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Politics


What do you want to ask the candidates for your neighborhood council?

In a year where we have a lot of questions we'd like to ask politicians on the national stage, we should also take time to focus closer to home. DC voters will elect hundreds of Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners in November, and we want to make sure you get a chance to ask them about what matters to you.


Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture on Flickr.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (ANCs) are unique, hyper-local elected officials (they represent about 2,000 voters each) that can make significant impacts on the development and landscape of your neighborhood. These positions are non-partisan, meaning there is no primary and the November 8th general election is the only chance you get a chance to vote for these candidates.

Many residents in DC don't even know these officials exist. I remember the first time I voted in DC; on my way to the voting site I was stopped by a nice man with a firm handshake who asked me where I lived. When I told him, he said "Great! You live in my district, and you should vote for me for your ANC commissioner!" Sure enough, his name was on my ballot, and I'll admit it: His handshake won my vote.

Now that I know a little more about how important these leaders can be, I don't recommend the handshake-vetting process. But because of the relative low-profile of these elections, finding out more about the candidates before election day can be a challenge.

We'd like to try and fix that

Greater Greater Washington is in the process of creating a questionnaire that we will send to ANC candidates across the city. After collecting and organizing candidate responses, we will publish our opinions and each candidate's words on the site in a way that you can easily find the information you need to make informed choices about your local ANC race.

We'd like your help in crafting questions for this questionnaire. Please fill out the form below with questions you would like ANC candidates to answer publicly. We'll sort through your suggestions to help us finalize the questionnaire we distribute in September.

Because these elections are so local, we're looking for questions relevant specifically to your neighborhood or ANC, or they could apply over a wider range like much of your ward, or even the whole city.

What do you wish you had answers to?

Why doesn't this area have more grocery stores? A dog park? What should be done about that terrible intersection? Here's your chance to ask the people who might represent you on these issues.

Not sure which ANC or district you're in? Find out with this tool!

Politics


In defense of hyperlocal government in DC

Last week, Greater Greater Washington's David Whitehead encouraged readers who live in DC to run for Advisory Neighborhood Commission office, a position that makes you part of a group that weighs in on a number of hyperlocal issues from housing to transportation. Some commented that DC would be better off without ANCs, but I don't think that'd would help the city.


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

In his post, David explained the role that ANCs play in shaping DC policy, from working with restaurants to secure liquor licenses to giving input on proposed developments. While ANCs can't actually make rules or decisions, District agencies give their opinions "great weight," which makes them very influential.

David also implored readers file to run for ANC office, which there's still time to do (you can also run a write-in campaign without circulating petitions, a move I'd say is especially worth looking into for seats that will have no candidate appear on the ballot).

A few readers, however, rejected the notion that ANCs are useful in the first place. After one said they'd prefer to abolish ANCs altogether, another said:

Yes! Democracy is great. Hyperlocal democracy is terrible. It's bad enough that we as a metropolitan area have to deal with infighting among counties and three state-level jurisdictions. A race among ANCs to block development in a race to become the one corner of a quadrant to stay car-friendly and car-dependent and value-inflated and "peaceful" is just a mess of perverse incentives.
ANCs really aren't so bad

As an ANC commissioner, I'm always curious about the perspective of people who want to abolish ANCs. I have an obvious bias in the matter, but I think those that assume ANCs are a road block to development and progressive ideas would find that most—if not all—of the "obstructionism" would just transfer over to citizens associations in their absence.

In fact, since ANCs are prohibited by law from suing, the incidence of plainly dilatory tactics on the part of those who reflexively oppose things would probably be even more pronounced if all the time/resources currently behind ANCs instead went into resurrecting or rejuvenating neighborhood associations that now have a secondary role.

I have two main thoughts on why ANCs are useful:

First, I find that in general (there are always exceptions), the ANC tends to be the moderating force in the neighborhood relative to citizens associations and groups of affected neighbors, who tend to be more "anti-development" and opposed to "progressive ideas." A well-run ANC, and there are many—far more than there are dysfunctional ones—serves as an advocate for its community, but also works to be a forum for all different viewpoints and tries to broker a compromise weighted in the community's interests.

Second, the plain fact is that some developments, some liquor licenses, some transportation ideas—are just bad ideas and need to be opposed. In the vast majority of cases, ANCs are reacting to things, most of which can be made better or at the very least made adequate from the community's perspective. But sometimes, certain proposals are just bad ideas and should be stopped. There's also a realm of reasonable judgement. You can be a good commissioner and just have a different perspective on smart growth issues than others without being some cartoonish NIMBY.

I think the second point is a little harder to appreciate unless you actually take on the role. Supporting something in a theoretical sense often sounds far better than turns out in practice. And sometimes, frankly, you have to decide to pick your battles.

It's like any other level of politics. If your engaged constituents overwhelmingly prefer one course of action, and they're the ones that show up, they're the ones that write the letters, they're the ones that bend your ear—then yeah, you have an obligation to listen to them and you have to weigh the cost of voting your beliefs and whether it's worth doing in every case.

And eliminating ANCs isn't some panacea for good governance or progressive change. San Francisco has restrictive zoning and no ANCs. Chicago is full of corruption and has no ANCs. What ANCs are is just a way to institutionalize the community involvement of a city full of very smart, very engaged, and very resourceful people who care a ton about what goes on in their neighborhoods.

Ninety-five percent of these people have no broader political ambition, and many of them are professionally high-caliber and could be doing something far more lucrative with their time. Even those who get involved for "selfish" reasons (e.g. a project that impacts their home or their building) often grow into the role and end up contributing far beyond the narrow scope of their original interest.

All that said, the thesis of David's article is absolutely correct: The only way that people who believe in a smart-growth vision, or any other vision for that matter, will be able to affect the course of events is by getting involved and moving the median point of conversation in their direction.

ANCs are not going anywhere, so you might as well run for one and try to make a difference. You absolutely can and it is exceptionally rewarding. You'll learn a lot about your neighborhood, you'll learn a lot about your city, you'll meet a lot of really cool people, and you can have a tangible impact on the place you live in. The satisfaction of helping people is why the vast majority of us do it, and if you're doing it for the right reasons, you'll have many stories to share of doing exactly that.

Politics


You could be an ANC commissioner, and as a reader of this blog, you really should think about it

DC's Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners have a thankless but important job. For no pay, they advise on thousands of neighborhood-level decisions a year: everything from whether or not that restaurant can serve liquor, to whether or not that building is going to meet the needs of the neighborhood. You should consider running. If you're elected, you'll make a difference in your corner of town.


Photo by stu_spivack on Flickr.

DC is split into 299 single member districts (SMDs) organized into 40 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs). By design, each SMD (which are supposed to encompass around 2,000 residents) elects one commissioner to represent their interests. ANCs meet regularly to decide on many community level decisions, including development decisions and permitting.

ANCs have a strangely powerful but also powerless role in DC politics and development. They technically do not have political authority, and instead their opinions and resolutions are given a legal "great weight" that other DC agencies are supposed to (and most often do) respect and follow.

That being said, there are some areas where an ANC's great weight is more influential than others. In the development field, for example, any changes to current regulations must go through the ANC for public input, and because commissioners control these proceedings, they wield significant amounts of power. Commissioners help to broker agreements, and moderate their forum as a place for public debate and negotiation.

ANC elections are non-partisan, and open to any DC resident who has lived in their neighborhood for at least 60 days before petitions are due. It is relatively simple to get your name on the ballot: you only need to collect 25 signatures from your neighbors to qualify. Because of the relative low visibility of these positions and elections, these races are decided by very small amounts of votes—30 votes can sway an election. In ANC races, every vote really counts.

What's more, many races go uncontested, and some seats even stay vacant for lack of interest. 86 SMDs are currently uncontested, and in 153 districts, there is only one contender. That means if there is a lot of opportunity for neighborhood leaders to step forward.

Papers for potential candidates are current available to be picked up at the DC Board of Elections, and as of July 22nd, 642 DC residents have picked up petitions.


Map from DC Office of ANCs - click for a closer view. Has someone picked up papers in your district? Will you?

I imagine many in the Greater Greater Washington community would make excellent ANC commissioners. But maybe you're worried because you don't feel qualified, or don't have a clear picture of what the job looks like.

Here is some advice from fellow Greater Greater Washington readers who also happen to be ANC commissioners:

Daniel Warwick (2B02):

To anyone considering running for ANC:

Serving as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner is an unique and humbling experience.

It is an honor working with your neighbors to improve your community. Commissioners get to know the minutia of obscure liquor licensing, zoning, historic preservation, and public space regulations. More importantly, you get to know what's happening where you live. Improving your neighborhood can mean supporting the first net-zero office redevelopment in the District of Columbia, encouraging the Public Space Committee to put pedestrians and bikes first, or working with an applicant to adapt their proposed development.

It's very easy for a Commissioner to oppose everything. The typical job of an ANC is to be obstructionist, but a greater commissioner tries to say "Interesting idea--lets get some folks together and find something everyone can support." Being an ANC Commissioner is a tough balance and is frustrating at times, but is one of the greatest honors I can imagine.

You should run.

Tom Quinn (3E04):
I can walk all over my SMD and point out new trees, crosswalks, parking signs, some scant bike infrastructure and CaBi stations, sidewalks, etc. All things that we had a role in getting installed, yet most people have no idea. But a lot of the things I've worked on have never borne fruit, so to not go crazy you have to accept from the start that a lot of ideas are not going anywhere and just hope that it feels rewarding.

We've gotten a lot done and I was driven to get involved in part because my predecessor expended all of her energy fighting development and no energy on positive change. So to me it has been worth it.

Thinking about it? Decide soon, your 25 signatures are due by August 10th. Want to talk about it more? Get in touch; I have some ideas for you - dwhitehead@ggwash.org.

Development


There's an empty seat at your ANC meeting. Whose is it?

Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) meetings are a place for making important decisions in DC, and the people who actually fill the seats can have a big impact on their neighborhood. Commissioners also have a real opportunity to consider who's not there, and what their needs and interests are.


Whose seats are these? Image from Tarek on Flickr.

A couple months ago, I went to the ANC 3E meeting in Tenleytown, mostly to learn more about the status of this project that lost three floors and over 50 units of housing because of neighborhood pressure. There were more than 40 people in the room... and more than 50 seats left empty.

Whose seats are those? Of course there are many more in the neighborhood that could engage and that aren't, and we can and should do a better job of getting those people out. But what about the residents who aren't in the seats because they aren't here yet? Last year, a net of 1,000+ new residents arrived to town every month (the actual number moving here is much higher, but the amount of people leaving is high too). Who is speaking for them at these meetings that determine whether their potential housing is built or not?

In DC, ANC meetings can shape housing policy

If there is a war around expanding our housing stock at multiple affordability levels, then the battlefields of that war are ANC meetings. This is where buildings gain or lose floors, and where zoning changes knock down potential development.

Though ANCs have little official political power, District officials do have to give their opinions "great weight," meaning they have a lot of influence with agencies like the Zoning Commission. Commissioners who testify for or against certain developments often have significant impacts on rulings. Moreover, a single commissioner can use their position to control the topics of public meetings, to delay or investigate development processes, or to negotiate on behalf of the community. Commissioners' influence is far reaching.

When an ANC commissioner takes the oath of office, they not only pledge to serve in the interest of their neighborhood constituents. They also pledge that they

"will exercise [their] best judgment and will consider each matter before [them] from the viewpoint of the best interest of the District of Columbia as a whole."
Commissioners who don't consider the needs of next month's, next year's, and next decade's residents are not fulfilling their oath.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

The status quo won't look out for everyone

Of course, even the commissioners who do want to consider future residents are in store for some challenges.

One thing commissioners have to be cautious of is not letting the loudest people in the room shape a neighborhood's direction. ANC meetings can be terrible; they can drag on for hours, and are sometimes full of bitter exchanges between neighbors or boring minutiae. That can often mean that only those with free time and familiarity with the system show up, and decision makers wind up in an echo chamber, even if they're actually just hearing from a vocal minority.

People who work night jobs or two jobs, people who have kids to take care of, or people who simply can't spend four hours listening to debate about liquor licenses so they can speak for five minutes about the building down the block, these people still have opinions that should inform what ANCs do.

We have to look out for tomorrow's neighbors

We need more ways to make sure that next month's 1,000 and the other empty chairs have a voice in our local decisions and politics. I wrote in my introduction to this community that blogging wasn't always enough. I'm an organizer, so I believe strongly that sometimes you have to show up and speak up to get what you want.

But how do you organize people who aren't here yet? I'm normally against speaking for people; I'd rather share the mic and let them use their own voice to say what they want to say. But in this case we need more people who are here today to step up to the mic for those who are coming tomorrow.

As mentioned in the Washington Post not long ago, cities just don't fill up. The idea that there is no room for more housing is fantasy; the idea that there is no political room to build more housing is reality. Growth is coming to our city and region; we must focus on how to shape our cities to accommodate this growth in equitable, beautiful, and smart ways.

Groups around the country are starting to form to fight for the needs of the new comers and the often excluded. In other words, more housing at diverse affordability levels. These YIMBY groups are gathering for an inaugural national conference to share strategy, learn from and engage with each other. GGWash is excited to be there. We know what we need, how to get there is our next question.

In the meantime, neighborhood leaders, next time you sit in a meeting with empty seats, keep the next 1,000 in mind.

Public Spaces


Mike Feldstein revived Dupont Circle. We'll miss him dearly.

Mike Feldstein, a Dupont Circle ANC 2B commissioner who pushed to make sure we get the most out of our public spaces, passed away on Wednesday. He was 73.


Mike Feldstein. Photo from ANC 2B.

Mike had a full and rewarding career long before he became active in civic affairs in Dupont Circle. A New York native, Mike was a Peace Corps volunteer. He worked for the US Agency for International Development and as a policy planning staff member for the State Department. He represented the US around the world, and served as a board member of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

He became involved in the ANC when another remarkable Commissioner, Curt Farrar, had to step down for health reasons. Mike's passion, from day one, was the Circle itself. He was determined to turn an urban park into a vibrant, exciting place once again.

In his quest, he became the Godfather of Dupont Circle.

When Mike was first elected, he told his fellow commissioners, "we should do more with the Circle. Seventy-five years ago, there used to be band concerts out there. There were events happening out there all the time. We should bring it back to life." Of course, we all agreed, but no one had any idea how to bring the Circle back to life.

Except Mike.

He assembled a group of volunteers who shared his vision. They came up with a name: Dupont Festival.

They spent many hours over many months convincing the National Park Service to let them sponsor and hold events in the Circle. This was no easy task, as the folks at NPS entrusted with the park were in no hurry to risk anything. If something went wrong, those bureaucrats would bear the blame. So getting permits for any event was a huge undertaking.

Mike used the World Cup to bring Dupont together

One of the earliest efforts was Soccer in the Circle. Two of his volunteers, Aaron DeNu and Michael Lipin, had the idea of hosting a giant viewing party for the opening of the World Cup in June, 2010. This would involve getting NPS permission to put up two giant screens in the park, and then—after securing permission—raising tens of thousands of dollars to pay for it, and then assembling the manpower to put on the event and clean up immediately afterwards.

Honestly, I don't think anyone on the ANC except Mike Feldstein thought it would ever happen, but we all went along with the idea. After countless meetings, they got NPS to agree to allow use of the park, and then convinced the Brazilian Sugar Cane Industry Association to donate something like fifteen-thousand dollars to help pay for equipment rentals and related expenses. They got FIFA and ESPN to give them the rights to stage an open air broadcast of the cable tv feed. The Screaming Eagles, DC United's booster club, would be volunteer marshals and would handle cleaning up.

On Saturday June 12, 2010, crowds began assembling at 6:30am to watch the first of three games. Because South Africa was the host country, the time difference meant a very, very early start. It was South Korea versus Greece, and the early crowd included large numbers of people from the Korean and Greek communities, including embassy staffs. With the 7 am kickoff, we were pleasantly surprised to see the park packed with people that early in the morning. We had no idea just how packed it would become.


Soccer in the Circle. Photo by David on Flickr.

By the time the third game began at 2pm, the park had been rocking for more than six hours. It was estimated as many as 15,000 people had attended at one time or another. CNN was doing live cut-ins, as was ESPN. All the local stations were there. We were seen literally all around the world on CNN International. The crowd was well-behaved. There was only one arrest, for public intoxication. Every restaurant within shouting distance of the circle ran out of beer and was scrambling for more in the intense heat of that June afternoon.

The US and Britain played to a 1-1 tie, and, immediately after the game ended, the Screaming Eagles began a clean-up blitz. Dozens of them filled plastic garbage bags with whatever trash was left over, even though the crowd had put most everything in trash cans. Within an hour, the park was cleaner than it had been the day before. Timing was crucial, because the match ended at 4:15 pm, and the annual Pride Parade kicked off at 6:30. So the soccer triple-header was only the start of a day-night doubleheader that brought a hundred thousand celebrants to our neighborhood: soccer in the morning and afternoon, and then the Capital Pride Parade. Wow! Just celebrating the day with more than 100,000 of our closest friends!

A finer day there never was.

Soccer was just the start

After the success of Soccer in the Circle, the NPS permits came easier. And, eventually, the Park Service even developed a separate policy for urban parks. Previously, NPS rules, regulations, and policy were pretty much one size fits all, whether we're talking about Yellowstone, Yosemite, or Dupont Circle. Whether the change was a direct result of what was happening at Dupont is not clear, but events like the soccer viewing certainly didn't hurt.

Mike and his Dupont Festival team—Will Stephens, Andy Klingenstein, and Aaron DeNu—made Groundhog Day great again, bringing it to Dupont Circle with the help of Potomac Phil. They found Phil in Miss Pixie's on 14th Street, brought him out of the closet and out of the shadows. We've had band concerts, Shakespeare, dance celebrations, Earth Day, science fairs, and more Soccer in the Circle viewings—both the US Mens and Womens teams—and so much more.

Mike believed strongly that parks and open urban spaces are to be celebrated, cherished, and used. He believed that free events, open to the public, are a way to build community. And he used his vast experience as a State Department official to navigate the bureaucracy and help achieve his goal of restoring Dupont Circle to its role as the center of our neighborhood life.

Mike strongly supported new housing, but wanted to make sure it was done right. "If we delay someone for a few months or a year, that's not always good," he said. "But if we tear something down, it's gone forever. And if we put up something bad, it may last for a hundred years."

Mike strongly supported walkable neighborhoods, bike lanes, and mass transit options. His New York background made him a dedicated urbanist.

We loved Mike dearly and grieve the loss of a true friend. He was a pleasure just to be with. Kibitzing with Mike was one of life's joys. He leaves behind countless friends, and a legacy of making our neighborhood a better place. He had a vision and made it reality. He was the Godfather of Dupont Circle and he really did bring the Circle back to life.

There will be a celebration of Mike's life later on May 1st, with the location to be determined.

Development


Opponents of a new Dupont building gamble and lose

Well, they blew it. Last month, the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission decided to turn down a deal for neighborhood benefits in the proposed development at St. Thomas Parish and roll the dice on fighting the project. That turned out to be a bad bet.


Roulette image from Shutterstock.

On January 12, the Board of Zoning Adjustment unanimously approved a variance so that the proposed building could occupy 86.7% of the lot instead of the 80% normally allowed under zoning.

Arson destroyed the St. Thomas Parish at the corner of 18th and Church streets NW in 1970, and now the church is partnering with developer CAS Riegler to build a new church along with a residential building whose profits will help fund the religious one. After going through historic preservation approval, the design extended just a small amount closer to the nearby alley than in the first drafts, requiring a zoning variance.

CAS Riegler and St. Thomas representatives invited neighborhood leaders and nearby residents to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding for neighborhood benefits during and after construction, like rules for loading trucks or noise on the roof deck. But many residents objected from the start to the size of the proposed building, which is larger than adjacent row houses but shorter than other large apartment buildings a block to the east and to the north.

Based on that sentiment, in December the ANC threw away the negotiated MOU and instead decided to oppose the variance. (Disclosure: I participated in the MOU negotiations and supported the proposed final deal.)


Rendering of the proposed church building and the residential building behind.

Zoning board members critique poorly-directed opposition

When announcing the ruling, several BZA members chided the ANC and neighbors for arguing against the project as a whole instead of addressing the actual variance under discussion. Most opposition focused on the building's height, but the building steps back at higher floors; adding lot occupancy would have just taken a small amount from the lower floors, and only in the rear, on the alley.

Chairperson Marnique Heath said, "The request that they've made is just for 6.7% of lot occupancy, which is rather minor. The primary concern of the parties in opposition was in regard to the large scale... [but] the strongest concerns that the opposing parties had really wouldn't be addressed by not granting that request."

Peter May, the zoning commissioner from the National Park Service (read this for why a Park Service employee is involved here) said,

I cannot see where the parties in opposition have actually explained how their objections relate to the requested relief. A lot of people were objecting to the loss of the park and to the height of the building. I could find almost nothing that specifically relates to lot occupancy, which is where the relief is requested. ...

I'm frankly a bit disappointed. We often hear from neighbors who are unhappy with changes in the status quo, but I saw precious little appreciation from the neighbors for the 45 years they had for this public park, and I would hope that we would have seen more of that.

The only word to the contrary was from Fred Hill, a very new member of the BZA. Hill said he was "actually a little torn and "can understand why I wouldn't want something this large at the end of that block." But he went along with his colleagues on the issue of the law, recognizing that the variance wasn't actually about the size of the building.

Neighborhood leaders took a better approach in the past

Unfortunately, the ANC failed to steer a useful conversation in this situation. When there was controversy over the last church-related development project in the neighborhood, a parking lot at 17th and O, former commissioner and longtime resident Bob Meehan urged all parties to focus on achievable, specific requests that related to the zoning relief being debated. The main issue there was roof deck noise affecting residents at the building to the north; people negotiated and found some compromise.


Remember this? Photo by Adam Lewis.


What got built. Photo from Wikimedia.

Bob Meehan isn't on the ANC any more, and the relative lack of experience showed in the way many members had trouble evaluating how much weight their support or opposition would carry. In the end, that relegated the ANC to an ineffective position and left neighbors worse off.

Some commissioners decided to oppose the variance because of confusing and bad legal advice from the DC government about whether the MOU was enforceable. But others opposed it outright, and the ANC did not try to hold a special meeting or ask for a delay to work out any possible enforceability problems.

The whole situation is reminiscent of the 2013 government shutdown. John Boehner was trying to negotiate with Barack Obama, but his House GOP caucus kept refusing to make any kind of deal out of a zeal for partisan purity. As a consequence, the ultimate budget policies ended up being worse for the GOP than if they had made a deal.

DC needs more housing, and this corner is a good place for it. By implacably resisting the height of the proposed building and repeatedly refusing to engage on specific, achievable issues, the ANC really lost the chance to have a voice, to improve the quality of life without reducing the ability to add new housing.

Update: This article was edited to add a paragraph about the MOU's enforceability in response to questions.

Development


Dupont Circle leaders reject neighborhood benefits to tilt at windmills over development

A new church and housing will almost certainly rise where a church burned down 45 years ago. The church and developer worked with neighbors to cut down on the impact of both construction and the eventual new building, but the deal failed to win key neighborhood approval last week.


Photo by Michael Gray on Flickr.

The Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 2B) voted not to support a zoning variance for St. Thomas' Parish at the corner of 18th and Church Streets. St. Thomas burned down from arson in 1970, and since then, the Episcopal congregation has met in what used to be the fellowship hall next door, while the land the church was on has been a park.

After an earlier abortive attempt to build a low-scale new church which turned out to be unaffordable, the parish partnered with developer CAS Riegler to build a new church on part of the land and housing on the rest. (Disclosure: I live on this block.)

Many nearby residents have organized to fight the project, which led to a fairly incoherent resolution from the ANC, simultaneously admitting that a small amount of extra height, set back from the street, would not affect the perception of the building that much, but vociferously opposing the proposed height anyway.

The ANC lost that battle in the historic preservation process, as DC's Historic Preservation Review Board approved the building. The next step is a zoning variance, where the church and developer are seeking permission to fill up 86.7% of the lot instead of the normally allowable 80%. That hearing is Tuesday, December 15.

Meet the MOU

In the months leading up to the zoning hearing, CAS Riegler and church officials met with neighbors to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), a contract which specified things like limits on construction hours, protocols to minimize dust and rats, and ongoing discussions between neighbors and the developer during the construction process. There were also some restrictions on amplified music on the residential building's roof deck and the hours when the church would rent its roof deck out for events.

I participated in the negotiating committee, and while nobody got everything they wanted, the MOU included some meaningful measures which would improve the quality of life for neighbors while also letting the church get a new building and adding new housing in this area right near a Metro station.

In exchange, St. Thomas and CAS Riegler wanted to gain ANC support for the zoning variance. The 6.7% extra lot coverage would almost surely be along the alley behind the building, meaning it wouldn't affect the public's interaction with this building, nor would it create or remove any meaningful "green space."

The ANC's Zoning, Preservation and Development Commitee chair, Daniel Warwick, led the MOU negotiating process, which spanned multiple long meetings. The newly-elected commissioner who represents the St. Thomas area, John Kupcinski, decided at the end of the negotiation process to not support the MOU, and on December 9, ANC 2B voted not to sign the MOU either.


Rendering of the proposed church building.

Are MOUs enforceable?

Complicating the situation was a last-minute legal opinion from Joshua Turner, an Assistant Attorney General in DC's Legal Counsel Division. Turner raised doubts about whether the ANC could be a party to such an agreement, since among other things, DC law does not allow ANCs to bring legal action.

This MOU was modeled on a similar one the Philips Collection, an art museum, signed 15 years ago, when it expanded in the district Warwick now represents. That MOU has functioned effectively, but Turner's emails to ANC 2B seemed to question the possibility of using this tool at all, or at least the ANC's role.

These questions over enforceability led at least two commissioners, Nicole Mann and Michael Upright, to change their minds and oppose the MOU at the ANC's vote.

There are residents who think developers shouldn't have to negotiate any concessions with neighbors at all, and on the flip side, there are also people, including some ANC commissioners, who don't want to accept any deals and want to just oppose any zoning relief requests outright.

But most pro-more-housing neighborhood leaders see MOUs as a good tool to build community support for development projects. They add needed housing, but also concentrate impacts on immediate neighbors. Good negotiations can mitigate those impacts without taking away opportunities for new housing.

From "height-itis" to "width-itis"

There's a good chance this project will win its variance—similar projects have many times. The DC Office of Planning supports the variance, as does the District Department of Transportation.

Even if it doesn't, something will get built which is marginally, if at all, different in terms of open space; the application packet says that the only alternative to the variance is to leave the parking ramp uncovered—not a big win for anyone. (Meanwhile, several people will be deprived of an opportunity to live in the Dupont neighborhood.)


Floor plans of the proposed building (top) and without the variance (bottom). Is there any neighbor benefit here?

Yet for many residents and at least some commissioners, it seemed from the debate, no amount of concessions around construction, noise, operations, etc. would suffice; many people simply wanted to continue taking a stand against the whole idea of a building of this size.

Most people who spoke against the variance didn't draw any distinction between the 80%-coverage version of the building and the 86.7%-coverage version; rather, they wanted to continue to battle over decisions that had been long since made in historic preservation about the building in the first place.

In July, I said the ANC had caught "height-itis" for its monomaniacal, and counterproductive, fixation on the height. Now, it's simply shifted to a fixation on the building's width.

Neighborhoods engage most successfully with development when they identify concrete elements they care about and advocate for those. To simply draw lines in the sand and refuse to budge from them, even when the conflict has moved far beyond that line, is ineffective and gives up the chance of actually helping neighbors.

It's like this amusing Improv Everywhere video, where an actor pretends to be Gandalf, impotently shouting "you shall not pass!" at tourists.

The consequences of the ANC's poor judgment in this case, unfortunately, will be that either the variance goes through and neighbors don't get what they asked for in the MOU, or the variance doesn't go through, a building still gets built, neighbors get little in return, and still don't get what they asked for.

Width-itis and height-itis can be crippling afflictions.

Parking


Can a housing development go up in Petworth if it doesn't build new parking?

The developers behind a proposal for a new residential building in Petworth say it doesn't need parking because there are plenty of non-car transportation options nearby. Some residents disagree, saying the area can't accommodate new housing if new parking doesn't come with it. But take a walk around and you'll see their concerns are overblown.


Image from Rooney Properties.

In April 2015, Rooney Properties purchased the property at 3701 New Hampshire Avenue NW. Rooney began making plans to redevelop the site, formerly home to Sweet Mango, into a mixed-use building with ground floor retail and 21 living units in accordance with the property's zoning.

The property is configured as a triangle, with Rock Creek Church Road to the south and New Hampshire Avenue to the north. It is located near seven bus lines, the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro rail station, and a Capital Bikeshare station. Due to these factors, the developer is seeking a zoning variance to exclude parking from the development. But with a number of other new developments to the north and south also receiving parking relief in the past few years, residents are concerned that exempting 3701 New Hampshire Avenue from parking requirements will make it harder for everyone to park.


Base image from Google Maps.

Last week, the plans to redevelop the site encountered opposition from ANC 4C and members of the community. Petworth News did a good job covering the blow by blow of the meeting, accurately describing it as dysfunctional. One of the key areas of opposition in that meeting had to do with how the 21-unit building would impact residential street parking.

Last month, ANC 1A also weighed in on the variances required for this project to move forward. Based on the Comprehensive Plan, the goals of the Georgia Avenue Overlay for the corridor, and need for more density and housing in the community, and how the developer is proposing to find solutions to accommodate potential car owners, ANC 1A passed a resolution in support of this development (read here). It is important to note that neither ANC 1A's support nor ANC 4C's opposition was unanimous.

Concerns over parking are a bit inflated

It is fair to say that parking is an important issue—and an important quality of life issue. It must also be recognized that no two developments are exactly the same. In the case of 3701 New Hampshire, due to the oddly shaped lot, it just isn't physically possible to build underground parking on the property, especially to the extent that zoning would require. The property also doesn't have abutting properties to the north or south within the Georgia Avenue Overlay that would be able to be added to the development making parking possible.


3701 New Hampshire Avenue NW today. Photo by Owen Chaput.

Keeping this in mind, along with the property's close proximity to a Metro station, several bus lines, and a Capital Bikeshare station, there is no reason why this building should not be built. Furthermore, ANC 1A's request to remove the loading zone and associated curb cut on Rock Creek Church Road as part of their approval should add two on-street parking spaces to the block.

To manage parking, Rooney Properties (the developer) is planning to provide new residents with SmarTrip cards, a bike share membership and car share membership for the first three years. Rooney is also including space for bicycle maintenance and storage within the new building, and the lobby of the building will offer a transit screen that shows the number of bikes available and a real-time Metro train schedule.

Finally, Rooney is also actively seeking off-street parking options and has noted that several of the recent buildings in the area that have off-street parking are not parked up. The developer would be willing to provide free parking in these garages to new residents for three years as well.

Here's what parking the area currently has

According to the Petworth News report from the ANC 4C meeting, the following gives an idea of how much off-street parking is available in the immediate area. The Swift apartments (above Safeway) have 70 spots leased of their available 158 spots. The Park Place development has 138 spots leased of their 181 spots, and the 3 Trees Flats has 115 spots leased of their 130 spots. There is a lot of untapped parking potential in these buildings.

But another part of the story that wasn't part of the ANC 4C discussion—one important to developing some understanding of the potential hardships the immediate neighbors may face—is how much off-street parking exists in the community.


Rock Creek Church Road NW, with the development site to the north (left in the photo). Photo by Owen Chaput.

Residents from the 700 block of Rock Creek Church Road were among those expressing concern about the potential impact this development could have on that block, so I took the time to walk the alleys to the north and south of that block to see if any off-street parking existed for these properties currently. What I learned was that 63% of the residential properties on the 700 block of Rock Creek Church Road currently have some form of off-street parking that they are currently using, or have the potential to use. If I include the west side of Warder street, this goes down to 61%.

The map below shows the location of the proposed development and all the residential properties that have off-street parking.


(Map key: Orange=two-car garage; Yellow=one-car garage; Red=four car garage; Dark Blue=two car parking pad; Light Blue=one car parking pad)

Here is how the parking on the residential properties represented on the map above breaks down:

  • There are 54 residential properties on Rock Creek Church Road and the west side of Warder Street. 33 of these properties (61%) have off-street parking.
  • 10 residences (18%) have garages. There is 1 four car garage, 6 two car garages, and 3 one car garages.
  • 23 residences (42.5%) have parking pads. 6 properties have two car parking pads. 17 properties have one car parking pads.
  • Note: in taking this survey of parking, I did not include a garage if its entrance was bricked in, but did include a garage if the doors were merely boarded up. In one case, I included a single-car garage that was too small for a modern car, but which had a driveway currently used for off street parking.

Garages and parking pads abound on the north side of the 700 block of Rock Creek Church Road. Photo by the author.

Overall, in adding all this up, there are currently 48 spaces on this block for off-street parking. In looking at the south side of the 700 block of Quincy, each residential property there similarly has at least one off-street parking space.

With the amount of off-street parking currently in this area, one starts to question why parking is so tight currently and based on my observations I believe some (but definitely not all) of this stress is caused by factors other than housing.

For instance, the 700 block of Quebec Place and nearby blocks are often stressed due to church parking from the Fisherman of Men Church. I have also witnessed on several occasions residents from further north in Ward 4 using Quebec, Rock Creek Church, and other nearby streets as commuter parking so that they can easily drive, park, and ride Metro. Whether there are solutions to these stresses or not, they certainly aren't related to development or housing in the immediate community.

Factoring all of this together, I believe that the benefits of the proposed development far outweigh the cons, and that the impact the building may have on parking and the surrounding community will not live up to people's worse case scenarios.

The case is scheduled to go before the Board of Zoning Adjustment on November 17, 2015.

A version of this post recently ran on Park View, DC.

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