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Development


Fire deaths in abandominium raise call for action

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.


Front of 1704 R Street SE in Fairlawn, the scene of the deadly fire.

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.


Rear of 1704 R Street SE.

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."

City-owned abandominiums, 1700-1720 W Street SE.

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:
  • 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.
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.
City needs help reporting abandominiums

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 vacantbuildings@dc.gov 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.

Government


ANC gets illegal Uline Arena signs removed

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.


Two of the large signs have been removed from the west wall of Uline Arena. Photos by the author.

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:

  1. Painting/removing graffiti on the roof
  2. Fixing any openings providing access to the roof
  3. Fixing the leak in the side of the wall along the west side of the building
  4. Rebuilding the sidewalk at the corner of 3rd and M Streets (at the 3rd Street side)
  5. Getting Clear Channel to paint the billboard post (in the plaza area)
  6. Complying with any DCRA orders concerning the (potentially) illegal billboards at the west wall
  7. 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.
Number 6, you'll note, addresses the signs on the side of the building. Douglas Development could have responded that they believed the signs were legal and that their appeal would bear this out. Apparently, this wasn't an action they wished to pursue. Instead, the signs have come down, and other improvements for the historic, yet vacant, shell are underway.


Vines covering the south side of the building have also been cut and are beginning to wither away.

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.

Government


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.

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Government


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.

Government


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.

Government


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!

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