Zoned Out: The City's Assault on Blagden Alley

The four blocks that comprise the Blagden Alley/Naylor Court Historic District are unique in Washington. One of the city's few surviving scraps of 19th-century urban fabric, the area bounded by 9th, 10th, M, and N Streets NW mixes street-front row houses with surviving commercial uses in the interior alleys; the commercial structures are a legacy of the days of stables and carriage houses. Now the Office of Planning is advocating a zoning change that would destabilize the semi-gentrified neighborhood.

The case, which will be heard by the Zoning Commission March 20, is yet another example of how D.C. bureaucrats favor commercial over residential interests, often with disastrous results. Originally, interior property owners suggested rezoning the land within the alley system (currently zoned residential) to commercial. Local homeowners agreed, says neighborhood activist Paul Aebersold.

The D.C. Council made the adjustment to the comprehensive plan, which then went to the city's Office of Planning, which presents such modifications to the Zoning Commission for incorporation into the zoning maps. Along the way, though, something happened: Three parcels that face outward—two on M Street and one on N Street—were added to the properties to be rezoned for commercial use. “The thing metastasized” is how Aebersold puts it.

Rezoning the street-front parcels is both a threat to the neighborhood and a violation of normal procedure. Because the zoning changes are being proposed to bring the zoning maps into conformance with the comprehensive plan, this is being presented as a “rulemaking” case rather than a “contested” one. That means citizens who object to the change cannot testify against it. “The Office of Planning is basically undermining the rulemaking process,” Aebersold contends.

In the short term, one property owner plans to put a parking lot on his rezoned land—a use ordinarily banned in residential districts. The commercial properties could ultimately hold hotels or mixed-use office/apartment buildings, uses clearly out of scale with the surrounding structures. “This is the antithesis of what the Zoning Commission should be doing to protect residences,” Aebersold says.

Commercial property owners have suggested that the neighborhood could be protected by covenants restricting the rezoned land's possible uses, but Aebersold dismisses covenants as “not worth a damn. They exist only as a promise—and that's leaving the fox to guard the chicken coop.”

The city's historic preservation office has written to the Zoning Commission to oppose the rezoning. The Blagden Alley/Naylor Court Historical Society also plans to write the commission—the only action it can take in an officially uncontested case.

“It's an egregious case,” says Aebersold. “The Office of Planning set itself above the council.”

Bye-Bye, L1 (and N3 and 46 and X9 and....) Despite vehement protests by bus riders at two public hearings in late January, the Metro Board voted last week to drastically curtail Metrobus service in the District. Almost all the cuts go into effect March 12, a week after the March 5 increases in fares for elderly, disabled, and Anacostia riders, and the institution of a 25-cent rail-to-bus transfer fee.

Metro's staff decided to recommend retaining service on the 42 line, rather than combining it with the X2; however, the 42 will run only from Mount Pleasant to Metro Center, thus cutting in half this historic cross-downtown service. The staff also concluded that it could save a token single non-rush-hour round trip on the B9 line, which many senior citizens from Fort Lincoln testified is their only link to shopping. All the other cuts, including a devastating assault on rush-hour express service, will proceed.

“I think most people knew it was going to happen,” offers Ward 2 Councilmember and current Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans, who says he was told by Mayor Marion Barry at a council meeting earlier in the week that the cuts and fare increases had to be made. In the sort of political posturing typical of the mayor's office, however,

Barry's representative to the Metro Board, Anthony Rachal, then voted against the changes.

“We think there was an alternative,” says MetroWatch's Josh Silver, whose organization supported increasing the parking tax (not raised since 1976) or auto-inspection fees to support current levels of service. “I don't know why there weren't more options.”

Clearly there were. But the changes were proposed and accepted hastily, offering riders little time to make counterproposals to a clueless city council and a transit agency that, more than 20 years after taking over local buses, still treats bus service as an afterthought.

“Eliminating transportation infrastructure is just wrong,” says Steven Posniak, who represented the American University Park Citizens Association at last month's hearings. “I've said all along that this exercise is really absurd in light of all the resources that are still in the budget.” Posniak cites the D.C. School of Law, a pet project of Council Chairman Dave Clarke, as something the council should cut; its $4-million appropriation would cover most of the $5.7-million deficit that led to the service cuts and fare increases.

Posniak notes that the N1 and N3 rush-hour expresses that serve his neighborhood carry an average of 45 passengers per trip, and that many riders testified they would pay a surcharge for express service. “This was completely ignored by the staff recommendations,” he objects.

“That needs to be looked at,” agrees Evans. “The argument on the other side is that people get around paying the surcharge, and there's no way of knowing how much it would raise.”

“We were basically treated like children,” concludes Silver. “Citizens deserve better.”

American University Park citizens may demand better: Posniak says his organization is talking to the Amalgamated Transit Union, about 140 of whose members will lose their jobs because of the cuts, and the Sierra Club about possible litigation to reverse the service reductions. And, he notes, “I've heard some people talking about property tax boycotts.”

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