“I Have A Voice!” Sez Who?!

Just who should have say about developement here…and from how far away?

Today feels like a mixed bag. There’s a lot that’s been happening. ANC decision on Matchbox’s exetended hours. The 14th Street post office out in part, because the developer didn’t ask them back. Growing steady pushback on parking…as if the streets around U & T aren’t jammed now, let’s invite a whole new bunch!  And crime on the rise. Local residents are feeling a little squeezed and ignored.

I’m reminded of an question that touches on many of these matters (which we hope our neighbors will also generously be writing on!)

It was Thanksgiving; the main meal was finished, desserts were yet to come, so we mingled and had wine. Everyone was happy, until someone brought up Matchbox. “Ooo, I love Matchbox!” said one friend, and noticing my face added “what, you don’t? What don’t you like about it?”

(image: Rich Remoneron)

I don’t care about Matchbox in the abstract. For those making the ‘foodie’ argument, most of the food in DC still holds a pale candle to New York or Chicago. Give me a fish taco at Pica Taco anyday over $20 tacos at ElCentro.  As a yuppie place to spend too much money on mediocre pizza, I’ll never go to Matchbox.  But lots of people will.  Fine, let people choose.

But buildings and tenants aren’t abstract. They’re real: involving deliveries, garbage, patrons and workers, noise, and the ubiquitous DC rats. And it’s in the the specific – as in operating 10 houses down my block, drawing customers from everywhere by car or Metro – that I can state  I don’t like it. “We have enough restaurants – and the chains are pushing out the cheap places who have been here forever,” I retort.

“What are you, a NIMBY?” he laughs, souring my happy humor, adding “Well I like it and I vote it stays!” ”

Well I don’t and I Live Here so I vote no.” “So do I, only three blocks away! Does that mean you have more of a vote than me?”  Meaning: I’m close enough to walk to it, far enough away to not have to deal with any of the mess and the traffic tangles, but I like it so I have just as much say as you. Pie comes before the argument escalates.

Is this really the way local governance works?  As long as someone likes something they should be able to vote for it, wherever they are; while those who don’t and live next door get sidelined as NIMBYs?  Hmmm.

Which got me thinking: just who should have a say in a DC development? Let’s say, a 8-level development on 14th street, between T and U, east-side.  For sake of argument, this  one block development will involve taking down some existing structures & evicting long-term tenants, all to build small condos with possibly some retail on the first floor. Lastly, let’s say the project is getting next to no tax breaks; just the standard sort of utility and street work that comes with the build.

Now. Should someone living in Pennsylvania have a say in whether the building can go up, and what it’s ultimate shape is? Even if that person likes coming to DC and enjoys the U Street area? No. No, that person should not have any say whatsoever about what we do in the District, just as we would have no business poking our nose into their development. (Yes, all this with the caveat that none of the development threatens federal statute or regulations, in which every American has an equal stake.)

This is axiomatic. Why should Gladys Kravitz have no say? Because she doesn’t live here.  She doesn’t pay taxes here.  She doesn’t contribute in any meaningful way to the community.  And because – this is the big one – it doesn’t affect her. So, having established some principles, let’s pull that right a bit tighter now.

Same development, same location, but this time, we ask someone in Takoma Park what they think. Considerably closer, yes, although she’s still in another jurisdiction. Doesn’t pay DC taxes but does contribute to a healthy DC financially and otherwise.  Someone who’s interested in low-cost housing for all people. Should she have a voice in what happens? Well, she can exercise her voice all she likes, raising awareness, arguing for or against the development, building buzz. Campaign away! But as far as the district is concerned – with it’s overlapping ANC, CDB, PSAs and City regulatory boards that determine arts, significance, infrastructure…and on and on…she’s not a player. Her voice may be interesting, but it really doesn’t count – it’s not her neighborhood.

Tighter still. Same project, but now we ask someone living on 17 & Swann NW; only a stone-throw from the development, but offiicially outside the ANC and some other regulatory bodies. Do they have a voice? What about someone living in Foxhall? It’s the same thing, after all: they live in the city, they’re outside the ANC but hey, it’s their city, too, and they’re close and likely to be experiencing this new development.

Should we all have a right to vote in all our developments through the city? Think carefully. Answering yes unleashes a thousand thousand people who are fed up with development in their area, and will take it out on yours.

So it’s pretty well established then: unless federal laws or city tax breaks are at stake, development at present is a region by region thing. Which means those that live there get more say than those who only hope to some day, or those others who would love to come visit X or Y if it were only put up on someone else’s turf.

It is the presumption, from this point on, that anyone hurling the NIMBY label is in fact someone who just doesn’t live here.  Someone who is butting his huge Alice Kravitz nose into places it doesn’t belong.

Let those most affected by development to decide on their own what they want and what they don’t want. Anyone else – you can watch, you can talk about it, but you don’t get a vote.

Tend to your knitting. We’ll tend to ours.



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10 responses to ““I Have A Voice!” Sez Who?!

  1. Who is ‘you,’ here? Is ‘you’ an individual? Is it the royal you, referring to collective nearby residents?

    And what is ‘say’ in the area? Say could mean weighing in on a project, or it could mean crafting a plan – and then the plan is implemented without specific input on the various projects that make up a plan.

    And what’s the extent of ‘having a say’? Does it mean veto power? I would argue that it absolutely does not. But what’s the level of influence?

    You mention potential projects, but you make no mention of the land use regulations governing that site. Is the project by right? Does it require approval? This is ultimately a question of land use rights, yet the specific definitions of what land use rights are given to which parties is missing from this hypothetical.

    I also think pitting this as residents vs. developers is a mistake and doesn’t really reflect the distribution of costs and benefits to any particular project. City-wide benefits to development are very real, but diffuse. In aggregate, they matter a great deal, but on a project-by-project basis, they are hard to quantify. Likewise, local-based impacts (i.e. costs) are often quite concentrated, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be managed.

    • Doug

      You are I are exactly who they say they are – there’s no trick. Either my friend or myself. I speak for no-one other than myself.
      Weighing in is something the city invites residents to do on large-scale changes that are going to affect multiple jurisdictions. “Weighing in” is something residents are increasingly feeling pushed out of when it comes to specific projects.
      Nobody’s pitting residents v. developers – that’s on you. This is and has always been about giving people who are directly affected by a development a voice in the outcome. If that seems unfair, I question your self of balance.

  2. I don’t think weighing in is unfair at all – to the contrary, I think it’s critical. But my point via those questions was to ask about what venues are appropriate for that weight to be applied, and in what stage of the various projects. What’s the process? Also, how is that input used?

    For example, you use the anecdote of Matchbox as an entry into this discussion. What’s the process for a business opening in a space that’s designated for businesses? I would posit that such a process would and should be drastically different from the process for a landowner to propose a massive change to the built environment, for example. Or what if a neighbor just wants to paint their house a different color? Or add on a front porch?

    In short, simply asserting the right to weigh in doesn’t really answer the question I’m asking. There are widely different degrees of change. I’m curious about your thoughts on those variations.

  3. Pingback: NIMBY or not? | ustreetbeat

    • Doug

      Alex: the process is in script. The many DC bureaus, commissions, and agencies provide exactly that: what the community has determined to be the best process.
      All the examples you mention – if you don’t already know – are all covered by multiple DC boards. You can’t turn around without a DC inspector saying Yes or No.
      Again: our point is simply that local residents have a voice in decisions that affect their immediate neighborhood. If you can’t agree to that, then you’re not in any way a small-d democrat.
      Don’t try to catch anyone with a trap. Unless you live here – and if you do, please come introduce yourself! – each specific is specific to the development.

      • I don’t follow you, Doug.

        Of course there are processes in place. You seem to indicating dissatisfaction with the extant processes. I certainly think there are ways those processes could be dramatically improved – so I disagree that the process in place is what is the best process.

        Of course local residents have a voice. Did I write otherwise? I was merely asking for you to expound on your views of what the processes should be for various forms of change. No traps.

  4. J

    I fail to understand this argument. Why the opposition of this one restaurant? And why does one group get decide that “we have enough restaurants already”? Just because they live 10 houses away? The neighborhood is beyond just your block. The retail, restaurant and business serve many in the city. Cities are always evolving and changing. Blocking development and potential new businesses doesn’t really help our economy. It just leaves things stagnant. DC should encourage growth, and more dense development. You don’t like density? Move to Herndon or Glen Bernie. You can have a nice quiet life on a cul-de-sac. This is a city, with lots of people, with lots of interactions. This may cause issues to come up. You address it, compromise if need be, and move on. Don’t stop development just because you “like the way things are.” It isn’t just YOUR block, it isn’t just YOUR neighborhood. And it isn’t just YOUR city. Its mine and 599,000 others. Your vote doesn’t count more than mine. You complain about the food here, and then a restaurant you don’t like wants to open. Well blocking this restaurant, just discourages other would be restaurants/businesses (maybe ones you would like!) from wanting to operate here. I live right behind a restaurant operating on U Street, I love it. Let developers build, let architects design, let businesses grow. I have a voice, because this is my DC too.

    • Doug

      Thanks for the thoughts, J, but I don’t think anyone ever said it is only MY neighborhood. That’s unfair, and I think reasonable people could agree to that. I’ve also not come out and said I don’t want the restaurant, so I’m not sure how you leap to the conclusion that I don’t like Matchbox.
      But the big point is be careful what you ask for. Do you really want people in upper Foxhall having equal voice about what can and can’t be built on a block you live on? Or any other neighborhood, for that matter (not picking on Foxhall.) Development is not all or nothing, and people who are impacted on a daily and intimate basis by projects should be heard. Not given veto authority, but be heard. Really not all that controversial, in my mind.

  5. Mustafa

    Interesting post, though there I see some generalizations that might be overstated a tad. Is it fair to presume that anyone hurling the NIMBY label is in fact someone who just doesn’t live here? Doubtful. Afterall, the person hurting NIMBY accurations might reasonably be your next door neighbor who simply has a different view on how the surrounding community should develop. I’m fairly sure my fellow condo association members might have up to 28 different opinions on the development of the 2 (and counting) new large projects north of U street. Is it fair to say that only persons residing within an x-mile radius of a project should have a voice? At a superficial level, perhaps. But it’s probably not the case once the complexities of development are factored in. For example, I take a deep interest in development across the Anacostia River? Is it because I live there or go there? No. It’s because I believe a rising tide of development and improvement (admittedly not always the same thing) rises the tide city-wide. Perhaps it’s also out of a mostly selfless interest in seeing a new neighborhood rise from neglect and abandomnent, and to become a vibrant contributor to city life. Although I can’t speak for your Matchbox fan, perhaps there is something else at work besides a love of mediocre pizza at a safe, rat-free distance. Perhaps your dinner guest sincerely believed that a bustling pizza place is better than a half-shuttered practice studio or abandoned building offering nothing to the streetlife. It’s hard to know, but I caution you to reconsider the us vs. them mindset that seems implicit in your post. Again, thanks for the blog. I think it’s a valuable contribution to the neighborhood chatter.

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