Posts about DCRA
DC permit officials wouldn't let people take photos of building applications. Instead, people had to wait several days and pay to have copies made. But after several people including staff for Councilmember David Grosso reached out to officials through Twitter, this policy is no more.
Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid.
In May, I learned that the owners of a house across the street in Trinidad were going to add a pop-up. I wanted to see some details of their plans. Matt Ashburn offered (via Twitter) to go on his lunch break to look at the plans.
But Eric Fidler warned us that DCRA doesn't allow people to take photos of plans. Helder Gil, DCRA's Legislative and Public Affairs officer, said that he should be able to. Gil gave Matt the name of the head of the permit division, just in case a problem cropped up.
At DCRA, Matt asked an employee at the file room to see the plans and permit application for the house. The employee asked him to sign in with his name, addresses of concern, and documents he'd like to view, but said he couldn't see the plans that day. "If I [pulled plans immediately for someone in the office], I'd be working all day," she said.
Matt had to fill out another form with his name, phone number, and the permit numbers, and wait for a phone call in 1-3 days telling him when he could come back. In the meantime, he could see the permit application.
But when he tried to take a photo of it with his phone, he was told he wasn't allowed to take photos. Instead, he could pay the employee to make copies. "That's the policy. No photos of the paperwork," she insisted.
When Matt protested, the employee eventually offered to make free copies of the application to get rid of him. But then, the records manager, a Mr. Mason, refused.
Mason confirmed that all these records are public documents and that the public is allowed to view and hold them, but not to photograph them. "What a wonderful country we live in," he told Matt. Matt would still have to buy copies of the application from DCRA and copies of the plans from Blueboy Printing, a private print shop, because DCRA can't copy large pages itself.
Matt said he just wanted to take a quick photo to avoid the hassle. "That's just how it is," Mr. Mason replied.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, Aaron Pritchard, Councilmember Grosso's chief of staff, saw our tweets about the issue and sought clarification from DCRA.
Gil jumped in. He made it clear that the director of DCRA was unhappy with the situation, and had asked the permit records department to stop enforcing it. Citizens could now take photos of permits, and that was that.
A few weeks later, I tried it for myself. I went to the permit office one Friday and asked to see the plans for the same house. Since the plans were off-site, I had to ask them to pull the plans, and an employee told me I could call back on Tuesday to see if they were available. When I did, I learned that I could come in the next day to see the plans. (They weren't, as it turned out, and I had to come back twice before they were finally available.)
The same employee strongly encouraged me to take photos if I wanted to have a record. Thankfully, that part of the policy worked the way it should.
As for that pop-up, here's what it will look like:
It appears that the new owners will replace one of the second-floor windows with a door, while the porch roof will become a deck. The plans don't specifically say what materials they will use for the addition, but it appears that it will be something like vinyl siding, as opposed to brick like the rest of the house.
Since my neighborhood isn't designated as a historic district, there's no process that controls the materials or design of building additions in my neighborhood, except that they have to meet zoning. But we were able to change one problematic city policy with help from social media.
DC food trucks have grown in number and quality over the last several years, and are now a lunchtime staple in the District's business corridors. But new regulations would directly undermine food trucks, giving DC workers fewer options and lower-quality food.
Food trucks have been in a state of legal limbo since they first started selling lunches in 2009. Current regulations were meant for other mobile businesses, such as hot dog stands and ice cream trucks. They are not designed for modern food truck practices.
While food trucks register with the District, are inspected for safety and cleanliness, and pay the same 10% tax on sales that restaurants do, many other issues have yet to be settled. For example, food trucks regularly receive expensive parking tickets because they often need to stay at a given location for more than 2 hours.
The currently-proposed regulations are their fourth revision. Rather than focusing public safety, they micromanage when and where individual food trucks can operate. But food trucks have been successful in large part because they quickly respond to consumer needs by changing menus and locations.
Most of downtown would be permanently off-limits under the new regulations, aside from a handful allowed to operate in designated "mobile roadway vending locations."
Locations where food trucks would be allowed or prohibited downtown.
Image from the DC Food Truck Association.
The regulations themselves do not create a single MRV location. Instead, they allow DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to propose locations and the number of food trucks that can operate in each one, subject to review by the District Department of Transportation.
The regulations also allow the director of either agency, on his or her own, "the discretion to propose, modify, or remove a designated MRV location at any time." This does not protect consumers from any actual harm. Given how popular food trucks are, it's not clear which, if any, public interest is being addressed by the regulations.
Helder Gil, DCRA's legislative affairs specialist, has stated that the regulations are an attempt to "find something that works for everyone." This is a misguided goal. Many restaurateurs would prefer a downtown free from competitors, but it makes as much sense to give restaurants input on where food trucks can operate as it does to give food trucks control over prices restaurants can charge.
In heeding the concerns of restaurants, DCRA has strayed from the traditionally-accepted role of crafting regulations to preserve public health by attempting to control competition between businesses.
It's also clear that restaurants and food trucks can coexist. While food trucks have the advantages of mobility, low overhead, and convenience, restaurants have the advantages of seating, climate control, and larger kitchens. When restaurants and food trucks compete for customers by playing to their strengths, consumers win. When businesses thrive by regulating competitors out existence, consumers lose.
DCRA should completely scrap the latest proposed regulations. Instead, simpler regulations should bring food trucks into a legal status without giving local officials power to stifle competition. DCRA should issue a mobile vending license for any truck that meets the already-existing standards for cleanliness and safety.
These licenses should permit trucks to park in any available spot in a commercial zone, allowing them to operate near their customers. The cost of the license, in the range of a few hundred dollars per month, would bring in more revenue than trucks currently pay by feeding parking meters.
By keeping food truck regulations simple and rule-based, we can ensure that restaurants and food trucks compete on an even playing field. By removing discretion from the regulations, we can ensure that consumers, not competitors or officials, are in control.
If you would like to share your input on the proposed food truck regulations, send your thoughts to DCVendingRegs@dc.gov by 5 pm on Monday, April 8th.
DC voters will choose an at-large member of the DC Council in a special election on April 23. While there has been fairly little coverage of the race or candidates' positions, the choice voters make in this likely low-turnout election will have a major impact on many important issues to District residents. We believe that Elissa Silverman is the best choice.
We believe that our leaders should devote much of our city's monetary prosperity to two goals: economic growth that furthers that prosperity, and efforts to truly help those most in financial need to ensure they are not left behind. Ms. Silverman has a very strong track record in this area.
DC has unfortunately had a recent string of elected officials who have instead funneled money to people with connections to those in power in the city government. Their influence ultimately enriches those in power. Ms. Silverman has a clear commitment to reforming government ethics from her work advancing DC's Initiative 70, the recent proposed ballot initiative.
Ms. Silverman embraces transit, mixed-use zoning, and the need especially to safeguard pedestrians now that the city is more walkable every year. She emphasizes the need to encourage more housing units for families as many of the young people who have moved to the District begin families and want to remain in the District's walkable, bikeable and transit-oriented neighborhoods.
Thanks to her journalism background, Ms. Silverman has demonstrated that she can ask very penetrating questions on policy details. When talking with editors about issues such as the zoning update, for instance, she probed much more deeply into the effects and tradeoffs than other candidates or even many advocates.
She has said that she wants to turn this skill toward oversight of District agencies such as DCRA; this would be an invaluable asset to residents who find agencies often papering over inefficiency. She has advocated reforming DCRA to make it easier for District residents to open businesses as well.
Matthew Frumin scored very well on Let's Choose DC, most often slightly ahead of Ms. Silverman and sometimes slightly behind. Mr. Frumin has made very valuable contributions to the District through his civic efforts, such as building coalitions on the Tenleytown ANC. However, we feel he still faces significant challenges to connecting with voters outside of upper Northwest. This will not only be a prerequisite to win but a necessary component to being an at-large councilmember.
Mr. Frumin also has less detailed knowledge of the District government's operations and major policies outside of a few areas of strength such as education. While being an expert is not mandatory for a new council candidate, with Ms. Silverman in the race, her greater expertise is a strong asset. The winner of this race will have to instantly start participating in budget negotiations and then continue to operate on the council while almost immediately running for re-election in the April 2014 primary.
We hope Mr. Frumin will continue participating on the citywide stage in other ways following the campaign, and has strong potential to be a top-tier candidate in a future at-large race once he has built more connections and experience working with neighborhood leaders citywide.
Patrick Mara has garnered some significant support in DC based on his recent races and repeated endorsements from the Washington Post. David Alpert also endorsed Mr. Mara in his previous race (against Michael Brown, who is running again this year). However, he has not shown the depth that one would expect from a repeated candidate, and did not answer several Let's Choose DC questions.
The Washington Post's endorsement last week largely centered around his views on cutting taxes and school reform. We don't disagree with charter schools or school reform by any means, but feel that education in the District needs more analysis into what actually works instead of blind ideology. Mr. Mara has made education a centerpiece of his campaign, but when pressed, hasn't been able to actually put forth compelling insights on the matter.
Michael Brown has a strong commitment to helping the less fortunate, such as his stalwart defense of affordable housing which was very welcome on the council. However, Mr. Brown has repeatedly made clear that he is skeptical of a growing city and is very quick to side with the residents most afraid of change, such as with his response on the DC zoning update at Let's Choose DC or his letter of "concern" almost a year ago.
Mr. Brown was the only candidate to oppose several avenues of ethics reform on that question on Let's Choose. Financial mismanagement problems such as unpaid rent continue to dog Mr. Brown, as did malfeasance by his previous campaign treasurer, even though there has not been any evidence that he himself violated campaign finance laws.
Anita Bonds has not chosen to engage with our community by only responding to one Let's Choose DC question. While we didn't want to prejudge her longtime ties to much of DC's machine power structure, she has not availed herself of opportunities to demonstrate her independence from that machine or policy reasons to support her. She also initially promised to serve as a full-time councilmember, but has since backed off that commitment.
Perry Redd and Paul Zukerberg have valuable perspectives to contribute, and we also agree with Mr. Zukerberg's core message that excessive prosecution of minor drug offenses creates a dangerous environment with too many young people having criminal records at huge expense to taxpayers. We hope both will continue to participate in civic discourse and that the DC Council will take up marijuana decriminalization soon.
Voters considering themselves "urbanists," "progressives," or just "reformers" have seen their votes split in several recent elections, including the last two for at-large council. A number of civic and business leaders have lined up behind Ms. Silverman, including respected top Fenty administration officials like Neil Albert and Victor Reinoso, and we hope that all residents will do the same and elect her to the DC Council on April 23.
This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington, written by one or more contributors. Active regular contributors and editors voted on endorsements, and any endorsement reflects a strong majority or greater in favor of endorsing the candidate.
Disclosures: Elissa Silverman also submitted 4 guest articles to Greater Greater Washington in 2011 and 2012. We had also specifically invited Patrick Mara (after previous campaigns) and Matthew Frumin (before the current campaign) to submit guest posts, in keeping with our general policy of encouraging guest posts from many people active in local affairs. Also, Ken Archer, who serves as Silverman's treasurer, is a Greater Greater Washington editor. He did not vote in the internal poll or write any of this endorsement.
Two people died in a fire last week in a vacant low-rise apartment building in Fairlawn. Meanwhile, Mayor Gray pledged $100 million towards new affordable housing. The two together present a clarion call for solutions to the housing problems east of the Anacostia River.
Community activist William Alston-El outside of the former Parkway Guest House, 1262 Talbert Street SE. Photos by the author.
"Marion Barry told Gray the only way he's going to get re-elected, if the Feds don't get him first, is if he plays that affordable housing game," said community activist William Alston-El. "But it ain't a game, it's a matter of life and death. His pledge is too late for them two. [Mayor Gray] needs to come out to the neighborhood and see how people on the lower level are living."
Over the past year, Alston-El and I have toured the Anacocostia neighborhood's extensive portfolio of abandominiums. As dangerous as guns, HIV/AIDS, alcohol, and drugs, the accessibility of vacant properties is a public health concern.
What happened at 1704 R Street SE?
Anacostia High School just down the way, a group of women sit with a child on the front stoop of 1706 R Street SE, next door to the boarded-up middle row building, 1704 R Street SE, where a two-alarm fire took the lives of 2 squatters days before. Yellow tape surrounds the scene. Police cruisers idle across the street as we walk by acknowledging their presence.
The smell of smoke and burnt wood is still thick in the air. "It smells like death out here," Alston-El says before explaining his connection to one of the deceased; he boxed with her brother while imprisoned in Lorton. "There aren't too many Toogoods around." We walk around to the alley to investigate.
A large sandy colored cat bounds over a backyard fence and suddenly stops, plopping down in the charred remnants in the rear of 1704 R Street SE. "Get away from here," yells an onsite fire restoration specialist as the feline scurries away. He approaches us and asks our credentials, "We're reporters looking for the truth," Alston-El offers.
At that the man who says he's been "standing next to dead bodies for 10 hours," begins to tell us the circumstances he knows.
"All indications are that the four-apartment building had been modified by the people who had been living here without permission," he says. "The bottom right dwelling, how you got into it, before the fire, was you opened the door but someone took a piece of plywood and sheeted that off from the inside probably for their own protection against someone injuring them while they were sleeping. That became the cause of death.
"When the fire started in this room here, in the back right, and I mean right because everything in construction is discussed facing the front of the building, so when it started in the back right and really started to spread it's really very difficult for the human mind to run through 1,400 degrees."
I ask if the cause of fire is known. "No, that's under investigation. So they didn't have a way out and were overcome by smoke. Passed out. There was no skin injury when we found them they just suffocated from lack of oxygen. The entire inside of the building is 100% unstable. My job is to structurally support the building so they can do an investigation to answer the question you just asked which is, 'How did it start?'"
Reports from the DC Fire Department corroborate the restorationist's details. "After the heavy volume of fire was knocked down, units re-entered the building, where they located two civilian fatalities. Two firefighters were hurt in the early stages of the firefight and taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries."
According to Alston-El, Toogood was an alcoholic with a bad leg and had been living in the abandominium for three years. "No wonder she didn't make it out. Somebody was firing up their drugs, something went wrong and they dipped out leaving that fire behind."
Police have been canvassing the neighborhood seeking information and any eyewitness accounts of a third party fleeing the blaze.
With a housing crisis, buildings should not remain vacant
Mayor Gray made it a priority in his State of the District address to provide more affordable housing. One place to start is to push for action on existing abandoned buildings the city already owns, or where bureaucratic hurdles are blocking owners' progress.
Take the sprawling Bruxton abandominiums at 1700-1720 W Street SE, still owned by the "DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA SUITE 317" according to tax records. A sign from the Department of Housing and Community Development announces "No Trespassing or Dumping."
In separate colors someone from the neighborhood has spray painted "FUCK" "CRuddy" just beneath the sign. The winter has slowed the ivy's growth which has begun to cover the banner advertising "spacious" 2 bedroom / 2 bath homes "coming soon."
The District has given affordable housing developer Manna the rights to redevelop the Bruxton, but it remains boarded-up and vacant to this day. A Manna staff member commented in March of last year:
SE Manna, Inc. is committed to making this property part of a vibrant Anacostia community. Manna was awarded the property in 2009 through the District's PADD program and began developing the property as the Buxton Condominium. Along the way, Manna has invested over $300,000 in pre-development costs and has encountered several "speed bumps" those in the affordable housing field would be very familiar with, including:City needs help reporting abandominiums
Manna is currently in compliance with all terms required by DHCD and its private lender, including 9 units pre-sold. The Buxton is awaiting DHCD approval to move forward and we are eager to begin this project, and continue to market the available units to qualified buyers.
- Permitting issues dues to lack of water availability;
- The District's Department of Housing and Community Development terminated our contract on the building, though we were in compliance with all terms. This decision was reversed through the intervention of Mayor Gray, Deputy Mayor Hoskins and DHCD Dir. John Hall;
- The units were originally priced from $170,000-$205,000. Manna soon realized that the market in this neighborhood could not bear that price, applied and received funding through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to reduce prices to $95,000-$140,000.
Although the city owns its share of abandominiums or has initiated the long and involved litigious process of getting vacant or blighted properties back into productive use, the greatest number of abandominiums are held by tax delinquents, absentee owners, or dissolved companies.
"Because these vacant properties are privately owned, we are bound by very tight statute on what we can reasonably do," said head of the DC Office of Consumer and Regulatory Afair's Vacant Building Enforcement Division, Reuben Pemberton, respected in Anacostia for his responsiveness and attendance at civic meetings.
Pemberton works with 4 investigators. In order to classify a property as vacant or blighted it has to have two inspections.
"We have a lot of eyes out there in the neighborhood. People can send us an email at email@example.com or call 202-442-4332 to report a property," Pemberton said. DCRA's Vacant Building Enforcement division performed more than 4,200 inspections in fiscal year 2012 and is on schedule to do more than 5,000 this year.
The illegal signs on the west side of the Uline Arena are finally down. Dogged determination from the local ANC, rather than any city agency, managed to get a powerful owner to comply with the law.
The arena is at 3rd and M Streets NE in NoMA, just east of the railroad tracks. We first discussed the illegal signs in June 2011. A little over a month later, DCRA fined Douglas Development, the owner of the building, for illegal billboards. More than a year has passed, during which time Douglas appealed the ruling and fines.
While Douglas appeared to be successfully running out the clock by keeping the appeal active, another deadline became more pressing. The company needed an extension from the Board of Zoning Adjustment (case number 17809B) that required ANC 6C's approval. The ANC presented Douglas with a list of items the commission wanted completed before giving its consent.
The items on the list included:
- Painting/removing graffiti on the roof
- Fixing any openings providing access to the roof
- Fixing the leak in the side of the wall along the west side of the building
- Rebuilding the sidewalk at the corner of 3rd and M Streets (at the 3rd Street side)
- Getting Clear Channel to paint the billboard post (in the plaza area)
- Complying with any DCRA orders concerning the (potentially) illegal billboards at the west wall
- Installing additional fencing (approximately 4 feet high) to prevent cars from parking in public space at the M Street side of the "ice house" property, along with associated gates, benches and other site furnishings.
Kudos to the ANC for holding the developer's feet to the fire and getting a substantial set of actions in exchange for support. There's no reason a building can't be minimally (and legally) maintained while it's being warehoused for development, and ANC 6C has proven that's the case.
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.
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.
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