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Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, explained

DC has a small, hyperlocal form of government called Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Commissioners, who are elected by their neighbors, help with neighborhood problems and weigh in on how places should (or shouldn't) change, but can't actually make laws or regulations. Still, despite having little formal power, ANCs have a lot of influence over how the District does or doesn't change.

Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

What are Advisory Neighborhood Commissions?

Each Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) represents a region in each of DC's eight Wards. Within each ANC, commissioners are elected to two-year terms to represent Single Member Districts (SMDs) of approximately 2000 residents. A commission can have anywhere from two SMDs (which would mean two commissioners) to twelve. ANCs are identified by their ward and a letter.

For example, I'm a commissioner in 7D, which is Ward 7's fourth (hence the letter D) ANC. I represent Single Member District 07, which covers neighborhoods called Paradise and Parkside. Some commissions represent a single community, such as 2B, which is the Dupont Circle ANC, whereas others, like my own, represent a number of neighborhoods.

Commissioners come from a variety of backgrounds. Some, like myself, are relative newcomers recruited by community leaders to serve their neighborhood while others have lived in their neighborhoods their whole lives. Even within a single ANC, commissioners can be very diverse; my own commission includes a teacher, a lawyer, government contractors, and a lifelong community advocate.

On the map below, the yellow lines represent DC's wards, the thick red lines represent the ANCs within them, and the thin red lines represent the SMDs that make up each ANC.

A map of DC's Wards and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Ward 7 ANCs are tinted blue, ANC 7D is green, and Single Member District 07 is highlighted in red. Map by the author. Data from DC Open Data.

ANCs weigh in on many of the decisions that the District's governing bodies make. For example, many ANCs wrote letters to the Office of Planning with comments or proposed amendments for the zoning code re-write, and most restaurants work out agreements with the ANCs on things like when they'll be open and whether they can play live music in exchange for ANC support of their liquor license applications. Commissioners can also offer resolutions and testify before the DC Council.

In practice, beyond laws about liquor licenses or zoning, government agencies consult ANCs as a way to get community buy-in for a project. For example, the District Department of Transportation often presents new plans to the public at ANC meetings, giving the community a chance to weigh in and provide feedback. Recently, ANC 6B worked with DDOT to get a pedestrian crosswalk on 11th Street SE between I and M Streets, and ANC 2B urged DDOT to reopen a bike lane at 15th and L which is closed due to construction.

Also, developers pitching new projects often seek ANC approval before going before the Zoning Commission or Board of Zoning Adjustment, as ANCs get a say with these agencies (more on that below…). The result of these interactions is often a contract between a developer and the neighborhood, called a Community Benefits Agreement.

Commissions can also provide avenues for greater community involvement and input by establishing committees that focus on certain issues, like transportation or planning and zoning.

What kind of authority do ANCs have?

The type of authority that ANCs have can vary. In some cases, they have legal standing. ANCs are automatically granted "party status" before the Zoning Commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and the Alcohol License Review Board for new businesses and developments in their communities. Party status gives commissions easier access to information, notifications about upcoming hearings, and the right to cross examine participants.

Bars in DC often work with ANCs on things like hours of operation in exchange for the ANC's endorsement. Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

In other areas, commissions can only make recommendations that city agencies have to give "great weight" to when making decisions. Great weight requires a government agency to respond, in writing, to concerns raised by a commission. While great weight demands that agencies explain their course of action, it doesn't actually require an agency to change its course of action.

Common critiques and shortcomings of the ANC system

ANC commissioners have complained that they are not given satisfactory explanations when agencies don't follow their recommendations; some commissioners say it's not uncommon for agency contacts to flat-out ignore them. Commissions have very few legal options to compel an agency to respond to their requests.

As a result, much of a commissioner's power is informal, coming from relationships built with government agencies, DC Council members, and the mayor's office. A motivated and skilled commissioner can draw district government attention to a neighborhood and even motivate agencies to bring resources to bear to solve a problem.

However, ANCs also reflect many of the inequalities and inequities of life in DC. Some commissions benefit from well-educated, well-connected commissioners who can afford to take days off work to testify at DC Council hearings, lobby agencies for action, and develop an in-depth understanding of how policy issues impact their community. Less wealthy communities do not necessarily have the privileges of as spare time and plenty of social capital. This places less affluent communities at a disadvantage when negotiating with developers or engaging with governmental agencies.

Commissions are also somewhat under-resourced. At most, a commission can afford to hire one part-time staff member, who usually acts as an office manager and assists commissioners with logistics, and supporting commissioners as they address concerns raised by the community.

In some cases, commissions have been accused of simply holding up any possible neighborhood change. For example, commissions have often devoted considerable time internally negotiating relatively minor adjustments projects. For example a commission can delay new development projects for months if not years. Such delays can be frustrating in a city like DC with a rapidly growing population and rapidly growing rents.

But ANCs can also positively weigh in on big neighborhood or citywide controversies by being thoughtful instead of knee-jerk. For the Hine project in ANC 6B, where a former junior high school is turning into a mixed-use development, the commission put together a task force that weighed the various interests really well and advocated for improvements instead of simply saying "no." Another example of 6B actively engaging is that with the zoning update, the commission studied and made smart suggestions while being supportive overall.

At the end of the day, ANCs matter

The fact that ANCs don't have formal power, plus that they can differ so much across the District, has led to some debates about the system's value. Some say ANCs should gain legislative powers and become a house of representatives for the District. Others say the whole system should be abolished since all it does is let hyperlocal politics trump good public policy by slowing things down.

No matter what you may think about these commissions, they do have influence over whether and how our neighborhoods will change and grow. Their importance in what gets built and what kinds of businesses can operate in the area means that they have influence in the community.

District residents should pay attention to what their ANC commissioners are saying in their name. At the end of the day, ANCs are supposed to represent the community's interests but they can only do that if the community pays attention to what they are doing.

You've got a chance to vote for your ANC commissioner this fall. Want to read and evaluate your candidates? Read candidate responses to Greater Greater Washington's ANC questionnaire here and learn where your commissioners (or potential commissioners) stand on important issues.

Public Spaces

When you turn parking spaces into parks, it looks like this

On Friday, September 16th, greater Washington gave some parking spaces a facelift and converted them into miniature parks for Park(ing) Day, an imaginative international event to show what else could be done with curbside parking spaces.

Thanks to readers who tweeted pictures and uploaded to our Flickr pool. Here is some of what you submitted:

Photo by Joanne Pierce.

The Anacostia Waterfront Trust collaborated with the DC Council and several other organizations to create a superblock-long parklet at the John A. Wilson Building along the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue otherwise reserved for councilmember parking.

Photo by the author.

Councilmember David Grosso biked to eight DC parklets. Above, he's pictured at center, with Greater Greater Washington contributor and chief of staff Tony Goodman to his left. They're talking to BicycleSPACE co-owner Erik Kugler at the shop's Mount Vernon Triangle parklet while a staff member lunches.

Photo by @bestpixelco.

The National Park Service turned asphalt to water for imaginary canoe trips along F Street NW.

Photo by Payton Chung.

GGWash editorial board member Payton Chung enjoyed the Urban Land Institute's effort to strike the right balance between the natural and built environment.

Photo by Jim Chandler.

GGWash reader Jim Chandler took this picture to say aloha from Hyattsville's University Town Center, where the city created a "temporary tropical oasis."

Photo by Melissa E.B. McMahon.

Reader Melissa E.B. McMahon captured the fun and games at one of Arlington County's five parklets.

Our write-ups from throughout the years of Park(ing) Days are here.

You can also view more Park(ing) Day 2016 scenes in Washingtonian, the Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Channel 4, and Channel 7.


For a day, we're getting a bunch of tiny new parks

Friday, September 16th is Park(ing) Day! Park(ing) Day is an annual, international event where people turn parking spaces into miniature parks for a day, prompting impromptu public gatherings and calling attention to our need for more open spaces.

Landscape architecture firm Oculus' 2013 Park(ing) Day installation in DC. Photo by Aimee Custis on Flickr.

Here's a list of where some of the miniature parks (aka "parklets") will pop up tomorrow:

District parklets

DC's official list of parklets is here. More than 25 locations will serve as pop-up parklets, including locations near Metro stations like NoMa, Dupont Circle, Eastern Market, Gallery Place, McPherson Square, and Shaw-Howard.

A map of where parklets will pop up in DC. Click for an interactive version.

The DC Department of Transportation is hosting a parklet and commuter spa at Farragut North, complete with a reading nook and a professional masseuse.

Several organizations promoting Anacostia River revitalization, including Waterfront Trust, Living Classrooms, Nature Conservancy, Washington Parks and People, and DC UrbanGreens will host a parklet in front of the Wilson Building.

Virginia parklets

Alexandria City will have five parklets throughout Old Town Alexandria, including City Hall and the Washington Alexandria Architecture Center of Virginia Tech.

Arlington will host five parklets, including one at Courthouse Plaza that will feature art by Kate Stewart.

A shot from Park(ing) Day 2013 in Arlington. Photo by Aimee Custis Photography on Flickr.

Maryland parklets

Montgomery County will host pop-ups in Wheaton, Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Takoma Park. Docs in Progress, a group that teaches documentary filmmaking, will be interviewing residents at its Silver Spring parklet.

Hyattsville will host four parklets, including an evening parklet from 6 pm to 8 pm at the City Municipal Building, which will have lawn games, food, beer, and live music.

Help us crowdsource PARK(ing) Day 2016

If you know of a parklet we've missed or if you see a parklet tomorrow, let us know in the comments. Share any photos of parklets and add them to the Greater Greater Washington Flickr pool or tweet it (#parkingday) and tag us (@ggwash). We'll post photos in a roundup next week.


A unanimous vote to end DC's unjust insurance law for people walking and biking

On Tuesday, the DC Council unanimously approved a bill to end the extremely unjust "contributory negligence" rule which frequently forbids people who are hit when walking or biking from collecting medical costs from a driver's insurance.

Photo by Manfred Caruso on Flickr.

The bill still has to pass a second reading in the fall, but the fact that it sailed through without debate bodes very well. Two weeks ago, the council delayed action because Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (ward 5) wanted to introduce an amendment, but McDuffie ultimately decided not to. Mayor Muriel Bowser also praised the bill.

The council showed strong leadership to making the road fair to everyone and ensuring that people injured due to another's actions have a fair chance to get medical bills paid. The action came despite fierce lobbying from the insurance industry and AAA.

This is also thanks to many of you, who sent over 1,300 emails to councilmembers using our action tool. Many others contacted elected officials from action alerts from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association or others. Your emails made a difference—Councilmember Elissa Silverman (at large) mentioned getting "over a thousand" emails in a recent constituent newsletter. She was already a strong supporter, but other less confident ones got many emails too.

I emailed all 13 councilmembers for comments about the vote, and several replied in time.

Councilmember Charles Allen (ward 6), one of the bill's co-introducers, said, "Like many others, my family is a one-car household. Some days we bike, some days we drive, some days we Metro, and some days we simply walk. Like you, I want a city where I'm treated fairly no matter how I choose to—or need to—get around.

Silverman added, "I was excited to vote in favor of a bill that will make our insurance system more just for our most vulnerable road users. I thank Councilmember [Kenyan] McDuffie [Ward 5] and Councilmember [Mary] Cheh [Ward 3] for their leadership efforts on this common sense measure."

"I believe our contributory negligence standard most hurts our poor and low-income residents who cannot afford large medical bills or lost time at work following serious accidents," Silverman said. "For this reason, I'm particularly glad to see the Council move towards a more equitable approach that works in the interest of all District residents."

Brianne Nadeau, councilmember from Ward 1, wrote, "Ultimately, Tuesday's vote is about making the District safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. We must also continue expanding our network of bike lanes, protected when possible, so residents have safer transportation options."

Finally, David Grosso (at-large) said, "In 2014, I introduced [the predecessor of this bill] after learning that 483 cyclists had been injured in 2013 alone. ... After years of advocating for change, I am glad we're finally modernizing the District's approach. Fairness, equity and safety are the guiding principles behind this legislation and with the Council's unanimous vote and the Mayor's signal of approval, it seems we are one step closer to fully realizing these goals."


DC will have even fewer vacant properties if a new law makes these changes

There are major problems with how DC counts and taxes its vacant buildings, and on Thursday, the DC Council will hold a hearing on two bills aimed at fixing them. The new laws will hold vacant building owners more accountable, but there are still ways to further the laws' reach.

This house at 5112 9th Street NW has been vacant for three years. It regularly falls "off" the vacant building list, so it isn't taxed at the higher level consistently.

Today, DC can charge higher tax rates on buildings that the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs says are vacant, at a rate of five percent of assessed value if vacant and 10 percent if the property is found to be blighted. The problem is that there are a lot of loopholes that allow negligent owners to keep their properties from going on the list.

Vacant buildings aren't just eyesores. They contribute to rodent and other infestations, and according to the Office of the Attorney General's former Assistant Attorney General Michael Aniton, they are proven to have a high association with criminal activity because illegal activity thrives out of view and on private property.

Here's what the new bills are set to do:

Authored by at-large councilmember Elissa Silverman, bills B21-527 and B21-598 appear to have wide support among the council (one of the two companion bills was co-introduced by a majority of councilmembers). The legislation aims to help solve DC's vacant building problem by:

  • Cutting how long vacant properties can be exempt from higher taxes
  • Making homeowners prove buildings aren't vacant rather than making the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs prove they are
  • Raising fines for not registering vacant properties
  • Giving tax rebates owners who fill vacant properties
Here's how they could be even better:

Still, the underlying issue is that some buildings and owners fall through the cracks because the penalties for keeping properties vacant either aren't enforced or aren't incentive enough to change. The following ideas would help the proposed legislation go even further in pushing vacant property owners to turn their buildings into something useful:

1. Take no nonsense when it comes to identifying building owners

Currently, some developers use dozens of LLCs to own properties, making it impossible to know who it is that routinely buys and holds vacant buildings without actually improving them. If all property sales in the District required a name, address, phone and next of kin information for every property, and if this information were publicly available, it'd be much easier to identify the vacant building code's serial violators.

This would have the added benefit of expediting communications should a property owner pass away. It would also help the city to ensure that when a property passes from an older family member to a younger one, it doesn't keep charging the reduced tax rates it does for senior.

2. Make it more expensive to leave a property vacant

Currently DCRA sends out teams to board up doors and windows of vacant properties, and DPW mows the lawn. The bill is tacked on to the owner's tax bill. Doubling the fees for these services would incentivize vacant property owners to manage these issues on their own or to return the property to active use.

3. Penalize banks who back vacant owners

Banks found to be lending to LLCs that own vacant properties should pay the District an additional tax to cover the costs of fire and rescue that may be needed on these properties—and to make them want owners to move properties into use.

4. Reinstate a tax on vacant lots

In 1990, the District established a tax of $3.29 for every $100 of assessed value on vacant lots without structures, also known as Class 5 properties. The tax was increased in 1994 to $5.00. At the time the tax was raised, then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly stressed the importance of the tax in providing incentives for owners to eliminate blight and increase the supply of affordable housing.

In 1999, however, officials did away with this property tax classification. The DC Building Industry Association (DCBIA) argued that taxing vacant parcels was counterproductive "at a time when the market is down." The market is no longer down, yet vacant parcels still blight our communities without any penalties being assessed to the owners. It is time to reintroduce the Class 5 tax rate.

5. Require complete transparency at DCRA:

This is the most important issue not addressed by the legislation. DCRA's Online Building Permit Database has been "offline" for over 130 days now. The public has a right to see what fines are being issued to vacant and blighted properties, dates of inspections, and findings of inspectors.

Further, DCRA removes every vacant and blighted building report after six months, so that the public can't see the history of vacant buildings. We propose that these records be maintained online, publicly available, for five years so that the public can be confident that vacant property owners are paying their fair share for the burden they have put on the community.

The DC Council will hear testimony on Thursday

We look forward to testifying at the DC Council Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs's public hearing on bills B21-527 and B21-598 this Thursday at 10 am at the Wilson Building. Please join if these issues interest you. If you wish to testify, contact Faye Caldwell, at


Help us map out DC's vacant buildings

DC doesn't have an accurate count of how many vacant buildings it has, which means lots of missed opportunities for more tax revenue or new housing. We've created a map of the vacants the city knows about. Tell us about the ones that are missing, and we'll send the full list to the DC Council before it votes on a law to fix the counting problem.

Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

We've written about problems with DC's system of accounting for vacant buildings and enforcing the regulations aimed at them a couple times over the past few months. It's a mess of loopholes where owners can skirt detection and penalties by doing things like applying for work permits but not doing any actual work for years.

In a place like DC, where space for new housing is at such a premium, this is infuriating.

DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs publishes lists every year showing which properties it has officially designated vacant and blighted (which means a building is a threat to health and safety). When a building goes on the list, its owner has to pay higher tax rates of 5% for vacant buildings and 10% for blighted.

While the agency's count is far from complete (which is a significant part of the problem), we thought we'd start by mapping out what it has provided:

Map by Thad Kerosky (@thadk).

Remember, these are not "For Lease" buildings, vacant lots, or buildings under construction. These are buildings that 1) have no occupants, and 2) have an owner who is not actively pursuing construction or new tenants.

DCRA most often investigates a building after receiving a report from a neighbor or agency, though many people will tell you they have filed reports repeatedly with little reaction from the agency.

Get out your red pens... we can correct this!

On Thursday, July 14th, the DC Council's Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs is having a hearing on a series of bills that would fix many of the problems with DCRA's current system. Greater Greater Washington would love to submit testimony in support of that legislation, but we need your help.

If you know of or suspect a vacant building nearby, use the search function above to see if DCRA has already classified it as such. If it hasn't, fill out the form below and help us collect further evidence that this system needs fixing.

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