to remove non-deductible taxes and replace them with deductible ones. By eliminated the sales tax and replacing it with a deductible tax, District residents could reduce their combined federal tax burden by up to 35%.

Those millions of dollars would stay in the hands of DC residents, much of which would be spent here, instead of going to the federal government. This would give a boost to local businesses.

Removing the sales tax would be good for local businesses in other ways as well. The District is surrounded by shoppers who would love to take advantage of sales-tax free spending, as would the 15 million annual visitors to the District. District tourist literature could promote DC as a place to see the sights "and shop tax-free."

Oregon has no sales tax and stores along the state line with Washington and California see a lot of business from out-of-state residents seeking a bargain. Unlike Oregon, DC's entire economy is a "border economy" so the impact would be even larger here. In addition, businesses would no longer need to collect, transfer and report sales tax, which would reduce overhead. Similarly, DC would no longer need the infrastructure to track, collect, audit and enforce sales taxes, thus allowing them to reduce costs.

DC would see other benefits too. While it would lose some sales tax that it currently earns from out-of-state shoppers, it would gain revenue from increased sales and the taxes, such as property and income, associated with profitable businesses. Stronger DC businesses would likely result in more jobs and so the District would also benefit from the taxes associated with workers, and reduced costs associated with lower unemployment.

As a further benefit, this would reduce taxes on those most in need of tax relief and make the system more fair. Sales taxes are paid by people across the economic spectrum, including those who can least afford to pay it. The top 1% of DC earners pay 5.8% 6.4% of their income in DC taxes. The bottom 20% pay 8.4%. The second and third 20% pay 11.0% and 10.8% respectively. So replacing the sales tax with a tax on high earners would make the tax system less regressive.

Cutting the sales tax will cut taxes for everyone. DC could then increase the income tax on those making more than $34,000 in taxable income (the start of the 25% bracket). Those making below $34,000 would pay no sales tax and would see no increase in income tax, which would represent about a 6.8% tax cut for them.

This tax cut would not be costly. In order to replace the revenue of the sales tax collected from the bottom 20%, the District would only need to increase the tax on the top 1% by 0.6%.

But that isn't necessary. By staggering the DC brackets to match the federal brackets, and tweaking the current rates, it could be arranged so that everyone pays less total tax, but the District gets the same amount of revenue, depending on the amount of state general sales tax that is paid by those out-of-state. This is done by taking money away from the federal government in the form of tax deductions. Those paying above $34,000 would pay an increased state income tax that could be more than offset by elimination of the state sales tax and a reduction of federal income tax.

Any fear that wealthy residents would choose to live just across the state line to take advantage of the reduced sales tax would be tempered by the fact that taxes in Maryland and Virginia are already higher than in DC. Maryland state income tax is 9.45% for those making more than $1 million, compared to 8.5% in DC, for example.

There are some possible drawbacks. A higher income does create a greater incentive to cheat, but with collection savings from removing the sales tax, DC could add enforcement staff for the income tax. Business gains for DC could spell loses for those just across the District line in MD or VA, but that is hardly DC's concern.

And by gaming the system to avoid federal taxes, DC runs the risk of Congressional intervention. But Congress created the system (without DC's input) and can hardly blame a state for gaming it. Further, the fear of Congressional intervention should not be a reason to avoid decisions that are best for DC residents.

A final drawback is that income tax revenues tend to be less stable, rising higher during good years and dropping farther during lean times. To make it work, DC needs to be more disciplined, setting aside more money in the rainy day fund during booms, so that it's available during busts.

None of these problems are so severe as to make this unmanageable. Five states, including nearby Delaware, have no sales tax, proving that whatever drawbacks there are, they are not insurmountable. For a jurisdiction with a strong border economy, numerous tourists, and an unbalanced tax rate among classes, getting rid of the sales tax is worth a look.


NoMA has no parks thanks to flawed upzoning

When DC officials rezoned the land north of Union Station to create NoMA, they triggered the creation of a brand-new neighborhood. Unfortunately, they forgot to leave space for a park, and created an economic dynamic that virtually ruled out any parks. Last week, Tommy Wells introduced a bill to try to fix this glaring omission.

Photo by CurrentFlickr on Flickr.

As Michael Neibauer explains in a Business Journal article (unfortunately behind the paywall), NoMA has no parks in its 358-acre territory, a "major oversight."

Basically, before the rezoning, a number of different property owners had some land that was fairly valuable. After the rezoning, they all had land that was extremely valuable. Then, many of them sold the land to developers. The developers paid a high price, knowing that they were entitled to build 10 FAR on their sites. But that also meant the developers now have to build 10 FAR to cover their investment.

DC created a lot of value when it upzoned the land. But that value all went instantly into the pockets of the current owners of the land. It increased the likelihood of the land being developed, but it also made it almost impossible to ask for any amenities, like parks.

Plus, the height limit means that developers can't get their 10 FAR by, say, building a 20-story building on half the lot and retaining the rest for a park. DC can't even give this right to a single property owner for a single park.

This is exactly the mistake Larry Beasley warned against in his recent talk. Instead of simply adding as-of-right height, he suggested coupling higher development with requirement to provide various amenities. This is the approach Montgomery County is using at White Flint, for example. This means that a portion of the economic gain goes to the property owner, but some of it can go to making housing more affordable, or providing parks, or schools, or bike paths.

Image from NoMA BID.
There are few development sites left and as development proceeds opportunities for a park will dwindle. It's too bad DC gave away all of its best tools years ago. In the map at right, blue and yellow properties are already built or under construction. The teal spaces represent unbuilt, planned projects; any park would have to displace one of them.

According to the WBJ article, Wells proposes allocating up to $51.5 million in tax revenue from NoMA into a special fund, but only if the revenue exceeds the 2010 level so it doesn't take away from the District's budget.

The NoMA BID and local developers support the plan, but perhaps they should also support increasing their tax rates a bit, at least in the future for a number of years, since they will benefit from the park and can sell units for more money (which will also generate more property tax).

And in the future, all cities and towns should avoid making the same mistake. Libertarian-leaning urbanists like Market Urbanism have recommended fewer development restrictions and greater reliance on the free market. In many cases that makes a lot of sense, but the NoMA experience shows a need for at least some mechanism to reserve for public goods some of the value an upzoning generates. Is there a more free market way to handle this?


How do you choose a DC public school?

Every parent wants the best for their children. But how do you find the best public school for your child? If you are considering where or whether to live in DC, how do you know if your nearby schools are any good?

Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

The growing pile of data can add to the confusion, since in many cases it isn't clear how achievement is being defined and what these numbers mean for students. In DC, the proliferation of charters and the out-of-boundary lottery only increase the complexity of the enrollment process.

It takes time and motivation to put in the necessary legwork and the result may still come down to some combination of geography and luck.

Still, being informed can make a difference. The needs of each family are unique, but here's how I would begin to weigh District schools:

Take advantage of the increasing amount of information on the web.

Oh, how I wish that the same folks responsible for New York City's Inside Schools database would inspire similarly robust models elsewhere. Great Schools does have some nice comparative features, but the info is much less insightful. However, as a starting point, it doesn't hurt to take a look at the basic stats within the DCPS school profiles. Let's use Oyster-Adams, the bilingual elementary school famously attended by ex-Chancellor Rhee's kids, as an example.

The student achievement section says the school has not met AYP in at least one subject two years in a row. In No Child Left Behind (NCLB) jargon, AYP means adequate yearly progress. Should a prospective parent be concerned? Maybe. But the fact is that three-quarters of their kids are doing just fine on annual assessments, which is far above the city average. That is, if you put much stock in the type of narrowly defined achievement these tests measure in the first place.

You should also consider that the tests aren't even administered until 3rd grade, and that a dip in one area isn't always indicative of a drop in overall performance. Apparently, last year the AYP issue was contained to one particular subgroup of special education students.

Along those lines, I'm very wary of the "teach a skill, then drill & kill" mentality that many schools fall into after succumbing to NCLB pressures. I'd prefer a well-rounded curriculum that integrates academic rigor into all subjects while leaving room for creativity and theme-driven units.

At Oyster-Adams, the dual-language focus does seem to provide a foundation for enhancements that go beyond rote skill acquisition. Since each class has two teachers who must work together to provide both Spanish and English instruction, I would guess that there is a commitment to effective collaboration.

A couple of other fun facts: the demographic data shows us that kids come from all over the city to attend this type of specialized program, and its size is reasonable considering it spans nine grades.

Where to next? The profile contains the school website, which gives a bit more of a personalized picture of the types of enrichment activities that make it special. Plus, for those of you still wondering about the kids who aren't achieving on grade-level, more detailed stats will help pinpoint the places where Oyster-Adams is falling short.

What do these numbers mean? At or above proficiency trends are charted over time, so you can see achievement trends. Little blips and slight dips are nothing to be too concerned about, but you should also take a look at the data by sub-group, where the gap between minority and white students is often revealed. Here, showing some progress is more important, because it can indicate how dedicated the staff is to addressing this particular issues.

Go with your gut.

It goes without saying that looking up statistics online is no substitute for making a visit in person. Schools offer open houses, but I would stop by during a normal day, too. This is when discerning parents can compare district-produced promotional materials to reality.

Ideally, I'd want a school to buzz with the sound of kids at work—not perfectly silent, but engaged and focused. I'd look to see if bulletin boards contained cookie-cutter worksheets or evidence of projects that required higher-order thinking.

Any overemphasis on math and literacy as isolated, skill-based subjects is going to suck all the fun out of learning. Guaranteed. Who does it benefit to focus on test prep most of the day? I'd argue that it's usually not the kids. Quality staff will be able to go beyond scripted, back-to-basics measures and make learning come alive for students.

I'd listen to the tone of voice of teachers in the halls. Do the adults in the building seem happy to be there, and do they truly enjoy working with children? Ask the office staff about the principal, and watch their faces for an initial reaction.

Try and meet school leaders while you're there, since their abilities will drive the on-the-ground implementation of curriculum and policy. They're understandably busy people, but if your child's principal isn't welcoming, that sends a big red flag.

Seek out advice from others and discuss your initial impressions.

DCPS has made an effort to get school news on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube as part of their goal to recruit more families to stay in the District. Having these communication tools gives parents a chance to connect with each other electronically.

Hopefully, you'll be able to meet a few folks who can give you their honest impressions of their child's experience. Ask them what all that data means in terms of day-to-day instruction. Improvement is great, but it's relative, meaning that low achievement is still problematic even if things are getting better. Besides, although test scores seem like an easy way to gauge success, they don't even come close to capturing all the complexities of classroom life.

Think about your child's disposition and interests.

Would your child become easily overwhelmed in a larger school, or would he welcome the opportunity to make scores of friends? Would the availability of certain services make a real difference in his education? Would a long Metro ride to school take too much out of him?

Does little Junior already have his heart set on a career in science at the age of three, or would a solid, well-rounded curriculum take precedence over a magnet's focus? Also keep in mind that while charters, magnets and other specialized alternatives can provide a boost to the District's offerings, their quality varies just like regular public schools.

Of course, for every Oyster-Adams, there's a host of schools that aren't as appealing. DC schools often contend with limited resources, revolving leadership, and a combination of anything and everything that might plague a district. So, although I'd like to remain cautiously optimistic, if you're lucky enough to have some choice between schools, take the time to do your research.

And if you meet some of the teachers and administrators who do deeply care about kids and are making a better future possible, thank them for their incredibly hard work. They'll need your support and encouragement to get little Junior all the way to college.


Georgetown ANC debates additional CaBi stations tonight

Georgetown's 4 Capital Bikeshare stations surround the neighborhood, but avoid the residential area and its 8,500 residents entirely. Tonight, the ANC will discuss the possibility of expanding CaBi into the neighborhood.

CaBi stations surround Georgetown but avoid the neighborhood. Map from Capital Bikeshare.

If you want to see more CaBi stations in the Georgetown neighborhood, it's important for you to show up and tell the ANC why you want CaBi stations that are convenient for Georgetowners.

When a CaBi station was proposed for the Car Barn on Prospect St, which would have been convenient for students and residents, a "loose coalition of homeowners" told their ANC commissioner that they opposed it. They cited concerns "about more noise and parking—that people might park nearby just to use the bike station."

Even though none of the homeowners felt strongly enough to subsequently attend an ANC meeting to oppose the Car Barn location, and I showed up and spoke in support of it, all but the GU student commissioner voted down the location.

To the ANC's credit, they are nonetheless open to other locations which would be convenient for Georgetowners. After all, 1 in 25 Georgetowners commute by bike.

The meeting begins at 6:30 pm at the Georgetown Visitation School, 35th and Volta Place, Heritage Room, first building on the left by the gatehouse, 2nd floor.

A few locations have been proposed:

Current (red) and suggested (white) Capital Bikeshare stations. Image from Google Maps.

Volta Park: This city park on the west side of Wisconsin Avenue has a parking lot with 5 parking spots for DCPR use only. The 2 spots furthest into the park, abutting the basketball court, would be a fine CaBi location.

On each side of the parking lot are small flower beds with footpaths that, surprise, are never used because a parking lot was dropped in between them. Furthermore, residents are well aware that there are rarely any permitted cars in the parking lot, which is primarily used illegally by drivers who know DCPR doesn't ever tow cars.

A CaBi location would thus make the main entrance to Volta Park more enjoyable as well as safer for children, while providing the amenity of bike sharing for Georgetowners in the West Village.

Rose Park: This NPS park is ideally situated for a CaBi location with a path that connects Georgetown and Dupont Circle. The station would go on the part of the asphalt that isn't marked for basketball.

Controversy around this potential location comes from the Friends of Rose Park, who have waged a 10-year campaign to designate the path a footpath and not a multiuse path that bikers can share. Fortunately, the NPS has steadfastly refused this request.

As this location is closest to the rest of DC, a CaBi station in Rose Park would probably have the biggest impact on reducing car traffic. And it would provide a nice amenity for residents of the East Village.

Montrose Park: A CaBi station could be placed in the playground space of the Jackson School and Arts Center across R Street from Montrose Park.

While there is less density in this northeast corner of Georgetown, this could mean less opposition as well. It would be difficult for residents to argue that the noise of bikers entering the Jackson School and Arts Center lot is a nuisance.

Can't make the meeting? Find your ANC commissioner using this ANC map and email him before the meeting expressing your desire for CaBi stations that are more convenient for residents.


Breakfast links: Houses and cars

Photo by mercurialn on Flickr.
Washingtonians spend too much on housing: Despite the relative affluence in the DC area, many people are burdened by housing costs, particularly renters. The problem is almost as great in many outer counties as in DC, even before accounting for transportation costs. Tellingly, people are losing their homes to hold on to their cars. (Post)

New suburbanites struggle without cars: As urban poor are forced to become suburban poor with rising city housing costs, they are finding surburban life difficult without a car, which they didn't need before. (WAMU)

Shoo, parties: Mike DeBonis says DC should switch to nonpartisan elections, which such similarly stalwart Democratic cities as LA and Chicago have done. (Post) ... It should include Instant Runoff Voting as Topher Mathews recommended here. Could Congressional Republicans give DC a House seat in exchange for nonpartisan local elections, as some Twitterers suggested?

Local design criteria have value: Protracted design review gave Georgetown a more Georgetown-like Apple store rather than the company's off-the-shelf minimalist facade. Edward McMahon argues that replicating chains' standard architecture diminishes a neighborhood's unmatched value as a unique shopping destination. (PCJ, Eric Fidler)

Start of a new cycle in Rosslyn?: Rosslyn real estate tycoon Anthony Westreich is betting on low interest rates and construction costs to usher in a new era for Rossyln. He is building a new office tower without any committed tenants, hoping to entice a high-end occupant across the Potomac. (Post)

Virginia has a lot of aging bridges: Some 1,800 of Virginia's bridges and culverts, or 9% of the state's inventory, are structurally deficient. VDOT says it would cost $4 billion to repair them all. (WTOP)

Former DOT secretary prioritizes roads: Former Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta stressed the need for the federal government to make a major investment in transportation infrastructure, but said the priority should be road and highway maintenance. (Transportation Nation)

Detroit fills grocery void with independent markets: Since no major supermarket chain has a store in Detroit, independent grocers fill in the void. Can the same happen for the area's food deserts? (CNN Money, Eric Fidler)

Demand for 2BR apartments growing: New York City is seeing a revival in its 2 bedroom apartment market. The recession forced some into smaller homes, while those unfazed by the downturn took advantage of lower prices and traded up for larger homes. (NYT)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.


Struck in DC this week: Don't be a jerk edition

On Friday morning, two elderly pedestrians were injured, one seriously, by a hit-and-run-cyclist in an alley near the 500 block of Massachusetts Avenue NW.

Click to view this week's map.

As WashCycle notes, "this story was picked up by just about every news outlet." The reason it got so much attention, while countless other hit-and-run incidents barely get mentioned, is because it's so rare. The last time Struck in DC recorded a bike-on-pedestrian crash was in July.

And although it may often not feel like it, cyclists and pedestrians benefit together: a recent study showed that streets with bike lanes are significantly less dangerous for pedestrians, as well.

This senseless incident here in DC coincides with the news that New York City, which for the past few years has focused heavily on bicycle infrastructure, is undertaking a new campaign to educate cyclists, pedestrians and drivers on responsible cycling and safe behavior around cyclists. It's called "Don't Be a Jerk." That's a lesson Friday's hit-and-run cyclist should have known.

Until no one is a jerk anymore, we map cyclist and pedestrian crashes in the District each week. Because DC Fire & EMS did not tweet pedestrian struck or cyclist struck reports this week, the only incidents we were able to record were submitted by tipsters or reported in the media. View this week's map.

The source for this data is Struck in DC, which has been tracking crashes on Twitter since June 1. While it is not a comprehensive listing of all pedestrian and cyclist incidents on our city's streets, Struck in DC does keep tabs on reports from DC Fire/EMS and other sources. The goal is to raise awareness of the approximately 8-12 pedestrians struck daily and the room for improvement in data collection of bicycle and pedestrian crashes in the District.

If you know of a crash that wasn't mapped here, report it to Struck in DC. For a tally of Struck in DC crashes we have recorded, please view the spreadsheet.

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