Thursday, December 13, 2007

Vacant Property Meeting with Jack Evans and DCRA

Si and Michele Molotsky have provided excellent summaries of today's meeting with Jack Evans and senior DCRA officers (which can be found here), so I just want to make a couple of general observations.

First, my impression had been that even though DCRA isn't where we would like it to be, it is going in the right direction. That view was definitely reinforced by the conversation today. This has been helped by changes in DC laws that have reduced the wiggle-room for scofflaw slumlords and increased the penalties for letting properties crumble.

The problem is that execution still lags well behind the regulations and strategy, and it will almost certainly take continued pressure by civic groups and individuals to keep DCRA inspectors paying attention to specific problem properties. DCRA has begun a program to have on-site inspectors walk the blocks and note the derelict properties, but that effort hasn't reached Ward 2 yet and probably won't for at least several months.

This means, effectively, that if neighborhood residents want action on these problem properties, we will have to continue giving DCRA the information to direct them to the right place. We were able to hand over a list of some 40 such properties in the non-MVSNA area of Shaw that we compiled in about a day or so with help and tips from our neighbors, but that's just the beginning. I think we need to finish the job and try to compile a more comprehensive list that will give us the basis for following up with DCRA and OTR.

Speaking of OTR, it wasn't represented at today's meeting (maybe they were all in jail?). This was unfortunate because I'm convinced that OTR is where most of the balls get dropped. DCRA now has the authority to classify a property as Class 3, which increases the tax 5-fold now, and soon 10-fold. But OTR has not been following through, which means that the primary penalty for vacant property owners doesn't get applied. For example, of the 40 properties we identified, at least 75% were on the DCRA vacant properties list, but less than half of them had had the Class 3 tax applied by OTR. There are other problems as well, including ridiculously low assessment, failure to put properties with delinquent taxes on the annual tax sale list, etc.

But regardless, I left the meeting feeling guardedly optimistic--at least about DCRA--and I want to commend and thank Jack Evans and his staff, as well as Linda Argo and Nick Majett for holding this meeting. Let's hope that we can make some headway on this problem by working together in the future.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Victory! Long Live the Queen!

Alex Padro just sent out the following message:

After nearly two years operating without a liquor license, Queen of Sheba Restaurant, located at 1503 9th Street, NW, was granted a liquor license today by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
Although the restaurant had strong, widespread support in the neighborhood, a handful of opponents associated with Shiloh Baptist Church attempted to block the issuance of a license for the business, despite never having opposed a license for a liquor store across the street from the church.
"I want to thank everyone in the community who supported us during this difficult time," said Embzam Msgina, one of the restaurant's owners. "This is a victory for the community. We opened the restaurant because the neighborhood wanted us to be here. Now we can finally start operating normally. Our guests can have a drink or wine with their meals, like they should have been able to do all along. We're so happy."
The two year battle for a license for the restaurant included an initial denial because the establishment was located less than 400 feet from a school (Seaton Elementary, on the 900 block of Rhode Island Avenue, NW); a legislative change that gave the ABC Board the discretion to issue licenses within 400 feet of a DCPS school, DPR recreation center, DCPL library, or DCPS operated daycare center; and a two-day protest hearing, which was concluded in September 2007.
This is an important milestone in the commercial revitalization of central Shaw. There were restaurants with liquor licenses in the area before the 1968 riots, but most closed in the years that followed. It is only now through the pioneering efforts of entrepreneurs like the Redds at Vegetate and the Msginas at Queen of Sheba that Shaw residents will once again be able to enjoy the dining options that the rest of the city takes for granted.
I want to thank the owners of Queen of Sheba for standing and fighting against difficult odds. They have had to make great sacrifices in order to remain open without a liquor license. They sold another business in order to be able to keep staff in place, pay attorney's fees, etc. The Shaw community owes this proud family a debt of gratitude for not walking away when the going got tough.
It will take several days for the license to be issued and inventory to be ordered and delivered, and for staff to be trained, but Queen of Sheba should be able to begin serving alcoholic beverages next week. Be sure to stop by and congratulate the Queen of Sheba team and enjoy a beverage with your meal there for the first time, and many times to come.

This is indeed great news. The only sad part--and this isn't trivial--is that the owners were forced to spend ridiculous amounts of time and lose thousands of dollars in attorney's fees and lost revenue to get where they should have been months ago.


Monday, December 10, 2007

O Street Project Moving Forward

I think most of the Shaw bloggers were at tonight's zoning commission meeting, so there will probably be redundant accounts.

The upshot is that the O Street Market project was "set down" for public hearing--no date set yet. Since I am basically clueless about the process, I had a chance to ask the gentleman from Roadside (can't recall his name, sorry): "This is a good thing, right?" He was smiling from ear to ear, and replied, "Oh, yes. A very good thing."

What I gathered from a rather cryptic exchange among the commission members was that developers had modified the design to meet the objection about the hight of the hi-rise building. Since no discussion was permitted, no details were offered. The chairman, Anthony Hood, made a remark suggesting that he was not expecting any neighborhood opposition to the project--sure hope he's right.

A good crowd of neighborhood residents turned out--I'd say at least 25-30, and the commission chair obviously took note. Jack Evans was there and recognized, but not allowed to speak on "any specific" project. At the beginning, Mr. Hood made a statement about the impropriety of any "ex parte" conversations with commission members about the project, which means that no one is supposed to lobby them about the project. Couldn't tell if that was directed to anyone in particular.

Anyway, it looks like one stumbling block has been shoved aside, so keep your fingers crossed. Thanks to everyone who turned out tonight.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

O Street Project Hearing Update

Important Update:

Cary Silverman forwarded an e-mail from Roadside (the developers of the O Street Market project) expressing concern that supporters of the project might have a counter-productive effect if overly vocal. They ask that we NOT show up with signs or stickers and that we remain silent during the proceedings. They are not discouraging attendance, but the goal is to get a future hearing date where neighborhood supporters might have a voice.

I don't think anyone was intending to be confrontational or disruptive, but certainly everyone should heed this request. I think the mere presence of a substantial number of neighborhood residents will convey the message that we support the project.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Support the O Street Market Project

Okay, folks, this is important!

As many of you know, the DC Zoning Commission threw a monkey wrench in the works for getting the plans for the new O Street Market project approved last month. (See recent discussion here.) The key issue was the height of the high rise structures, which would be 110 feet above street level. As the developers pointed out, this is only 2 feet higher than the two neighboring hi-rise apartments across the street, though because of a technicality, it's considered 20 feet higher because the O Street plan would use the top story for a penthouse apartment, whereas the top 18 feet of the other buildings is used for housing mechanicals. Moreover, the O Street plan, unlike the other two buildings, would set back the hi-rise towers so that the top of the buildings would not be visible from the street.

The objections, therefore, appear non-sensical, and the plan seems to be highly desirable for the neighborhood as a whole. It has cleared the historical review board, and there has been little, if any, objection raised by members of the community to the plan. (Aside, of course, for concern about not having a Giant grocery store there for an extended period during the construction.)

We need to show the Zoning Commission that the neighborhood is behind the plan.

At this point, the only way to do that is to show up at the Zoning Commission hearing on Monday, December 10, 6:30 pm, at Judiciary Square, 441 4
th Street, N.W., Room 220 South. It's after normal working hours so a lot of people should be able to make it. Apparently, the commission does not accept public testimony at this stage, but a strong turnout of supporters would make a statement. There was some talk of having supporters wear stickers that would say "SUPPORT IT". I don't know if anyone has organized that yet, however, so you may have to make your own.

Hope to see you there!


Monday, December 03, 2007

Is the ECCA Re-Segregating?

I have noticed that in the last couple of ECCA flyers distributed around the neighborhood, that organization has added a new subtitle to its name: "Historic African-American Civic Association since 1947".

Of course, it's true that when the ECCA was formed back in the day of segregated Washington, there were separate white groups (usually called "neighborhood associations") and black groups (usually called "civic associations"), and the ECCA was one of the latter--probably the first to be established. So in that sense that designation is correct.

Still, my question is: Why would that line be added to its announcements now? I think anyone reading that would immediately conclude that the ECCA sees itself as a black organization rather than one that represents the entire diverse population that now lives within its purported boundaries. (Just substitute the phrase "European-American", and you'll see what I mean.)

If that's what the ECCA wants to be, then so be it. But I think this sort of stuff is the last thing this neighborhood needs, and yet one more reason to have nothing further to do with this organization. Given what happened a year ago, the ECCA should be recognized and re-named for what it really is: the Committee to Re-elect Leroy Thorpe.

This neighborhood needs and deserves a civic association that truly represents the interests of everyone who lives here--not just a narrow group. Sadly, the ECCA will never be that. If we had a functioning ANC, that might not be so important, but unfortunately, having an effective organization is the only way to bring real pressure on DC's venal and lethargic bureaucracy to deal with the many problems that all of us are contending with in Shaw. Maybe it's time to start something new here.

UPDATE: Just learned that ANC Commissioner Kevin Chapple and neighbor Martin Moulton were ejected from tonight's ECCA meeting at the demand of ECCA "President" Leroy Thorpe. (See here.) [I should note here that when Leroy Thorpe was ANC commissioner, large portions of ECCA meetings were turned over to him to rant on about whatever he wanted. Obviously, that courtesy applied only to him, not to the current ANC commissioner who has been consistently denied that kind of access to what's left of the ECCA membership.]

So much for the charade that this organization is a neighborhood association that represents all residents. If they want to operate this as a private club, that's their business, but no one--especially our public officials--should continue to pretend that this organization is anything but a personal vehicle for Leroy Thorpe. If they want to be associated with him, voters should take note.