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DC turns blind eye to developer's potential sign infractions

Since Douglas Development acquired the Uline Arena, the company has added three large signs to the side of the building, strategically placed to catch the eyeballs of those on passing Metro, MARC, and Amtrak trains.

Uline Arena. Photo by the author.

A look at DC's signage rules suggests these advertisements may not be legal. But they also may be profitable, and Douglas Development owes the city quite a bit in property taxes.

Is the city ignoring the offense for its own gain?

In 2009, years of effort to remove three billboards at the corner of New Jersey Avenue and P Street NW came to an end when the billboards were cut down with a welding torch. The event marked the conclusion of a long campaign by the residents of Shaw to remove what they saw as blight from a neighborhood street corner.

One of the lasting results of that fight was that it made DC residents aware of the list of "special signs" permitted by the District. The "Special Signs Inventory," maintained by DCRA, lists 32 authorized large-scale advertisements that aren't technically billboards, according to DC regulations, located on the sides of buildings.

The Uline Arena signs are not on that list. There has been a Douglas Development sign on the side of the building for as long as I can remember, surely to entice interested parties to inquire about available space in the building. Last year, when Carmine's opened in the Penn Quarter neighborhood, a large advertisement for the Italian restaurant appeared on the side of the arena, as well. A sign advertising FroZenYo turned up within the last couple weeks.

That's 3 large "special signs" located on the building. Is this legal? I contacted Douglas Development to ask them about the regulatory process required to place these signs, but did not receive a call back. If they reply, I'll be sure to post an update.

The signs aren't on the city's official list, so they certainly appear to flout the rules. However, as Michael Neibauer noted two weeks ago, Douglas Development carries a sizable property tax debt to the city. Perhaps DC doesn't mind looking the other way if this helps bring Douglas Development income that can be used to settle the tab.

Photo by the author.

Cross-posted at The District Curmudgeon.

Geoff Hatchard lived in DC's Trinidad neighborhood. The opinions and views expressed in Geoff's writing on this blog are his, and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer. 


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Any word on the legality of the FUCK THE POLICE fresco that Red Line riders of all ages are treated to daily?

by Dizzy on Jun 30, 2011 1:10 pm • linkreport


It would probably be up to the property owner, but the first amendment covers the content of the graffiti, like it or not.

by ontarioroader on Jun 30, 2011 1:15 pm • linkreport

Is Douglas Development actually losing money, or are they just skirting taxes?

If they can't pay their taxes, I see no reason why the city should not force Jemal into Chapter 7 or 11, or failing that, throw him in prison until he can come up with the money to pay the city what he owes.

Tax evasion is tax evasion. I don't get why Jemal is evidently exempt from those laws...

by Andrew Schmadel on Jun 30, 2011 1:25 pm • linkreport

Oh, and what about the *actual* billboards right next to the Uline? Surely those must be illegal...

by Andrew Schmadel on Jun 30, 2011 1:26 pm • linkreport


Per the Anti-Graffiti Amendment Act of 2000:

Whenever any building, sign, or other structure, or premises within the District are determined by the Mayor to have become a nuisance because of graffiti and the property owner fails to accept the Mayor's graffiti removal services after the Mayor has attempted in good faith to obtain consent and a waiver of liability from the owner for such services, the Mayor may serve the owner of the building, sign, or other structure, or premises a notice of nuisance abatement in writing...

Upon the owner's failure to remove the graffiti, file a waiver of liability consenting to receive, without charge, the Mayor's graffiti removal services, or submit to the Mayor a written request for a hearing or an adjudication by mail to dispute the Mayor's determination that the property identified in the notice has become a nuisance because of graffiti, either by mail, courier, or in person, within 60 days of the date of the personal delivery, certified mailing, or attachment to a sign of the notice, the Mayor, or the Mayor's agents or contractors, may enter or access the property specified in the notice and abate the nuisance by removing or concealing the graffiti.

Would be good to know if this option has ever been pursued.

I bring this up only because I find such things to be far more visually offensive than a FroZenYo placard.

by Dizzy on Jun 30, 2011 1:29 pm • linkreport

Supposedly advertising is not allowed on vacant property either. 1001 11th st NW (corner of 11th & K) is just egregious. that one must take in 15k a week while the historic mansion it covers rots away.

by Si Kailian on Jun 30, 2011 1:35 pm • linkreport

Given the size and scope of the Douglas Jemal/Norman Jemal enterprise, it seems reasonable to ask questions about preferential treatment. But, let's face it, the answer is more likely to be "enforcement issues." Time and again, we see District agencies keeping their blinders on so they don't have to bother with the difficulties of actually getting out in the community and enforcing the rules.

by Phil Lepanto on Jun 30, 2011 1:50 pm • linkreport

@Si - Uline isn't actually vacant. It is leased to a parking company.

by Paul on Jun 30, 2011 1:55 pm • linkreport

Si: 1001 11th Street NW is on the officially sanctioned "Special Signs" list here.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jun 30, 2011 1:55 pm • linkreport

Does anyone know the justification for having "Special Sign" permits? It seems like a pretty narrow (lucrative) carve out for a few permit holders.

by S.B. on Jun 30, 2011 2:22 pm • linkreport

Oh, yeah. I completely forgot about the 11th St one. I always assumed that it was allowed as a stipulation for fixing the building beneath it, although that doesn't seem to be actually happening.

Of course, I'd be happy to put up with billboards for a year or two on a historic-but-blighted building such as the schoolhouse on Mass & G NW, if 100% of the revenue was used to stabilize the building, and make it commercially viable for a tenant.

by Andrew Schmadel on Jun 30, 2011 2:26 pm • linkreport

Its in the NoMa BID, so why not ask them also.

by spookiness on Jun 30, 2011 2:30 pm • linkreport

@Dizzy Funny, I feel just the opposite; and at least no one's making money illegally on the graffiti.

That Carmine's sign hurt my brains when I first saw it: "While in DC Don't Leave Without Visiting NYC's Legenday [etc]".
Is it possible to leave while still in DC? While in DC, visit a NYC insitution?

by Lucre on Jun 30, 2011 2:33 pm • linkreport

Potential sign infractions?


by TGEoA on Jun 30, 2011 2:34 pm • linkreport

Don't we have anything better to worry about than a couple of signs that are only visible from a train? Like, say, the hulking blight that is the manufacturing-only zoned area north of this plot, which DC pols are sitting on till they get the right bribes to upzone it or give it a variance?

If these signs are illegal, then the law is dumb.

by Stephen Smith on Jun 30, 2011 6:12 pm • linkreport

How about we insist they add one that says: "Site of the Beatles' first concert in North America"?

by Capt. Hilts on Jun 30, 2011 7:07 pm • linkreport

What about the Verizon Center, or is that exempt because the city owns it?

by thedofc on Jun 30, 2011 8:43 pm • linkreport


I believe the Verizon Center is privately owned. Largely by Ted Leonsis or the Pollin family still. Someone help me here. But it's not the city.

by Capt. Hilts on Jun 30, 2011 9:58 pm • linkreport

No the city doesn't own the Verizon Center but you might think it did since it was only a few years ago that they got 50 million from the City to upgrade it.
If Douglas can't afford to build on, pay taxes on or maintain the properties he owns he should be forced to sell some. He is allowed to do demolition by neglect of landmark properties and gets a pass on the blight tax for what reason?

by danmac on Jul 1, 2011 7:04 am • linkreport

The Verizon Center is privately owned by Leonsis's group, but the land it sits on is still owned by the city IIRC.

by Dizzy on Jul 1, 2011 10:17 am • linkreport

+1 on Capt Hilts' suggestion that a sign be added telling passerbys that the Uline was the site of The Beatles' first U.S. concert. That is an awesome factoid that would surely help NOMA earn some extra cool points.

by Alan Page on Jul 1, 2011 10:46 am • linkreport

Dizzy, I think you've got it right. Thanks!

The city has made a ton of money from the VC because of the huge boon to real estate values [and taxes] that it has created.

But, seriously, DC needs to commission on artist to put an image of the Beatles on the side of that building - it gives the building and the area a little cache to tourists travelling the line. Very few locals even know the building's link to the Beatles.

by Capt. Hilts on Jul 1, 2011 10:48 am • linkreport

I looked at the list of owners of sign permits at the link Geoff posted and noticed three entities appeared to own all of the permits: Washington Signs, Van Wagner and Thaxton Management. Sounds like an oligarchy to me.

by Alan Page on Jul 1, 2011 10:54 am • linkreport

Alan, I think you mean oligopoly.

by Dizzy on Jul 1, 2011 12:37 pm • linkreport

My mom was at that first Beatles concert there.

When did it stop being called the Washington Colosseum? That's what I'd always thought it was [still] called.

by Tom on Jul 1, 2011 1:59 pm • linkreport

@Tom -how old was your mom? was she screaming and crying like those teenage girls in the historic photos of Beatles concerts?

by Tina on Jul 1, 2011 2:27 pm • linkreport

As an Eckington resident, I see these signs almost daily. @TGEoA and @Stephen Smith, FYI - I can see them, from my neighborhood, easily. They are annoying, especially the Carmine's sign. I wish they would go away.
And YES! to the suggestion that some sort of Beatles mural get put on the building! Whenever I see random tourists, especially those of the appropriate age, standing on the platform at NY Ave, and I'm in the mood for a chat, I point out to them the history of the building. Folks are always really excited to learn that random fact.

by elizqueenmama on Jul 1, 2011 3:15 pm • linkreport

I can see them, from my neighborhood, easily. They are annoying, especially the Carmine's sign. I wish they would go away.

There are a lot of things about living in a city that are annoying and I wish would go away. But alas, that's all part of living in a place with other people – learning to tolerate things like, say, unwanted signs on vacant buildings.

If you really want the sign to go away, pressure your elected officials to ease the redevelopment process so that building can actually be put to productive use, and its owners have a stake in not making it look like shit. But if all you do is try to cover up the flaws with bandaids rather than addressing root causes, you're not going to like how it eventually all turns out.

by Stephen Smith on Jul 1, 2011 3:22 pm • linkreport

Stephen Smith: The building is not vacant. It is currently used as a parking garage.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jul 1, 2011 3:24 pm • linkreport

What DC should clearly do is ban all signs, as Sao Paulo did!

That looks awesome!!!!

by Susan on Jul 1, 2011 8:19 pm • linkreport

I don't see why signs should be banned at that location. Why wouldn't you want to try and advertise to MARC and Amtrak riders? The signs might be in violation of the current rules, but maybe the rules need some common sense updates.

by Seatoner on Jul 12, 2011 12:26 pm • linkreport

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