Friday, February 27, 2009

DC Vote: Gunned Down

So I just read that the U.S. Senate passed legislation this afternoon to give the District a vote in the House of Representatives. Only thing is... they amended the bill to make our vote contingent on repealing the District's gun laws.

That leaves three options:
  1. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton shows some chutzpah and introduces an amendment to the House version of the bill to repeal all of Utah's strict alcoholic beverage laws in order to protect their 21st Amendment rights to show how ridiculous it is for Congress to meddle in local affairs.

  2. I'm reminded of a scene in Glory, one of my favorite movies, where the soldiers take their checks, raise them in the air, and chant "tear it up," "tear it up."

  3. Hope that such stupidity is corrected in conference committee after a measure without the gun amendment passes the House.
Don't get me wrong, I've already predicted that the bill will ultimately be torn apart as unconstitutional, but I'm fed up with this b.s.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Very Sad News... Connie Maffin

I was very sad to learn that Connie Maffin passed away early this afternoon after suddenly becoming ill last week.

I came to know Connie when I lived in Logan Circle and I was privileged to serve with her on the Logan Circle Community Association board.

She was truly a matriarch of the community and the city, which she played no small part in building, promoting, selling, and loving over three decades - from the prostitute and drug dealing days to its recent renaissance. Connie was our neighborhood's voice of reason, our historian, and a good neighbor and a friend to all who knew her.

Connie will be missed, but her presence will continue to be felt and guide us for a long time to come.


LCCA Mourns Loss of Long-Time Member Constance Maffin

(Washington, D.C) – The Logan Circle Community Association (“LCCA”) is mourning the passing of long-time member, leader, mentor, and friend Constance W. “Connie” Maffin. Connie died on February 16 after a short illness. Connie and her husband Bob were married in 1974 and lived together since then in their grand Victorian row house on the majestic stretch of Vermont Avenue N.W. just below Logan Circle. The LCCA community extends it heartfelt condolences to Bob and the entire Maffin family on their loss.

Connie was one of LCCA’s pioneering members and served as both an officer and board member numerous times. In recent years she served on the annual Holiday House Tour Committee, for which she headed up home selection and ticket sales. She was also a member of the Committee of 100, the city’s oldest planning organization and citizens’ lobby; Lambda Alpha, an international land economics society; and served as a trustee to the D.C. Preservation League.

“Connie Maffin was a household name in the D.C. civic movement, especially in Logan Circle,” said LCCA President Jennifer Trock. “She was a pillar of the community and a friend to all who had the pleasure of knowing her. Connie will be sorely missed.” LCCA Board Member and House Tour Co-Chair Tim Christensen agreed. “It was a joy to work with Connie on both a personal and professional level year after year and, frankly, we don’t know what we’re going to do without her,” he said.

Connie was an associate broker with Coldwell Banker Residential and was licensed in D.C. and Maryland since 1978. She served as chairperson of the Real Estate Board of the District of Columbia, which oversees the regulation of over 12,000 licensees in the city. She was past president of the Washington D.C. Association of Realtors and was named WDCAR’s REALTOR of the Year in 2007. She chaired the Public Policy, Residential Sales, Awards, and REALTOR Political Action Committees. In 1993 she was awarded Distinguished Sales Associate of the Year in recognition of her professionalism and commitment to the industry. She also served as a director of the National Association of REALTORS for three years.

Connie was a graduate of the Real Estate Institute and held the GRI national designation. She also completed the National Trust for Historic Preservation's historic real estate program. A native of Kansas City, Missouri, she received her M.A. in urban policy from George Washington University and her B.A. from Barat College of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, Illinois.

A portion of the proceeds from LCCA’s 2008 Holiday House Tour will be donated to the Susan G. Komen For the Cure Foundation in Connie’s memory. In lieu of flowers, friends are also invited to make a donation here or by mail to P.O. Box 650309, Dallas, TX 75265-0309.

A public viewing will be held at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, February 18, at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, 1725 Rhode Island Avenue, N.W., followed by a funeral mass at 10 a.m. All are invited to attend.

Last Stop: Service Cuts

Little Jimmy made 5-cent lemonade that his neighbors just couldn't do without. The only problem was that the more he sold, the more money he lost. In fact, on the hottest day in recent memory, he sold sold much that he had to ask his parents for extra allowance to cover the costs. Finally, Jimmy came up with a simple solution... if he sold less lemonade, he'd lose less money.

While of course an oversimplification, this is the philosophy now being employed by current policymakers at Metro. The system continues to see increases in ridership, shattering its record this inauguration day, yet is seeking funds from Congress to help cover the surge in fare-paying but not cost-covering customers. Now metro officials are considering ridiculous service cuts in order to cut the growing revenue-cost gap, to see what might stick.

Stop service on weeknights at 10pm? Cut off the Yellow Line at 9:30pm or eliminate a portion of the Yellow Line? Make us wait longer for less trains? Open later on weekday mornings? Shut down some metro entrances that have multiple ways in and out? Get rid of bus routes?

What's off the table, according to WMATA officials, is increasing fares.

Currently, Metro's base fare is $1.65 in weekdays during the morning and evening rush (up to $4.50 based on distance), and $1.35 at all other times (up to $2.35). Metro, the second largest metro system in the country after New York City, is also one of a few that charges variable fares. Its base fare, however, is still considerable lower than most other systems, including New York, Chicago, and Boston, which charge a flat $2 or $2.25 per ride. In fact, when I moved from Brooklyn in 1993, the subway charged just 10 cents less that what DC's metro charges off peak 16 years later.

Off-peak fares may be a significant part of the problem. As The Examiner found, while metrorail ridership continues to increase (up 3.8% in 2008), "Metrorail riders are riding more during non-rush hour times and traveling shorter distances." The result: Metro is getting short changed.

Service cuts hurt DC's economy, hurt the environment, hurt tourism, and hurt DC's reputation as a world-class city. Tell the lawyer lives in Bethesda and works downtown that the Metro will stop running at 10pm and he'll buy a parking space and start driving. Tell the resident of Cleveland Park or Northern Virginia who is thinking of coming in for a night on the town that Metro service will be slower and close earlier and she'll opt to either stay where she is or drive. Visitors to the city will stick with cabs or tour buses. Convenience and reliability, as well as affordability, are the hallmarks of a mass transit system. Lose them and the system falls apart.

Metro can't keep operating at a loss. Nor can it reduce service and turn the Metro system of the nation's capital into a joke.

Substantially relying on federal funds is also not the answer. Such requests should be reserved for major infrastructure improvements, such as the Dulles line, the Purple Line, and the need to expand the Blue Line and metro capacity generally.

Policymakers and number crunchers need to closely look at the revenue side, and stop focusing on drastic ways of cutting service. That means re-examining Metro's fare structure.

Times are hard and no one wants to hear about a fare increase. Yet, continued viability of the system may require increasing the base fare to $2.00 in line with other cities. Any such hike might be accompanied by substantial discounts to those with SmarTrip cards or an all-you-can-ride 30-day unlimited ride card to keep it as affordable as possible for those who depend on Metro to get to work each day. Maybe Metro should consider eliminating off-peak price breaks that would seem to primarily benefit leisure riders?

All options need to be on the table.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

14th & Geez, Pt. 2

In the Sunday Post, Answerman John Kelly takes up the topic of my post last week on the long-vacant properties at 14th and G Streets NW. The website includes a 2-minute video tour of the inside of the bank that's worth a look.

Kelly's interview with the director of the Armenian National Institute reveals that the properties were purchased by a wealthy individual for a museum before there was a plan for its design or what would go inside. Now, about 8 years since the first acquisition, the museum's opening seems far from imminent, given today's economic climate. Don't hold your breath for the museum of urban decay to turn around by 2011, as anticipated on the museum's website.

It sounds like a story I've unfortunately seen and heard so many times before in DC. A nonprofit with good intentions. A grand plan. And little clue as to how to make it happen - whether its lack of organization or internal consensus, regulatory or legal know-how, or holding out for additional funding or property. Weeks turn into months, months into years, sometimes years into decades, and before you know it, the economic/social/market environment has changed so significantly that the plans fall through or concept no longer makes sense.

What I'd like is for Answerman to look into is whether the museum will pay DC taxes at the higher rate for vacant properties and what plans they have for cleaning up the unsightliness of the buildings while those who live and work downtown continue to wait for the plans to take shape and the economy to turn around?

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Stick Approach: Bag Tax

Councilmember Tommy Wells is set to introduce legislation Tuesday that would place a 5 cent tax on each bag you use when buying items at supermarkets, convenience stores, and other shops. The idea is to encourage shoppers to bring their own bags. Those who don't would pay a small tax, about 2 cents of which would go to cleaning the Anacostia, 2 cents to the business, and about a cent into a fund for providing seniors and low-income residents with reusable bags.

Although polution caused by plastic bags is the primary issue, the bill would also apply the tax to paperbags as an incentive to get buy-in from store owners, since paperbags are more costly than plastic. (Some think this goes too far)

San Francisco and Oakland, California have banned plastic bags outright due to environmental concerns. Some other states and countries are considering restrictions, including Maryland.

The plastic bags do seem to be everywhere -- I particularly enjoy spotting that species of tree that is native to urban environments -- the bag tree. I'll need to get a photo of one of those for the blog.

What do you think of the Wells' proposal? There is an online petition here if you would like to express your support.

Over the past year or so, I moved toward bagless. Now, for planned trips to the supermarket I use the canvass reusable bags. Not only is it more green, it's actually much more convenient. They hold much, much more. And they are more comfortable to carry than heavy plastic bags that cut into your hand and more than occasionally split open, sending your food rolling down the sidewalk. Grocers sell the bags to customers for $1 each, making them readily available - I purchased mine at the Super Safeway (CityVista).

But plastic bags still have their purposes, whether it's for dog poo or household trash, particularly. Even when relying on reusable bags, the impulse or small purchase keeps a sufficient supply. If plastic was not available at all, then I'd just have to buy them, which seems to defeat the purpose.

I do have some mixed feelings about the proposed bag tax. I remember back in the day in New York, and this still is the case there, when soda cans had a 5-cent refund. As kids, we'd walk the beach and pick up dozens of cans, then bring them to the supermarket and double or triple our allowance. This seemed to encourage recycling, while providing a free army of trash haulers. It was a carrot approach. DC is considering the stick.

Are there other ways to encourage use of reusable bags and reduce use of plastic bags?

Monday, February 9, 2009

TV/VCR of Higher Learning?

When I went out shopping for a new tv some time ago, I remember being cautioned not to buy a combo TV/VCR. It might seem to be a good deal, but if one breaks, well, then you are stuck.

Those involved in deciding whether a new community college for the city should be part of the University of the District of Columbia (we are the only urban center in the country not to have one) might consider that sound advice. (Mike Debonis of the CityPaper chronicles the latest here)

In this case, the District already has a broken TV, and, even before fixing it, it is thinking of strapping a new VCR (or DVD player in today's technology) onto it.

I admire the passion and drive that UDC's new president brings to the job. And I'm pleased he has made it is mission to turn the failing institution into one that we can be proud of. But for now, the new community college should be independent of UDC.

I personally like the idea of establishing a prominent downtown campus for DCCC in the vacant Franklin School, returning it to educational use. One can envision students working on their assignments across the street in Franklin Square park.

According to the Franklin School's historic designation application:
The Franklin School was the flagship building of a group of seven modern urban public school buildings constructed between 1862 and 1875 to house, for the first time, a comprehensive system of free universal public education in the capital of the Republic. It was hoped that this new public school system would serve as a model for the nation as the need to provide equal educational opportunities for all Americans was finally recognized as essential to the survival of a democratic society. For women and African Americans, this ideal of universal public education was accompanied by a policy of separation of students both by sex and by race. The school was named for Benjamin Franklin who had clearly understood and advocated the absolute necessity of universal public education for the success of the young nation....

Franklin School was immediately successful, creating an entirely new perception of public schools and their significance to the future of the nation. The building became the symbol of the fulfillment of the Board of Trustees' vision of a free public school system in which equality of educational opportunity would be the foundation of a truly democratic society in which barriers of class, wealth, and sex would at last be overcome.
Could there be any more fitting use of the building than the District's flagship community college?

Some might feel that there's a better use of the Franklin School than a community college. It might a beautiful boutique hotel or unique condos, for example. This isn't a new argument. In fact, it's 140 years old. At the building's dedication in 1869, Alderman Chase responded to critics who felt that the Franklin School building was too fine for a public school house:
"Ah! sir, I hope the time may never come when we would make less beautiful and attractive the places where our children are to receive an education, where lasting impressions are to be made upon the young mind, than we would the offices of State...It has been well said by an eminent thinker, 'Show me the churches and school houses of a nation, and I will tell you what is its civilization and enlightenment."
So what's it going to be... a TV/VCR or an independent, downtown DCCC campus rooted in the tradition of a high-quality education for all with a fresh start?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

14th & Geez...

Two blocks from the White House, three blocks from the DC Council's Wilson Building, in the center of the downtown, there is a half block of vacant property, and it's not a pretty sight. Welcome to 14th and G Streets N.W.

Those of us working nearby have wondered why, it has stood like this for nearly a decade. "It's just bizarre," said a co-worker who caught me snapping photos.

The largest and most notable of the properties is the National Bank of Washington, which doubles as "Washington's Oldest Bank" and possibly downtown's longest eyesore. The bank, which is a designated historic landmark, includes Hahn Shoes at the ground level, which wraps around 14th Street onto the G Street side. The windows are held together by clear tape. The entryways are boarded up.

It's 24 degrees this morning and there's a homeless man bundled up so tight at the corner of the building that you can see nothing but his blue gloves slightly protruding from the blankets and tarps.

The Washington Post did a feature on the shoe store as part of a series of places that have disappeared from the DC area, in October 2008.

Just around the corner on the G Street side is a half block that is frozen in time. It harks back to the days when small independent businesses were able to exist downtown.

There's the ruins of a large office building that continues to have a sign for Shelton's Salon & Day Spa at the ground level, which was apparently operating into 2004. In front, there is one of the largest homeless encampments I've ever seen. Fort G. Back in the 1930s, the Olmstead Grill was located here. (1336 G Street NW)

Next, is Clement's Pastry Shop, which moved to Hyattsville, Maryland in 2000 after 35 years at that location. A decal still hangs in the inside window noting its membership in the National Restaurant Association - 1995. (1338 G Street NW)

Then there is the nail salon and tattoo parlor, which still has a website in its old address.

There's also a newsstand, which had moved to 1004 F Street, in case you arrive back in town after moving in the 1990s and you're looking for the latest edition of The Common Denominator. At some point, the building had an Italian restaurant, though it's sign is partially covered by a "Lease Office" sign. The space is clearly not for lease, but there it sits. (1340 G Street NW)

The strip wouldn't be complete without the building that included the Dragon Exotic Massage Parlor and a brewing company upstairs. The first floor continues to have a window display composed of sea shells and candles. That soothing feeling is interrupted by crime scene tape that has cordoned off the entry way for at least the past month. (1342 G Street NW, 5th photo below)

Finally, between the strip of buildings and the bank is a vacant lot. There's a weed as tall as a tree growing there. In the summer, passers by can see it peaking over the wall. For now, tourists receive an education message, noting how the District has greater population and more registered voters than Wyoming, but doesn't have a vote in Congress. (1344 G Street NW)

The properties, all of them, were purchased one by one by the Armenian Genocide Museum between 2001 and 2003. According to D.C. records, the museum spent $21.5 million in total to acquire the area. The total proposed assessed value of the properties for 2009 is $32.9 million.

The museum plans to open "before 2011." It appears the museum has recently made progress. In March 2008, the museum sought and obtained approval of their plans from the Historic Preservation Review Board. You can view its plans online.

The wait has not been without cost to the museum. Since 2005 (as far as online records go), the museum has paid $1,676,314.98 in DC property taxes. It has apparently been spared paying at the significantly higher vacant property tax rate, however. The museum pays about $12,000 to the downtown Business Improvement District each year.

Let's hope that the Museum of Urban Decay's exhibit on "Downtown, DC in the 1990s, the Pre-Anthony Williams Years," is replaced soon.

Friday, February 6, 2009

A Fair Budget?

Earlier this week, the Fair Budget Coalition released its annual budget recommendation report, "Shared Challenges, Shared Solutions, Shared Opportunities."

One might expect front-line service providers to have an expensive wish list of everything under the sun for the D.C. Council, particularly in a recession when individuals are most vulnerable.

But that is not the case here.

Having the chance to work with the Coalition in preparing this report, I was impressed with the amount of time they took to target their requests to the most critical areas and to identify ways to use available funds more wisely. In fact, when the District's anticipated revenue shortfall grew, the Coalition pulled their report and spent another month focusing it further.

Their recommendations fall in 9 general areas: workforce development, homeless services, housing, TANF, food stamps, food and nutrition, health and disability, children and youth, and tax and revenue.

Many of the recommendations are just commonsense... such as increasing transparency in the D.C. budget through use of more line items, improving data collection to better serve disabled infants and toddlers, and expanding access to the federally-funded food stamp program. Other recommendations are cost neutral, such as the Coalition’s support for providing basic mental health benefits to members of the DC Health Care Alliance through reallocating savings from closing the DC Community Services Agency. Some cost money, but are desperately needed, such as increasing funds for adult literacy programs.

You can download the full report here.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mermaids, aliens & bigfoot: what do they have in common?

This week marked the end of the anti-coal campaign in Metro Center with the replacement of the "in reality" ads with more neutral-messaged Pepsi signs. I'm not sure if there's an award for "most effective ad or advocacy campaign," but, if so, I'd nominate the in reality series. The simplicity of the messaging and imagery was ingenious - turning on its head the industry's clean coal campaign. It makes me want to pick up my undergrad studies in marketing and combine it with advocacy.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Stop... or else!

Earlier this week, I posted a cynical comment about the DC Council's consideration of legislation that would make it unlawful to drive with ice on the car when it does not enforce current laws that are supposed to protect us slipping on ice. At the time, I wondered what the no-driving-with-ice proposal provided as the penalty for a violation, given that there is no consequence for a person or business (or the DC government) when they don't clear the sidewalk from snow and ice, as also required by law.

Since the bill was not available on the Council's Legislative Information System as any legislation should, I could not find the answer. Well, today's Post and Examiner report that there was debate over whether to include a $50 or $100 fine. Ultimately, the Council passed the new law, but stripped any potential penalty. Instead, it empowered the police to issue a warning (can't anyone do that now - "excuse me, it's dangerous to drive around like that?"). At least Councilmember Mendelson is quoted as admitting that the legislation is less a matter of law than a "statement of policy."

Do we need the Council to pass aspirational statements of policy?

I remember a similar debate some months ago when the Council considered an amendment proposed by Councilmember Wells to prohibit vehicles from blocking bike lanes. After a debate errupted as to whether there would be any consequence for a violation beyond that already available for double parking, the bill died (I believe), ultimately passed with a potential $65 fine.

Having laws with no enforcement makes zero sense. In some instances, there is a lack of enforcement because of a lack of funds or lack of priority placed by goverment agencies or MPD. But, as these examples show, in other cases, there is a lack of enforcement simply because the Council passes unenforcable laws... stop, or else!

The Council should consider whether making conduct illegal, but providing no enforcement, has broader ramifications. Does it foster an environment in which people feel that it is ok to break the law so long as the violation is "minor"?

Or do such laws just show lazyness on the part of a Council that wants to appear concerned, but don't actually spend the time doing their homework to draft legislation that works?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Ice Emergency

The DC Council is considering enacting legislation to make it a traffic violation to have ice on the hood or roof of your car while driving because it presents a hazard to other drivers. Apparently, DC may be the first jurisdiction to do so. While the proposal may have merit, the cynic in me says, "great work, Council, what we need is another unenforced law." (And it is classic that the law was proposed by Councilmember Thomas as "emergency legislation" - I guess winter snuck up as a complete surprise!)

For instance, you probably know that DC law requires those who control property (this includes owners, renters, business owners, etc.) to keep the area in front of their house or store clear of snow (within 8 hours of daylight when the snowfall stops). What is not as widely known is that there is no mechanism for enforcement. No citation, no fine, nada. Apparently, if the owner or occupant doesn't step up, the city is supposed to do it. More likely, the person who gets injured will have to sue. When it comes to public property, the DC government has responsibility to keep the sidewalk safe.

What I've found over the years is that almost without fail, the places you are most likely to go down hard are vacant properties and properties owned by the DC government. I'm kicking myself for not taking a few photos after our recent little snow as I walked, I mean, slid, passed some DC-owned/vacant properties. Often, good samaritans on the blocks are nice enough to pick up the slack. So if the government wants to discuss the risks of ice, I challenge them to enforce the laws already on the books (how about citing vacant property owners for not clearing the ice, just like when I get a ticket like clockwork for forgetting to move my car on alternate street sweeping days) and get their own act in order.