Sunday, July 29, 2007

Vacant Properties, con'd.

I noticed yesterday that there's a Fire Department condemnation notice on the property at 1417 5th Street NW (pictured above). Apparently that doesn't mean too much except for requiring the owner to secure the property against unauthorized entry and vermin infestation. But at least it suggests that someone may be paying attention. This property is actually on the vacant properties list, but it's still listed as Class 1 residential rather than the Class 3 rate that's supposed to be applied to vacant properties. Best of all, according to the on-line data, it's getting the homestead deduction!

There's a new (at least to me) blog called DC Vacant Properties, which I just learned about this week. Check it out.

I wasn't able to go to the July 3 hearing on vacant and nuisance properties scheduled by council member Mary Cheh, but submitted a written statement. Here's an excerpt of what I sent:

What Needs to be Done?

  • Apply tax sanctions quicker and put the burden on the owner to show why the property should be Class 1, not the other way around. A new owner could be given a reasonable period of time—say one year—after acquiring a vacant property to make it habitable, but after that grace period the Class 3 tax should apply even if work is underway to improve it. This would avoid endless waivers for permits on work that is never done.
  • Set the tax assessment at the actual market value on all Class 3 properties. This would avoid a situation where the taxable assessment is ridiculously low because it is based on some grandfathered appraisal that has not kept up with the market value because of caps on tax increases.
  • Both DCRA and OTR need to be proactive in eliminating abuse. As it stands, they may respond to persistent prodding from citizens, but do not appear to have any systematic process for verifying tax status.
  • Send out field assessors to ground truth property status. It is not hard to pick out vacant properties by simply walking up and down a block. Set up a schedule to cover the entire city on a two or three year rotation. The cost of hiring field assessors could easily be covered by the increased tax revenue brought in. Also, work with neighborhood associations who are doing their own inventories of vacant properties.
  • Restrict exceptions to Class 3 status. Put a reasonable time limit—say six months—for exceptions based on putting the property up for sale. Require the asking price to be within a 5 percent margin of the taxable appraisal in order to get an exception.
  • Eliminate the gap between DCRA and OTR. Once a property is put on the vacant property list, imposition of Class 3 status should be automatic, not require a separate action by OTR. The short circuits in the current system need to be investigated and eliminated.
  • Ensure that all properties with delinquent taxes are included in the annual tax sale. Currently, the tax sale list is far from complete, and the process by which tax-delinquent properties get on the list appears to be haphazard and error-prone.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Home Invasion and Assault on P Street

Tonight's 11:00 news carried a disturbing story about a break-in and sexual assault in the 900 block of P Street around 4:45 a.m. this morning. The Channel 4 version of the story is here.

No way of knowing if this related to other incidents in the neighborhood. The MPD-3 listserve also reported another break-in in the 2000 block of 10th Street last Friday. Another post noted a rash of 14 burglaries in "East Dupont" (apparently including Logan and Shaw), mostly occurring during the morning between 7 and 11. There is suspicion that some may be related to a convicted burglar who was released from prison in March and may have been sighted in the neighborhood.

So if you've been a little lax in precautions, maybe this would be a good time to be a bit more careful.

Something to discuss with the MPD representative at Kevin Chapple's single-member district meeting at the Kennedy Rec Center at 7 p.m. on Wednesday night. He'll also have someone there to discuss the O Street Market project and Parks and Recreation.

Farewell to the Warehouse

Sadly, the Warehouse is closing its doors this weekend, a victim of a killer property tax increase. The farewell party is this weekend; see this post in DCist for details.

I think this is a bigger loss to the neighborhood than the also-imminent closing of AV Ristorante--of the stygian gloom and mediocre 1950s-style Eyetalian food. The Warehouse had a sweet funky feel and was one of the few places in DC that didn't feel somehow, well, "processed". (The old, and long-gone, DC Space was another.)

What chaps me about it is that the DC government agency--Office of Tax and Revenue--that is destroying a genuine neighborhood cultural treasure is the same agency that can't manage to properly classify--let alone collect taxes on--the thousands of vacant, derelict properties that litter this city. So it will now create another empty store front across from the underused Convention Center that will languish for who knows how long until it's replaced with another soulless office building with a "historic" façade. Maybe if we're real lucky, we'll get a Potbelly's or Hooters to lure the convention crowd.

Shame on the District government and shame on the Council for their failure to find a way to protect legitimate small businesses from punitive taxation, while giving the slumlords a free pass!

No Joy Ride

My partner was walking the dogs yesterday evening and saw a commotion in the alley between O and P next to Bundy Park. A car was overturned in the alley and had landed on its roof. The photo shows the scene this morning, with two garage doors bashed in.

According to a neighbor who lives on the block, two teenage kids stole a car from a gas station in NE. Somehow, they picked this alley to go down and evidently deliberately started running the car into the garage doors. Somehow they managed to flip the car over--it's hard to imagine just how.

So now these neighbors are stuck with the damage (not to mention the car owner). Apparently the car insurance on the stolen car will not pay for the damage because it was being driven by an "unauthorized driver." Huh?!

Don't know if the kids got caught, but wonder if anything would happen to them even if they were.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Thanks to Mr. Ray for tipping me off to a fascinating exhibit at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington on the mostly-vanished Jewish mom-and-pop grocery stores that once dotted every neighborhood in this city in the first half of the 20th century. (In case you don't know about it, the JHSGW museum is at 3rd and G, just up the street from the Casa d'Italia, in a former synagogue that was moved from its original location to allow for the construction of Metro headquarters--an interesting tale in itself.) The on-line version of the exhibit is here.
There is a database on the locations of the stores, and I counted at least two dozen in the Shaw area, including the one pictured at 1521 5th Street, which operated from 1921 until 1959. The building is now gone, replaced by the playground in back of the Scott Montgomery School. I was also able to verify that the building at 5th and O (1400 O Street) was indeed once a grocery store--probably the one that figures in several stories by Edward P. Jones. As the exhibit points out, many of the proprietors lived in the same buildings above the store--at least initially. There's not much information about most of them, and it looks as if many stores didn't survive too long, but they bear witness to the fact that diversity in the neighborhood goes way back.

I won't try to list all the addresses I found, but here are a few picked out at random:
414 R St.
1544 9th St.
622 N St.
1219 5th Street
1211 7th Street
9th and Q
411 O Street
5th and M
7th and O
461 Q Street
If you have a little bit of the history bug and some patience, run through the database and see what you find.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Up in Smoke

Watching the truly impressive neighborhood fireworks show last night that went on (and on and on) for hours after the official Big Show on the Mall, I have to confess that I rather enjoyed it. There was a little girl visiting a neighbor who was ecstatically dancing out on the sidewalk and saying "I love firecrackers, I love firecrackers." I kinda understand where she was coming from. ( I don't really love firecrackers, but I do like the big chrysanthemum blooms or whatever they're called.) I have fond memories of setting off fireworks myself when I was a kid in pre-OSHA days. Somehow, officially-sanctioned displays don't quite carry the same excitement.

I know a lot of people have complained about the noise and safety issues, and who's to disagree? DCist and Off Seventh carry a picture of a kid holding what looks like a roman candle in his hand. Brian quite properly asks why any parent would let her child do that? And why cops would stand idly by while kids (and adults, I'm sure) aim rockets and roman candles at houses and people? Good points. I was glad that it had rained a bit beforehand, otherwise I think we might have seen a lot more fires started from all the carelessness.

I get a little sick of the noise too. However, this was nothing compared with my second night after arriving in Brazil in 1973 which turned out to be St. John's Day when all hell breaks loose all night long. That really did sound like being in the middle of an artillery bombardment--incredible! So all things are relative, I suppose. And I do appreciate the spontaneous quality of the DIY fireworks displays, which after all are a kind of tradition--like it or not--in DC.

A couple of other thoughts occur, however:

Who pays for all this stuff? Those aren't just sparklers and fountains. What I saw exploding over the 'hood was some serious Bang, and those things don't come cheap. There are a lot of towns whose municipal displays wouldn't have equalled what went up within a block of 5th and O. I figure at least several thousand dollars went up in smoke there last night--not to mention the previews on preceding nights. Okay, people can spend their money according to their own priorities, but literally blowing that much money into smithereens doesn't make much sense to me, unless you really have it to burn.

Why have laws banning fireworks if the cops won't enforce them? Unenforced laws just encourage contempt for law in general. Maybe a couple of retailers were busted this year, but it's obvious that the police make no attempt to do anything about people shooting off prohibited fireworks, which include pretty much everything but sparklers. So why not quit pretending to ban anything except the most dangerous of fireworks, but go after the idiots who are endangering others by their reckless use of these things? Otherwise, it just seems like one more example of turning a blind eye.

Just sayin'.