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.|
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?
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.
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.page/2
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.
Upset Georgetown residents are challenging a 2012 traffic calming project in Glover Park. They say it has lengthened their car commutes through that adjacent neighborhood. Monday, these residents will air their frustrations at an extraordinary Georgetown ANC meeting with Councilmembers Jack Evans and Mary Cheh and DDOT Director Terry Bellamy.
The idea for traffic calming project began years ago. The Glover Park ANC, after hearing constituents bemoan the state of retail in Glover Park, complained to the city about their commercial district's struggles.
The Office of Planning studied the area in 2006. That report found that cars speed through Glover Park, particularly going downhill on Wisconsin, which makes it dangerous to the pedestrians who patronize Glover Park businesses.
2-3 pedestrians are struck each year on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park. In fact, after a driver hit a Georgetown woman and her dog in Glover Park, commissioner Ed Solomon of the Georgetown ANC said, "I would hope that this accident would result in a comprehensive review on the safety concerns that this community has about this section of Wisconsin Avenue."
It's precisely this hostile pedestrian environment, concluded the Office of Planning, that reduces pedestrian traffic to retailers in Glover Park.
DDOT concludes median could reduce congestion and boost pedestrian safety
The Glover Park ANC then asked DDOT in 2009 for a follow-up study about making Glover Park more welcoming for pedestrians. DDOT collected tons of data on traffic at all times of day and days of the week, and reached some interesting conclusions.
The data showed that Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park actually suffers from both congestion and speeding, due to the many left turns. When drivers are turning left they block the lanes and cause congestion; when they don't, people speed and pedestrians are at risk.
DDOT's engineering models showed that adding a middle left-turn lane would both reduce congestion and also speeding. It would calm traffic (with a single through lane) and eliminate left-turn lane blocking (with the turn lane). The models estimated that the project would not change the time to drive though Glover Park.
Officals presented these results at numerous public meetings. Anyone who was remotely involved in civic affairs by reading public meeting notices, attending ANC meetings, or talking to their ANC commissioners knew about it.
Changes aren't complete
DDOT then began the construction, and some residents in Glover Park and Georgetown complained about traffic spilling over into adjacent neighborhood streets. That was a legitimate complaint, and there is a poorly-designed intersection at 37th & Tunlaw that invites drivers to cut through adjacent neighborhood streets.
Fortunately, DDOT's study had a recommendation for that. It suggested reconfiguring 37th and Tunlaw to calm traffic and reduce cut-through traffic. That project is not done yet; it's scheduled to be completed in March.
The construction on Wisconsin, however, largely finished early this year, but the center median containing the left-turn lanes is only painted for now. That's because DDOT is spending a year measuring the results and tweaking different things like light timing, enforcement, and so on.
Changes already help some pedestrians, frustrate some drivers
Pedestrians are already feeling the benefits. It's far less stressful crossing and walking along Wisconsin Avenue. Families with children in particular report less anxiety about walking around Glover Park to popular destinations like the Guy Mason playground and area restaurants.
When the year of tweaks and study ends, DDOT will replace the painted medians between the left-turn areas with raised medians. This will be even better for pedestrian activity, because crossing Wisconsin Avenue will be safer and less threatening with a central raised median.
However, a vocal minority of drivers who prioritize a few seconds of driving time over pedestrian safety have won their first battle to reverse this project. They have secured an audience with two Councilmembers and the DDOT Director at Monday's Georgetown ANC meeting.
DDOT Program Manager Paul Hoffman says that "early returns" of data collection indicate that through time is the same for drivers headed north through Glover Park, but 30 seconds longer on average going south.
If the opponents are successful in repaving Wisconsin Avenue to add the lost through lanes, DC will not only have to pay for the repaving. We will have to pay the federal government back for the money it contributed to the project.
Use the form below and attend Monday's meeting to ask the councilmembers and Georgetown ANC commissioners to give the Glover Park traffic calming project time to succeed. The ANC meeting takes place on Monday, March 4, 6:30 pm at Georgetown Visitation School on 35th Street and Volta Place. The meeting is on the 2nd floor of the main building, in the Heritage Room.
Speak up for safety
This petition is now closed. Thank you for participating!
With a talented new quarterback and a baseball team in the major league playoffs for the first time since 1933, Washington sports are getting a lot of attention recently. In commenting on the state of Washington sports culture, a lot of writers assert that DC is apathetic towards its team because the population is so transient. But how transient is DC?
Census Census Bureau's American Community Survey shows that in some ways the conventional wisdom is correct, but there's not necessarily a correlation between a transient population and a lack of local fervor.
According to the
Census ACS's 2011 one-year estimate, 9.1% of DC's population lived in another state the year before. How does that compare with other sports towns?
|Boston (Suffolk County)||5.9%|
|New York City||2.8%|
Of these cities, DC is far and away the highest. However, this is not necessarily an apples-to-apples analysis. If someone moved from Arlington to DC, they would count in this tally, whereas if someone were to move from Buffalo to Broadway, it wouldn't.
That caveat aside, it's surprising to see what cities are higher on that list. Boston has the second highest, yet many would call the Hub the most parochial town on the list (or at least a close second to Chicago). Notice also how much higher Manhattan's numbers are compare with NYC as a whole. Not surprisingly, the most urban part of New York has the most new residents.
Now, consider the same cities but also include residents who moved from a different county within the same state. The numbers (with the obvious exception of DC's) jump up:
|New York City||4.9%|
This demonstrates that these other cities are often the destination of regional migrants. Sports-wise, these new arrivals probably already rooted for their new home team. But if the criticism of DC is that too many residents have only just arrived to the city itself, it's got plenty of company.
When you look just at 25-34 year olds— By middle age, however, DC residents are positively planted. Here are the numbers for 35-44 year olds:
So, in general, it is correct to say that DC has a higher transplanted population than other cities. But as the example of Boston demonstrates, there's not necessarily a correlation between transplants and a lack of a parochial esprit de corps. If in fact DC lacks such cohesion, don't blame it on the new residents.
DC 16.9% Boston 14.0% Philadelphia 8.1% Atlanta 15.2% Chicago 7.5% Baltimore 11.7% New York City 9.2% ... Manhattan 14.6% DC 5.3% Boston 7.0% Philadelphia 3.1% Atlanta 8.8% Chicago 2.9% Baltimore 6.2% New York City 5.3% ... Manhattan 5.1%
By middle age, however, DC residents are positively planted. Here are the numbers for 35-44 year olds:
So, in general, it is correct to say that DC has a higher transplanted population than other cities. But as the example of Boston demonstrates, there's not necessarily a correlation between transplants and a lack of a parochial esprit de corps. If in fact DC lacks such cohesion, don't blame it on the new residents.
Yesterday, the Georgetown Hoya student newspaper published a provocative editorial calling on students to not vote in DC, and rather vote absentee in their home states. That's terrible advice.
The reasoning behind the piece was that with DC disenfranchised in Congress and its 3 electoral votes guaranteed for Obama, students would "get more bang from their ballot" by voting in more competitive and consequential elections back home.
The heart of the editorial points to the slim 537 votes by which George W. Bush beat Al Gore in Florida in 2000. It notes that 250 current Georgetowners are from Florida, and concludes that "you never know beforehand if voting will make a difference."
There's some undeniable truth to this reasoning, but it's myopic. The editorial throws a bone to the admirable DC Students Speak effort, but kicks the legs out of that campaign by stating "it's evident that poor student turnout in DC has been problematic." In other words, because students don't vote here, why bother voting here?
Here are some other numbers: Georgetown University has over 7,000 undergrads. GWU has over 10,000. In 2008, Jack Evans beat Cary Silverman for the Democratic nomination to represent Ward 2 on the DC Council, 3,100 votes to 1,700. This year he ran unopposed and only drew 2,900 votes.
If 30% of college students living in Ward 2 would vote for an alternative candidate they would swamp Evans. Or, if they supported Evans, he would have to count them as one of his most important constituencies.
The Hoya's pages are often filled with angst over the way students are treated by the District government. Don't they see the connection?
The editorial's view reflects an unfortunate yet common attitude among DC residents who work in or cover national politics (or, as the case may be, aspire to do so): namely, that local politics is bush league, that it's something to be concerned about only when there's a scandal, and that the epic battle between the national parties to control Congress and the White House is all that matters. That couldn't be further from the truth.
Local politics do matter. As David Alpert wrote recently: "If you live in the District, you should vote here. It's the right thing to do. It gives you a stronger voice in local affairs." For students in particular, these local affairs can dramatically affect their daily lives.
Don't like MPD's new noise policy? Want better public transportation to your internship? Don't want the Zoning Commission to force your school to house you on campus? The people making all these decisions answer to local politicians, the same politicians that students could throw out of office if students organized and voted in DC.
Yes, registering to vote in DC carries with it the added price of removing your (tiny) voice from Congress. And that sucks. But removing your relatively larger voice from the local conversation based upon the statistically improbable chance that your vote might be decisive back home is just delusional.
The agreement on the Georgetown University campus plan says that so long as relations go well, the parties will start discussing in 2018 some long-term goals, including one to "identify and develop next 100 acres."
The agreement doesn't give context for this goal. Given the timing, I'd guess the purpose of this new 100 acres is to relocate the hospital and medical school. But regardless of what purpose this 100 acres would serve, the bigger question that jumps to mind is: where is GU going to find 100 acres?
Georgetown University's main campus is 100 acres. There aren't many available parcels close by that are that large. But there are a few:
St. Elizabeths is a historic psychiatric hospital located across MLK Ave. in Ward 8. It has 350 acres spread over its west and east campuses. At one point the hospital served 8,000 patients. Nowadays it serves only a very small group of patients, primarily those determined mentally incompetent to face trial (including Albrecht Muth).
In 2007, the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to consolidate its many offices around the DC area onto the west campus of St. Elizabeths. The District kept the east campus, and is planning to redevelop it. The east campus is 170 acres itself. So there's definitely room if GU wanted to be an "anchor tenant" of the development. The city would probably be happy to make a deal with GU if it meant the construction of a top notch hospital square in the middle of the city's poorest ward.
Alternatively, DHS has dragged its feet actually moving to the west campus. A senior DHS official said that they doubted the move would ever happen. It's remotely possible that DHS might be looking to back out of the deal, and GU could step in.
Old Soldiers Home
The Old Soldiers Home is a massive 250-acre plot of land in Ward 5 that contains the historic Lincoln cottage, where Abraham Lincoln escaped the summer heat. Right now the campus still houses a small population of retired veterans, but about half of the property is a golf course.
In 2005, the administrators of the home proposed to develop the southern section of the property. After some pushback from the surrounding neighborhood (and, as I hear it, from retired generals who like to golf) the plans seem to have been shelved.
It's a lot less likely an option for GU than St. Elizabeths, but you never know.
Reservation 13 is the location of the old DC General hospital. The city has been working on plans to redevelop the parcel for years. Despite having issued an RFP several years ago, the city recently went back to square one on the project.
If building a hospital is part of plans, rebuilding a hospital on the site of the old DC General could make GU's pitch appealing to the city. But I doubt this would happen.
For one, the whole Reservation 13 is only 67 acres. And the city doesn't want to go from one single use to another for the property. Second, even if the city thinks it's a good idea, the neighbors really don't want one large institutional use for the property.
Those are the only properties I can think of in the District proper. GU, of course, could explore site in Virginia or Maryland, but I suspects they want to remain more central.
So if I had to bet, I'd say St. Elizabeths.
Both Mayor Vincent Gray and Council Chair Kwame Brown may want to use tax increment financing to lure a high-end tenant like Bloomingdale's to the Georgetown Park mall, the Current reported. That's a foolish policy.
In tax increment financing ("TIF"), the city issues bonds for a particular project and gives the money to a private developer. A portion of the taxes from the project go towards paying off the bonds. In theory, the city pays back the bonds out of the extra property and/or sales taxes from the now-improved property.
DC has used TIFs in the past. For instance, it set up a $74 million TIF to help the Gallery Place development along. It used a $46 million TIF for the Madarin Oriental hotel. And a $7 million TIF helped pay for the Spy Museum. Each of these projects was successful and they even paid off the bonds ahead of schedule.
But TIFs only work when there's an increment to be found. In other words, they work in areas that will likely see a big improvement in value, and thus tax revenue, from the public investment. If there's no increment, then the only way to pay off the bonds is to cut into the taxes that would arise from the property without the public financing. In that case all you've really done is give free public money to a private developer.
According to the Current article, the argument goes that if there's no TIF for the mall, then Vornado won't be able to land Bloomingdale's and will instead lease to a store like T.J. Maxx. So, the theory goes, the "increment" of having a Bloomingdale's instead of a T.J. Maxx is enough to justify a TIF for the mall.
The twist with this proposal is that a part of the incremental tax proceeds (i.e. the difference in sales taxes that Bloomingdales would pay over T.J. Maxx) would be directed to tax breaks to attract retailers to less established retail districts in DC. Chairman Brown called this a potential "win-win."
This is completely backwards.
If the District wants to get into the TIF game again, it should be directing the TIFs to those less established areas, not the mall. That's where there will be an actual incremental increase in value. That's where we'll get much more bang for our buck. If Vornado, which owns the mall, can't put together a package to attract Bloomingdale's with its own resources, then so be it. Maybe that means they and their partners paid to much when they bought the mall at auction last year. That's not our fault.
I don't want a T.J. Maxx to move in to the mall, but using public funds to help attract one tenant over another is unacceptable. And it's shameful that the Mayor and the Chairman are even thinking about such a ludicrous proposal.
Cross-posted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.
Ugly home additions or new construction often lead to calls to expand historic preservation citywide, but our current historic review process is far too cumbersome and limiting. Instead, less stringent design review or neighborhood-specific zoning could help shape development effectively.
Last week, Richard Layman provocatively suggested applying design review rules to the entire District.
The historic preservation design review process can indeed prevent undesirable projects from moving forward, but the process also too often serves objectives unrelated to genuine historical preservation, such as simply wanting to limit development.
For years I have been surprised that a city so defined by historical excellence in planning (L'Enfant, McMillan Commission) and excellence in architecture, does not require design review for the entire city, regardless of whether or not a neighborhood or building is designated as historic. ... This would be a way to right the terrible wrong that occurs in so many neighborhoods, when alteration of the housing stock is done in ways that diminish the value of place.Applying design review for the whole city would definitely reduce the diminishment of the historic housing stock outside the designated historic districts, but it would come at a steep cost.
In DC's historic districts, such as Georgetown or Capitol Hill, any modification or new construction of a building requires the approval of the federal Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) or the District's Historic Preservation Office (HPO) design review board.
During the review, these boards often (if not nearly always) deny applicants the right to build as much on the property as zoning allows. For example, while the zoning code for the property may allow a building of 40 feet in height, the board requires a shorter building.
Sometimes this process protects against projects that even advocates of more density would oppose. This classic "pop-up" was labeled by the Prince of Petworth as the "Worst Pop-Up of All Time":
Since this property is not in a neighborhood subject to design review, the owner was able to build to the zoning maximum. This completely breaks up the consistent roof lines of the block and the clapboard building material of the addition is completely out of place tacked on to a Victorian brick rowhouse.
Here's another atrocious example of what happens when poor design meets maximum building size:
I have no doubt that neither of these pop-ups would see the light of day if they were subject to historical review. The buildings are out of scale with their neighbors and the building materials and styles are completely out of place.
The fact is that historical review is generally effective at preventing inferior projects like these from going forward. So Layman is right that expanding the entire District to review by the CFA or HPO could address "bad" projects that disrupt the aesthetic harmony of a neighborhood.
But a literal application of this approach would be a disaster. Neither CFA nor HPO has remotely enough resources to perform the design review that would be necessary if the entire District were one large historic zone. Moreover, enforcement would be nearly impossible. I can speak from experience that dealing with historical review is incredibly frustrating, and if it were applied across the District, I would fear a grassroots rebellion against any and all historic protection.
But more importantly, historic review prevents plenty of good projects as well. In Georgetown, for instance, Eastbanc has proposed to replace the Canal Rd. Exxon with a five story condo building. From a true historic preservation perspective, there's not much of a case against the project. It wouldn't break up the rhythm of the block and the proposed style, while not particularly elegant, was at least not discordant.
But neighbors along Prospect Street would lose a part of their fabulous view across the Potomac. So they argued vociferously during the design review process that the project should be reduced to preserve their views. This had little to nothing to do with genuine historic preservation. While the Old Georgetown Board (a sub-body of the CFA) did not endorse the Prospect Street residents' objection specifically, they did hem and haw over the "massing" of the building before Eastbanc pulled the proposal. They are currently working on new plans.
This pattern is repeated frequently in Georgetown and in other historic districts. I've sat through dozens of meetings discussing scores of projects. Time and time again, neighbors use the historic preservation design review process to object to the size of the project rarely out of any genuine concern for the preservation of the neighborhood's historic character but rather because they simply just don't like the project. The basis for the complaints would be no different than if the project were in a brand new development with no historic character: it blocks my view, it's too big, you'll be able to see into my garden, et cetera.
So while historical preservation design review can prevent projects that could truly degrade the historic quality of a neighborhood, it's also used to prevent projects that don't pose that threat and would in fact enhance the neighborhood.
But it is certainly worthwhile for the District to develop alternatives for neighborhoods looking to prevent the pop-ups, and the like, while avoiding the burdens and drawbacks of full historic district designation. The scope and objectives of such a review should be narrowly tailored.
A sliding scale of review could apply depending on the nature of the neighborhood. For instance, older townhouse neighborhoods like Bloomingdale may warrant stronger controls than a neighborhood full of detached houses of diverse styles.
Layman hinted at how the possible mechanics for this review could work. Rather than expand the jurisdiction of the CFA or HPO, tailor the zoning envelope to a neighborhood, or even to each block. If someone wants to build beyond that envelope, make a special exception the standard of review by the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA).
This is a lower standard than a variance. It would introduce a small degree of design review, without being the proverbial camel's nose under the tent that the historic preservation design review often becomes.
A group of U Street residents and business recently formed to fight a possible liquor license moratorium along the newly bustling corridor. The reaction has been swift and strong. Georgetown's experience with a similar one shows some benefits for a moratorium, but also bears out some of the concerns that moratorium opponents raise.
Photo by the author.
Eric Fidler weighed in yesterday with a list of reasons why a moratorium would be bad for the greater U Street neighborhood, including:
- It makes no distinction between "good" establishments and "bad" establishments
- A moratorium on liquor license is in effect a moratorium on new restaurants, period.
- It will reduce pressure to offer a good customer experience.
- It unfairly rewards current businesses over future businesses.
- It sets the cap at an arbitrary level.
- It doesn't address the supposed problems those advocating for a moratorium raise (loud crowds, vandalism, etc.).
- It's difficult to administer.
Georgetown has had a moratorium since 1989. Right now, only about 70 liquor licenses can be issued to Georgetown bars and restaurants. Liquor stores and hotels are not subject to the moratorium. Here are some of the results attributed to the long standing moratorium:
- Opening a new restaurant in Georgetown is more expensive than opening one elsewhere. On top of the higher rent, you need to purchase a liquor license on the secondary market from a license holder who no longer wants it. This has reportedly driven the cost of such licenses close to $100,000.
- Georgetown restaurants are pretty boring. No new exciting restaurant has opened since Hook did, and it's closed already.
- Drunken revelry is only a problem in certain spots around the neighborhood.
Some of Fidler's predictions for U Street have not come true for Georgetown. Restaurants have opened in Georgetown without obtaining a liquor license. They are more likely to cater to a lunch crowd, but a restaurant is a restaurant. And it isn't really difficult to administer. The zone basically is everything south of Q Street.
Also, it's true that moratoriums don't address the negative externalities of existing drinking establishments. But they do address the negative externalities of bars that haven't yet opened. (And of course it also eliminates the positive externalities of those unopened bars and restaurants too!)
The cap may be arbitrary, but right now U Street has 107 licenses, over 50% more than Georgetown. Maybe it's arbitrary, but it doesn't seem likely that it's low.
All that said, U Street should not pursue a moratorium. New and interesting restaurants open there almost weekly. It would be like killing the goose that laid the golden egg to stop that now. It would make sense for U Street to trust the market but verify with strong voluntary agreements that address hours and outdoor patios, etc.
One criticism of moratoriums that Fidler did not mention, but should be pretty obvious from Georgetown's experience: they don't go away. Georgetown's has been renewed multiple times, and nobody seems to even make the case to let it expire. (To the ANC's credit, they did add seven new licenses to the cap last year, but that only brought us back to the level that existed in 1989).
Finally, many believe that moratoriums make existing licenses worth a lot more. And that appears to be mostly true. Last year, when the city "released" those seven new licenses into the Georgetown moratorium zone, they were quickly snapped up, in some cases by parties with only sketchy plans for actually opening. It was a land rush.
The thing is, half of those licenses have already been forfeited because the speculative plans simply fell through (or in one case the restaurant didn't want to comply with voluntary agreement restrictions). At least a couple now sit in ABRA unclaimed. Supposedly the lack of cheap liquor licenses is a huge obstacle to new restaurants opening in Georgetown, but the longer the free licenses sit there, the more that conventional wisdom seems wrong.
Since the 2010 general election, DC has had 3 council elections where the winning candidate gained less than 50% of the vote. Our current system too often hands a victory to someone who most voters vote against, in elections that too few voters participate in.
"The way District residents elect a mayor and Council members needs to change," Chuck Thies noted this week. He's right. It's time for a new voting system.
In the 2011 at-large special election, Vincent Orange won with only 29% of the vote. This month, Yvette Alexander won her primary with 42%, and Orange got 40% in the at-large primary.
It diminishes winners' legitimacy and support for our electoral process to end an election without strong public support for any candidate. And it's no way to choose our decision makers when we have better options available.
Back in 2010, I argued for scrapping DC's primary system. DC should replace it, I said, with a single general election with some form of a preferential voting system (like Instant Runoff Voting, Approval Voting, or one of several others).
These other voting systems represent a big change, and stand little chance of becoming law any time soon. But a less radical, yet still effective, option is available.
Nonpartisan blanket primary is the answer
If the District must keep holding primaries, the best model would be to hold a single primary open to all candidates and all voters. The top two vote-getters would then face off again in the general election in November. This system, known as a "nonpartisan blanket primary," is used in several states including Louisiana and Washington, and was recently adopted in California.
This system would easily work well for electing the mayor, the council chair, the ward councilmembers, and the attorney general (which will be an elected position starting in 2014).
How would at-large seats work?
Electing the at-large seats gets a little more complicated. Currently, 2 at-large seats (not including the chair) are up for election every two years. No party can hold more than 3 of the at-large seats, and because the chair will remain a Democrat for the foreseeable future, only 1 of the 2 at-large seats can go to another Democrat in a given election year.
This creates a complication for a blanket primary, since the top 2 vote-getters in the primary may not both be able to win in the fall if they're both Democrats. However there is a solution: eliminate these set-asides. The rule isn't accomplishing anything, anyway: Michael Brown, one of the "independent" members of the council, is in all practical senses a Democrat, and more aligned with his party on a number of issues than some members who are officially Democrats.
This move may also appease a DC Democratic party that might resist opening up the primary. While non-Democrat candidates could be unhappy about losing their set-aside seats, non-Democratic voters, who account for 25% of registered voters, would finally have an opportunity to cast a vote that matters.
Since there are 2 at-large seat open each year, 3 at-large candidates should advance from the primary to the general election. Voters would continue to cast 2 votes for the 2 seats. This would not guarantee that either of the victors would garner 50% of the vote, but it would guarantee that every voter that voted both votes would have chosen at least one winner.
Would the Democratic Party support this?
To implement this new system, the DC Democratic Party will have to get on board. The party has historically resisted any attempts to open the Democratic primary. Typically the argument is that it will lead to "meddling" or mischievous voting by people who aren't "true Democrats."
But there is scant evidence that mischievous voting actually occurs in open primaries. In fact, there would be little incentive to vote mischievously because your preferred candidate will need all the votes he or she can get to reach the general election.
Incumbents who have historically been elected and reelected with more than 50% of the vote, which often happens in the ward primaries, would likely continue to win easily under the non-partisan blanket primary system. They'd just have to beat their opponents twice. If they're popular, this shouldn't be a problem.
Moreover, with the primaries now so early in the year, an incumbent who loses would be a lame duck for 9 months. How would they govern for so long, knowing they have already been fired? Would they become indifferent? Ineffective? Venal? Voters won't find out this year, but eventually it will happen. In a nonpartisan blanket primary system, the campaign would continue into the fall, making the lame duck period very short.
Some might argue that the flaws of DC's voting system are hardly unique, particularly in jurisdictions dominated by one party. That's true. But it doesn't make it any more acceptable, especially when a better system is available.
We can continue to use a system where the 60% of the voters, in an election that only 9% of the registered population votes in, vote against a candidate who wins. Or we can demand a better system that produces victors with wider support from a larger electorate. This proposal could deliver that.
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