Greater Greater Washington

Posts about DCRA


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.



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.


What does Gray's dismissal of Klein and others mean?

In the wake of disappointing news that Mayor-Elect Vincent Gray won't be keeping Gabe Klein and several other Fenty cabinet officials, District residents and smart growth advocates have a distinct duty to avoid doom-and-gloom projections and frantic searches for apartments in Arlington or Silver Spring.

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

Gray's decision to replace Klein is disappointing, no doubt, but should not come as much of a surprise. While the Committee of 100 and a host of entrenched Ward 3 residents may gloat that the transportation policies of the past few years are on the way out, it's more likely Gray made the decision out of discomfort with the process rather than the policy.

The bottom line from this year's primary election, that many seem to have forgotten by now, is that there were pretty minuscule policy differences in the Gray and Fenty platforms. What most distinguishes the two are their approaches to decision-making.

Gabe Klein was the poster child for Fenty's reliance on fast-acting, agile agencies that were willing to push new policies quickly into fruition, evaluate them on an interim basis, and, assuming successful outcomes, work quickly to push for broader implementation.

This style is anathema to Vince Gray's affinity for more reserved, intricately studied, broadly discussed, and carefully compromised policy-making. As many have stated, this move does not necessarily amount to a rebuttal by Vincent Gray of those smart growth and alternative transportation policies that were coming out of DDOT. Though some of Gray's supporters would like that, it is still too early to tell.

While I'm disappointed by Gray's need to very apparently distance himself from the Fenty administration, despite his continued statements of support for a smart growth agenda (David didn't endorse him for no reason), it's pretty much standard operating procedure in changing political administrations for the biggest heads to roll. We will have to see who Gray picks to succeed Klein, to make a better judgment on where DC's transportation and growth policy is heading.

What is perhaps more disappointing is the dismissal of DCRA's Linda Argo. Argo has been relatively low profile throughout their tenure, despite making major strides in their agencies. Under her leadership, DCRA has undertaken a variety of daunting regulatory rewrites in an open and informative way, to the benefit of Washington business.

Bryan Sivak, another cabinet member let go today, has pushed OCTO to continue open up DC government to the public, releasing mountains of data and creating a variety of tools to provide District citizens with a window into the workings of their government. While relatively low key in DC, Sivak has become something of a superstar in Gov 2.0 circles for his great work in the District.

As such, I will be eagerly awaiting Gray's cabinet announcements to see if he keeps any Fenty appointees on board. Gray's announcement that he will promote Fenty's head of DCPS school modernization, Allen Lew, to City Administrator is encouraging on this front. Rumors have also begun swirling that Office of Planning chief Harriet Tregoning will be asked to stay or even promoted to Deputy Mayor for Economic Development.

Most disappointing in this whole saga was this morning's revelation that Gray and Klein have not spoken in 3 months. I'm baffled that the man who ran on a platform of "One City" and touts himself a public servant who believes in the importance of hearing opposing viewpoints, listening to all the disparate voices, and making compromises, was unable to find time to discuss the direction of the city's transportation department with its current head.

Perhaps neither is true, and the two just simply didn't have time to talk. After all, they have both been extraordinarily busy with running the city. All in all, I think it's too soon to make summary judgment about where Vince Gray will take the District.

While I voted for Fenty, I'm not ready to throw the towel in on the incoming Gray administration. If anything, now is the time to make our voices heard, as Gray looks for new people to fill these positions.


Are tour guide licenses unconstitutional?

Washington, DC is one of a handful of cities that requires tour guide licenses. As a guide in DC, I'm required to fill out some forms, pay some fees, and sit down for a written test.

Photo by joelogon on Flickr.

Thanks to some recent reforms within the District's Department of Consumer Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), this a relatively painless process. I did it in DC and New York, and am none the worse for wear.

But this process is under attack. Today, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian think tank, is suing DC on behalf of two Segs in the City tour guides, alleging that the process is unconstitutional.

The crux of their argument:

"The government cannot be in the business of deciding who may speak and who may not," said Robert McNamara, a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm with a history of defending free speech and the rights of entrepreneurs.  "The Constitution protects your right to communicate for a living, whether you are a journalist, a musician or a tour guide."

This is similar to a lawsuit filed in Philadelphia by the Institute of Justice. In that case, it was to stop a proposal to start up a licensing regime, here it's to get rid of a longstanding one.

Now, I'm as fierce an advocate of our First Amendment rights as the next guy, but I'm having a hard time seeing how my Constitutional rights are being stepped on. Certainly, I had to take and pass a written test, but once that level of knowledge is demonstrated, I'm under no compunction to say anything. If I want to tell you that Robert E. Lee is in the back of Lincoln's head, or that Dan Brown was right about an eternal flame in the Capitol, or heaven forbid, Tomb Guards are doomed to life of sobriety, no government bureaucrat can stop me. I might not get hired again, but that's no business of the state's.

Which is not to say I'm disappointed in this lawsuit. Sure, the Constitutional underpinnings are shaky, but why have a test in the first place? It was poorly written (although DCRA is in process of updating it), and poorly represents the body of knowledge commonly used in a DC tour. Taking a written test simply shows you can memorize a certain amount of knowledge.

I know many people, while not being licensed guides, could step out on the street today and talk intelligently about this city. Conversely, I sadly know quite a number of fully licensed guides who fall for any ridiculous chain mail passed around. The license, in my opinion, is no great indicator of DC knowledge.

Nor is the license program enforced. I've never had someone ask to see it, nor have I even heard of someone doing so. Generally, a certain number of tours are around the monuments whose guides are unlicensed. Now, I will say most tour operators will ask to see your license before hiring you, but if there is zero enforcement, why bother getting one?

So, it looks like the beginnings of a fun debate. Let's get a bag of popcorn and watch the games ensue!


Modern condo building proposed for Park View

The developers of the property at 3577 Warder Street have posted a rendering and details of their project, which will contain five 2-bedroom units and parking.

This replaces a previous single-family home that was razed without a permit, and construction begun until a stop work order forced a temporary halt early this year.

3577 Warder Street, NW. Image from the developer.

To support on-site parking, this property will need a curb cut from the street. In September 2009, ANC 1A declined to endorse parking. At the time, however, the current building was not being proposed, and a single family home was then located on the site.

DDOT has affirmed that a curb cut is unlikely to win approval. DDOT considers curb cuts as mini-intersections, and for this one to be installed a street light would need to be relocated. Still, without this approval, the builder has forged ahead with a plan including a driveway.

Construction so far, designed to support a driveway and parking.
The single-family home that was once on the site was razed without a permit. Once construction began, a stop work order was issued in February for failure to get permits or have inspections. Based on past practices, it seems reasonable to be concerned that a curb cut could similarly appear without going through the proper process.

Is this design compatible with residential Park View? Its located directly across from the historic Park View school and between the only other "contemporary" structures off of Georgia Avenue.



Some restaurant limitations aren't all bad

DCRA will stop issuing any permits for "restaurants, bars, diners, coffees shops and carry-outs" along the 14th and U commercial corridors because the area has reached the 25% maximum allowed by zoning.

Photo by squidpants.

Nobody wants to discourage investment in the city, especially in places that are historically underdeveloped. On the other hand, there are some good reasons why a percentage rule is a good one.

One of the most basic tenets of urbanism is to encourage a healthy mix of uses. While people normally think of "mixed use" as meaning the residential/commercial mix, it also applies to the type of commercial. Healthy city neighborhoods need a mix of commercial types just as much as they need a mix of land use types. If a neighborhood becomes overrun with too many of one type of storefront, that means there is less room for every other type.

If a commercial district leans too heavily on restaurants and bars, that means it probably doesn't have enough hardware stores, clothing stores, book stores, barber shops, or home goods stores to meet the day-to-day needs of neighborhood residents. And neighborhood commercial districts that force neighborhood residents to travel elsewhere for their basic needs aren't doing their job as neighborhood commercial districts.

This is something that private shopping malls have known a long time, and it's one of the advantages they have over urban neighborhoods that led to the mall's dominance in the latter part of the 20th Century. Ownership controls the exact mix of tenants in order to serve every need under one roof and reduce shopper's desire to ever leave or go anywhere else. Every good mall has one or two sports apparel stores, one or two formalwear stores, one or two jewelry stores, etc. And of course a food court.

But unless it's an older mall struggling to survive (and therefore not picky about who signs leases), there is never more than a couple of stores for any one niche. They want to hit every niche, so they can capture as many markets as possible. In the short term that means some potential tenants have to be turned away, but in the long term it makes the whole mall more healthy. It's a form of delayed gratification that the major commercial developers of the country are very good at.

Of course, we don't really want our neighborhoods to all look like shopping malls, lest they all look exactly the same. Been to one Lids and you've been to them all. But DC is generally a city that is overserved by restaurants and underserved by actual stores. And while it's okay for some neighborhoods to develop specialties (such as 14th Street emerging as a furniture district), it's in the city's long term best interests to have as diverse a collection of retail as possible.

Zoning has always been a blunt tool, and maybe the zoning for Mid City needs to be more sophisticated. It's entirely possible that 25% is the wrong ratio. But in discussing the matter we should remember that there are legitimately good reasons why livable neighborhoods don't want every storefront to be the same.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Update: Ryan Avent responds thoughtfully, suggesting that higher residential densities are a better way to encourage commercial diversity, and that as a regional specialty district for nightlife, U Street in particular increases investment in the whole city.


Who decides DC's zoning?

DC's Zoning Administrator recently ruled that the ARTS overlay around 14th and U has reached its bar and restaurant maximum of 25%, prompting many blog posts about the decision.

Image by ChrisL_AK.

Some commenters specifically charge that DCRA, the agency of which the Zoning Administrator is a part, is stifling restaurants. But they're not actually the ones who make the zoning policy. To fully comprehend this issue, it's helpful to understand the complex set of boards and agencies responsible for making zoning policy.

The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) is the agency actually responsible for giving out building permits and certificates of occupancy for buildings and businesses. The Office of the Zoning Administrator, inside DCRA, makes the determination about what the zoning regulations allow.

If someone wants to build a building or open a business that isn't allowed by the strict interpretation from DCRA, they go to the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA). The BZA grants variances and special exceptions. Variances are permission to do something not permitted in the zoning regulations, while special exceptions are permissions to do something that the zoning regulations allow but require a special review beforehand.

Under the ARTS Ovelay, restaurants exceeding the 25% would only need a special exception, but that still can take months to get through the BZA's lengthy quasi-judicial process and crowded calendar; establishments seeking one also are likely to need to pay a zoning attorney for considerable amounts of time.

If this is not acceptable, the solution is to change the zoning rules. That is done by the Zoning Commission, made up of three Mayoral appointees and two federal representatives, one from the National Park Service and the other from the Architect of the Capitol. The Zoning Commission reviews Planned Unit Developments (PUDs), larger-scale projects that get some relief from zoning in exchange for community benefits, and also amendments to the zoning map and regulations.

Most of the time, changes to the zoning regulations come from the DC Office of Planning (OP). They often suggest individual text and map amendments, though residents can also petition for amendments.

OP is also running the citywide zoning update process to rewrite the District's zoning code. OP has recommended setting restaurant limitations on a zone-by-zone basis and the Zoning Commission wants a simpler tool, but there is not yet a specific alternate plan. An ANC 2F committee recommended increasing the limit to 40-50%, but the zoning update itself will take another year or more to complete.

When OP formulates recommendations and when the Zoning Commission rules on them, they are supposed to be guided by the District's and federal government's overall plans, especially the Comprehensive Plan. There are also smaller neighborhood plans.

OP writes these plans and the DC Council (for the District) and National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC, for the federal government) review them. The Council isn't allowed to change Small Area Plans, but can disapprove them.

Therefore, unlike in most jurisdictions, the elected representatives don't directly make specific decisions about zoning at the level of individual properties. Instead, they can set very broad policies, which OP tries to turn into text and maps and the Zoning Commission rules upon, DCRA enforces and the BZA grants exceptions to.

If the 25% restaurant limitation is inappropriate, there are a few ways to fix the problem. Expecting DCRA not to enforce an existing regulation, however, is not one of them. OP could propose an immediate text amendment to change the rules sooner than the full zoning update, or ANC2F or other groups could. The Zoning Commission would hold a hearing, and could approve the change. MidCity Business Association has said they want to try to get such a text amendment moving as soon as possible.

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