Thursday, January 28, 2010

Common Cents for Metro

Aside from accidents and suicides, our Metro system seems to be in a perpetual state of insufficient funds.  Proposals continually resurface to deal with deficits by reducing service.  Such proposals include closing metro stations earlier and opening them later, increasing the length of time between metro or bus arrivals, and cutting bus lines.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

Metro will continue on a downward spiral if it leads area residents to decide that it's just not worth it to take public transportation.  Loss of ridership will further plummet revenues, even while needs for safety improvements and expansion of the system continues to grow.  More people will simply drive -- adding to traffic congestion and parking issues.

And our quality of life will suffer.  There are many individuals who depend on metro to get to work early in the morning or late at night -- whether it's service employees or lawyers.

If the Metro system is ever going to expand to meet the region's increasing population, then its revenue structure needs to be placed on solid footing.

Metro should conduct a comprehensive review of its fare rates. At $1.35, our Metro is still considerably less than the base fare in New York City ($2.25), Chicago ($2.25), San Francisco ($2.00), and Boston ($1.70 with card). It's also far less than London (2.20 GBP for zones 1-2 = $3.50 USD). Perhaps metro needs to increase its base fare and, based on ridership statistics, consider fares to other stations or whether it is to the systems benefit to have a single, higher fare. Given the steep rise in gas prices, cab fares, and parking fees in recent years, even at a bumped up rate, taking Metro will still be a good deal. Complaints about Metro revolve around packed trains, delays, and safety - not a buck thirty-five.

Nor should Metro cut bus routes. While many routes remain underutilized, this is a result of a failure of Metro to make bus route maps available for many years and to get the "next bus" system up and running until recently. With more public education as to the available bus options, ridership may increase. The DC Circulator's success proves that buses are indeed viable.

If seeking to reduce costs and improve service, WMATA should consider whether it actually needs a bus stop on nearly every block in many areas. Can it keep the same service with less buses by spreading stops about three blocks apart? Not only would this save money, but it would actually get people where they are going more quickly.

This is not a tough choice.

At least the public seems to get it, as reported in the Washington Post today.  Members of the public who testified before WMATA on Wednesday overwhelmingly supported a fare increase of about 10 cents, and strongly opposing reductions in service or deeper cuts in the capital budget to address the deficit. Will Metro listen?

[See also GGW, We Love DC, and Unsuck DC Metro's coverage of the hearing.  A Washington Post's editorial gets it partially right by taking the position that WMATA should not take money from the capital budget rather than adopt a modest fare increase, while leaving the door open to some service cuts.]

Monday, January 25, 2010

Gales School / Central Union Mission Fell Through

The Gales School, 65 Massachusetts Ave NW.  Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

A press advisory posted on the city's website last week seems to indicate that the planned move of the Central Union Mission into the Gales School, located between Union Station and Mount Vernon Triangle, has officially fallen through.

The historic Gales School was initially scheduled to reopen as a homeless shelter in 2009, but deal was caught up in legal problems with the ACLU.  It charged that the city was violating the separation of church and state by entering a deal in which the city would pay several million dollars to renovate the building, then transfer it to Central Union Mission, which requires those who stay with them to take part in prayer, as part of a land swap.  Even as late as September 2009, however, Central Union Mission remained optimistic that they would move into the building from their 14th and R Street location in late 2011.  DCMud indicates that Central Union Mission will again seek use of the Gales School through the latest RFO, but it does not sound optimistic.

The Request for Offers is being handled by the District's Office of Real Estate Services (ORES), which will host a pre-submission meeting and site visit on January 29.  Offers are due on February 16.  According to the RFO:
The District’s overarching goal in issuing this RFP is to obtain Proposals for the Use Site for the sole permitted use as a homeless shelter. Responses proposing any other use for the Use Site will be deemed nonresponsive and will not be considered. . . . [T]he District seeks Responses from interested qualified respondents who can demonstrate:
• Viable approach for the delivery of homeless shelter services at the Use Site;
• Organizational capacity and experience to redevelop the Use Site for use as a homeless shelter;
• Successful track record of operating a high quality homeless shelter and service program;
• Financial capacity to provide requisite program financing including the costs and expenses associated with the rehabilitation of the Use Site; and
• Commitment to the District’s goal of creating the contracting and investment opportunities for local, small and disadvantaged businesses, and jobs for District residents.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Vacant or Blighted?

The DC Council is holding a hearing on two vacant/blighted property bills this Wednesday.  The hearing will be held at 2pm in room 412 of the Wilson Building at 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The Hearing Notice recognizes:
The higher tax on vacant properties had the desired effect of moving many longstanding vacant properties into productive use.  Since 2006, over 1,000 formerly vacant properties have become occupied.  However, as the economy entered a prolonged recession, the vacant property tax began to affect more and more property owners, many who had simply run into hard times due to the economy.... 

Last year, the D.C. Council eliminated the vacant property tax - a result of backlash from the same Councilmembers doubling the tax from $5 to $10, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs more consistent enforcement of the law, the occasional innocent owner unfairly getting hit with the higher tax, and the recession (and its impact on developers with properties in limbo). Instead, the Council kept a registration system for vacant property and applied a higher tax only to "blighted properties." Due to confusion in the new law as to how the old vacant property registration system and new "blighted" property tax work together, the Council will consider these two competing proposals.

Here is my understanding of the two bills:
  • B18-546 [PDF]: Introduced by Councilmember Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), it would keep the vacant property registration system, eliminate the exemptions (which only eliminate the need to pay a nominal registration fee), allow for an upward sliding scale for registration fee depending on amount of time property is vacant, simplify the citation issuance process, and require property insurance for vacant properties.
  • B18-448 [PDF], introduced by Councilmember Jack Evans, would eliminate the remaining vacant property registration system altogether and focus only on blighted determination.  This bill does not appear to be subject to the Wednesday hearing.  (Note: The hearing notice refers to B18-407, but this appears to be a misprint)
The Bowser bill is helpful, if not ideal.  On the other hand, the Evans bill would dump all the work DCRA and the Shaw and Mt. Vernon communities, as well as others across this city, have done over the past few years to form an accurate list of vacant properties. Even without a vacant property tax, this list allows DCRA to closely monitor these properties for violations (litter/dumping, overgrown grass, unsecured, illegal billboards, as well as criminal activity) and determine whether they are "blighted."

Ideally, the Council should return to something closer to the prior vacant property tax system. Here are seven reasons why:
  1. Subjecting only "blighted" and not vacant properties to a higher tax fails to recognize that even vacant properties that are in the best of condition impose additional costs on the surrounding community. The neighbors are often the ones that pick up the trash that inevitably accumulates, shovels the snow, and calls in or paint over graffiti. Blocks with vacant property are less safe because there are less eyes on the street to report crime.
  2. It is much easier to determine whether a property is vacant (objective standard - is there a lease, utilities running?) than whether a property is "blighted" (very subjective - one person's blight may be another person's palace). DCRA/OTR can expect appeals and lawsuits when it attempts to impose the tax on blighted properties;
  3. Some properties may be judged as not meeting the "blighted" standard because the neighbors, not the owners, addressed problems -- i.e. cut overgrown grass, removed graffiti, and secured the property.  Why should the owner benefit through reduced taxes?;
  4. What will happen when a property is "blighted" because it is a nuisance for months or years and when threatened with a higher tax, the owner nominally fixes it up to avoid the tax (i.e. picks up the trash and throws on a coat of paint) -- this would be an ongoing cycle;
  5. The blighted property law applies only to "improved properties" (vacant houses or stores) and not to vacant lots. Why should an overgrown, trashed vacant lot not be subject to the the higher tax while an overgrown, trashed lot that has an empty building on it get the tax?;
  6. Under current law, if a historic property is blighted and allowed to collapse through neglect, the owner would be rewarded because he or she would no longer subject to the blighted property tax; and
  7. Why, oh why, would the Council give absentee property owners a $48.9 million tax break when the city is struggling with a budget shortfall and cutting valuable services?
Instead, the city should return to something closer to the old system -- a $5 (or even $2.50) tax on vacant property, graduated increases in the tax (not the registration fee) the longer the property remains vacant (say going up to $10 only if a property is vacant for 10 years), and use of currently available fines and the condemnation process to address "blighted" properties.

Exceptions to the vacant property tax should apply only to specific circumstances in which there is unfairness.  For instance, similar to jury duty, a person who is serving in the military oversees or in a nursing home should be exempted from the higher tax. There should be no nonsense with property owners being able to avoid the tax by periodically pretending their property is for sale or obtaining permits for minor work on the property.

Finally, it is important that the city restore application of the higher tax to vacant lots, in addition to vacant buildings.

Residents should testify on Wednesday on their experiences with vacant property and the importance of providing effective incentives for absentee property owners to put properties back into productive use.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Survey Results: Franklin School

Residents overwhelmingly favor putting the historic Franklin School to an educational, rather than a private, use, according to my unscientific online public survey. 

Of 136 respondents, 79% favored an educational use for Franklin.  Less than 1 in 4 (22%) would rather see the building in private hands.  Four percent supported using the building for a public, but not education-related, purpose.

Of those that support an educational use for the building, more than half (58%) favor using Franklin School to house public charter schools that are in need of space.  The remainder split among preferring a downtown community college campus (17%), magnet high school (12%), or innovative elementary school (9%).  Only a handful advocated for using the building as space for college "semester in DC" or internship-type programs (4%).

Since the District of Columbia published a Request for Proposals seeking potential uses for the Franklin School that is geared toward private development, a Coalition has emerged to advocate that the city rewrite the RFP and reopen the process to give fair consideration to public uses.  Proposals that would restore the historic building's educational purpose for which it was designed should receive a strong preference.

Yesterday, the deadline expired for submitting proposals.  Unless the city reverses course, it is likely that the Franklin School will be awarded to a private (and politically-connected) developer on a long-term lease (i.e. 99 years), possibly at a substantial discount compared to the value of other core downtown properties, to construct a boutique hotel.

At first glance, it appears that the public property disposition law recently enacted by the D.C. Council would not require additional Council hearings regarding the whether the property should be declared surplus and used for private development.  The legislation became law without Mayor Adrian Fenty's signature when his review period expired on January 14, 2010 and now awaits the 30-day Congressional review period before it takes effect.  Even if applicable to the ongoing RFP-process for Franklin, the law's new safeguards that require the DC Council to assess and determine, after considering public comment, whether a public property is no longer required for public use before putting it into private hands, appear to apply only to outright sale of public property.  Although the originally introduced bill applied to long-term sales, the bill was watered down before it passed.  A 99-year lease, however, should be regarded as a constructive sale.

In any event, at a very minimum, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) should fully disclose the responses that it has received for the Franklin School and provide public hearings to discuss the potential options.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Supporting Martin

Meet your neighbors and help Martin Moulton
Tuesday, January 19
6 p.m. - 8 p.m.

Long View Gallery
1234 Ninth Street NW

Friends and supporters of Shaw neighborhood activist and leader Martin Moulton are coming together to help raise funds to pay Martin's legal fees, helping him defend against recent legal actions taken by Leroy Thorpe. Here's a link to recent developments or you can review the official legal docket (Case No. 09 CA 007215) by searching "Leroy Thorpe" here.

Please make checks payable to "Harmon Curran" (the law firm representing Martin) and include "Martin Moulton Legal Fees" on the note line at the bottom of your check.

Thank you for your consideration and we hope you will join us.

Host Committee (in formation): Kari and Jason Beard, Ralph Brabham and Drew Porterfield, Frances Evangelista, Mike Gormley, Miles E. Groves, Suzi Molak, The Hon. Alex Padro, Cary Silverman, Stephanie Slewka, Charles Walker, William Waybourn, Deborah Ziska.

Please phone 202.518.2453 for more information or RSVP by January 16.

If you are unable to attend the event, you can still support Martin’s legal defense by sending a check payable to “Harmon Curran" (the law firm representing Martin), at 1726 M Street NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036 .  Please include "Martin Moulton Legal Fees" on the note line at the bottom of your check.  Any amount helps and is appreciated.