Spike Lee and gentrification

Spike Lee doesn’t have many friendly words for  the hipsters who have flocked to Brooklyn over the last decade. The director spent much of his childhood in the borough, and it’s where his father still lives. Speaking at a recent event in New York, Lee said that long-term residents who rent, rather than own, are being pushed out as prices increase.  He seemed to agree that many neighborhoods have gotten safer, schools have improved, and city services are now more reliable. But, he asks what good is local progress if you can’t afford to live there anymore?

Over at Time, John McWhorter says Lee missed the mark. McWhorter, who is also black, says all-black neighborhoods aren’t something that should be desired, but are rather a relic of state-led segregation. As legal and social barriers have come down, he says, black residents have taken advantage of their new options.

[Lee is] yearning for the multi-class black communities that people of his generation regret the dissolutions of after the end of institutionalized segregation (when black people like my parents, for example, moved out to mixed or white neighborhoods).

But let’s face it: The reason there were black communities like that was because of segregation. If there still were black communities like that, no matter how beautiful they would look when shot lovingly in films like Lee’s, it would signify racial barriers…

When racial barriers come down, people mingle, cohabitate, and mate. People grumbling on the sidelines about the losses and appropriations and whatnot that this involves are historical detritus.

McWhorter is correct to say that neighborhoods, and the people who live in them, are going to look different as racial barriers fall. These changes will continue as our country’s barbaric history of segregation retreats further into the past. This is something worth celebrating, but it doesn’t mean that Lee’s concerns shouldn’t be taken seriously, even by  those who don’t agree with his larger perspective.

In cities with restrictive land-use regulations and lengthy entitlement processes–like New York and Washington –economic development usually corresponds with increasing rents. This can lead to a situation that looks a lot like what Lee was describing.

When a neighborhood becomes significantly more popular, we should expect real estate developers and individuals to respond to increased demand by increasing the number of units available for sale and rent. In neighborhoods with detached homes, developers have an incentive to create townhouses. In areas where these already exist, developers might look to build mid-rise apartment buildings that allow for greater density. If a neighborhood already has mid-rise buildings and rents are high enough, developers start to build high-rises. This process of change keeps prices lower than they otherwise would have been in two ways.

First, it increases supply which lowers the equilibrium price for housing. Second, availability of new units means wealthier residents leave their old digs behind, freeing up more affordable housing for others. This process is important, because it means that houses get cheaper for middle-class renters even as developers are building more luxury units.

In contrast, when the stock of available housing is fixed because of local rules, rents skyrocket. Under this regime lots of people want to live in a neighborhood, and the available units each go to the highest bidder. This is bad news for people who don’t have a lot of money.

Columbia Heights is a case study of what happens to a newly-popular neighborhood under a restrictive land-use regime that doesn’t fully allow the processes described above. In 2000, there were 27,129 people living in the neighborhood,* including 11,092 black residents. After a decade of construction (mostly renovation), new residents, and change, the total population only increased by 1,087 people. By then, there were 3,107 fewer black residents. This sounds likes a lot like what Spike Lee was talking about, except that the dislocation might have been self-inflicted: it’s likely that developers would have greatly increased the number of housing units available in Columbia Heights if were legal to do so in a larger part of the neighborhood.

While the story of dislocation is true for Columbia Heights as a whole, there is significant variation between the six Census tracts that make up the neighborhood. Tract 29–the area north of Park Street, south of Spring Street, between 14th Street and New Hampshire Avenue–had the highest percentage loss of its black population. Tract 37–north of Florida Avenue, south of Harvard Street, between 16th and 14th–had the lowest percentage loss of its black population.

Tract 29 Tract 37 Columbia Heights
Housing Units +1.73% +23.80% +11.55%
Black Population -45.47% -10.99% -28.01%
Total Population -5.42% +15.49% +4.00%

The residential areas of Tract 29 are zoned R-4 for the most part, which allows buildings up to 40 feet tall, has minimum lot sizes, requires backyards, and requires 40% of any given lot to be vacant. This is an effective ban on new apartment buildings.

Most of Tract 37 is zoned R-5-B, which allows for apartments, has a higher height limit,  though it still requires 40% of a lot to be vacant.  North of Meridian Park, two blocks are zoned R-5-D, which allows for much taller apartment buildings.

By 2010, Tract 29 added a mere 28 units of housing, and ended up with 423 fewer residents. Tract 37 added 494 units of housing and an additional 773 people were able to move in.

There are a lot of other important factors to look at here, but in Columbia Heights we see that looser zoning regulations and a large increase in housing units corresponded to a significantly smaller exodus of black residents during a period of rapid economic development.

Race in this discussion is really a substitute for economic variables, and there isn’t a good reason to think that a similar process of outmigration didn’t take place for middle-class white and Latino residents who were priced out of the neighborhood.

But Spike Lee’s concerns are very real under the District’s current rules. Economic theory and our experience here in Washington suggest that restrictive land-use regulations should be a major concern for those worried about displaced renters. As more people from around the world choose to make Washington their home, we’re faced with a clear choice. We can accommodate new residents by allowing for greater density through relaxed land-use rules, or we can expect more people to get priced out.


*All data for this post are taken from the 2000 and 2010 Census reports. Columbia Heights is defined here as Census tracts 3, 28.01, 28.02, 29, 36, and 37. By this definition, Columbia Heights is located north of Florida Avenue, west of 16th Street, south of Spring Street, and east of 11th and New Hampshire (whichever is further east).

Two serious misconceptions about land-use regulation in DC

Congress may consider revising the longstanding Heights of Buildings Act of 1910, as I noted earlier:

The National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning have been working on a three-phase study of potential economic and aesthetic changes that would result if Congress were to allow slightly-taller buildings in some areas of the district. One part of the study focuses on the economic feasibility of building taller buildings, while another, conducted by DCOP, focuses on visually modeling changes to the D.C. skyline and views from important vantage points from around the region.

As part of this process, the District Council recently held a hearing about the potential amendments to the Height Act in which nearly every witness spoke against it.

Witnesses’ rationales for supporting the current height restrictions ranged from the boring (tall buildings bad, views blocked) to the strange (Fukushima?, SimCity?) This wasn’t particularly surprising. The concentrated benefit/dispersed cost dynamic of NIMBY politics usually means that small groups of older people who really care about stopping development attending hours-long daytime meetings while everyone else goes to work.

Director of the Washington DC Office of Planning Harriet Tregonings’ testimony and the subsequent back and forth  with the councilmembers, was much more notable.  The discussion revealed two major misconceptions about land-use regulation and the Height Act itself held by both Councilmembers Mendelson and Bowser:

1. Location doesn’t really matter

This may seem like a ridiculous statement, but it I often hear it from politicians and laypeople alike.  “Who cares if people can’t build downtown? The height limit spreads out development.” Both Bowser and Mendelson seemed to agree with some variation of this sentiment.

People choose to locate their offices in specific locations for real reasons. That’s why people pay for office space on K Street, where it is amongst the most expensive in the country, even though they could rent a larger office in Manassas for less than half the price. Even if someone could build a 15-story office building in the Atlas district, it wouldn’t serve the same set of needs as a building on K Street.

Restricting building heights where businesses actually want to locate greatly increases the footprint of the commercial district downtown, which limits the availability of space for retail and residential uses. This in turn increases commute times, increases local rents, increases retail prices, limits consumer options, and leads to boring, square buildings.

Not all viewsheds are worth preserving.

Just as importantly, height restrictions affect prices in other parts of DC. Absent the Height Act and other (more restrictive) local rules, residential buildings along 14th and U, Dupont Circle, and other areas would be significantly taller and have greater capacity to house people.

Developers don’t take the lost capacity and immediately put another building in Ward 8 when faced with a situation like this. Instead, there are just fewer places to live. The dual-income-no-kids couple who would have lived in the tall condo building instead purchase a nearby row house that used to house a working-class family, further compounding capacity and price problems.

Height restrictions don’t just spread out development, they change the layout of the city in a way that leads to higher costs and unnecessary displacement.

2. Removing Height Act doesn’t increase building heights

Both Mendelson and Bowser extensively questioned Tregoning to try to imagine a scenario in which it would be legal to build a skyscraper next door to a single family home or some other mythical zoning nightmare.

What neither seemed to understand at first is that removing the federally-imposed height limitation wouldn’t legalize tall buildings in the District. In addition to the federal rules, there are local rules about height that are difficult to get around without changing the zoning code. The PUD process allows small increases in height in exchange for offering community benefits, but those increases are very modest.

In addition, local parking minimums, floor area ratio maximums, and setback requirements serve as strict de facto limits on height. The DC Code also gives neighbors many opportunities and venues in which they can halt a project or severely limit its scale.

The actual stakes of what is being proposed–tiny, incremental changes to the Height Acts–tend to get lost in exchanges like council hearings, but let’s make it clear here:

Entirely removing the federal height limits in the District, which is not even being proposed, would only be a first step in a long process to make tall buildings legal. Before anything gets built, the District government would have to remove height limits in the zoning code, amend or remove parking restrictions, more than double the maximum floor area ratio, and lower setback requirements. The only immediate effect of a full repeal would be that the local government, not the feds, would choose how tall buildings can be within the District of Columbia.

Cyclists should behave exactly like drivers at stop signs

Bicycles are a perennial source of angst in most large cities. Bicycling has become more popular in the District over the last several years, and bicycle rules and infrastructure have become important public policy areas. They are also rife with unnecessary histrionics.

Cyclists’ and drivers’ behaviors are extremely similar. Because commuters are often in bad moods before heading out the door, interactions that result in a slight inconvenience are often blown out of proportion. Mix that with confirmation bias, and every minor incident turns into empirical evidence that drivers or cyclists (whichever one the observer is not) are terrible people who should be banned from the roads.

Attend a public hearing about a bike lane or check the comment section anytime someone writes about bicycles, bike lanes, or cyclists and you’re sure to hear several of the following:
1. Cyclists are scofflaws.
2. Drivers want to kill cyclists.
3. Claims of moral superiority based on mode of transportation.
4. Bike lanes make traffic worse.
5. Drivers are rude.
6. Cyclists are rude.

At a recent meeting to discuss a possible bike lane on 11th Street NW between Florida and U Streets, ANC 1B02 Commissioner Jeremy Leffler took umbrage to the idea that a bike lane was needed to increase safety on the three block route. “The problem is not ANC 1B people, it’s the people coming out of Columbia Heights, going 40mph, joyriding into our community and not stopping,” he said. Based on my experience at 1B meetings, Commissioner Leffler is a reasonable and polite person, so this quote merely demonstrates that misconceptions are widespread.

The following day, police were positioned on the southwest corner of 11th Street and Fairmont in Columbia Heights, ticketing cyclists for rolling through the stop sign. It’s worth noting that southbound cyclists are pedaling uphill at this point, and moving quite slowly. Luckily for the cyclists, tickets did not come with a penalty but had “warning” written into the fine section of the tickets.
It’s true that cyclists rarely come to a complete stop at stop signs unless there is cross traffic that requires the cyclist to yield. Cyclists usually slow to a speed that allows them to ascertain whether or not the intersection is clear, and then proceed forward if it is. This is called an Idaho Stop.
The Idaho stop is not new, novel, or even controversial in practice (though some cyclists prefer a different approach). It’s what nearly every single person on the road does nearly all the time. By not stopping, cyclists are behaving exactly like cars and simultaneously making commuting safer and more convenient for everyone involved.
I went to the corner of 11th and W this afternoon to film the intersection for 10 minutes.
During that time, approximately 57 cars traveled through. Around 35 of those cars did not have to yield to cross traffic. Of those 35, only two cars–less than 6%–came to a complete stop.
Aside from one driver, none who rolled through the intersection put anyone else in danger. Their actions do not make them scofflaws or renegades. They do not lack the moral authority to have input on traffic laws, nor should they have received a fine. They simply behaved in the standard, accepted fashion as appropriate for that intersection.
Similar results are found in empirical studies, though they often show lower stop sign compliance.
When cyclists treat stop signs like everyone else, they better blend with traffic and lower the inconvenience to drivers. There isn’t enough room for cars to pass cyclists on 11th Street between Florida and U Streets, which means that drivers would be considerably inconvenienced by cyclists slowing to a complete stop and then slowly accelerating at the stop signs.
That stretch of 11th Street may or may not be a great place for a bike lane (I’d suggest that they remove 11th Street’s stop signs at W and V Streets instead), but that’s a separate issue unrelated to “scofflaw” behavior. Until it is decided, drivers and cyclists should travel safely and courteously, which means not coming to a complete stop at stop signs.

D.C. Taxicab Commission should reverse course and re-legalize UberX

Uber recently launched their new uberX service in Washington, D.C. and immediately facedopposition from the District of Columbia Taxicab Commission. UberX is similar to Uber’s black sedan product, except it matches users with a hybrid car at a lower price point. Uber regularly faces opposition from regulators when entering new markets, but Uber’s original business model was formally legalized by the District Council earlier this year.

Ron Linton, chairman of the commission, claimed that hybrid vehicles can’t be classified as sedans under D.C. law, possibly making uberX illegal, but at the time, the D.C. code contained no such distinction.

Until today, that is. The commission took matters into their own hands and effectively banned uberX from D.C.  It seems like yet another example of regulators proposing new rules in search of a problem that might not actually exist.

Given Uber’s good track record, why did the commission go after uberX? ”It would be allowing a taxi-[like] vehicle essentially to run unregulated against… a taxi that is regulated. That simply doesn’t make sense to me,” said Linton.

It might not make sense to him, but let’s see how Uber’s internal regulations stack up with those provided by the Taxicab Commission.

The regulatory model offered by the commission is pretty standard and has five main features:

  1. Licensing drivers allows the commission to run background checks on people who want to drive cabs. The physical license, mandated to be displayed at all times, gives consumers a way to report a specific driver for misconduct.
  2. Meters let passengers know how far the taxi has traveled, and how much they are expected to pay.
  3. Basic standards on vehicle quality and business practice (including rules like not denying rides based on destination or race) let passengers know what to expect, and are supposed to deliver high quality service.
  4. Drivers are required to keep an accurate log of all rides, and issue customers receipts, which can be used in later disputes.
  5. The commission has roving inspectors, though the are off duty after midnight.

In a world without cell phones, GPS, or computers and only a small number of cab drivers, this might be the best possible regulatory model. In a city with thousands of taxis, these regulations have failed to protect consumers.

Drivers routinely drive without displaying their license, leaving passengers without the necessary information to pursue a complaint. It’s very difficult for a passenger to tell if a meter is functioning correctly, and those who aren’t versed in taxi regulations can’t tell if the driver entered the correct amount of extra charges unless he is also displaying the required information. Drivers almost never issue actual receipts, and instead give passengers blank forms. All of these problems were spotted in a recent investigation by WUSA9.

In two separate investigations, WUSA9 confirmed what everyone knows: cabbies will often refuse to pick up black or disabled customers. According to Clinton Yates, “Uber increases the quality of  life for those of us who are regularly dissed by taxi drivers.” For all their efforts, the D.C. Taxicab Commission has been unable to deliver what their regulations promise.

Uber takes a different approach to regulation with both their standard black sedan and uberX services.

  1. The meter, log and payment system is replaced by smart phones. The phones connect the driver and passenger, track the path of the car and send payment.
  2. Uber later emails the customer a detailed receipt that includes a map of the car’s path and an explanation of charges.
  3. Passengers rate drivers, and drivers rate passengers. People who are dishonest or treat others poorly are removed from the service. Whether or not a license is displayed, the passenger knows exactly with whom he or she is dealing.
  4. If a driver takes a bad route to increase the fare, Uber will offer refunds to customers.
  5. Uber drivers and their vehicles are often licensed outside of the district, but Uber conducts their own background check and training process.

Uber doesn’t own cars or employ drivers. Rather, they work with independent drivers or companies that own fleets of vehicles. Unlike the Taxicab Commission, they have a strong financial incentive to make sure passengers have a positive experience. If Uber set standards as low as the commission does, it would go out of business. If the commission set standards as high as Uber does, it might face political pressure from elected officials, for whom taxi drivers are an important constituency.

The commission itself hasn’t licensed sedan drivers or vehicles in several years, effectively outsourcing sedan regulation to other jurisdictions. The commission says it is going to start licensing sedans and drivers again, which would mean that they will no longer be able to be licensed out of state and operate within the District. Combined with the recently passed regulations on sedan size, it seems that the commission is making changes solely to stop uberX from competing with cabs.

In a few short years, Uber has done a much better job of ensuring that D.C. residents have access to pleasant for-hire rides at a fair price than the D.C. Taxicab Commission could possibly hope for. If district regulation of for-hire vehicles is designed to protect consumers, then UberX should clearly be allowed to operate.

National Capital Planning Commission gives mild consideration to marginal changes to Height Act

Under current federal law, buildings in the District of Columbia can be no taller than 130 feet, save for a short section of Pennsylvania Avenue NW where buildings can reach up to 160 feet.

The National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning have been working on a three-phase study of potential economic and aesthetic changes that would result if Congress were to allow slightly-taller buildings in some areas of the district. One part of the study focuses on the economic feasibility of building taller buildings, while another, conducted by DCOP, focuses on visually modeling changes to the D.C. skyline and views from important vantage points from around the region. The models attempt to give D.C. residents and stakeholders an idea of what the district would look like with buildings up to 225 feet tall. While it is encouraging to see discussions about easing height restrictions in DC, the study suffers from both from an unambitious vision, and a structure that largely determined the outcome of the project before any analysis took place.

No Burj Khalifa in Glover Park

Graphic by the DC Office of Planning

The visual modeling study does get several things right. First, it correctly assumes that tall buildings will not be built in historic districts, federally owned properties, very low-density areas, historic sites, parks, and other designated open spaces. See the graphic provided by DCOP to the left. NIMBYs sometimes raise the alarm about extremely unlikely outcomes from repealing the Height Act, and it’s important for people to know that the Burj Khalifa isn’t coming to Glover Park for both economic reasons and policy reasons.

Second, the study also provides lots of interesting views (certainly worth clicking through to get a sense of the study), and analysis of areas in which buildings are already up against the maximum height allowed by Congress. After all, the existence of taller buildings is one economic indicator for where actually tall buildings might be built in the absence of height restrictions.

The modeling study also had several serious drawbacks, some of which drastically lower the value of the entire effort.

The NCPC began with three “principles”:.

Principle 1. Ensure the prominence of the federal landmarks and monuments by preserving their views and setting

Principle 2. Maintain the horizontality of the monumental skyline

Principle 3. Minimize negative impacts to nationally significant historic resources, including the L’Enfant Plan

The first principle basically excludes changing much of anything. The second necessarily requires a height restriction low enough to encompass several miles of development. The third is too broad to have much meaning on its own. None were subjected to serious cost-benefit analysis before deciding that they are worthwhile principles to guide future policy in the district. The problematic nature of the principles unfortunately had a direct effect on the quality of the visual modeling efforts.

Much of the Phase 2 presentation focuses on views that, while interesting, don’t help viewers understand what it will be like to live in a city with taller buildings. For example, see this shot from the Air Force Memorial in Virginia:

500 feet above the Air Force Memorial

Graphic from the DC Office of Planning

At first glance, it seems like the monuments and skyline are the central features of the view from the Air Force Memorial. However, this is taken from 500 feet above the actual memorial itself with a very nice camera lens. Unless you rent a helicopter, gain access to heavily restricted airspace, and have excellent vision, you will never actually experience this view.

This photo I took shows the view from the Air Force Memorial as actually experienced by visitors:

Small trees threaten federal interests in sight lines and skyline horizontality.

At 555 feet tall–more than double the highest building considered in the modeling study–most of the Washington Monument was obscured by small trees until I made an effort to get it into the frame. You might assume that the Capitol dome is also entirely obscured, but because it is such an insignificant part of the skyline from this distance, it is scarcely visible at all. With unlimited building heights it is possible that the Capitol would be obscured entirely, but it’s also important to note that there is not a single building between the Washington Monument and the Air Force Memorial. People visiting the Air Force Memorial wouldn’t have their view ruined by taller buildings, if they noticed them at all.

Similar criticisms could be made of most of the other vantage points included in the visual modeling study. The view from Meridian Hill Park seems to change drastically from a perspective high in the air, but only the tip of the Washington Monument is visible if you actually stand in the park (again, assuming the trees have been recently trimmed). Not much changes when the buildings are raised to max height. Kudos to the authors of the study for including several street-level perspectives, but what they routinely demonstrate is that views of historic sites are largely unaffected by taller buildings.

This raises the rather obvious question of why major building restrictions for the entire District of Columbia are being based, in large part, on views  from perspectives that most of us will only experience in the form of a postcard. Even if allowing taller buildings drastically alters the view from Virginia or parts of the district far away from the National Mall, this potentially negative outcome should be weighed against the rather large costs of current restrictions. Height restrictions cause longer commutes, higher rents, lower real incomes, and less diverse urban areas. How much money should we spend and how many people should we displace so that someone can catch a fleeting glimpse of the Washington Monument from miles away?

If the NCPC is considering changes to our height restrictions, why not model what it would look like if the height limit varied based on distance from the National Mall? For example, buildings could either conform to the Height Act, or build one foot of height for every five feet it is from Constitution Ave. This would preserve the look of the National Mall and areas surrounding national historic sites while still allowing tall buildings in the central business district. That would be a visual model worth building.

NCPC study aside, easing height restrictions in the district is clearly good policy. Doing so is a necessary but insufficient condition for tall buildings. Without serious amendments to D.C. zoning regulations on floor-area ratios, parking minimums, and setback requirements we still wouldn’t have any. Removing height restrictions would simply put control of planning in local hands.

Correction: The Height Master Plan is a joint study being conducted by NCPC and the DC Office of Planning, not by NCPC alone. The post has been updated to reflect this.

Written comments to Alcoholic Beverage Control Board regarding the proposed liquor license moratorium

A copy of the below comments were submitted to the ABC Board earlier today:



Dear Members of the Board,

I am the founder of In My Backyard – DC, a group of DC residents committed to a more liveable and affordable District. We currently have more than 600 members.

We ask that you reject the liquor license moratorium petition in its entirety.

The moratorium petition should be rejected for three reasons:

1. The petition itself is inaccurate and unreliable.

2. Residents within the proposed moratorium zone are overwhelmingly opposed.

3. A liquor license moratorium would not be appropriate as outlined in the DC Code.

First, nearly everything about the liquor license moratorium petition prepared by the Shaw Dupont-Citizens Alliance (SDCA) is inaccurate.

The petition claims that the proposed moratorium zone had 107 liquor licenses at time of filing. According to the order on moratorium petition you published, there are in fact 80 liquor licenses within the proposed moratorium zone.

The SDCA then claims that the proposed moratorium zone also has the highest concentration of liquor licenses in the District. This is not even close to the truth. The liquor license concentration in the Adams Morgan moratorium zone is 75% higher.  The Dupont West moratorium zone concentration is 114% higher. The Dupont East moratorium zone concentration is a whopping 271% higher. This means the proposed moratorium zone, because it is nine times larger than the Dupont East zone, would need add an additional 217 liquor licenses to reach the same concentration.

The petition also claims that liquor licenses have caused a crime problem in the U Street area. This is also demonstrably false. Since 2000, crimes–violent and property–have dropped precipitously as more and more liquor licenses have been issued. See graphic here: http://bit.ly/imbycrimemap. Note that SDCA did not submit any kind of proof to support their assertions.

The petition paints a picture of the U Street area that is simply inaccurate. While it may have some problems with code enforcement, the U Street neighborhood is a pleasant and vibrant part of town that people from all over the country flock to visit and live permanently. Liquor licenses have been key to that success. With so many glaring errors in arguments that are central to the petition, it would be a mistake to use it as a basis for policy making.

Second, it is completely clear that the residents of the proposed moratorium zone are overwhelmingly opposed to the moratorium zone.

At the multi-ANC listening meeting session more than 85% of the 58 residents who spoke opposed the moratorium. A large portion of speakers in support of the proposal were SDCA board members. The opposition was so overwhelming that every single ANC affected by the proposal voted to reject the moratorium.

More than 1,200 District residents have signed a petition to reject the moratorium petition.

More than 600 District residents joined my group, In My Back Yard – DC, primarily to oppose the moratorium petition.

The Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance, in contrast, only accepts members from a two by four block rectangle, which represents only 19% of the proposed moratorium zone. Within that small zone, only a handful of residents have signed on to SDCA’s agenda.

Third, the moratorium would be inappropriate based on the standards laid out in the DC Code. The petition claims that a moratorium would be appropriate because of the effect of additional liquor licenses would have on 1) peace, order, and quiet, including the noise and litter provisions; and 2) residential parking needs and vehicular and pedestrian safety.

A liquor license moratorium would not have a beneficial effect on peace, order and quiet. Rather, a moratorium would simultaneously insulate liquor licensed establishments from competition and give them an extremely valuable asset: a transferable liquor license they can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. If it is the case that certain establishments are causing problems, a moratorium would reward rather than punish them.

A moratorium would also stop the competitive process that leads to new establishments that better serve the community and improve peace, order, and quiet. A cap on liquor licenses in the area would make it profitable for businesses to move towards a high-volume, low-service model that would negatively impact peace, order, and quiet.

While SDCA brings out a long list of alleged problems, nearly all of them are violations of existing regulations (overserving customers, zoning violations) or completely asinine (selling pizza, happy hours, etc). None of the real problems would be addressed by a moratorium, and other complaints are inappropriate for the ABC Board to address.

Likewise, a moratorium would not be an appropriate tool to address parking in the proposed moratorium zone. The U Street corridor is one of the best neighborhoods for public transportation. Along with the Metro station, the proposed moratorium zone straddles several major bus lines. Regarding taxis, it is also one of the best-served neighborhoods in the entire District. The moratorium zone is also extremely dense, which allows many people to walk to liquor-licensed establishments.

A moratorium would exacerbate parking problems, as well. A cap on liquor licenses may allow current license-holders to simply increase the volume of their sales and attract greater traffic in already impacted areas, rather than spreading out new establishments throughout the proposed moratorium zone.

The petition, when trying to prove that a moratorium would be appropriate to deal with residential parking issues, complains about taxis, WMATA, and valet service. However, these are all examples of services that make the parking situation in the proposed moratorium zone significantly better. If there is a case to be made for restricting liquor licenses on the basis of residential parking, vehicular or pedestrian safety, the petition fails to make it.

The Shaw-Dupont Citizens Alliance has presented the Board with an inaccurate, misleading, and deeply confused petition for the creation of a new moratorium zone, and have submitted no evidence to support their proposal. The petition asks the Board to go against the wishes of the residents in the affected areas, and to stifle the growth of the District for dubious benefits. Most importantly, the petition utterly fails to demonstrate that a moratorium would be appropriate under any of the standards set forth in the DC Code.

On behalf of the 600+ In My Backyard – DC members, I ask that you reject the moratorium in its entirety.


Michael Hamilton
Founder, IMBYdc

Food truck regulations are a textbook example of rent-seeking

The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) has been noticeably quiet on food truck issues, at least in public channels, since the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory affairs released its latest round of proposed regulations in March, and for good reason [Note: I detailed my opposition here]. Regulation proponents have been on the defensive lately because their favored policies are extremely unpopular. Of the 223 comments submitted to DCRA regarding the latest proposed regulations, only six–less than 3%–were supportive. Even the Washington Post editorial board wrote that the regulations should be rejected by the City Council.

On Friday afternoon, RAMW decided to go on the offensive, and sent out an email blast. In it, a RAMW staffer wrote that the map released by the Food Truck Association of Metropolitan Washington (FTA), which details where food trucks would be allowed to vend under the proposed regulations, is a fraud. On a laughable note, they also wrote that the proposed regulations are definitely “not a ‘plot’ dreamed up by restaurant operators to stifle competition.” (Does this remind anyone else of a certain Twitter account?) It also stated that the FTA previously supported a lottery to assign food trucks to specific locations, which is demonstrably false.

This email puts lobbying group in the awkward position of pretending to be a disinterested public service organization while simultaneously begging the government to put its members’ competitors out of business.

The letter raises two important questions:

1) Why is RAMW involved in the food truck rulemaking process to begin with? 

RAMW is engaged in a textbook example of rent-seeking, the process of interest groups lobbying for favorable regulations that either take money from competitors/consumers or stop them from competing at all. Specifically, RAMW wants regulations that eliminate food trucks from most of the city, while allowing a small handful to operate where they are currently most popular. Under the new regulatory regime, at least some of the former food truck customers would instead spend money at RAMW member restaurants. It’s common to see RAMW use high-minded language about protecting public space when discussing food truck regulations, but it would be naïve to take them at their word.

Perhaps I’m being cynical, but RAMW President Lynne Breaux actually wrote that stopping competition is her goal. In a 2010 comment submitted to the DCRA, she wrote “the positives of [food trucks], however, must be balanced against the needs and interests of the District’s business locations,” demonstrating quite clearly that RAMW is looking out for their members’ profits rather than consumer well-being.

Does RAMW expect us to believe that the money it collects from members to lobby on their behalf has instead been diverted to unrelated work on public space preservation?

2) What regulations has RAMW actually lobbied for?

After DCRA proposes new regulations, it allows for public comments to be submitted, which it then displays on its website and sometimes uses when making later revisions. RAMW has participated in this process, and their comments give us a chance to see what their ideal regulatory framework would look like.

It’s not pretty.

In late 2012, RAMW asked DCRA to assign a small number of food trucks to a few specific locations in the Central Business District (i.e. nearly everywhere south of Massachusetts Avenue NW), and then ban all trucks who don’t win one of the few assigned parking spots. Lo and behold, that’s basically what DCRA included in their next revision of the proposed regulations.

One of the main benefits of food trucks is that they cluster and provide customers with several convenient options in one place. Previously proposed regulations set a minimum of three food trucks per location downtown, but RAMW instead would like to set a three-truck maximum.  RAMW also asked that any trucks outside of the Central Business District not be allowed to sell food if they are within 10 feet of a business, 20 feet of another food truck, or on a block with two other trucks.

If this is starting to sound familiar, take a second look at the FTA map that RAMW called a ‘fraud.’

RAMW also proposed a ban on food truck sales after midnight and a ban on music played by trucks. Trucks would also be banned from throwing away their own trash, and must contract with a third party to do so. Any food truck vendors caught in contravention of these regulations would owe $500 for the first offense, which would  then escalate with every  subsequent infraction. In sum, RAMW proposes a world in which your lunch choices are extremely limited for the benefit of downtown restaurants (you can read the rest of their many other recommendations here).

It’s DCRA’s job to protect consumers, not the restaurant industry. When it comes to food trucks, RAMW is in direct conflict with the interest of consumers. Not only are there other, serious problems with the proposed regulations, but it’s not even clear what problem regulators are trying to address.

Food trucks are extremely popular in the District because they meet the needs of hungry workers. Free entry into the market and free movement within the District means more choice, and more competition. That is good news for consumers, but bad news for RAMW.

What does an “overconcentration” of liquor licenses mean, and why does it matter?

Last Thursday, SDCA board member Guy Podgornik made a presentation about his group’s moratorium petition. His presentation included the claim that the legal definition of liquor license overconcentration is 18 licenses within the area of a proposed moratorium zone. This is supposed to imply that  ABRA or the ANCs should approve his group’s petition because of the official-sounding “overconcentration.” Not only is this is untrue, but the term “overconcentration” isn’t directly related to the moratorium review process.

To understand what this term means, and why it matters, one has to look at the DC Code. To propose a moratorium, the Code requires petitioners decide whether to propose a moratorium for a locality, section, or portion of the District. These terms refer the areas within a circle with a radius of 600, 1200, or 1800 feet, respectively. Next, petitioners have to choose an establishment to be the center of their proposed moratorium zone, and then demonstrate that the area they have selected meets certain requirements for the petition to be considered by the ABRA board. To reiterate, these are just some of the basic requirements that must be met before one can argue the merits of a liquor license moratorium. It seems that this is the section of the law that confuses SDCA board members: they have repeatedly claimed that 18 liquor licenses in a portion of the city, the legally required minimum number for ABRA to even accept a moratorium petition for review, is instead the legal definition of  “overconcentration”. They also seem to be under the impression that, having passed this imaginary threshold, ABRA has reason to approve their petition.

According to ABRA, a moratorium petition is only approved if it meets the basic requirements, and the board determines it to be appropriate based on at least two of the following three factors (DC Code § 25-3l3(b)):

1) The effect of the establishment on real property values;

2) The effect of the establishment on peace, order, and quiet, including the noise and litter provisions;

3) The effect of the establishment on residential parking needs and vehicular and pedestrian safety.

Overconcentration is not listed. The term appears in other parts of the DC Code, but the definition of overconcentration itself refers to the three factors already listed: “‘Overconcentration’ means the existence of several licensed establishments that adversely affect a specific locality, section, or portion of the District of Columbia, including consideration of the appropriateness standards under § 25-3l3(b).” It should be noted here that the Code offers no numerical definition of overconcentration, and the term is, once again, unrelated to the moratorium review process.

SDCA board members continue to provide inaccurate information to ANCs about overconcentration even though Elwyn Ferris, Chair of SDCA’s ABRA Committee, explained the actual, correct definition at their February 21st meeting. In fact, the meeting minutes include a verbatim definition from the code, exactly as I provided above. Guy Podgornik, along with other board members, attended this meeting before making his presentation to ANC 2F.

This isn’t the first time that the SDCA has spread misinformation. The SDCA originally claimed in their petition that U Street has the highest concentration of liquor licenses in the District, but I have since pointed out that this is a misconception due to a basic math error on their part. Since then, I haven’t heard that claim made in public, and perhaps this is why they’re using the (also incorrect) “legal definition of overconcentration” argument.

The vision behind the moratorium

Two small advocacy groups, the Residential Action Coalition and the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance, recently filed a petition to create a large liquor license moratorium zone centered around Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. In response, I founded In My Backyard—DC, a broad coalition of District residents who oppose the proposed moratorium and NIMBYism generally. There’s a lot more at stake here than the number of liquor licenses in the proposed zone. A moratorium would free up NIMBYs’ resources to attack new development in DC while failing to address the concerns raised by the moratorium advocates.

IMBYdc currently has over 500 members and is in the process of creating an executive board. Members from all over DC have joined, though our current membership is primarily concentrated between Columbia Heights and Logan Circle. The initial response to the group has been overwhelming, and I’ve had the opportunity to speak with both longtime and new residents in the proposed moratorium zone.

Shaw-Dupont Citizens Alliance, in contrast, limits membership to those who live in a two by four block rectangle south of U Street. In fact, their borders exclude people who live in 81% of the proposed moratorium zone from joining as voting members. Residential Action Coalition, which doesn’t have a website, has an unknown membership. The group’s president, Kay Eckles, is well-known for her activism and litigation efforts to stop new buildings. In one notable case she contended “that the height of [a] 12-story Metropolitan Square building would pose a security threat to the White House.” Both groups are opposed to greater population density and to new businesses that fall outside of their visions for the neighborhood.

The petition signed by Ms. Eckles and her counterpart at SDCA, Joan Sterling, makes several allegations about the U Street corridor to support the moratorium. First, and most obviously false, they claim that proposed moratorium zone has the highest concentration of liquor licenses in the District. They also compiled a long list of quality of life issues related to liquor licenses. My personal favorites are sexual activity, “honking battles,” and the development of “carry-out pizza by-the-slice businesses.” Eckles and Sterling also contend that the growth of liquor licenses in the area have brought higher crime, but this graphic from Nick Baumann’s blog demonstrates that crime rates have in fact gone down with new development.

The petition paints a picture of U Street that I don’t recognize, but it raises an important question: Would a liquor license moratorium address any of these alleged problems? Nearly all of the nuisances listed in the petition, selling pizza excepted, are either violations of city laws or codes that would need to be addressed by police or regulators. Supporters of the moratorium say that preventing new licenses will stop U Street from becoming Adams Morgan, but Adams Morgan, which has had a moratorium since 2008, demonstrates that a moratorium cannot prevent drunken behavior and related crimes.

The proposed moratorium should be judged by the likely consequences of its implementation rather than these stated goals.

Under the current regulatory framework NIMBYs have to fight each and every business that attempts to open, and they have limited time and money to do so. The main consequence of the moratorium would be that it frees up resources for a very specific NIMBY group to oppose developments of all kinds across the District. In fact, the Shaw-Dupont Citizens Alliance was formed specifically to oppose the new apartments at 13th and U Streets, with the moratorium as a secondary goal.

A liquor license moratorium would also transfer power from ANC commissioners to unelected activists. Current law allows an abutting property owner, a group of as few a five property owners, an incorporated citizens association, or the DC Metropolitan Police Department to file a protest that almost always leads to months-long negotiations with a liquor license applicant and the relevant ANC. This is a robust system for community input that already allows protestants to block many new businesses. It’s worth noting that SDCA board member Dan Wittels ran for ANC1B12 Commissioner, but fewer than 11% of his neighbors voted for him, indicating they do not share his vision for the neighborhood.

Not only do their board members have an interesting history of stringent NIMBYism, but SDCA has opposed every single development that has come to a vote in a meeting. This includes Taco NacionalTed’s Bulletin, the PUD and the amended PUD for the JBG development on 13th & U, and Compass Rose. They also opposed the ABRA reforms that would stop DC residents from filing liquor license protests against businesses that they don’t actually live near.

Whether you think U Street has too many bars or too few, the moratorium debate is representative of competing visions for the neighborhood. Whether you support more affordable homes, more businesses and jobs, a walkable neighborhood, or just more liveable District, the moratorium would be a loss.