Monday, July 31, 2006

Historic Preservation--Boon or Bane?

A seemingly perennial agenda item at the East Central Civic Association (ECCA) meetings is whether the current Shaw Historic District should be extended to include areas east of 7th Street and north of the Mount Vernon Historic District. This doesn’t ever seem to get decided, and I’m not sure if anyone even knows how it would be decided. But a very nice and very patient lady from the DC Historic Preservation Office is always there to answer questions. An exhaustive survey of the area has already been completed and is full of interesting historical nuggets for those so inclined.

The issue seems to boil down to this: Do the aesthetic benefits of the restrictions imposed by designation as a historic district outweigh the additional costs and encumbrances imposed on property owners? Like most such questions, the answer depends on where you are coming from.

But a lot also depends on how rigidly or capriciously the guidelines are applied by the review board. Say your historic windows leak like a sieve and you want to replace them with modern double-glazed windows that don’t look exactly like the old ones but would cut down on energy costs and keep your house more comfortable. Can the Historic Preservation board keep you from doing that, or make it so expensive you just can’t afford it? From what I hear from folks in the present Shaw Historic District, the answer would be “yes, they can.”

Would historic designation help force the owner of a crumbling shell of a house on my block to either renovate it or sell it to someone who will? The Historic Preservation people say yes, but I’m skeptical because it doesn’t seem to have had that effect on similar properties that are in the existing historic district.

I’m pretty sure that my building wouldn’t have been approved by Historical Preservation review, even though the 19th Century façade is essentially intact. I’m certain that the new Bauhaus-style building at 5th and O, or the stunning (and stunningly expensive) 2-unit condo at 5th and Q would not have made the cut.

I certainly see the value of preserving the essential look of Shaw’s existing housing, which is a big part of what drew many of us to the neighborhood in the first place. As a historian by training, I appreciate the value of keeping vintage buildings intact even when individual houses may not have any special aesthetic or historic qualities.

But if historic designation means additional red tape and expense for any home owner who wants to change a door or window or repaint the front of their house another color, then I have problems. If it adds significant costs to someone who wants to renovate and make habitable any of the many derelict properties in the area, then I have more problems. As usual, the devil is in the details.

I guess I’d like to know what residents of existing historic districts have experienced, but if I had to vote today, I’d probably vote ‘no’.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Something Happening with O Street Market?

A neighbor sent me the following:

“Per Madison Retail things look very good for the O Street Marketplace. Old market will become new Giant with underground parking. Current Giant will be razed and a tower will be built with 75-80% market rate condos (20-25% affordable). In front of the tower will be row houses - you won't be able to see the tower unless you're across the street. There will be some small commercial spaces but mainly 2000sqft spaces so probably not too much chain, rather local businesses. They plan to lock all plans and permits next year and break ground early 2008, finishing 18 months later.” [The info comes from Boris Miric, commercial real estate agent,]

According to (a commercial real estate site) July 11, 2006:

“Roadside Development, the same developer that delivered 4500 Wisconsin Ave.--a high-end, urban mixed-use project in the heart of Tenley Town--has hopes that it will receive approval for a similar project on O Street NW from the Historic Preservation Review Board by the end of the year. The plan is valued at roughly $180 million. The Wisconsin mix-use project, which encompassed 88,000 sf of retail and 216,000 sf of condo developments, also included a historic retail building that Roadside Development incorporated into the retail landspace.”

I’m wondering if something is finally happening with this project. There is room for some skepticism, since there were similar optimistic pronouncements being issued four years ago. The Historic Preservation Review Board did not like an earlier plan, and then the roof of the historic O Street Market building collapsed during a heavy snowstorm in 2003, leaving the shell that remains today. Maybe something to ask about at the next ANC meeting.

Check out Roadside Development’s site on the O Street Market.

Tales of Shaw (Back in the Day)

African-American writer (and Washington native) Edward P. Jones won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for his Civil War-era novel, “The Known World.” But back in 1992, he published a collection of short stories called “Lost in the City.” Most of the stories take place in and around Shaw back in the segregated Washington of the 40s and 50s, and a few extend into the newly (and poorly) integrated city of the 60s and 70s. All of the people in the stories are black; whites are just a shadowy presence on the margins.

A friend lent me the book a few months ago, and I was immediately fascinated by the characters, their stories, and the descriptions of the neighborhood in which they lived. There are specific addresses in the stories that still exist. He talks about the streetcar line that ran down New Jersey Avenue, bars and shops on North Capitol Street.

One of the stories (“The Store”) revolves around a corner grocery store at 5th and O—the eponymous intersection of this blog. The first person narrator tells how he got a job stocking shelves, and then eventually took over ownership of the store. He talks about kids from the old Dunbar High School coming in to buy candy after school, and his complicated relations with the customers from the neighborhood.

I’m consumed with curiosity about whether the store was actually in the one building remaining from that era (on the NW corner), or if it was across the street and has since been torn down, or if it is just fictional. (I kind of doubt that Jones made it up, if only because he also referred to the store in another story later published in The New Yorker.) The remaining building—recently bought by a wonderful Ethiopian lady, who’s planning to open a coffee shop there—could well have been a store at some point. I’d love to have a chance to ask the author about all this, but failing that, I’m going to try to find someone who has been in the neighborhood long enough to know.

Anyway, try to find a copy of “Lost in the City.” It will definitely provide a new time dimension and richer texture to your experience of living in Shaw.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Spritual Quest

I’m not a big drinker of hard liquor (apart from the obligatory G&T on hot summer evenings), but I can’t resist an expansive collection of (reasonably priced) wines and microbrew beers. So it was a pleasant surprise to get introduced to Modern Liquors at the corner of 9th and M during one of the recent Shaw Main Streets events.

The owner/manager Jeff Harrison is a super nice guy, and he holds tastings of wine and other spirited (spiritual?) beverages fairly often. Last Friday, my partner and I attended his limoncello tasting (and of course, left with two bottles). In case you’re not familiar with limoncello (sometimes called limoncino), it’s an irresistable Italian lemon liqueur. I first had some following a wonderful seafood lunch on my first day in Rome some years ago. The proprietor brought out the frosty bottle of limoncello, and I’ve been hooked ever since, but it’s not easy to find in DC.

Modern Liquors is the sort of commercial establishment I’d love to see more of in Shaw. Not that we need more liquor stores, but this one is totally different from the ones where you put your money through the turnstile in the bullet-proof glass. They treat you like a customer and neighbor, not a potential criminal.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Waiting for...whatever

To me, one of the most maddening annoyances of contemporary life is waiting for someone to show up to deliver or do something at some vaguely specified time. Usually this means taking time off from work (not that I mind taking time off, but I’d like it to be for something I actually want to do)—a sacrifice that is of utterly no import to Those Who Make Us Wait.

If you’re lucky, you get a window of, say, morning or afternoon. If you’re really lucky, they’ll show up during the window, and if you’re really, really lucky they might appear near the beginning of the window. But then they may show up much later or not at all, and there’s basically not a frigging thing you can do but sit and fume and make up imaginary scenarios of retribution.

The offenders are legion. Let me tell you about Verizon or, God forbid, Comcast. I once waited in vain most of a day for a Comcast “technician” to show up. When I called to find out where the phantom cable guy was, I was informed that he claimed to have called my number but there was no answer so he didn’t make the call. When I said I had been there the entire time and if the technician actually said that then he was a lying sack of crap (I was angry, you know), I was essentially accused of lying myself.

On another occasion, a service representative from Long Fence told me he didn’t arrive at my residence as promised because he called my office number and I wasn’t there. When I pointed out that of course I wasn’t at my office, because I was at the service address waiting for you, he didn’t quite seem to get it.

I hate getting things sent UPS, because UPS apparently can’t figure out that during the day PEOPLE ARE NOT AT HOME. So they leave an illegible “attempted delivery” note, which says they’ll try the same thing tomorrow at some unspecified time the next day, and of course the same thing happens all over again. And again. And then you have to try to make it to goddamn Largo or wherever in rush hour traffic before their office closes. So something that someone paid big bucks to send Second Day Air winds up taking a week to be delivered. Why can’t UPS figure out how to make residential deliveries at times when someone might possibly be home?

I’m ranting because I have been trying to get an electrician to install an electric line to the rear common area of our small condo—a job which required my presence to grant access and direction. The bossman estimator was late for his appointment, which should have given me a clue, but his price was pretty good, so we said okay. This past Tuesday, the electrician arrives two hours late, works a couple of hours and then tells me he needs to go get more supplies. An hour later, he calls to say he had to go attend to an emergency call somewhere else and wouldn’t be back that day. I’m unhappy, so I call his boss who gives me a different story, namely that the electrician had gotten overheated and his nose was bleeding. So now I don’t know what to believe (it was a hot day) and point out that I was missing an entire day of work and the job wasn’t even half done. The boss says he’ll send the guy on Saturday. I say, when? He says 9:00. I say okay.
So Saturday comes and we wait. And wait. Can’t get anyone on the phone, and no one responds to voice mail. By noon, we decide no one is coming and start making other plans for the afternoon. At one, the electrician calls and says he’ll be there in an hour. I consider biting his head off, but really want the job done, so I bite my tongue. He shows up and actually almost finishes the job. But he needs a couple of items that he doesn’t have with him. Says he’ll be back on Sunday.

On Sunday, we stick around all day waiting. Again, no one answers the phone and no one calls. So who knows? I’ll call tomorrow. I can’t wait.

I’m not exactly saying you should never call Silver Coast Electric for any electrical repairs. I’m just saying…