Advisory Neighborhood Commission Reform in D.C., Part 2

Posted: July 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: District of Columbia, Politics | Tags: | 1 Comment »

ANC02_2B.pdfMy post a few weeks back on possible reforms to the Washington, D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commission system stimulated some interesting discussion on the blog. In response, my former Shaw neighbor Sarah Livingston (editor of the 7th Streeter neighborhood newsletter) put me in touch with David Holmes, and elected commissioner with ANC 6A on Capitol Hill. Together with the other 6A Commissioners, David has compiled a set of 15 detailed proposals for improving the ANC system.

In general, the proposals are regarding additional authority, resources, and data from city government, as well as a provision for a stricter ethics code. Several speak to specific ways to address one of my proposals, “enforcing greater transparency and consistency in ANC operations,” although in general they assume transparency is an issue with the city government, and should be addressed with specific disclosure requirements. I argue reforms should enhance transparency by both the city and the local commission, something that may not apply as much more well-run commissions like 6A with its detailed website and good communications.

Lastly David provided some additional recommendations (letters A-D below) that would essentially create additional statutory authority for ANCs. However, none of the recommendations address my remaining three areas of possible reform from my original post: (1) Modify the structure of Single Member Districts, (3) Reduce the number of ANCs or enlarge SMD sizes, and (4) Term Limits for ANC Commissioners.

As is with structural reforms for any type of electoral body, no matter how needed reforms of this type rarely arise from within the membership, elected as they are under the prevailing rules. I maintain this type of more fundamental reform — outside of usual lawyerly quibbling about the DC Code — is necessary.

Click to read all of the proposed reforms.
Read the rest of this entry »


Proposals for Reforming D.C.’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions

Posted: June 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: DC Shaw Neighborhood, District of Columbia, Government | Tags: , | 6 Comments »

Summer is always a good time to blog about things that have been bouncing around my head for a couple months, or in this case, years. The topic: reforming Washington, D.C.’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, or ANCs.

The ANC system was created in 1976 as part of the D.C. Home Rule Charter. In order to provide a means for local engagement and participation in public policy, the city established 37 commissions across the city, each representing a portion of a ward. (The names are the ward number followed by a letter, such as 1C, 2A, etc.) Each commission is composed of people elected from Single-Member Districts (SMDs) of approximately 2,000 people. Thus, across the city every resident is represented by exactly one ANC and one of the 270 commissioners. This map, showing the ANC and SMDs of the Mid City neighborhoods of U Street, Adams Morgan, and Columbia Heights, illustrates the dense geography of the ANC system.

ANCs in Mid City

I was reminded of the topic when a friend sent me this blog post about the latest ANC scandal, about an ANC commissioner and his partner apparently trying to obstruct the renewal of a liquor license for two popular restaurants. Indeed, the area of liquor licenses is often an area of intense conflict. Local residents oppose loud, noisy bars open late, and the attendees of loud, noisy bars open late aren’t a particularly organized constituency. The result is (unknown to most D.C. residents) that some neighborhoods (specifically, Dupont Circle, Georgetown, Glover Park, and Adams Morgan), have moratoriums in effect for new liquor licenses. The effect of the limited supply is the existing bars are even louder and busier, but that’s an issue for another day.

Before describing potential reforms I think it should note that most ANCs function relatively well most of the time. They are groups of citizens, serving unpaid, who have regular meetings to discuss issues of neighborhood concern. It’s important to note the critical role the ANCs create in providing a forum for neighborhood-level discussion, and to allow city government a formal way to communicate with local residents about proposed developments and policies. In fact, the intense emotion surrounding some ANC races speaks to the important role they provide. Although some throw up their hands and call for them to be abolished, I believe they play an important role and should continue to exist in some form.

Since no political system is perfect, this post serves to discuss some potential improvements. Here are too general categories of criticism.

First, too often ANCs are not representative. As a result, ANCs disproportionately represent the views of older, more affluent property owners. The views of the significant renter population in many neighborhoods is limited in many ANCs. Additionally, because of these biases the views of all may not be represented. In Adams Morgan, 1C is all white despite the huge diversity of the neighborhood. (See members today). In other neighborhoods, the patterns are different by no less troubling, with ANC commissioners not representing every facet of the community.

Second, ANCs are highly varied in their operations. The ANCs are independent, receiving only a small amount of support from city government. As a result, the quality of their websites, publications, location and openness of the meetings, and other aspects of operations varies widely, resulting in frustration and making them susceptible to manipulation.

Partly responding to these criticisms, below are four possible avenues of reform:

1. Modify the structure of Single Member Districts. The SMDs ensure every resident exactly one ANC commissioner to report to, however they suffer the same problem of any geography-based electoral system: diffuse interests are often not represented. (renters, immigrant populations, etc.) For this reason many city councils, including D.C., have at-large seats. The ANC boundaries could remain the same and all commissioners could be elected at-large within the ANC. Or, a compromise option, each ANC could have one at-large commissioner in addition to those elected from SMDs. The number of SMDs could be reduced, or the total number of commissioners in each ANC increased by one.

2. City government should enforce greater transparency and consistency in operations. The city could mandate the ANCs report their budgets, agendas, and other documents to a central repository. Access to these documents is often uneven. ANCs could be provided access to a system to allow them to set up a website through city resources. The ANC office in general takes a very hands-off approach, which is understandable given limited resources. However, a more active ANC office could standardize the operations of each without threatening their autonomy.

3. Reduce the number of ANCs or enlarge SMD sizes. Although some neighborhoods enjoy active ANCs, others are less active and successful. Each ward contains 4 to 6 of the groups, perhaps the total number should be reduced and the corresponding SMDs enlarged. Currently many neighborhood civic organizations and ANCs cover similar areas, making the ANCs slightly larger would reduce this apparent redundancy. Having fewer ANCs might also increase the quality of their participation in public policy as it would cut down on the number of meetings necessary to reach every neighborhood in the city. It would, however, dilute the power of individual votes and reduce the number of elected commissioners.

4. Term Limits for ANC Commissioners. In Shaw, and other ANCs throughout the city, ANC commissioners can be very long-served, with mixed effects. Although they can be trusted voices and amass deep historical knowledge, long-serving ANC commissioners may prevent others from getting involved. The same arguments for and against term limits for any representative seat applies. Commissioners could have term limits, something fairly long but enough to ensure some turnover, perhaps 5-10 years.

These are just some tentative proposals based on my limited knowledge and experience with the system. Additional viewpoints are welcome. ANCs should be recognized as a valuable D.C. institution that is become a critical part of the local political life. However, like any political system their structure and operations need not remain static and fixed.

Note on boundary maps: The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics has this gallery of maps of the district boundaries. However, I think they are inferior to an older series that has been removed. For example, the new maps don’t contain labels for all the SMDs. Luckily, these maps are preserved in the Internet Archive here. For the technically inclined, KML and ESRI Shapefile versions are available from the city here.


Where the (Brick) Sidewalk Ends

Posted: January 3rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Boston, District of Columbia, Pedestrian Space, Urban Development | 12 Comments »

I was in Harvard Square one evening last fall when I light rain began falling. A girl dashed out of a convenience store doorway, hurrying for an unknown reason. Turning the corner she abruptly slipped and fell on the brick sidewalk. No quicker than she had fallen she jumped up, unhurt, to continue on her way. Yesterday in Downtown Crossing, a man using crutches slipped on wet and snowy brick just as I left my office. These incident are repeated thousands of times in Boston and around the nation, at times resulting in injury. Sidewalk slips are commonplace, yet illustrates the complex ethics of contemporary urban planning. The material that contributed to these falls, brick, has many well-known flaws including a low friction coefficient when wet. However in the convoluted calculus of sidewalk materials, the grip of material surface inevitably falls behind a host of other factors.

From the point of view of pedestrians, there’s not much to like about brick sidewalks. When wet they’re often slippery. Bricks easily become uneven or loose due to tree roots or uneven soil, complicating shoveling and leading to tripping. The uneven surface can be treacherous for bikers, strollers, or the impaired. Some even point out they can easily become projectiles in the hands of miscreants. Yet brick remains a common material throughout many cities. Boston’s tourist meccas, Faneuil Hall’s plazas, Downtown Crossing’s streets, and even the Freedom Trail itself are made from brick. In Washington, D.C., miles of new brick sidewalks have been installed in the past few years in some of the city’s busiest pedestrian corridors.

P Street StreetscapingNot everyone agrees with the brick critics. Commenting on a neighborhood newspaper’s story, titled “bricks bring worries for some pedestrians,” the Washington City Paper‘s sharp-tongued editor Erik Wemple rejects the complaints of a scooter-bound disability rights advocate quoted in the story and declares, “Brick sidewalks are one of the greatest ever streetscape accomplishments of the District government.” He neglects to mention that for recent streetscape projects, city contractors lay bricks on top of a solid pored slab of concrete, essentially building two complete sidewalk surfaces on top of each other. This approach combines the stability of cement with the aesthetics of brick, perhaps by sacrificing cost. (Government waste is another City Paper favorite topic)

Rubbersidewalks - Before and After

Arguing they save money, trees, help recycle automobile tires, and create a superior walking surface, one California company is marketing rubber sidewalks. (Illustrated above) Despite a flurry of interest in 2006 (including here in Boston), the concept doesn’t have seemed to catch on in a big way, with local installations limited to a smattering across the country. The company’s own comparison chart may suggest the reason: it costs over $19 a square foot, versus an estimated $15 for concrete or $5-$8 for asphalt. I suspect other reasons are to blame, including the slow pace of change by municipal officials that make material decisions. The perceived pertinence and durability of cement may trump the actual durability, to say nothing about the demand for bricks based solely on aesthetics. Just the term “rubber sidewalk” conjures up images of a tactile, bouncy surface inappropriate for a city street.

figure432sidewalksThe Federal Highway Administration’s report on designing sidewalks and trails orders sidewalk surfaces should be slip resistant under dry conditions (illustrated by this diagram), concluding “most asphalt and concrete surfaces are fairly slip resistant.” A Canadian report (Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Sidewalk Design, Construction and Maintenance) advises municipalities:

In choosing the material for the sidewalk, consideration should also be given to materials that are non-slip and provide adequate drainage, as well as the requirements of users with strollers, inline skates and also the visually and mobility impaired.

The report doesn’t even mention brick, but includes this list of factors for material selection conspicuously omitting safety: life cycle cost (initial construction cost, maintenance cost), durability, service life, location, maintenance, color (concrete reflects more light), vandalism during curing (pre-cast pavers), runoff potential. Just about the only people I can find considering safety in a serious way is the website of a odd advocacy group based in Arlington, Virginia, who complain about the rough surfaces create by bricks, cobblestones, course aggregate, and other materials.

Slippery sidewalks have become a problem, sparking legal action in that very pedestrian city, New York. A 1981 story in the New York Times describes how “new” materials like travertine and terazzo were slippery and resulting in lawsuits from people who fell on them breaking bones and suffering other serious injuries. According to the story, lawyers “in negligence suits, such cases are on the rise as a result of the wider use of a variety of materials for sidewalks to obtain a more esthetic effect than concrete provides.” A “noted” negligence attorney quoted in the story describes how he usually sues the property owner, not the architect or city, for putting down a defective sidewalk, noting adding the city to lawsuits “complicates” them.

With so many complex factors influencing sidewalk materials floating around, we should add the factor of local control. During a walking tour of Washington, D.C.’s H Street neighborhood last year, our guide told us how the most important factor in sidewalk materials was how well it resisted unsightly stains caused by chewing gum. They opted for a cement aggregate, rather than a plain concrete face or brick. Like in many issues, given the uncertain ethical calculus for sidewalks (how should professionals weigh aesthetics, cost, safety, vandalism potential, tree health effects, etc?) city planners defer to the preferences of active local residents. And if those who prefer a higher friction coefficient on wet days aren’t present, so be it.

In Harvard Square near where I witnessed the fall this fall, another person fell in October and was transported to the hospital for stitches. Maryan Amaral, a wheelchair user who frequents the area and witnessed the accident, convinced the City of Cambridge to re-build the sidewalk and crosswalk on the street after collecting 125 signatures on a petition. Happy with the new crosswalk ramps, she’s concerned about the material the city chose, however, pointing out that brick sidewalks often come loose. A lone comment on the online version of the news article about the case begs, “Please, let’s get rid of the brick sidewalks. I know some like their historic charm, but they’re just terrible in the ice and snow, both because they’re difficult to clear and because they tend ice over more readily than concrete. They’re also terrible for the handicapped.” Maybe the next petition will take up the issue.

> Federal Highway Administration: Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access
> Cambridge Chronicle: Complaint Triggers Appian Way Rehab
> Book: Slip and Fall Prevention

Thanks to my friend Katie Mencarini with the Toole Design Group for help doing research for this post. Photos from Flickr users Lodigs and Supergiball


What a Difference 40 Years Makes

Posted: November 5th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: District of Columbia, Politics | Comments Off

After the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil disturbances erupted in over 100 cities across the U.S. In Washington, D.C., a civil disorder started at the intersection of 14th and U Streets Northwest, when an unknown individual threw a brick through a plate glass window.

Last night, thousands of people celebrated the election of Barack Obama at the very same intersection and in streets throughout the city. No doubt similar spontanious celebrations erupted in thousands of cities across the nation.

This year D.C. voted 92.9% for Barack Obama. In 2004, the city voted 89.2% for John Kerry, and roughly 85% for Al Gore in 2000 and Bill Clinton in 1996 and 1992.

See also Remembering 1968 and Understanding the 1960′s “Civil Disorders’


D.C.’s Black Majority to End in 2014

Posted: October 26th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: District of Columbia | 5 Comments »

Given demographic trends since 2000, the District of Columbia will no longer have a Black majority somewhere around 2014. That’s what I found after completing a simple projection using U.S. Census population data from the 1990 and 2000 census, and 2006 and 2007 American Community Survey population estimates. No matter the approach (trends since 1990 or 2000, projecting population numbers or percentages), every projection (using the best fit line) found somewhere around 2014 would be the turning point when D.C. would enter a new racial era where no major group could claim a majority.

Since 1990, the Black share of the D.C. population has fallen 11.2%. That decline was made up by increases in four other categories: White (6.2%), Asian (1.2%), other (2.2%), and two or more races (1.6%). The U.S. Census Bureau allowed respondents to select multiple races for the first time in 2000, and asks separate questions for race and ethnicity. Over the same time period, the percent reporting Hispanic ethnicity has increased 2.9%.

Here is the Census data, with projections for 2010 and 2014 calculated from the trends since 2000 only:

DC Population by Race

My projection finds the Hispanic population relatively slowly growing. But unlike the Black and White population, this group may be subject to unique external influences such as immigration policy and global economic patterns that may reduce the validity of this projection.

Hispanic Population

A couple comments about these numbers. First, they show relatively gradual and ongoing demographic shifts, not abrupt change that most seem to assume is happening. Despite massive investments in a tiny majority of the city’s neighborhoods, D.C. only recently stabilized its population, let alone began to add significant population. Second, since 1990 the city has lost 77,958 Blacks but only gained 30,665 Whites. Collectively, the groups other race, two or more races, and Asian gained almost as many over the same period, 28,979. Overall, from 1990 to 2007 the city shrank by 18,608 people. The declining Black majority thus has three main causes: Black flight, growing White population, AND growing other racial categories.

Here’s the full table, including 2010 projections based on patterns since 2000:


1990 2000 2006 2007 2010
Black 399,604 343,312 322,105 321,646 310,613
White 179,667 176,101 200,395 210,332 221,657
American Indian 1,466 1,713 1,903 1,172 1,373
Asian 11,214 15,189 19,827 18,066 20,739
Other Race 14,949 21,950 28,127 27,591 30,898
Two Or More 0 13,446 8,970 9,485 10,833

Obviously, when the shift occurs it will have profound effects on the city. While I will refrain from making a judgment about what it will mean overall, I hope the analysis above shows it’s not primarily caused by any one factor, but several.

> NYTimes: “Washington’s Black Majority is Shrinking”
> W. Post: “D.C. May Be Losing Status As a Majority-Black City”


What Neighborhoods Will Be The Next Hot Spots?

Posted: August 22nd, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: District of Columbia, Urban Development, Virginia | 4 Comments »

OnSite Fall 2008

In a splashy cover story this week, the quarterly magazine sent to thousands of local business leaders this week considers which Washington, D.C. neighborhoods will be the next “hot spots.”

The story appears in OnSite, a quarterly glossy magazine sent to subscribers of the Washington Business Journal. With a password-only website, the story’s only readers will be the 16,600+ subscribers who pay over $100 a year to receive the weekly newspaper.

Featuring incendiary graphics (above) and a map with the neighborhood identified with crosshairs, the article will do little to sooth the concerns of activists fearful their neighborhoods will be targets for new development with or without their input. Surprisingly, only 4 of the 13 are within the boundary of D.C., a sign of how much investment has happened in District neighborhoods and the barriers to additional development. In addition to the neighborhoods shown on the map below, the magazine additionally identified Gaithersburg and Laurel in Maryland and Occoquan in Virginia.

OnSite Fall 2008 - Crop

The article proposes a number of variables to predict where people “want to live, work and hang out.” They are: accessible to roads, near Metro or other rail, near water or riverfront, geographically distinctive, near parks and recreation, near anchor or stadium, upward economic capacity, arts uses, main gathering place, historical features, interesting architecture, and pedestrian oriented.

The most surprising locations may be Landover (picked due to the ongoing Landover Gateway planning effort), Greenbelt (which we covered on Rethink College Park), and Prince William County’s Occoquan.

Occoquan? Despite being over 20 miles from Washington, OnSite thinks the tiny historic town’s proximity to to I-95, several VRE stations, Fort Belvoir and Quantico bases, nearby “smart-growth style developments,” and attractive waterfront will make it a hotspot for growth.

What do you think of their picks? What places — or factors — are missing from the analysis?


District Bike Sharing Launches

Posted: August 17th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Biking, District of Columbia, Transportation | 2 Comments »

The much-awaited D.C. bike sharing program SmartBike has launched with ten locations in Downtown and Midcity neighborhoods. The public can sign up at SmartBikeDC.com for a card enabling them to rent bikes for up to three hours from these stations between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The annual subscription costs $40.

Clear Channel Smartbike Washington DCAccording to the program press release, “Plans to further expand the program are currently under way. DDOT is planning to place additional stations in other neighborhoods in spherical paths working towards the outer parts of the city.” It occurs to me a logical place to expand the system would be at Metro stations, something they already seem to be doing with the downtown locations.

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