Housing Complex

Mount Pleasant’s Main Drag: The cute neighborhood with the dingy main street goes to war over a plan. Again.

(Darrow Montgomery)

(Darrow Montgomery)

Mount Pleasant has had a hard time coming into its own. Neighboring Columbia Heights has bloomed with new investment. But in Mount Pleasant, long the more upscale of the two neighborhoods, empty storefronts dot the commercial strip. Still scarred by the Deauville apartment fire of 2008, Mount Pleasant Street NW can look downright dingy.

Cash, in this case, isn’t the problem. Quite the contrary: Until earlier this week, local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners were trying to fight off money to spruce the place up. A $242,000 taxpayer grant to Mount Pleasant Main Street would pay for things like refurbished lampposts, new benches and tables, and decorative lights. After delaying its implementation for weeks, two members of the six-person ANC threatened a resolution forcing the city to take back the funds altogether. ANC chair Gregg Edwards, who previously spoke out against the grant, told Housing Complex on Tuesday that he would let it proceed.

But why say no to free money in the first place? It’s as compelling a question as why a neighborhood where Victorians have sold for $1 million would still have a main drag dominated by humble dollar stores and cheap restaurants.

Commissioner Jack McKay, who also opposed the grant, says the small, cosmetic changes are a waste of money better spent elsewhere in D.C. He and Edwards also worry that accepting this grant could make the city less willing to fund a plan they like better: theirs. That vision calls for a “pedestrian encounter zone” with widened sidewalks, rerouted buses, and laws requiring cars to yield.

“Let the grant go forward, but without an ANC endorsement of this unhappily frivolous use of public funds,” McKay e-mailed on Tuesday. “Paint the streetlight poles black, indeed.”

The foot-dragging ANC commissioners and their critics in the civic associations agree on one thing: Low-to-the-ground scrums like this one give Mount Pleasant a reputation as the neighborhood where it’s impossible to get anything done.

Of course, they have different ways of making their points. “Local groups should stop lying, misrepresenting, and backstabbing,” Edwards says. “This kind of behavior that’s gone on here for a quarter-century just adds to Mount Pleasant being a toxic environment.”

“The ANC tends to want to dominate and run all the activity in the neighborhood as opposed to being more of a facilitator,” responds Main Street President Adam Hoey. “Essentially what our community needs is...some new leadership.”

Academic research backs him up. This spring, University of Nebraska graduate student Jessica Rial released a paper on the degree of democratic governance in ANC 1D, which she spent six months researching. One of her conclusions: The panel was "generally unswayed" by citizen input during meetings, helping to create a sense of disengagement and distrust.

Though Edwards asserts the importance of not letting one group dominate, his attempts at fairness can backfire. In one “informal” meeting Housing Complex attended, instead of allowing free conversation, the chair made attendees speak in sequential rounds strictly timed at a few minutes each.

Even co-commissioners are sick of warring with other neighborhood groups. “From my point of view, the civics are just trying to get things done, and the ANC jumps in at the last minute and tries to control them,” Commissioner Phil Lepanto says, referring to the grant debate. “If the civics disagree, then the ANC labels them as illegitimate.”

Edwards, a “futurist” who has a PhD in theoretical physics from Rice University and moved to Mount Pleasant in 1974, sees the conflict as representative of a fundamental cultural divide in the neighborhood: affluent homeowners versus working-class apartment dwellers.

Edwards isn’t necessarily a natural representative of the proletariat. He says he lives in an apartment—but he also happens to own the building where said abode is located, at 16th and Lamont Streets NW. Still, he says the streetscape-beautification grant is just an attempt at cultural domination. In an e-mail, he noted that he knows of similar-minded neighbors who had used voodoo in order to ward off gentrification.

“That aesthetic style is not functional, and it is the style of one group that really doesn’t shop on Mount Pleasant Street that much,” Edwards says. “Working folks tend to have a different style than managerial, professional folks. It’s more functional. It doesn’t spend much more money on filigree. It tends to be cheaper and sturdier. Mostly you just concentrate on giving them a service.”

But Juan Carlos Ruiz, who represents quite a few apartment dwellers as leader of the Latino Association of Mount Pleasant, is all for the improvements—and thinks Edwards’ opposition sends the wrong message to city agencies. “It creates an atmosphere that Mount Pleasant is divided, and ‘Don’t send money here because leadership of the ANC is very controversial,’” he says.

But when locals were given the chance to change leadership during the last two election cycles, all six ANC spots went uncontested. Multiple neighbors attribute that to fatigue over the number of efforts that have failed to change anything. “Some people in the neighborhood are jaded with all these things, saying ‘I’m going to check out, because we keep having all these meetings and nothing happens,’” says Sam Broeksmit, president of the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Association.

To wit: In 2005, the Office of Planning and Economic Development sponsored a new design for Lamont Park. It’s been on a shelf ever since. In 2008, a city-funded transportation study offered a list of recommendations. They haven’t been followed. Last year, Main Street received a $100,000 grant to bring in the nonprofit Responsible Hospitality Institute (RHI), which tutored locals about a process used around the country to manage neighborhood nightlife. But then a neighborhood eatery applied for a nightclub license outside the process’s guidelines, and everything ground to a halt.

Jim Peters, RHI’s president, came away exasperated. “I have not worked in a district with the same level of personal conflicts as they have in Mount Pleasant,” he says.

Most recently, the Office of Planning has finished a draft small-area plan for the neighborhood. It includes practical changes like training small business owners and linking them with capital, greening the street, and promoting the area as a destination. But Edwards, who asked for the study in the first place, now complains that the planners ignored his more sweeping proposals. “I think it’s very interesting that to simply mention ideas that are working elsewhere triggers calls of personal defect—that I’m an idiot, that I’m a dreamer, a moron,” he says. “[It] shows great intolerance for anyone who thinks beyond the immediate practicalities of a dominant group.”

The acrimony over the $242,000 might be just the jolt Mount Pleasant needs. It prompted five-year resident John Craig to run against Commissioner Angelia Scott, who joined Edwards and McKay in initially voting against the grant. “I’d always been thinking about it, but that was kind of the last straw,” said Craig, who outlined a pro-business platform. “If the ANC’s got to the point where they’re dealing with academic arguments and philosophical arguments, I think we need to let other parts of Mount Pleasant step in and say, ‘Let’s just start simple and work on the things that we can fix.’”

Visit the Housing Complex blog every day at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex. Got a real-estate tip? Send suggestions to ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 224.

  • Typical DC BS

    Sounds like Gregg Edwards is a nitwit who has no clue what constitutes a neighborhood improvement. Too bad the residents are so apathetic that they won't get rid of these ANC bottlenecks.

    Residents must get tired of the old heads trying to "keep it real".

  • John

    I live in MTP. I do my best to spend money in MTP but Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, U street, Cleveland Park, and Woodley Park, all get more of my disposable income than MTP. I think that's a shame because I find MTP to have the most charm and potential than the lot of them. I do think that MTP is in need of, and deserves a major street scape overhaul the likes of which many of the citys other neighborhoods are receiving. Keep it historic of course. But widen the sidewalks to allow for outdoor cafes. Spend some money to attract local restaurantuers. All it will take in the end is for a couple vacancies to turn over and the street will find some synergy in new investment I'm sure. On another note I'm not sure how P Street and 17th street got top billing for Multi Million dollar projects over MTP St which is a Historic Neighborhood that's gone through riots and a major fire. I think MTP should accept the small grant but I also think the city needs to come forward with a more substantial package and soon.
    I'll say one thing I really liked about the small grant package was the idea of Festoon Lights hanging across MTP street. I think that helps brand the neighborhood and make it more attractive for an evening stroll. More people on the street the better.

  • JustMe

    ANCs should not have a say in these things. DDOT approved a grant, and that settles it. Anyone who doesn't like it should feel free to appeal to the city council to overrule the decision by legislation.

  • ebcidic

    Jack McKay is a decent guy who can be swayed and has been swayed but also battles with entrenched conservative interests in the neighborhood. Edwards is best described as a "futurist." In every conversation I've had with him... I can only best describe him as a futurist. The other ANC reps are rarely effective and one person who won disappeared, just moved without saying anything.

    The Money Quote is by Edwards it "shows great intolerance for anyone who thinks beyond the immediate practicalities of a dominant group." We're talking about someone who #1 talks in that tone in real life and #2 gives the appearance of living entirely in the theoretical

  • http://dcjack.org Jack

    John, above, has it right. Mount Pleasant needs something more substantial than this little package of cosmetics. Wider sidewalks, sidewalk cafes, more people on the street -- yes, that's what Mount Pleasant needs. Unfortunately, Munt Pleasant Main Street has declined to support anything more substantial than its dabs of paint and pretty lights.

  • http://www.causes.com/causes/66473/about?m=60735ebf John Craig

    From what I understand, the ANC resolution to kill the StreetScape award is based on the principle that it is money ill-spent. ANC 1D feels that this grant represents bad policy by funding only minor cosmetic changes in neighborhoods, thereby wasting money that would otherwise be put toward better, more sustainable projects (like the Pedestrian Encounter Zone - which sounds very good).

    Frankly, I agree with the resolution's point. But what I don't agree with is actively derailing an imminent award to our neighborhood. The ANC action is not the right (or fair) way to express overarching concern with DDOT's funding philosophy. I mean, the ANC is looking to go out of it's way to derail the grant: MtP Main Street (MPMS) has been awarded the money, and will receive it UNLESS the ANC passed a resolution against it.

    The ANC's gripe is at 50K feet and this Streetscape award is right here on the ground. I just don't believe that this argument is intellectually honest: the issue of fiscal prudence is one to direct to the source, DDOT, not to those that live and visit on MtP street.

    If the concern is for fiscal responsibility, this is a terribly inappropriate way to express it. Why this particular award? This is an existing DDOT program. There is absolutely zero chance that *this* resolution denying MtP *this* award (on principle, fiscal or otherwise) will change any high-level funding policies in DC. Plus, there are plenty of organizations that exist which are already fighting this fight. This initiative is redundant at best.

    ANC 1D should leave the grant alone and let MtP Main St. accept and implement. In the meantime, I for one would be happy to work with Jack and others contemporaneously to influence better fiscal policy in the District, including larger substantive projects. These things are in no way mutually exclusive. I'm for listening and learning futurist ideas, but I still want to spruce up the street in the meantime.

    We cannot waste time and good will on pie in the sky visions of MtP, most of which will never be funded if we don't have something on which to build. The street is dingy; I live on it. That keeps people away, which keeps business away. Small, yes, but 'a dab of paint and pretty lights' is a good start AND a good foundation to work upon.

    Sorry for the novel...
    John

  • Leslie

    I've lived in Mt.P for over thirty years and Lydia's article gets it absolutely right. It's too bad, because Mt.P is a great place to live. But, the ANC politics are at an all-time low. Part of the problem is that it's hard to find "regular" people, in a neighborhood where almost everyone works, who are willing to spend the time to run for and be on the ANC. The ones who run and get elected are too often very fringe types with too much time on their hands. They then use the "authority" of the ANC to push their own agendas, which they believe they are entitled to do since they never felt any relationship to the majority of residents anyway. I don't know how well it works in other neighborhoods, but I'd like to see the ANC abolished in Mt.P.

  • Gregg

    Let's get some basics straight.

    Most public discussion on this issue assumed that the MPMS grant was already made; that I as chair have more power than one vote in six; that 1D voted against the grant; and that 1D is a local legislature whose decision commands an agency. All these assumptions are false.

    There has not been any ANC 1D resolution considered to advise dDoT to rescind its allocation (no grant was made yet) of funding to MPMS.

    ANCs can _only_ advise. Case law rules that ANCs' _opinions_ have no weight. Great weight applies only to the preponderance of evidence-based arguments in a written resolution. It's a shame that the mere gathering of evidence and arguments is portrayed as destructive. How dare we think!

    The one ANC 1D resolution considered on this project was in July 2009, about a year ago. It did not pass (3-3 was not a majority) because three commissioners wanted to read the proposal before voting on it. At least I voted against commending a project I had not read.

    Responding to Jack's request to read the proposal, Adam Hoey in that meeting then promised to send a draft copy in two days. I called to remind him of his promise about two weeks later so 1D could read it before the next meeting. He repeated his promise to send a copy immediately.

    These promises were not kept. Many months passed, then after weeks of wheedling I got dDoT to send 1D a copy.

    All this time there was political pressure from MPMS for 1D to approve the project without having read it. Then, several commissioners, including me, tried to set up a dialog to discuss the proposal. My many attempts for an open discussion were all rejected by Main Street.

    Perhaps Main Street's reluctance to send a copy was the fact that the proposal falsely claimed that ANC 1D supported it. This claim was in answer to a mandatory question in the application form. Was MPMS afraid that if it released a copy then its misstatement would be found out? Who knows?

    Normally, review panels reject proposals they know contain misleading answers to core questions. Thus, it is not clear that the review panel's high ranking of this proposal was valid. Effective public projects usually require broad consultation and adjustment to needs, not the triviality of a few letters of support.

    Or, perhaps the year's delay was to run out the clock so no alternatives were possible? dDoT gave conflicting answers.

    Political pressure has included allies of MPMS spreading falsehoods on my activities and ideas. The above article takes MPMS's side. The quotes attributed to me in the article seem to be composites and paraphrases put together on the prejudgment that I'm saying something stupid. The article is a hatchet job.

    Many "facts" are wrong. For example, like many other DC bodies - including other ANCs and the DC Council - for many years and under many chairs 1D has asked that participants in public discussion rquitably share the available time. 1D has long applied the widely used standard - a target of three minutes of time for individuals and five for organizations. The impression (stated in the printed version, apparently changed after I protested mistatements) that I impose two minutes in chairing meetings as an arbitrary and personal practice is false and defaming.

    Readers, please consider the possibility that if a complex situation seems a simple case of clear angels and demons, then the case may have been simplified to give that result.

    Oh, it's true that I earned a good living for decades as a "futurist" (why the depreciating quote marks?). It's also true that most groups are convinced that anything other than incremental change is foolhardy. Many of my repeat clients have the resources to choose any consultant in the world, and most - not all - seem glad they considered alternatives rather than mindlessly following their normal rut. Because I believe in systematic exploration with careful results every step of the way, I prefer 'grounded futuring'.

    Grounded? Of course, life proceeds only incrementally in concrete steps. The difference lies in whether or not there's a lookout for better paths. My ANC district is full of concrete improvements that my neighbors suggested in monthly meetings or that I saw possible and that were not part of DC government plans. Some are in heavy use, some are just seeds now that will take years to bear fruit.
    Good public policy makes progress by finding proven better ways, and exploring, not imposing, their local consequences. Scarce public money is wasted when not put to the best available use.

    ANCs, like similar local planning groups around the world, are a means so everybody has a better chance to discuss proposals. That way, the interested public can understand alternatives and consequences before any one faction imposes them.

    In this case, the pressure has long been on - to not share the details, to not encourage all groups to participate, and to foreclose real discussion.

    MtP does have conflicting versions of preferred futures. I hope most folks will prefer one that engages more information, ethics, and imagination.

  • LOL

    thank you for that brief retort.....

  • Lydia DePillis

    For the record: I did change "two minutes" to "a few minutes" after realizing that I wasn't positive whether it had been two or three minutes. But while it's true that formal hearings often have time limits, I haven't heard of any informal ANC meeting or committee meeting in which discussion was similarly confined.

    Lydia

  • MtP

    That's rich: Edwards calling MtP "a toxic environment." Frankly I'm surprised he engaged the audience here, because he fails to do so in MtP. (But then I'm also shocked his reply doesn't reference the Huguenots, Robespierre or the bourgeoisie...typical condescending obfuscation from Edwards.)

  • Steve

    If you flip to the next page in the print edition, Dan Savage takes juicy topics like lubricants, ejaculation and cuckolding and elevates it to a great read.

    Lydia DePillis takes serious topics such as the ethics of grant proposals, performance of DC agencies, and the function of ANCs and civics and reduces it to yet another lurid Mount Pleasant cartoon.

    So much for the hope that - while truth and justice gets stomped out in civic life - more of the real story would come out in the press.

  • LOL

    Please! You know that the ANC in Mt. Pleasant is crazy. Lydia didn't do anything but write about it. Anyone who thinks she is being dishonest only need to go to a meeting or watch Greg Edwards at a council hearing.

    Next time Lydia, insert some Greg Edwards quotes. It will shoe that MPT says is true.

  • Bill

    @LOL Next time Lydia should call Greg Edwards, "MR." Edwards.

  • Adrian Bent-Me

    Edwards is a fat-ass douche and I'm being polite. He struts around pretending he's the mayor or something and if you don't kowtow to him, he'll take it upon his rather large self to make your life a living hell. He makes everything more convulted than it should be and he always sounds like he's applying for a job by selling his vast credentials in everything. Please.

  • HAYDEES

    FROM DESK OF HAYDEE VANEGAS RESIDENT, BUSINESS OWNER AND FORMER MOUNT PLEASANT BUSINESS ASS PRESIDENNT THIS LETTER IS IN REFERENCE TO THE POOR REVIEW OF MT PLEASANT GIVEN BY THE CITYPAPER / LYDIA DEPILLIS

    ON BEHALF OF THE BUSINESS OF MT PLEASANT WE FEEL AS THOUGH WE ARE UNDER FIRE BY THE CITYPAPER.WE THE BUSINESS OWNERS NEVER EXPECTED THE COMMENTS FROM THE CITYPAPER TO DESTROY THE MORALE AND CHARACTER OF THE MULTICULTURAL BUSINESS IN MOUNT PLEASANT WHY IS IT THAT LIDIA NEVER ACTUALLY INTERVIEWED A BUSINESS OR PROPERTY OWNER TO GET MORE INFORMATION ABOUT MT PLEASNT ? JUAN CARLOS RUIZ AND THE MPNA MAY NOT HAVE A COMPLETE UNDERSTANDING OF THE BUSINESS OF MT PLEASANT AND ARE NOT THE ONLY SOURCE OF INFORMATION THE ANC 1D EXPECTS TO GET THE SAME FAIR PLANS FOR MT PLEASANT THAT WILL HELP INPROVE OR REBUILD MT PLEASANT THAT WILL NEED A BIG PROJECTS LIKE THE ONE GIVEN TO OTHER NEIGHBORHOODS WE HAVE ONLY RECEIVED SMALL GRANTS WHICH ONLY COVERS THE SALARY OF EXECUTIVE DIRECTORS MOUNT PLEASANT NEED BIG PROJECTS TO REBUILD THE MT PLEASANT IN GENARAL HOWEVER WE NEED HELP SWAYING THE HOLDERS TO WHO SAY NO TO BIG CHAIN AND BUSINESS INPROVEMENTS THE MPNA MAKES IT VERY DIFFICULT FOR A BUSINESS TO GET THE REQUIRED LICENSES OR PERMIT FOR INPROVEMENT FOR PROPER OPERATION THEY HAVE BEEN RUNNING THE SAME FACADE FOR 2 DECADES AND NEVER SUPORT THE BUSINESSES FOR NEW PLANS THEY CLOSE THE DOORS OF FINANCIAL PROSPERITY. SO LIDIA COME TO INTERVIEW BUSINESS OWNERS TO GET REAL ANSWERS DON'T TROW CHEAP SHOT ON THEM

  • Adrian Bent-Me

    Juan Carlos Ruiz is nothing but a self-promoting asshole. He doesn't represent anyone other than himself. The Latino Federation organizes maybe six or seven unemployed individuals by promising pay for attending rallies. Ruiz doesn't know anything about the neighborhood and only incites people rather than inform them. He's also a pretender in the Latino community. He loves his people so much that he married a white woman...

  • d

    I'm really intrigued by Gregg Edwards' style of thinking, but he needs more power if he's going to make his pedestrian encounter zone into reality. His main problem seems to be that he calls for all these studies which water down his ideas, then he rejects the study, and nothing gets done. What he needs is executive authority and a new title--maybe Lord Gregg, the Michelle Rhee of Mt. P.

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