D.C. Needs a System For Streetscape Relief. This New Bill Won’t Do It. [UPDATE]
UPDATE, Tuesday, 2:45 p.m. - A couple weeks ago, the Council was actually able to put a total of $3 million in the Streetscape Survival Fund. This time, though, it's for no-interest loans, not grants. No money has been dispensed yet, but regulations were finally issued, so nothing is left standing in the way.
You'd think D.C. politicians would have figured out a system by now to help out small businesses hit with a decrease in sales during major streetscape construction. It's happened enough times, after all: Columbia Heights and H Street were a mess for years, sending a few businesses over the brink and out of business. Now Adams Morgan is going through it, and upper Georgia Avenue is facing something equally devastating in the sudden disappearance of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. And the District wants to keep on going, with several more corridors slated for facelifts under the Great Streets program. Shouldn't relief programs be in place before these entirely predictable disruptions?
Well, it was, at one time. Last year, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham passed legislation that set up a $7 million "Streetscape Survival Fund" to assist impacted landlords and business owners. But then-Mayor Adrian Fenty sucked that money back into the general fund, so the assistance never materialized, until $723,000 was allocated for businesses across the city. Now, there's nothing left to shore up other communities, unless it's cobbled together from other sources on a project-by-project basis.
The Council is trying again to address the problem...sort of. The Committee on Finance and Revenue will soon take up the Streetscape Corridor Taxation Relief Act of 2011, which would waive all penalties and interest for unpaid property taxes for building owners who could demonstrate that they were disadvantaged by streetscape construction.
There are two obvious problems with this bill. One, the penalties and interest are waived for an indefinite period of time, which means there's no incentive to pay them ever. And two, there's no telling how property tax relief would assist businesses who don't own their buildings; landlords could simply reap all the benefits without passing any through to their tenants.
There's no reason for this bill to pass in its current form. Here's hoping the Council and the mayor will try to seriously and comprehensively address the problem, so that businesses can actually survive to enjoy the benefits of a beautiful new street after construction is over.
* Not just H Street.