Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Topher Mathews

Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and daughter in Georgetown.  

DC's family leave bill may need work, but kneejerk reactions won't make it better

DC's proposed Family Leave Act, if adopted, would be the nation's most ambitious paid leave program for workers. The Washington Post recently published a kneejerk opposition to it that's based on several flawed understandings of the bill, and it's important to set the record straight.

DC's Family Leave Act would help make sure little ones like these don't become regular fixtures at the office. Photo by Jen Kim on Flickr.

Last week, the Washington Post editorial board said the bill, drafted by Councilmembers Elissa Silverman and David Grosso, would go unnecessarily further than similar bills around the country, that jobs would leave DC because of it, and that it wouldn't help those who need it most.

In brief, the proposed paid leave program would replace all or part of a worker's salary for up to 16 weeks for leave associated with certain qualifying circumstances. The most obvious qualifying circumstance would be maternity or paternity leave, but leave to care for a sick or elderly family member would also be covered. The program would provide up to $1,000 per week to match a worker's salary up to $52,000 a year. Salary above that level would be matched at 50% up to a $3,000 per week cap.

The bill proposes to pay for the program from a fund generated by a .5%-1% payroll tax on employers for all their employees (not just District residents). It would operate much like unemployment insurance: When you go on leave you would apply for benefits, which would be paid from the fund. Your employer would not be obligated to pay you.

There are a lot of questions that still need answers regarding how the program will work and what changes the proposed bill might need. How would it interact with existing paid leave programs offered by private employers? How would "double dipping" be prevented? Would the fund be solvent?

There should certainly be a productive conversation between policy makers, the public, and business owners to refine the bill into its final form. All of these questions are more must be addressed before the final bill is adopted and—in some ways more importantly—before the regulations go into effect. Unfortunately, the Post editorial detracts from the potential for future discourse.

The DC Council is not out of control, nor is it crazy for proposing this

The opening premise of the Post editorial is that the DC Council is deep into a bender of naively progressive legislation that is overwhelming the District's business community. But there isn't all that much evidence to back this stance up:

Witness the burst of legislation in the past three years requiring employers to pay higher salaries, provide new benefits and face new regulations . Now, with the ink barely dry on those laws, a majority of the council wants to put an additional burden on employers with a tax that would allow workers to take up to 16 weeks of paid family leave annually.
If you click on those examples, the first is a link to an article on the District's newly-higher minimum wage (a change the Post editorial board itself admitted was necessary, even if it disagreed with the timing and degree).

The second link is to an article about the Paid Family Leave bill itself, and the third is to a proposal to require personal trainers to register and meet certain certification requirements. Notably it was a proposed regulation, not a law, and one that was gutted before adoption.

The above is all the editorial could come up with to demonstrate how out of control the Council is.

The Post actually doesn't have its facts straight

The end of the excerpt really shows how flawed the board's position is. The proposed bill will not allow workers to take up to 16 weeks of family leave per year. They already have that right. Since 1991, under the DC Family Medical Leave Act DC workers have been entitled to take the 16 weeks. The only change that the new bill would make is that people without the economic security of, say, a law firm associate, will actually be able to afford to take the leave they already have the right to take.

Which leads to another baffling argument that the editorial makes:

this broad-brushed approach doesn't target resources to the workers who are most in need. Low-income and minority groups have the least access to paid leave options, so it would be far more sensible for the city to design a program that helped them most. That would be the truly progressive option.
The proposed bill would provide 100% income-replacement for workers making $52,000 or less. How does that not target low-income and minority groups? Would they prefer the program pay people even more than their salaries on leave? How in the world can the editorial criticize the bill for being alarmingly radical and yet not progressive enough in the same breath?

Will Georgetown's campus plan collapse the area's rental market?

In 2012, the Zoning Commission approved Georgetown's latest campus plan. A central part of the plan is that the school committed to providing 385 new on-campus beds by the fall of 2015, with the long term goal of housing 90% of its undergrads on campus by 2025. With that first deadline rapidly approaching, is the rental market already feeling the pinch of reduced demand? A lot of residents I've talked to have concluded as much, and some anecdata supports that.

Image from Rob Pongsajapan on Flickr.

Recently, people have noticed homes still available for rent that would usually be already rented for the fall. And one particularly prominent house that has been rented for years (and is awfully shabby for it) is not only vacant but now for sale. It's the home at 3348 Prospect. This large home can be yours for $3 million.

One argument I've made to those trying to force Georgetown to house more students on campus is that the rental housing would simply be filled by non-students, primarily 20-somethings, who can be just as loud and annoying as college students (I certainly was). But the Prospect Street house may point to a flaw in that argument. According to the listing, the house rents out nine "units" for a total rent of $18,000 a month. That wasn't a typo.

Georgetown's Prospect House. Image by James Emery on Flickr.

It's unclear how many bedrooms the house has (the listing could be read to mean nine, but also up to twelve), but it's very unlikely that anyone other than a Georgetown student would be willing to pay that much to share that building with so many people. And with so many new condos all over the city much closer to more popular neighborhoods, maybe there really aren't that many 20-somethings that want to move to Georgetown period, let alone at the usurious rates that undergrads pay.

And it seems that a collapse in demand is about the only thing that would explain why someone would want to sell a property producing $155,000 a year net profit. The listing claims the $3 million price was arrived at to achieve a 5% capitalization rate. This would be a decent cap rate, but only if it's actually true. And maybe the fact the owner is selling suggests that he or she doesn't think it is.

A version of this post originally ran on The Georgetown Metropolitan.

Yes, it's worth looking into a gondola in DC

Is building a gondola from Georgetown to Rosslyn feasible? There's money in DC's budget for next year to look into the answer, and there are enough practical reasons to think a gondola might work to make it worth looking into.

The study, proposed by the Georgetown Business Improvement District to determine whether building an aerial gondola from the Rosslyn Metro stop to M Street in Georgetown, would cost $35,000. When considered as part of the $13 billion budget, which the DC Council adopted this week, the project and its impact are relatively tiny.

The gondola proposal has generated biting contempt from several quarters, but the criticism is misplaced. Given the possible benefits, we should absolutely study the possibility of constructing an aerial gondola between Rosslyn and Georgetown.

Where the gondola idea came from

As documented by the Post, the gondola idea is the brainchild of the Georgetown BID's CEO Joe Sternlieb. After seeing an aerial gondola in action in Portland, Oregon, Sternlieb became entranced with the idea of bringing this idea to Washington.

After taking charge at the BID, Sternlieb was quickly able to persuade all the relevant stakeholders that the idea was worth looking into. Two years ago, it took the form of a particularly eye-catching action item in the Georgetown 2028 long-term planning study, which the BID produced with significant community input. Funding the study is a significant step towards completing that action item.

The BID has raised $130,000 from donors and needs an additional $35,000 each from DC and Arlington to fund the anticipated $200,000 study. While Arlington has not officially approved its contribution, a county spokesperson stated that it was working towards it. (Full disclosure: I served on the steering committee of the Georgetown 2028 study).

Here's why some people hate the idea

From the beginning, the gondola proposal has attracted scorn from some transit advocates. The criticism essentially boils down to the following points:

  • It's too expensive, and the transit service it provides wouldn't be enough to justify the cost.
  • It's just a distraction from other less attention-grabbing transit projects, which would lose some funding to the gondola.
  • The technology itself (and thus the project too) is nothing but "gadgetbahn," or new technology being sold as an improvement over what we currently have without actually offering any improvements.
In the abstract, the first two complaints are perfectly reasonable. We have to consider the costs and benefits of any new transit project, and an analysis of the gondola would need to account for there being limited funds for transit.

The third point, however, is not entirely fair. By being able to easily traverse otherwise treacherous inclines, gondolas clearly provide transit capabilities that no other technology can. It only becomes "gadgetbahn" when it's being applied in the wrong situation.

Criticisms withstanding, the gondola is worth studying

Ultimately, each of these criticisms may be justified. But we won't know that for certain without the study.

Of course, you could apply that statement to any cockamamie plan. "How could we possibly know a jet pack share wouldn't work without studying it," skeptics might ask with muse. But there are enough reasons to believe a gondola could actually be worth it to justify a study to answer the question.

Here are those reasons:

  • Gondolas are, relatively speaking, cheap and quick to build. Sternlieb very much views this mostly as a stop gap measure until Metrorail can be built to Georgetown. Rather than do nothing for 20-30 years as we wait for Metro, we could have this up and running in just a few years.
  • A gondola would make for a quick ride from Georgetown to the Metro, and it'd be entertaining to boot.
  • A gondola would eliminate the need for Georgetown University to run the GUTS bus between the campus and Rosslyn. This route serves over 700,000 riders a year, and the people who use it would would form the core of the gondola's ridership. That number would likely climb, though, as many students, workers and visitors would start using the route out of convenience. Commuters to and from Georgetown would also likely add significant ridership to the line. And tourists, of course, would likely flock to it.
  • Yes, a bus-only lane from Rosslyn to Georgetown and then to Georgetown University would be cheaper and possibly as successful. But creating bus-only lanes through the heart of Rosslyn, across Key Bridge and down Canal Road is politically infeasible. DC cannot marshall the will power to construct successful bus lanes in corridors where doing so is a no-brainer. What chance is there that it could construct a successful multi-jurisdictional bus lane where the case is not as clear cut?
  • Without bus lanes and absent a new subway line, there really isn't any other technology that can as easily connect people from Rosslyn to Georgetown and the university as a gondola would. Again, this is not proposed as a replacement of Metro, just a "temporary" measure as we wait several decades for Metro to be expanded.
  • A gondola would hold the potential to become a tourist destination in and of itself.
  • Unlike other alternatives, a gondola would likely attract funding support from wider sources, like Virginia, Georgetown University, and the BID itself.
Will these arguments convince everyone? Probably not. But they are strong enough to justify a closer look at what it'd take to build a gondola.

The study now will almost certainly move forward. It's possible that the results will make it clear that a gondola isn't worth it, in which case Sternlieb and the BID would drop it and move on. But it's also possible it will show a gondola to be feasible, and at that point, we could have a fully-informed discussion to address each of the critics' points.

Roll your eyes if you must, but personally, I trust Sternlieb. As the man that was largely responsible for the creation of the successful Circulator bus system, he's earned the right to push the boundaries a bit.

A version of this post ran on The Georgetown Metropolitan.

The rise of the Airbnb investment property?

Airbnb, the controversial service that lets homeowners temporarily rent out a room or a whole house, has been in Georgetown for at least a year. But listings in Georgetown suggest that Airbnb is becoming a way for real estate managers to rent out investment properties at much higher rates than they'd get with long-term tenants.

Photo by edwhitaker on Flickr.

Specifically, among the dozen or so Airbnb listings in Georgetown, I found four that were recently sold (i.e. within the last two years). The service advertises itself as a way for homeowners to "rent out some extra space effortlessly." But now, it looks like investors are buying properties with the sole intention of renting them out as an Airbnb.

The numbers make sense. One house was bought in 2013 for about $1.3 million. It rents out on Airbnb at over $6,000 a week. In the spring and summer, it charges $1,000 a weekend night. A similar house rented on a long term basis would attract no more than about $7,000 a month (for what it's worth, Zillow estimates only a $5,800 per month rent). Airbnb obviously has more risks since the property could remain empty most of the time, but it has significantly more upside.

Clearly many properties in Georgetown are already purchased simply as investment properties. They run the gamut from run-down rentals to upscale rowhouses. But these are generally rented out on a long term basis. Airbnb rentals are essentially unregulated hotels. The guests stay for a few days, then leave.

This is hardly a phenomenon isolated to Georgetown. The New York Times recently reported on the profit that New York City renters can make by subletting their apartments on Airbnb. One entrepreneur started out by listing just his extra bedroom. Soon he realized that he could rent out a second apartment solely for the purpose of "subletting" it to Airbnb customers. He reported a $6,000 month profit. A report by the New York attorney general found that a small number of commercial operators represented the vast bulk of the Airbnb business in the city.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. I have a house around the corner from me that converted from a yearly rental property to an Airbnb. On the plus side, the property is kept-up better than it was before since it gets a thorough cleaning after every guest. But the house is also empty most of the time. We've essentially lost a neighbor.

If landlords now see more profit in Airbnb than long-term rentals, that might be an unfortunate development both for renters (who will face higher rental costs on fewer available units) and homeowners (who will have fewer full-time neighbors). And that's not even considering the lucrative hotel taxes that the city is not likely collecting (Airbnb leaves it up to the owner to collect and report the taxes).

Most people probably could not care less what happens to the market for Georgetown homes that rent for $7,000 per month. And rightly so. But there's no reason this pattern could not be occurring at lower price points and in other neighborhoods.

Many Airbnb listings probably already run afoul of DC's zoning laws. But I'm of the opinion that as long as they are not causing a problem for the neighbors (say, for example, a house that pitches itself as a party-hosting venue) then there's no reason to complain.

Maybe this will be a self-correcting trend. A handful of Airbnb listings can demand high fees. If dozens of landlords tried that, though, the market would likely collapse. Other than the city ensuring basic safety and the collection of taxes, laissez faire may be the best general approach to Airbnb for now. But at some point the city is going to have to get its arms around the phenomenon. Investors flipping properties into Airbnb listings will likely accelerate that day's arrival.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Georgetown Metropolitan

What's the oldest continuously named street in DC?

I recently embarked on a quest to figure out what was the oldest continuously named street in the District of Columbia. While I initially thought it was going to be a easy task, my initial inquiries came up inconclusive. But I'm tentatively ready to name the victor Water Street NW, a short street in Georgetown.

Image from Google Street View.

Georgetown existed before the District of Columbia. It was founded as a Maryland town in 1751, more than fifty years before the District was established. If any street name from Georgetown's founding were still in use, it would clearly be the longest continuously used street name in DC.

Unfortunately, no street name from Georgetown's founding is still in use today. Here's the original plan of the town:

None of the original street names are still in use, with the one exception of Water Street. Originally, the street we now call Wisconsin Avenue was called Water Street south of the street we now call M Street. Nowadays, "Water Street" is the name we call K Street west of Wisconsin Avenue. But in 1751, this stretch was called "The Keys" and West Landing.

So it's not quite right to say Water Street is the longest continuously named street in DC. At least not based on this information. All of the other "Old Georgetown" street names in use in 1751, like Bridge Street and High Street, stopped being used shortly after Washington City absorbed Georgetown in 1871.

Jump ahead from the town's founding in 1751 to 1796, and more of the "Old Georgetown" street names have appeared, including Dunbarton Street, Prospect Street, and Water Street, which now includes what we today call "Water Street." This is still before the creation of DC, and so they should still preexist any non-Georgetown street names.

All three of those street names continued after the 1871 merger. It's probably safe to say one of those three names is the oldest continuously used street name in DC.

But the question is which of them, if any, is the oldest? We know that the name "Water Street" is the oldest, but was it used to refer to the actual waterfront street before it was called Prospect or Dunbarton?

In a way, we can already dismiss Dunbarton seeing as it has changed its spelling and suffix over the years, going from Dunbarton Street to Dumbarton Avenue, and back to Dumbarton Street. So it's really between Prospect and Water.

But if we're ready to dismiss Dumbarton Street because it once was called Dumbarton Avenue, then Water Street might be the winner after all. That's because, like Dumbarton and Olive streets, Prospect Street was also briefly known as Prospect Avenue after the merger. It appears all the "Old Georgetown" street names that survived the merger were temporary referred to as avenues. Except for Water Street, which doesn't appear to have been renamed.

So barring new information, I'm ready to tentatively give Water Street the title of longest-continuously named street in DC.

A version of this post appeared on the Georgetown Metropolitan.

See Georgetown's historic movie theatres

Like many DC neighborhoods, Georgetown historically had several movie theatres. While none of them are still in operation today, almost all of the buildings that once held movie theatres are largely intact.

The former Key theatre. Photo by Constantine Hannaher on Flickr.

Jonathan O'Connell of the Washington Post ran a fantastic feature Monday on the history of theatres in DC, with a map showing where historic theatres were and existing theatres are. The city had 116 movie theatres and playhouses during the 20th century, six of which were in Georgetown. Let's tally them up!

Above you see a photo of the Key Theatre. Of the historic theatres, it was on the young side. It was opened in 1969 and closed in 1997. Nowadays it (along with the former Roy Rogers next door) is occupied by Restoration Hardware.

The Biograph. Photo by joe on Flickr.

Here is the Biograph. It was even younger than the Key Theatre. It was built in 1976 in a former car dealership and lasted until 1996. Like the Georgetown theatre, in its later years it mixed art house with adult fare, but was unable to stave off closure. Like many former theatres in DC, it now houses a CVS.

The Georgetown. Photo by Tony on Flickr.

Familiar to many, the Georgetown Theatre building has lasted several decades, gutted and decrepit as it may be today. However, the facade as we now know it is thankfully not long for this world. Local architect Robert Bell has a contract to buy the building and plans to restore the neon sign and rip off the formstone exterior.

Bell only intends to restore the facade to its state immediately before the formstone was applied. That is apparently a simple stucco style, but unfortunately I couldn't locate a picture of what that looked like. Bell confirmed that he had no plans to restore the facade of the Dumbarton Theatre, which was what became the Georgetown in the 1950s. It was opened in 1913, shortly before this photo was taken:

The Dumbarton in 1913. Photo by joe on Flickr.

Bell plans to restore the neon side, making it red, while returning the frame to its original black color. I predict it will displace the old Riggs Bank dome as the iconic Georgetown image once it's finally repaired.

Tommy Hilfiger, once home to the Lido theatre. Photo by Bill in DC on Flickr.

This obviously isn't a theatre, but the Tommy Hilfiger stands at the site of the former Lido Theatre. The theatre was open from 1909 to 1948. I unfortunately could not find any picture of the original theatre. The facade was changed significantly for Tommy Hilfiger, here's what it looked like in the 1990's:

The former Lido Theatre (on the far left). Photo courtesy of the author.

I'm not certain, but chances are that this isn't really the original building. It just looks way more mid-century than turn-of-the-century. The theatre shut in 1948, and that building looks awfully 1950's-ish. I suspect that's when the current structure was built, or it may mean the building's facade was redone later on. So maybe this is one that should be considered "lost."

The former Barnes and Noble. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

This is also obviously not a photo of a theatre, but before this building held Nike or Barnes and Noble, it held the Cerebus 1-2-3 Theatre. Like many of the large and similar looking buildings on 14th St., this property was also originally built as a car dealership. The theatre occupied the space from 1970 to 1993.

The Foundry. Photo by kiev_dinamo on Flickr.

Last, but not least, on O'Connell's list is the Foundry Theatre. The photo above shows it as it is today, but it hasn't really changed much since the theatre closed in 2002. It was the youngest theatre on this list, having been opened in 1984. For all intents and purposes, it was replaced by the Georgetown AMC theatre, which opened the same year.

So at one point in the late 1970's, there were four different movie theatres open in Georgetown. Now there's just one (two if you count Letelier Theatre) but we've got almost all the old shells. In the age of Netflix and on-demand movies, maybe we should be happy we've even got that.

Crossposted on Georgetown Metropolitan.

For a while, Georgetown was "West Washington"

Businesses and residents of the neighborhood near Nationals Park can't decide whether to call it Navy Yard or Capital Riverfront. If Georgetown is any precedent, then the newer Capitol Riverfront name won't stick, at least not forever. While a new name might stick around for a little while, eventually people are drawn back to historic names.

Undated map of West Washington (formerly Georgetown) from the Library of Congress.

Georgetown preexisted the District of Columbia by 50 years. After the formation of the District, Georgetown remained an independent city within the new capital, but it lost its charter in 1871 and merged with the city and county of Washington. Ever since, there have been no independent municipalities in DC.

In 1878, Congress revoked DC's limited democracy and imposed an appointed commissioner system that lasted until 1967. In doing so, Congress redubbed Georgetown as "West Washington".

Despite the fact that Georgetown had existed so long as an independent city and only dissolved 7 years prior, people gave a genuine go at using the new name. Throughout the 1880's, the Washington Post is full of society notes not from Georgetown, but West Washington.

This new name was consistently used well through the 1890's and into the first decade of the 20th century. But by the teens, its usage appears to have trailed off. By the 1920's, the only place you'll find references to "West Washington" was in the name of the Baptist church at 31st and P streets NW.

Originally the Baptist Church of Georgetown, it changed its name to West Washington Baptist Church in 1899. It held on to this name all the way until 1955, well after Georgetown returned as the primary neighborhood name. The change back was probably inspired by the bicentennial of the neighborhood, when nostalgia broke out in the form of beer and preservation boards.

The lesson? It might take a while, but if Georgetown is any guide, Navy Yard will eventually win out.

When Georgetown was on the wrong side of the creek

Ghosts of DC found a great map from the Library of Congress archives. It shows the property values of each block in DC in 1879.

Map from Library of Congress, via Ghosts of DC.

Matt Yglesias noticed and pointed out that it shows a time when Logan and Shaw were more expensive than Georgetown.

Actually, the blocks around Logan and the Shaw blocks to the east don't appear to have that much more of an concentration of darker blocks than Georgetown. But it is true that this map likely captures the moment when Georgetown slowly started to slip behind the rest of the city in terms of economic status.

This is a fact that many are familiar with. Starting in the late 19th century Georgetown became somewhat of an Irish and African-American slum (although sometimes this is a bit overstated). It's reputation grew as a rougher part of town through the early 20th century. In the 1930s, Georgetown became one of the first "gentrified" neighborhoods in DC when New Dealers swooped in and bought up the old houses. The rest is history.

While the early 20th century brought poverty to Georgetown, in 1879 it wasn't necessarily clear that that was the future. Georgetown had only just been an independent city eight years prior (actually it was briefly known as "West Washington" at this point). And the governor of DC (during its brief territorial status) Henry Cooke thought it wise to construct his grand Cooke's Row of Second Empire mansions in 1868.

Perhaps it was the Panic of 1879 (which hit Cooke personally due to his widespread real estate speculation) that started Georgetown's decline, but it is more likely the rise of the railroad and the related decline of the canal.

But looking at the map you can see that the biggest concentration of expensive real estate at this point was what is now considered downtown (and probably remains the most expensive land in DC). Soon after this map was created, the Kalorama neighborhood was created and attracted the wealthy. By the 1890s, Georgetowners worried about getting cut off from the happening parts of DC and lobbied to have the Dumbarton Bridge built.

If you were to draft this map again in the 1920s, the differences would be starker. With robber barons building gilded age palaces on Massachusetts Ave. Georgetown found itself on the wrong side of the creek.

One final note: As I said, the slum status of Georgetown in the 20th century is sometimes overstated. There were pockets of deep poverty, including the "Holy Hill" Irish neighborhood in west Georgetown, the "Herring Hill" African American neighborhood on the east side, and scattered decrepit alley dwellings in lower Georgetown.

But the grand estates of Georgetown were still around. Tudor Place, Evermay, Dumbarton Oaks, and Halcyon (not to mention scores of lesser grand homes) all coexisted with the slummier sections of Georgetown.

Of course even today, we have people living in structures built for animals right next to luxurious houses. But they paid millions of dollars for the privilege.

Cross-posted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.

Georgetown Heating Plant: Monument or eyesore?

Last month, a consortium of investors, including the Levy Group and Four Seasons, won the auction to purchase the historic West Heating Plant on 29th Street in Georgetown. The future of the building is now in doubt, but is it worth saving as is?

Photos by the author.

No formal plans have been presented by the winning group, but you can read between the lines of their few public statements. Most tellingly, a letter from the Zoning Administrator to the group's lawyer discussed the general proposal to tear down most of the building. The request asked what the zoning implications would be to keep the 29th Street façade but tear down most of the rest of the building.

Some, like myself, think the entire building is worth saving. It's a striking example of a austere Art Deco style in a city mostly untouched by that style. The front façade, (which the group seems likely to keep anyway) is a muscular and monolithic edifice, that is detailed with a precise yet delicate brickwork borders:

The rest of the building carries on that muscular hulk:

But the problem is, there is simply no way to get natural light into the building as it is currently structured.

Photo from Jones Lang LaSalle.

Yes, there are eight long windows on the north and south sides, but behind each window is a giant steel frame blocking the light. The frames are structural, so they cannot be easily removed.

I have seen some plans (not from the winning group) calling for a giant atrium to bring light in, but that would limit the roof usage and remove a good deal of square footage within the building.

Some simply think people like me are nuts and that the building is an eyesore. The very traits I find appealing can be just as easily seen as looming and oppressive.

What do you think? Should the new owners be forced to save all four façades? Or should they be allowed to tear down most of the building and simply keep the 29th Street side?

Click here for more pictures of the building.

Cross-posted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.

Shocking rhetoric from John Townsend and AAA

This week's Washington City Paper cover story quoted AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend calling Greater Greater Washington editor David Alpert "retarded" and a "ninny," and comparing Greater Greater Washington to the Ku Klux Klan.

Many other reporters, people on Twitter, and residents generally have clearly stated in response what should of course go without saying, that such personal attacks are beyond the pale.

Some may get the sense that there is personal animosity between Townsend and the team here at Greater Greater Washington. At least on our end, nothing could be further from the truth. We simply disagree with many of his policy positions and his incendiary rhetoric.

Spirited argument is important in public policy, but it should not cross into insults. When it does, that has a chilling effect on open discourse. Fostering an inclusive conversation about the shape of our region is the purpose of this site, but discourse must be civil to be truly open. That's why our comment policy here on Greater Greater Washington prohibits invective like this. In our articles, we try hard to avoid crossing this line, and are disappointed when we or others do, intentionally or inadvertently.

The "war on cars" frame unnecessarily pits drivers against cyclists and pedestrians instead of working together for positive solutions. The City Paper article, by Aaron Wiener, does a good job of debunking that, and is worth reading for much more than the insults it quotes.

When pressed, Townsend told Wiener he wants to back away from the "war on cars."

"I regret the rhetoric sometimes," he says. "Because I think that when you use that type of language, it shuts down communication with people who disagree."
We hope Townsend, his colleagues, and their superiors also regret the things he said about David and Greater Greater Washington. We look forward to the day when AAA ceases using antagonistic language and begins working toward safety, mobility, and harmony among all road users.

In the meantime, residents do have a choice when purchasing towing, insurance, and travel discounts. Better World Club is one company that offers many of the same benefits as AAA, but without the disdain.

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