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  • Franklin School – Get Off The Pot

    Posted on August 15th, 2011 Brian No comments

    This morning’s news roundup on Greater Greater Washington included this link to a story in the Examiner (ugh, I hate linking there) about the long-suffering Franklin School. As the former ANC Commissioner for 2F03, in which Franklin School is located, I dealt with this issue a few times during the most recent round of RFPs. The city received several proposals during that process, including one from the Yu Ying Charter School, as well as at least one from a private developer intent on creating a boutique hotel. There was at least one other hotel proposal being floated at the time, although I don’t know whether it was every finally proposed.

    Franklin School Window, From the InsideAs the Examiner article states, capital funding is a huge issue on this project, given both the extreme historic protections on the building and the decades of neglect and abuse it has now sat through. The city quickly ruled out the ability of the Yu Ying school to realistically fund the project, and appeared intent on settling on a hotel. Finally, after years and years, a derelict block in the midst of downtown would be activated!

    And then came the community activists.

    Well-meaning folks like Joe Browne from the Goethe Institute, the former city-dweller Cary Silverman, and even Greater Greater Washington, began writing, blogging, and petitioning the mayor’s office and the council to halt the processes so that more study could be done about potential public uses for the building. Everything from a school of architecture to a return-to-service as the city’s downtown homeless shelter were suddenly thrown back onto the heap – just as they had during the prior rounds of RFPs. The process stalled yet again, and here we are more than a year later: back at square one. Sadly, as great as all of these community-generated ideas are, they each lack any realistic mechanism to actually accomplish their goal. No funding, no plans, no consensus, no popular support. Nothing. Just great ideas and no way to implement them.

    To be clear, I am not saying these folks are directly responsible for the failure of the last round of proposals. I don’t know precisely why the project has stalled again, and I would place blame on the wicked recession and tenuous economic outlook before them. What I am saying is that these folks are needlessly hindering an already difficult process with pipe dreams.

    It’s time for them to get off the pot. Would I love to see the building converted to a school or some other public use? Of course – who wouldn’t? Is that realistically going to happen any time in the next decade? Not if history is any guide. A boutique hotel isn’t anyone’s first choice, but it is far better than the sad, empty facade that sits there now.

  • Marion Barry Is The Problem With Ward 8

    Posted on June 7th, 2011 Brian No comments

    Councilmembers in the District of Columbia hold an inordinate amount of power, so the current battle over the boundary between Ward 6 and Ward 8 is no surprise. If I lived in the contested area, I too would be fighting tooth and nail to stay out of Ward 8. Think about it: Who would you rather have as your councilmember? Let’s review your options:

    1. Tommy Wells – Who, in just five short years on the council, has been a primary advocate of livable, walkable communities; overseen the re-blossoming of Barrack’s Row and H Street; guided the rebuilding of Eastern Market after the devastating fire; and successfully pushed for the expansion of the Circular, Capital Bikeshare, and Streetcars. No corruption and no scandals — just a record of continual improvement for both his constituents and the entire District.
    2. Marion Barry – Involved in DC politics for over 30 years, he has been arrested for crack, pushed the city back under the Control Board, can’t seem to pay his fair share of taxes on time, can’t seem to stay away from drugs, and can’t seem to avoid stalking and abusing women – that is, when he isn’t using them to kickback money to himself.

    There is no problem with the geography of Ward 8 — it is a beautiful, historic part of the District of Columbia. There is no problem with the people of Ward 8 — they are kind, hardworking residents of the District of Columbia. There is a problem with the councilmember of Ward 8 — his name is Marion Barry, and he is a disgrace to the citizens of Ward 8 and the entire District of Columbia. I would get pretty pissed off, too, if a person like him were suddenly my councilmember just because some lines on a map were re-drawn.

    Marion Barry

  • Goddamn Gentrifiers

    Posted on December 20th, 2010 Brian No comments

    By some measures, Heather and I are long-time residents of the District of Columbia. We moved into a small condo on the 1200 block of 13th Street NW in March of 2005 and spent the next five years there. We loved our community, and we worked hard to make a positive impact so that our family would have a place to thrive as we aged. Heather and I both served on the board of our condominium association and the Logan Circle Community Association, and I served as a neighborhood commissioner on ANC 2F. We made many friends and became familiar faces in the shops, bars, restaurants, and grocery stores.

    We loved the tight-nit community feel. Everyone knew one another, and you would wave to each other as you walked down the street. And while we lived there, we watched the neighborhood grow around us. Some old rundown businesses closed and were replaced by shiny new businesses, although many stayed and successfully adapted to the thriving area. Crime went down and the one-time menace of street prostitution was finally brought under control. New bus routes were added, and plans for a streetcar were in the works. Exciting new restaurants and bars opened, drawing in outsiders to taste their delicious foods and wonderful drinks. It was a great time!

    Eventually, like many young families, we needed a bit more space. And so we started the hunt for a new home. We had been smart with our finances, and had a reasonable amount of money saved up; we knew what we wanted and what could afford. And, of course, we were definitely going to stay in Logan Circle – after all, that was our home! We pulled up Redfin and started to search.

    Alas! These outsiders had been coming into our neighborhood and been buying condos and houses and renting fancy apartments. The property values had been going up and up. Suddenly we realized we could not afford to live in Logan Circle anymore! The very things we loved about our neighborhood had drawn all these damn rich people into the area, and Logan Circle had gentrified right under our noses. The very work we had done to help improve the neighborhood had probably even helped the gentrification along. How unfair! How stupid were we!

    Though we searched and scoured and schemed, we just couldn’t find a way to get the home we wanted and stay in the neighborhood in which we invested so much of ourselves. With sadness, we started looking for homes in other neighborhoods. Lucky for us that the property values in Logan Circle had gone up, though, since we were able to find a really nice house in a neighborhood in a different part of town.

    We’ve been here a few months now. We really like most of our neighbors, except for the ones who leave their trash out all the time. It feeds the rats, and we are working hard to get that all under control. We will get it sorted out soon enough, though, and it will help make the neighborhood a little better. But you had better believe that this time I’ll be on the lookout for those goddamn gentrifiers coming into the neighborhood to mess it up.

  • We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Statues In The Capitol

    Posted on December 17th, 2010 Brian No comments

    In a move one might describe as “adding insult to injury”, or perhaps as “petty and dickish”, the House has graciously decided that the tax-paying-but-unrepresented citizens of the United States who live in the District of Columbia may place one statue in the Capitol’s visitor center, instead of the two that their own constituents receive. So now – assuming it even passes the Senate – we get to choose whether we want Pierre L’Enfant or Frederick Douglass to be placed in the hallowed halls.

    You know what? Fuck ’em. We should keep our statues. Put them up in some nice city-owned parks somewhere, preferably in neighborhoods that are in want of some good statuary. I would love to see Frederick Douglass in Civic Plaza in Columbia Heights, and it would be cool to walk by Pierre L’Enfant coming out of the Waterfront Metro station. The one place I don’t want either of them is in the halls of Congress. The mere thought of those slimy, un-American politicians who continue to deny their fellow citizens representation smirking as they walk by the one statue which they have condescended to allow us to give them turns my stomach.

    Accepting this compromise is a symbolic acceptance of our indentured status. It is a moral defeat, it is unacceptable, and we should reject it.

  • Dear Councilmember Bowser, Please Raise Our Taxes

    Posted on December 6th, 2010 Brian No comments

    Dear Councilmember Bowser,

    My wife and I are relatively new constituents of yours in Ward 4, having recently moved from Logan Circle to the 1300 block of Quincy Street. We have watched with consternation as the city has struggled to balance the budget through these difficult times. As the former ANC Commissioner for 2F03, I understand the importance of maintaining a low tax rate in order for the District to effectively compete with surrounding jurisdictions for businesses and residences. At the same time, however, I am deeply concerned that the cuts potentially on the table in the areas of public safety, economic development, and transportation will have a severe negative impact on the long-term competitiveness of the District. Though we are all tightening our belts, I believe that reduced funding and delays on such important initiatives as street cars, MPD, and education will leave us in a poorer position to rebound as the economy regains strength.

    Like many Washingtonians, Heather and I have been fortunate through this downturn. Many of our fellow citizens have been less so. It is unfair to burden with additional expenses those who can least afford it, but Heather and I certainly can. And so we ask you and your fellow Councilmembers: Please raise our taxes.

    Please raise our taxes and use the money to maintain funding for important work like additional police, street cars, multi-mode transportation initiatives, and economic development. In particular we are in full support of a small, graduated increase such as that proposed today by your colleague Councilmember Wells on the Greater Greater Washington blog.  Such an increase will not unduly burden our family, nor will it completely eliminate the gap, but it will go a long way to making ends meet for our city.  And that is a sacrifice any Washingtonian in our position must be willing to make.

    With kind regards,
    Brian & Heather Vargas

  • The Marion Barry: A Shot In Honor Of The Former Mayor-For-Life

    Posted on February 16th, 2010 Brian No comments

    It’s been a big news day for the former mayor-for-life.  The investigations into his use of earmarks have finally boiled over with the release of the Bennett Report.  The upshot?  His goose is cooked.

    This seems an opportune time to introduce to a broader audience the shot we invented on this year’s Marion Barry Day.  I give to you: The Marion Barry.

    1. One part Stoli Blackberry
    2. One part Southern Comfort
    3. One part Blue Curacao
    4. One part grenadine
    5. Drink up, slam the glass, and holler in your best just-got-caught-with-crack-in-a-hotel-room voice, “Bitch set me up!”

    The concoction is sweet and quite drinkable, and is rife with symbolism.  The Stoli Blackberry is because the marionberry is a subspecies of blackberry.  The Southern Comfort makes it in because the former mayor-for-life was born in Mississippi.  And the Blue Curacao and grenadine are there for flavor, and because together the purple hue they create reminds us of the purple velour jogging suit the elder councilmember has been known to sport from time-to-time.

    Originally called “The Bitch Set Me Up”, we re-named it to be a bit more obviously associated with the man.

  • Vacant and Blighted Property Testimony

    Posted on January 28th, 2010 Brian No comments

    Councilmember Bowser and Councilmember Evans held a joint hearing  yesterday on B18-546 and B18-448.  Both bills are an attempt to better define who gets hit with the city’s super-tax on problem buildings, which was essentially eliminated right as it started to produce results. I testified yesterday on four key points that I believe need to be addressed in the bills.

    • Keep the vacant property registration system.
    • Include ANCs in the exemption process.
    • The proposed “blighted” classification is too subjective. An objective system, such as DMV-style points, should be considered.
    • Vacant (but not “blighted”) properties are still a problem. Multi-year vacancies must also be taxed at a higher rate to promote their productive use.

    My full testimony can be downloaded here.  You can watch the full meeting online here.  (My testimony begins at about 3:35:00, and then there is some Q&A at the end of the panel.)

  • West Nile Virus in Logan Circle

    Posted on August 7th, 2009 Brian No comments

    MosquitoIf you thought moving to Logan Circle meant trading mosquitoes and West Nile virus for prostitutes and robberies, think again!  I received an email from Lakisha Thompson from the DC Department of Health warning us that a pool of water on the 1200 block of N Street NW had tested positive for the virus.

    According to Ms. Thompson, mosquitoes have a very limited range (only a maximum of 150 feet) from their home pool, so please take the time to dump out any containers with standing water that might be on your property.  It can make the difference!

    For more information, check out these fliers from DOH (all PDFs): Mosquitoes Carry Disease, West Nile Virus, Virus del Oeste Nilo

  • DC Council Cutting Vacant Property Tax Just As It Starts Working

    Posted on July 31st, 2009 Brian No comments

    Hot on the heels of my ebullient post that the vacant property tax was starting to bear fruit comes the news that the Council is going to cut the tax.  And it’s going to cost the city $10.8 million (although not until 2011) at a time when we’re facing a massive deficit.

    And why?  Councilmember Mendelson is quoted as stating that the higher tax rate makes it, “difficult for some property owners to sell or put their property back to use.”  This is bogus reasoning fails to consider that properties that are either for sale or have current building permits for in-progress construction are automatically exempted from the higher rate.

    Furthermore, at the last ANC 2F meeting Councilmember Evans attended, he stated unequivocally that the issue of cutting the vacant property tax was going to be dropped, and instead the Council would be seeking ways to better differentiate between properties that were problems and those that were not (ANC 2F May 2009 meeting minutes, page 3). Clearly, something flip-flopped Councilmember Evans’ opinion in the last three months, since it seems he now supports a continued free-ride for the longest-standing blights in our neighborhood.

    So, to summarize, we’re cutting a tax that is not only just starting to serve its purpose, but that is also raising money for the city when it needs it most.  This move is both counterproductive and foolish.

  • Vacant Property Tax Working Exactly As Intended

    Posted on July 28th, 2009 Brian No comments

    Vacant properties are a huge problem in the District, especially in the inner core neighborhoods like Logan Circle and Shaw.  In addition to being both unsightly and a poor use of land, these properties often become nuisances, attracting crime, graffiti, drug dealing, and homeless men and women who shelter in them despite their often unsafe structures.  One might hope that market incentive and the rising real estate prices in these resurging areas would drive owners of vacant land to either sell or develop the property they own, but – alas! – Mr. Smith’s invisible hand sometimes fails to act.

    Of particular note is the large number of vacant properties in Logan and Shaw owned by various churches.  In the wake of the riots, the churches purchased many such buildings with good intentions, such as creating shelters, offering low-cost housing to needy residents, or simply to make them unavailable to local thugs.  As any preacher worth his salt can tell you, though, those good intentions pave a particular road.

    Recently, the District dramatically raised the property tax rates on vacant properties from 88¢ per square foot to $5 per square foot.  Pure and simple, it is an effort to force the hand of careless landowners who fail to develop their properties, and whose properties consumes an inordinate quantity of city services because of the vacancies.  And it seems to be working!

    At least month’s ANC 2F meeting, Vermont Avenue Baptist Church was on hand to make a request for an exemption from the vacant property tax rate.  They are trying to secure funding for development of one of their long-vacant properties, and (given the economic climate) were having trouble doing so.  The ANC agreed to recommend an extension.  I made sure to let them know that we would be watching their progress closely, however, especially given the history of neglect and carelessness they had already exhibited.  There are rumblings of another church that will be on the agenda in September for a similar request.  And now DCist is reporting that Shiloh Baptist voted to sell some of their long-vacant holdings on 8th Street!

    It’s important to note that this tax rate is not without controversy.  There were some reports of unfortunate situations where homes were incorrectly classified as vacant, as well as some cases where vacant lots used as community gardens or dog parks are getting taxed at the new rate.  Clearly, the law needs to modified to handle those situations appropriately.  But as to the core issue the tax hike was meant to address?

    Seems like it’s working out pretty good to me.