Greater Greater Washington

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DCRA fines Uline Arena owner for unpermitted signs

DCRA has decided that large billboard-style signs on the side of the Uline Arena are illegal.


Photo by the author.

Douglas Development placed 3 large signs on the side of the building where MARC, Metro, and Amtrak riders can see them.

I questioned whether these are legal, since DC has a short list of allowable billboard-sized "special signs" which doesn't mention the Uline.

According to DCRA, they sent inspectors to take a look at the signs, and they've issued an infraction notice to Douglas, the property owner. Douglas has the right to appeal, but if they choose not to, they'll have to pay a fine of $2,000 and take the signs down.

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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I think it's a bit ridiculous that those signs are illegal. I don't want billboards popping up everywhere, but there has to be a more reasonable middle ground.

by Vik on Aug 5, 2011 2:27 pm • linkreport

I think it's a bit ridiculous that the city is worried about a couple of signs more than renovating the space into something useful for the neighborhood.

by mch on Aug 5, 2011 2:31 pm • linkreport

Why are you so proud of yourself for this accomplishment? Douglas Development does a lot for the city. You shouldn't try to stir up trouble and sit back and enjoy. Contribute to the city as much as Douglas Development does, then judge.

by Mike on Aug 5, 2011 2:32 pm • linkreport

I'm really confused about why people seem to care more about a couple of signs that you can only see on a train than about the fact that these properties are zoned improperly (they'e zoned for manufacturing/industry, which clearly there is very little demand for, since the majority of M plots in this neighborhood are lying vacant – and not just the Douglas-owned one). Wouldn't working to rezone the area for commercial/residential development be better for the neighborhood than nitpicking about a bunch of signs?

I mean, wasn't one of the original purposes of zoning to keep manuf./industry out of residential neighborhoods? Why is the Office of Zoning insisting on keeping manufacturing in my neighborhood, when clearly there isn't even any demand for it?

by Stephen Smith on Aug 5, 2011 2:36 pm • linkreport

Would "contribute to the city" include paying back taxes on their derelict properties?
http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/blog/2011/08/dc-tax-auction-generates-87m.html?page=all

by Brian on Aug 5, 2011 2:37 pm • linkreport

@mch:

I think it's a bit ridiculous to frame that as an either/or dichotomy.

The city, through DCRA, has an interest and an obligation to enforce the billboard laws.

The city, through the Office of Planning or the DMPED, has an interest in promoting development of the space.

Not only can and should the city do both, it has separate agencies for each.

by Jewdishoo on Aug 5, 2011 2:39 pm • linkreport

In defense of Geoff and the basic principle, doing things that are good or worthy for the city doesn't free one up from the burden of following regs. That is to say, doing good things for the city doesn't also mean you get a free pass on doing things wrong. You might think it's nitpicking, but the principle stands.

by Steve on Aug 5, 2011 2:39 pm • linkreport

Geoff, have you no shame! (Sarcasm)

by @SamuelMoore on Aug 5, 2011 2:40 pm • linkreport

Regardless of what Douglas Development does for this city, it clearly violated the law with these signs. It seems like it was pretty easy for Geoff to determine if these were legal or not. I would think Douglas would have done its due diligence before putting them up.

Sure, it wasn't a major crime that Douglas had the signs up. But we should encourage adherence to the law in large and small cases.

by Jamie Scott on Aug 5, 2011 2:41 pm • linkreport

Doug Jemal has a "very special" relationship with the District. So don't expect those signs to come down, OR the fine to be paid.

by Ron on Aug 5, 2011 2:48 pm • linkreport

Phew the DCRA has protected us from the tyranny of signs? Seriously if it's someone's property they have every right to put up a sign. Deal with it.

by Luke on Aug 5, 2011 2:48 pm • linkreport

old signs good. news signs bad.

by signer on Aug 5, 2011 2:49 pm • linkreport

"Contribute to the city as much as Douglas Development does, then judge."

I basically agree with the commenters over at PoP: Jamal at Douglas Development doesn't *try* to fill DC with blight; he just buys cheap, run-down, blighted properties and waits for years (and years...and years...) to develop them until he thinks he can make some $$. That doesn't make him a bad person. But it most certainly isn't altruistic, either, and it's laughable to laude how much he "contributes" to the city.

http://www.princeofpetworth.com/2010/08/douglass-development-corporation-hero-or-horses-ass/

by Ronald on Aug 5, 2011 2:49 pm • linkreport

"Douglas Development does a lot for the city."

My sarcasm detector is on the fritz; is this a joke? Jemal is a notorious tax cheat who sits on vacant buildings waaaay too long. And he was incredibly lucky to beat that bribery charge several years ago. Whatever development he's brought here could have just as easily been brought by some other developer who was in the right place at the right time (with the right bribe) like Jemal.

So no, Jemal has done nothing to earn some above-the-law status.

by TM on Aug 5, 2011 2:53 pm • linkreport

Jemal helps and harms the city. He has been a friend to the preservation and arts communities, but he also does sit on properties as some folks said. Nonetheless, he is all the way committed to the city even if some question his methods. Also, the folks that run this site are very committed to the city even if some question their methods.

by Thaddeus Z. Swampoodle IV on Aug 5, 2011 3:03 pm • linkreport

It's funny, looking at the dcra signs list how many of them reside on Douggie's properties. Even his headquarters near H St has a billboard on top. I called the uline signs in when DCRA had the first crack-down over a year ago and was told they were legal at the time.

by Mike2 on Aug 5, 2011 3:06 pm • linkreport

i think this writer could have put his time and writing to better use than this, this appears to be something that wasnt a problem to no one but you, it was a waste of time, those inspectors could have been doing something of great vaule to the city, but you wanted to cry about a sign that's only seen from the train tracks

by Jerome on Aug 5, 2011 3:07 pm • linkreport

C'mon, people: sign restrictions are there for a reason. Disused, blighted properties with advertising on them make revenue. The idea behind sign restrictions is limiting a property owner's ability to make revenue without renovating disused, blighted property... incentivizes renovating disused, blighted property. To say that enforcing the law here shows the city is "worried about a couple of signs more than renovating the space into something useful for the neighborhood" misses the problem with signage, and the point of signage restrictions.

by Lucre on Aug 5, 2011 3:07 pm • linkreport

Until I saw the Douglas building down on H St I always assumed Douglas Development was a demolition company, since every building I saw with its name was vacant or already falling down.

by Roger on Aug 5, 2011 3:07 pm • linkreport

I'm sure the rent collected from the signs was way more than $2000 by the time the city got around to issuing the citation, so in that case he's out ahead.

by spookiness on Aug 5, 2011 3:12 pm • linkreport

The idea behind sign restrictions is limiting a property owner's ability to make revenue without renovating disused, blighted property... incentivizes renovating disused, blighted property...

Kinda hard to renovate disused, blighted property when according to the zoning code you're not allowed to build the dominant neighborhood use (residential) on it. There are plenty of plots just like it in the neighborhood that have no signs, and are still disused and blighted.

by Stephen Smith on Aug 5, 2011 3:12 pm • linkreport

"Also, the folks that run this site are very committed to the city even if some question their methods."

I'm as critical as the next guy of some GGW contribs' analytical methods. Maybe even more critical. But it's super unfair to GGW to compare their occasional intellectual bias to $6 million in criminal tax evasion.

by Ronald on Aug 5, 2011 3:30 pm • linkreport

What about the giant billboards that are attached to the side of the Kastles tennis stadium at 800 Water St SW? Is this stadium owned by the city or did a developer just throw this billboard up also?

by ontarioroader on Aug 5, 2011 3:33 pm • linkreport

If they take them down, don't they avoid the fine? I.e., isn't it a fix-it type violation, with a fine only if they don't do it within 7 (or something) days?

by ah on Aug 5, 2011 4:53 pm • linkreport

The zoning is historical. It can hardly be called "improper." Zoning all along the railroad tracks in NE DC is either CM or C. The only problem with this particular site is that it would be a good site for housing too, which CM doesn't allow.

Otherwise, it's fine and not an issue. The only thing that prevents the building from being used now (IMP would love to open a music facility there, although granted there would be quality of life issues for the abutting residents) is the owner's unwillingness to sell.

3. In any case, reducing the amount of CM zoned land is a bad thing given how little such land DC possesses. The real issue is to change the category to make noncommercial uses such as schools and churches and other social services programs no longer matter of right. These uses can outbid commercial uses, because they use noneconomic criteria for pricing (plus they don't pay property taxes), further depleting the available inventory of property able to be used for such purposes.

by Richard Layman on Aug 5, 2011 4:58 pm • linkreport

In any case, reducing the amount of CM zoned land is a bad thing given how little such land DC possesses. The real issue is to change the category to make noncommercial uses such as schools and churches and other social services programs no longer matter of right. These uses can outbid commercial uses, because they use noneconomic criteria for pricing (plus they don't pay property taxes), further depleting the available inventory of property able to be used for such purposes.

Have you been to the area in question lately? I'm not seeing many "schools and churches and other social services programs" taking advantage of this non-residentially-zoned land...just vacant buildings and vacant lots that are used to park cars. I was told the same thing by the Office of Zoning – it needs to be zoned this way because there's so little land available for industry/manufacturing/whatever. And yet, I don't see anyone (except the "Central Armature Works" and a couple of autobody shops) taking advantage of it.

As for the zoning being "historical," clearly history has marched on, because there is apparently no demand for M/CM land in this area. Unless I'm missing something and the Uline Arena actually has some supersecret biomedical research going on in the basement or something...?

by Stephen Smith on Aug 5, 2011 5:24 pm • linkreport

Jemal did just help raise nearly a $1 million for the District, or nearly 10% of the total money raised through the recent D.C. tax auction. You can read the whole story over at the Washington Business Journal http://bit.ly/ru97n0

"At least 21 properties owned by Douglas Development, Corp. one of the District's top developers and property owners, were sold at auction for a total of $915,149.29, or 10.5 percent of all money collected by the Office of Tax and Revenue during the sale."

by dcvoterboy on Aug 5, 2011 5:27 pm • linkreport

so dcvoterboy, jemal didn't pay taxes and his properties were seized and sold at auction? and you are giving him credit for "helping" raise money for the district? that's a funny way to phrase it.

by eli on Aug 5, 2011 5:58 pm • linkreport

I guess Jemal also 'helped' raise money for DC when he paid court costs and fines for his '06 wire fraud conviction:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/26/AR2006102600948.html

by ontarioroader on Aug 5, 2011 8:41 pm • linkreport

@eli: the "helped" was phrased entirely in jest; perhaps i should have used quotes around "helped" to improve clarity.

i have no problems with DCRA fining a landlord for breaking the law, regardless of who they may be.

by dcvoterboy on Aug 5, 2011 9:25 pm • linkreport

Two questions for everyone who's excusing these signs because "they can only be seen from the train tracks":

1. Would you be fine with illegally-posted billboards along stretches of the Whitehurst or Southeast/Southwest Freeway or another highway where they could only be seen from the road?

2. Does it change your opinion on these signs to find out they can be seen, even more clearly than from the train tracks, by motorists on 2nd Street NE? And that they're large enough to be clearly legible to Eckington residents on the other side of the train tracks?

by cminus on Aug 5, 2011 9:52 pm • linkreport

Umm, yeah, I'm pretty familiar with the area and building in question (e.g., I led the effort to get the building landmarked). Nothing holds back the owner from seeking a rezoning. As for the "category" of zoning, not just this particular building, which is what I am referring to, the general point pertains. Check out the land in Ward 5 and Ward 4 along the Met. Branch tracks.

by Richard Layman on Aug 6, 2011 10:41 pm • linkreport

The "special signs" list was (IIRC) the way the DC Council finally cut off the practice of wrapping buildings with billboards as a loophole in the anti-billboard laws. Billboards had been made illegal in DC with only the existing base grandfathered. Then the building wraps came in, the city refused to cite them as billboards and much later the practice was stopped and a new "right to blightify" was given to the "owners" of the billboards. (Correct me if I make any errors here, please.)

Unfortunately, DC is now stuck with the practice and the existence of these, now migratable, billboards. At least under the old statute the billboard right went away if it was removed or fell down.

I would love to see the "right to blightify" removed, perhaps via a blight-tax on the signs themselves. Setting the rate to raise sufficient proceeds so that one sign could be purchased and retired each year. It would take 32 years, but it would, eventually, deliver a more beautiful urban space and rectify the mistake made long ago with the decision to allow the "loophole" for politically connected billboard owners.

On the Doug Jemal "tax auction" story, it is worth noting that the actual "gift" from the developer is the interest rate of 1.5% per month on the amount of the tax. This works out to about 180,000 dollars a year on investment properties worth a lot (but not as much as they would be worth if the economy was booming -- the actual value is unknown to me, but is enough to generate a million dollar overdue tax bill over some number of years).
As the Washington Biz Journal reports -- Doug Jemal ain't gonna let them go to foreclosure and lose the buildings, he's just buying time.

by grooft on Aug 7, 2011 2:31 pm • linkreport

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