Friday, October 29, 2010

No Exit

The Examiner reports that although the Foggy Bottom metro station is the 8th busiest in the system and handles more passengers per day than Baltimore's light rail system, there are no plans to add a second extrance to the station.  Meanwhile, just across the water and one stop away on the blue/orange line, workers are installing a second entrance at the Rossyln station, which has less than half the daily use of Foggy Bottom.

Why?  Virginia and Rosslyn area developers are paying for the new entrance at Rosslyn.  The District and George Washington University, which is in the midst of a massive project just above the metro, are not.  Given GWU's ownership of such an immense area, its increases in student enrollment, its hospital patients, and its substantial development plans, I'm left wondering why it was not required to do invest in increasing the capacity and convenience of the station as a condition of approval of the project?

Any thoughts from Foggy Bottom / West End residents?  Is there a downside to promoting metro use in the neighborhood?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Killed Professor's Car Turns Up in Shaw With Ward of DC

It is not long since Shaw Middle School Principal Brian Betts was killed by three individuals that should have been incarcerated, but were not, because of the District's lax policies regarding youth offenders and lack of capacity to hold them. 

Now, the media is reporting that a man driving the car of the American University accounting professor Sue Ann Marcum, after a brief chase with police, crashed into a lamppost three blocks from my house at the busy intersection of New Jersey and M Streets / New York Avenue NW near the I-395 tunnel.  Ms. Marcum was found dead in her Glen Echo home.  

Deandrew Hamlin, the driver, recently turned 18.  He is a ward of the District's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.  So far, it has been revealed that Hamlin had previous arrests for car theft and destruction of property.  I expect more of his criminal record will come to light over the next several days.

According to The Examiner, "It was not immediately clear whether Hamlin had absconded from juvenile detention, or had been placed in a residential facility as part of his rehabilitation. A DYRS spokesman declined to comment on Hamlin." 

As of this time, Hamlin has been charged with driving the stolen auto, but not with the burglary or murder.

Coverage: Washington Examiner, Washington Times, Washington Post

Friday, October 22, 2010

"No viable public use" for Franklin School

Today's Washington Business Journal [subscription only] highlights the ongoing saga of the disposition of the Franklin School building. 

Jose Sousa, a project manager with the deputy mayor for planning and economic development’s office is quoted as saying, “It is our belief there is no viable public use for that space.” 

Thus, the D.C. Council Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development will hold a public hearing on November 18 as it considers whether to declare the 150-year old historic building "surplus."  If approved, the District will likely enter a 99-year lease with Brooklandville, Md.-based Cana Development, which will turn the building into a boutique hotel and restaurant.

The Coalition of Franklin School, however, believes there are many viable educational uses for the Franklin School - but they have not be adequately sought and vetted.

The problem is that the District, as owner of the building, has allowed it to deteriorate for decades.  When built by famous architect Adolf Cluss 150 years ago, it was a model public school that was looked to for inspiration not just within the United States, but internationally.  After later serving as the District's Department of Education, and as a vocational education center, it was left vacant, then turned into a homeless shelter.  It has remained empty again since Mayor Fenty cleared it out in 2008.

Estimates are that it will take $35 million to bring the building back up to par.  The District has not made a commitment to renovate the building for an educational use.  Nor does it appear to have vetted potential uses with D.C. Public Schools, the Charter School Board, the University of the District of Columbia, or others.  Yet, it puts out RFP's and, receiving no proposals to take on a lease without a commitment from the city to make the building habitable, finds that there is "no viable public use."

Here's just a few viable public uses for the Franklin School:
  • A gifted-and-talented middle or high school, so that parents of high-achieving students have options other than sending their children to private school or leaving the District.
  • A downtown campus for UDC's new community college system or a new facility for its law school.
  • A home to one or more charter schools that are seeking space.
  • A public high school for Ward 2-area residents (many of whom currently treck up to Wilson High School in Tenleytown), particularly given the growing residential population of downtown.
  • A space for nonprofits providing job training and career services programs.
  • A facility for teacher training and continuing education.
  • Flex space for lectures, conferences, exhibits, performances, and meetings, similar to the use of the Sumner School near Dupont Circle.
Others would rather see the prime-location property turned into a money-maker for the city, rather than the city invest in improving it.  “There’s only one bidder and that is a hotel, and if that’s the only prospect then that is what I want to see,” said D.C. Councilman Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, who represents the Franklin School neighborhood. “I would like to see Franklin return to the tax rolls.” 

That's certainly an enticing position, particularly in this economic climate.  But the better long-term solution is to identify a best educational use for the Franklin School and invest, perhaps from District's School Modernization Fund, to make it a model for the 21st Century.

The public hearing on surplusing the Franklin School will be held on Thursday, November 18, 2010, 6:30pm, at Thomson Elementary School (large meeting room in basement), 1200 L Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.  Contact persons on this project are Jared Kahn (202) 213-9215 and Nimita Shah (202) 215-3650.  You can sign up to testify against the proposed surplusing here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Thorpe at it Again: Campaign Literature Theft?

Early this morning, a neighborhood resident "witnessed Leroy Thorpe going from house to house on the western side of New Jersey Avenue removing the anti-Thorpe leaflets" and snapped the fuzzy photograph above with his cell phone camera.  "As the photo shows, Mr. Thorpe was entering people's yards to see if they had a pamplet and if they did he took it and crumpled it up," the resident wrote.  The resident observed that "by 8am, [Mr. Thorpe] switched to a bicycle and was on the 1600 block of 6th St."  "At least he's getting his exercise this morning." 

The seized literature is along the lines of this website, which has been up for some time (and also subject to a Thorpe lawsuit), but was recently updated.

As the resident observed, while the literature may not be "flattering" and could be considered in bad taste, it is not slanderous, as it states factual information and is in the context of a contested political election.  The photograph follows reports of incumbent ANC Commissioner Kevin Chapple's campaign signs mysteriously disappearing from the neighborhood.

Leroy Thorpe doesn't take no for an answer.  The notorious former Shaw ANC Commissioner was outsted in 2006 and lost a bid to reclaim his seat in 2008.  He is running again this year. 

Along the way, Thorpe sued Martin Moulton, who founded the Convention Center Community Association as an welcome alternative forum to Thorpe's East Central Civil Association.  Thorpe's suit was ultimately dismissed with prejudice.  He was recently arrested and convicted of filing a false police report after calling 911 to report Moulton, by delivering neighborhood newsletters on his block, was violating a nonexistent stay-away order related to the civil suit.

Last night, the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association hosted a candidates' forum for the Advisory Neighborhood Commission single member districts that fall within the group's boundaries.  Challengers for two ANC 2C seats, Rochelle Nigro (running for the position held by Theresa Sule) and Rickey Williams (running for the position held by Doris Brooks), attended.  The incumbents were invited, but did not attend.  Should Nigro and Williams join Commissioners Kevin Chapple and Alexander Padro, the area (which includes parts of Penn Quarter/Chinatown, and Mount Vernon Square/Triangle, as well as Shaw) may finally have the professional, competent representation that residents deserve.

Evans on Shiloh Tax Abatement; Explanation Doesn't Alter Neighborhood Opposition

UPDATE: At 4:30PM today, Councilmember Jack Evans sent the following message to the community: "In light of the community opposition to the legislation regarding the Shiloh Baptist Church’s properties, I have withdrawn the legislation and contacted Rev. Wallace Smith, Pastor of Shiloh, of such."  Our thanks to Councilmember Evans for listening and taking appropriate action. 

* * *

Yesterday, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans explained his proposal, discussed on this blog, to provide a substantial tax abatement to Shiloh Baptist Church, which owns many blighted properties in the Shaw neighborhood that have been a source of frustration to residents for decades.  Evans explained:
Brian - thank you for writing about Bill 18-1045, the “Shiloh Baptist Church Property Redevelopment Act of 2010.” Shiloh Baptist Church, (Shiloh), owns Lots 820, 821, 822, 824, and 825 in Squares 365, Lot 20 in Square 396; Lot 31 in Square 397 and Lot 46 in Square 421 in Shaw. These properties have been classified at Class 3, Vacant Properties. Currently, Shiloh owes $57,222 (Lot 820); $55,963 (Lot 821); $66,372 (Lot 822); $43,302 (Lot 824); and $58,306 (Lot 825), a total of $281,165 in property taxes on these properties.

The purpose of the legislation is to explore the idea of having monies owed by Shiloh put into escrow and used to renovate the properties rather than paying the money to the District Government. If Shiloh does not renovate the properties in a time period to be determined, the monies would go to the District.

I was approached by the leadership of Shiloh about this issue last year. I asked Commissioner Alex Padro to convene some neighbors for discussions with representatives of Shiloh. I want to thank them for the many hours they gave to these discussions. Several good ideas came out of these meetings. The legislation has been assigned to my Committee and I intend to hold hearings to solicit further neighborhood input. At that point, I will decide which direction to take. 

Evans' e-mail did little to ease opposition from Shaw residents.

Brian Smith, to whose email Evans responded, had tried to keep an open mind, but "drastically changed [his] feelings on this scheme," stating that he "100 percent oppose[s] any legislation or proposal that would give Shiloh any escrow agreement, break or "deal" on taxes that they owe and have owed for years."  "Currently the District government is roughly 180 million in the hole...correct?" Smith wrote.  "DCRA has been "unable" to collect over $180 million in delinquent property taxes . . . . How would some sort of "escrow" be administered?  Considering the track record of DCRA and the Government as a whole I just do not see that this could be done in any way, shape or form giving Shiloh yet again another gift on a property that the District has ALREADY GIVEN THEM MONEY TO DEVELOP!!!"

"Let me see if I got this right," said David Smith, who serves as an officer of the Convention Center Community Association.  "I own multiple properties--mostly adjacent to each other--which for decades I have kept vacant and allowed to deteriorate into derelict magnets for vagrants and vermin," said Smith in an e-mail to Evans.  Smith continued, "Over the years I make various promises to renovate the buildings, but never deliver on any of them. I accumulate a very large property tax bill because the District government finally applies the appropriate classification to these blighted properties.  But instead of making me pay the taxes, the District Government then offers to reward my bad stewardship by letting me keep the tax money I owe them if I promise to do some renovations on the properties which will remain in my hands. And then, since I'm a church--assuming I actually do the renovations--I can claim that the properties are being used for religious purposes, which means I may never have to pay property taxes on them again.  Wow--I'd say that's a pretty good gift to the worst slumlord in Shaw."

"Jack, This seems like another plan to keep running out the clock on Shiloh's part.. .your email says they approached you last year so that's at least ten months and now you're going to explore this proposal with the community?" questioned Bob Carroll.  "I can save you some time....enforce the laws we all allegedly live under and tell Silo to pay their tax bills.  From what I understand DC could use the cash."

"This is ridiculous!" exclaimed Carmen Gilotte in an e-mail to Evans.  "Good ideas?  Reward Shiloh's irresponsible behavior YET AGAIN?  Why should this church get any more tax breaks?  Why? They are slumlords, they have held the community hostage, and they keep getting help from our leaders to thwart their responsibilities to the law, the community and the city.  Stop the insanity!  Make them pay what they owe!"

CCCA President Martin Moulton has also chimed in, noting other Shaw churches, such as First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church and Asbury United Methodist Church, have substantial property holdings and have completed major projects without imposing a burden on the community or seeking special tax abatements.  "These churches -- unlike Shiloh -- have creatively made dreams a reality and with hard work and commitment shrewdly found ways to make the impossible possible," said Moulton.  "Once Shiloh pays its appropriate taxes, I believe the District government should do everything reasonable to to assist Shiloh in making the 1500 b/o 9th Street a dynamic part of a critical area in the heart of the nation's capital."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Evans Promises Slumlord $100,000 Tax Break

According to an article in the Washington Business Journal, Councilmember Jack Evans (Ward 2) has proposed that the city tax a strip of vacant properties owned by Shiloh Baptist Church along the long-neglected Ninth Street corridor in Shaw as if they were occupied, a move that would save the church about $100,000 each year.

The brief history is that Shiloh has left these properties vacant for decades, severely damaging the recovery of the area just west of the Convention Center.  Numerous promises were made of grand plans for senior centers and housing.  For years, the church evaded the city's vacant property tax, which attempts to shift the cost of such nuisances from the community that deals with the increased vagrancy, drugs, public urination and defecation, public drinking, trash, rats, and dumping that results (and to which the Shiloh properties are prime examples) to the owner.

In the face of complaints from residents who felt the impact of the derelict properties on their safety and quality of life, the city finally imposed the higher tax rate.  In addition, in 2007, the Fenty Administration stepped up and condemned several of the properties.

In the ultimate snub, however, Shiloh then obtained from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) an exemption from the higher tax on the basis of work permits obtained to make the minor repairs necessary to abate the condemnation order (even though the law clearly says that the permits must be for work to make the property fit for occupancy).  Residents went ballistic and Shiloh's properties were reclassified as vacant, subject to the higher tax.  The city, however, let the church off the hook for the approximately $100,000 in additional taxes the church would have paid that year at the higher rate.

Good fortune again intervened for Shiloh in 2009.  Before the church got hit with the higher rate, the D.C. Council repealed the vacant property tax.  Shiloh still risked paying the new "blighted" property tax.

On October 1, thanks to Councilwoman Muriel Bowser, a revived higher tax rate for vacant property went into effect, leaving Shiloh subject to five times the residential tax rate.

The higher property tax appears to have finally provided the long-needed incentive for Shiloh to sell off two of its vacant houses and develop several others into office space for nonprofits and senior housing.  Evans' proposal to reward the church with hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax breaks, at a time in which the city is cash-starved, is fiscally irresponsible and sends precisely the wrong message to slum property owners.

Resident reaction to the proposed tax abatement was angry and swift:
"An owner is supposed to get a pass if they have a valid permit or pending zoning application. This owner should not get any special treatment especially given their 30 year slumbanking history."

"I would be supportive of this IF it was done in a manner that it was a carrot for taking action NOT done before the project began."

"The neighborhood conceded angle parking on Sunday with promises of fixing up their properties -- and that was when people were living in some of them. You have to be kidding yourself that a hefty tax abatement will make them move any faster or in any way whatsoever toward ameliorating their decayed properties."

"Shiloh has no intention of ever rebuilding. They game the city and the pols and get whatever they want while everyone else gets screwed over."
Exempt Shiloh's properties from the vacant property tax when they are no longer vacant.  That's an exemption the community can fully support.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Bogus Charge?: Thomas Accused of Running Fake Nonprofit

Today's Washington Post includes reports on the back of the Metro page that Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas has been accused of his Republican opponent of running a fake nonprofit, Team Thomas/SwingAway LLC, for his own "slush fund."

I'm no fan of Harry Thomas, but these charges by Tim Day, an accountant who is challenging Thomas in the Nov. 2 general election, strike me as supreme B.S.  Day's evidence:
  • Thomas's organization is not registered as a 501(c)(3) with the IRS.  As an accountant, Day should probably not make the common error of confusing a nonprofit with a 501(c)(3).  "Nonprofit" is just a type of incorporation, which is registered with a state/DC government.  Nonprofits are not necessarily 501(c)(3)s, to which individuals can make tax deductible donations.  To become a 501(c)(3), a nonprofit must go through what can be a lengthy process with the IRS and agree to certain restrictions and reporting requirements.
  • Thomas's organization has not disclosed who donated to the organization and how the money has been spent.  So what?  Nonprofit organizations, like for-profit companies, have no obligation to publish their financial records to the world.  As a 501(c)(3), the organization would have to provide limited information in public filings, including how much was raised (but not the identity of donors), the salaries of top employees, and payments to largest contractors.  But Thomas's organization is not a 501(c)(3).
  • Thomas's organization is not in good standing with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.  Join the club.  There are lots of small nonprofits organizations, that largely rely on volunteers, who overlook submitting paperwork and later correct it.  It's not as a crime.
  • And just to throw it in -- Day makes an unrelated accusation that Thomas's wife worked on his campaign and received a $4,500 fee as a consultant.  Another big "so what," particularly if she provided services to the campaign designing leaflets and brochure or otherwise.  It may be poor judgment to pay family members from campaign funds, but I'm missing the illegality or corruption.
Well, I guess Mr. Day got his day in the Post.  But his charges seem to hardly warrant even a back-page story.  A blog post... maybe.

City Workers Used On Campaigns

Below is an e-mail disseminated to neighborhood e-mail distribution lists by Joe Martin, a former Ward Service Coordinator for Mayor Adrian Fenty (and an excellent one, I might add).  Until recently, Joe continued to work in the Fenty Administration.  He serves as Chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4C in Petworth and is currently running for reelection.  Joe alleges widespread violations of the Hatch Act, which significantly restricts involvement of federal (and city) civil servants in political campaigns.

How large of a problem is this -- are these types of violations just a fact or life in the political world?  Federal workers -- would this happen in your agencies?

From: Joseph Martin
Subject: City Workers Being Used On Campaigns
Date: Thursday, October 14, 2010, 10:42 AM

I hope after the election the Hatch Act can be thoroughly revisited, vetted by the public and that we can find a better way to do things here in the District of Columbia.

The Federal Hatch Act covers DC government workers (in addition to federal workers).

While employees of the Executive Office of the Mayor were instructed by the Mayor's Ethics Attorney on how to follow the letter of the law, my interpretation of those sessions was that there was somewhat of a wink-wink, nod-nod element that I did not like at all. A variation of...

Never write when you can speak, never speak when you can nod, never nod when you can wink.

I know for fact that there were cases where staffers were called at 1:00 pm while sitting at their city-government desks and told that they needed to put in for leave immediately "do visibility" for "Emerald City" -- code for the Fenty Re-Election Campaign.

Tracy Sandler, executive director of Serve DC, said at one weekly staff meeting early in the summer, "I am waiting for everyone's leave slips." My interpretation of that might be different from others. This request was repeated in other weekly meetings.

Fun Fact: By her own admission at a staff meeting in early July, she acknowledged to me after I asked that she still is in places the voice of Barbie. Some of my coworkers referred to Tracy as "Barbie." I asked why.

"Do you want to hear my favorite line!" She exclaimed in front of all of us at that early, July staff meeting:

"Sometimes a girl's just got to wear a tiara!" 

Calls came in to Serve DC staffers, registered Republicans in three cases, at their desks during the work day asking them to work on the campaign. "We are not even Democrats and they want us to work on the Democratic primary."

Days before the Ward 4 straw poll, Sarah Latterner of EOM calling from her office in the Wilson Building and emailed me via government email demanding that I come up with a list of what the Mayor accomplished in Ward 4.

"You know what it's for," don't you?," she asked on the phone that morning.

"Your diary?," I replied.

"How soon can you get it to me? We need it now. We don't have any institutional knowledge left downtown. We're relying on you to help."

Weeks before that, Sinclair Skinner passed word through someone to me, "We need Joe's help in Ward 2."

I heard via private text messages that questions lingered about whether or not I was a "team player" (Team Fenty). I posted about this item weeks ago when I got a text message from ANC 4D Commissioner Bill Quirk asking me if it was true that I had been seen talking to Vincent Gray at a block party two blocks from my house. I know an Office of Aging employee who told me that she, too, received a text asserting that she was seen talking to Vincent Gray on Connecticut Avenue.

Before the Ward 4 straw poll the calls to me were intense, Terry Lynch of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations called me on my personal cell while I am sitting at my desk: "Are you forgetting what Mayor Fenty has done for this city!! You need to call me, Joe."

There were a few days where I put my two-year-old iPhone on "airplane mode" at my desk to block all calls so that I could attempt to focus on work at Serve DC in the Reeves Center.

As things looked grim heading towards the primary, I asked one Serve DC coworker how her weekend went.

"I didn't have a weekend. I volunteered for Emerald City, knocking on doors of registered Republicans in the Palisades asking them to switch their party affiliation so that they could vote for the Mayor in the primary."

Around the same time when I took a quick, weekday lunch at Busboys and Poets, Councilmember Jim Graham asked me as I was leaving, "Why aren't you out on the streets helping your boss?" I was with a city agency worker, a close friend, and his son. My reply to Mr. Graham, "You do know that I have work to do for my day job across the street in the Reeves Center, don't you?," as I nodded across the street towards the Reeves Center.

I told my city-agency friend who also disappeared from his job to work for Emerald City that I was more forgiving of people like him working on the campaign, taking last minute leave. "You have small children to feed. I know that. So does Team Fenty."

A friend who used to work in the Wilson Building for another City Councilmember remarked at lunch the day after I received Bill Quirk's text message, "The whole Wilson Building is a Hatch Act violation."

This needs to stop.

It seems incredibly disingenuous for those who effectively are signing your paychecks to ask you to "volunteer" on their campaigns.

According to one friend who had business friends who received the emails, Sarah Lasner, former deputy chief of staff who served as a key figure on Team Fenty, sent an email to business people telling them to take the week off before the September primary to "volunteer" on the campaign. She added something to the effect of redefining the word "volunteer" for them.

I often wondered what the result would be if there was some secret way of asking all incumbents' staffs whether or not they would be working or "volunteering" on a given campaign if they did not feel as if their jobs depended on it.

If your boss who signs your paycheck asks you to "volunteer" on her/his campaign, how does that make you feel? Where are the ethics in that?

If I seemed very stressed out this summer to a lot of my friends and neighbors, this is a hint of why.

I would like to see this system stopped. Am I a fool to think it's possible?

My oldest brother in Rhode Island snorts when I talk about this. "What were you expecting? This is city government.

It happens everywhere." I would joke back, "I still don't think it's asking too much to expect someday that the DC government will work with the efficiency and professionalism of FedEx or UPS, the entire government." If my brother had been texting instead of talking to me on the phone, I probably would have looked at my screen to read: LOL!!! LMAO!

My brother refuses to text.

"If I need to communicate with someone, I pick up the phone and call them."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Noxious Burgers?

A D.C. Superior Court judge ruled the popular Dupont Circle eatery Rogue States a nuisance on Tuesday and ordered it to stop grilling hamburgers after an eight-month dispute with a neighboring law firm over its "intense and noxious odor."

Read more:

Has anyone been to this place?  What's the deal?

Fortunately, a Crumbs Bake Shop will soon be opening under my office window.  I may sue for cupcakes.