Housing Complex

Defining the Living Downtown: Can We Have Both Residents and Glitz?

What the corner of 7th and F would look like. From a Monumental Sports presentation.

Over the last couple of decades, the District has tried very hard to get people to move downtown, mostly through zoning and density bonuses for residential development. It's worked: The four Census tracts that make up the downtown core have grown between 61.5 and 92.5 percent since 2000 (granted, there are still only a few thousand people in each, but the multiplier is still impressive). Now, what used to be a barren business district is full of restaurants, bars, and people on the streets after 6 p.m., which is certainly more in line how we think about world-class cities.

The other consequence of having people living downtown, though, is that they're going to want it to feel more...residential. Which poses a problem when the city would also like downtown to be a late-night entertainment district.

The conflict cropped up at an Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2C meeting this week. Randall Boe, executive vice president of Monumental Sports and Entertainment—which holds the lease on the Verizon Center—came to present his company's proposal to put nine more digital advertising displays on the now-blank sides of the building, as well as inside the Gallery Place Metro entrance. They have to get legislation through the Council to do it, and Boe promised the signs would bring more vibrancy and glitz, while generating $8 to $9 million in taxes for the city over four years (I'm still trying to find out from them how much revenue Monumental gets out of the deal).

"If you go to Times Square, people come there to see the signs," Boe argued. "Tourists come and that helps build the neighborhood."

Times Square might not have been the best image to evoke. A handful of neighboring condo residents at the meeting were quite unhappy about the prospect of more flashing lights coming through their windows at night, claiming they could see them as far away as 8th and E Street. As part of the mix in what's now a mixed-use neighborhood, they felt they had a right to some peace and quiet.

"Sometimes the District comes along and thinks it's a totally commercial district," someone said. "Why are billboards coming into residential living rooms a good thing?" He even mentioned the "character and integrity of the neighborhood," which is something that you generally hear in more historic residential places like Capitol Hill, not around a giant sports arena.

Boe would be wise to make nice with the neighbors—when Herb Miller tried to do this at Gallery Place, he got kiboshed by the Stop the Billboard campaign, which got the Council to oppose the new signs as well. People who live in high-end condos make powerfully effective NIMBYs, after all. And maybe they're right: Washington isn't really used to big flashing signs for iPods and Lexuses and the Lottery, which clash somewhat with the dignity and grandeur of their surroundings.

Having a "living downtown" means both residents and nightlife, homeyness and glitz. But who's got right-of-way when they conflict?

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    This is a constant tension. The higher the price of the residential real estate, this becomes more of an issue. In places like this in weaker market cities, as people "age out" they just move away, selling their place. But when units are $200-$400K that's a lot easier than when units are more than $1 million.

    Interestingly, you could do a story on the CuDC building. The artist owners want to keep condo fees down, so they are against various building improvements that require special assessments, or increases in the monthly fee.

    Similarly, in small commercial buildings, owners don't like to rent to residential tenants, because residential tenants are covered by landlord-tenant rules that are a lot more onerous compared to traditional commercial tenant lease arrangements.


  • Hillman

    I don't have a lot of sympathy here. They knew they were moving into an 'entertainment district'. That entertainment is why their property values are so high.

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  • Eric

    I'm with Hillman. The signs help add another dimension to ONE neighborhood in a big city.

  • S

    As soon as the additional signs are up and the residents with views host a party they will hear comments of what incredible views they have and instantly their property values go up.

  • EP Sato

    I live downtown and am all for the new commercial goods. My kid's school is in between a bunch of commercial buildings, but friends of mine live in another building that is literally across the street from the school.

    My neighborhood was in bad shape when I bought a condo there in 2003. Since then, it's improved significantly. I for one am in favor of initiatives that bring more visitors (and their money) to DC.

    I also agree that part of living downtown is accepting that you're likely to hear a lot of noise at night, get asked for spare change more often than most folks, and may have to put up with billboards and other commercial uses of land. For those who find these costs too much to bear, there are plenty of available houses elsewhere in the city and in the suburbs.

  • Cara Shockley

    I think this is a bad idea. The signs at Chinatown/Gallery Place often have mixing pixels which make them look grungy rather than vibrant. If they can't be kept to a good standard now, I don't see how having more would be an improvement.

    I would suggest that if the Council approves it for the currently blank side of the Verizon Center, they also approve a little cash for light-blocking curtains on the residential buildings that face it. The expense of light blocking isn't high and it would be a terrific goodwill gesture to current residents.

    @ EP Sato -- the cost of moving is much greater than the cost of finding a new home. It's not realistic to demand people move.

  • Karl

    I guess it's perspective and personal taste, but billboards will never replace trees and open space. The condo owners have every right to protest the posting of large flashing billboards -- afterall, they consider where they live a neighborhood as well. It isn't clear when the area was designated an entertainment district, but the Office of Planning has been using that designation to attract more bars and vibrancy at night.

    Billboards and signs aren't unique to downtown. Safeway routinely drapes banners across their stores that sell wine and beer to advertise. It's unattractive but seems to be necessary for Safeway to attract customers, which brings me to my point -- if the product is there or the area is attractive, people will come. The signs are where the action is taking place and simply a reminder that you have arrived. A bit redundant and unnecessary. It's visual pollution!

  • Will

    There's another issue that hasn't been mentioned. Federal State Highway rules for DC prohibit light-up signs which are visible from Federal Aid Roads. Those roads include NY Ave, Constitution, and some of the other obvious arterials, but I believe that may include 7th, H, G and some of the others in that immediate vicinity. This could be verified by DDOT. The premise for the rule seems to be related to distracted driving, and limiting things that take a driver's attention off the road. Even if the rule doesn't apply, it's something the city should consider since that area has the highest pedestrian concentrations in the city, and we don't want to distract the drivers and the pedestrians where they are most likely to interact.

    If that doesn't derail it, I think that this area of the city is subject to Commission on Fine Arts and or National Capital Planning Commission review. I think Boe has a long way to go before this is project is likely to go forward.

  • DCCommish

    Listen we paid for signs inside the place, so why do they need these sings outside. It's not NYC and it will never be Times Square. I'd be more worry aobut you business model than I was about some neon sing outside!

  • er

    i'm all for letting the businesses and residents of downtown figure this out on their own. and i'm glad i don't live downtown.

  • Kboogy

    The fact that this is even a discussion is laughable. These billboards add much needed funds to DC's ‎coffers, not to mention these residents' real estate values. It also reinforces the sense that you are in ‎one of the most vibrant and tourist oriented areas of the city. The existing billboards and the potential ‎that new ones would be installed surrounding the Verizon Center should have been a consideration ‎that these residents took into account when they purchased their places and for those that didn't, I ‎would suggest that they go ahead and purchase those inexpensive light blocking curtains that Cara ‎suggested. I do however agree that they should maintain the billboards to help with the visual appeal of ‎them.‎

  • Ben

    "The condo owners have every right to protest the posting of large flashing billboards -- afterall, they consider where they live a neighborhood as well."

    Oh come on. If people moved to a place like Gallery Place expecting trees and open spaces, those people are--pardon my bluntness--idiots. You move downtown precisely because want the energy, the flashing signs, the hustle and bustle...you don't move downtown to seek trees and open space. That's simply ludicrous. This idea that you can move to any neighborhood in the city and expect it to conform to your specific tastes and demands is not consistent with reality. Gallery Place/Chinatown isn't Cleveland Park, in the same way the Burleith isn't Gallery Place. If it's trees and open spaces you want, move to upper NW, or Brightwood, or the suburbs. But moving to Gallery Place and complaining about a lack ot trees will garner no sympathy from me.

  • Ben

    "Federal State Highway rules for DC prohibit light-up signs which are visible from Federal Aid Roads. Those roads include NY Ave, Constitution, and some of the other obvious arterials, but I believe that may include 7th, H, G and some of the others in that immediate vicinity."

    You believe incorrectly. Neither 7th, H nor G qualify as federal aid roads.

  • cozmot

    @Hillman, of course you don't have sympathy here, because you won't be affected by the signs. So easy to opine from a distance, isn't it?

    The fact is, yes, we knew we were moving into an "entertainment district," so that means in your mind that anything goes, right? When many of us moved here over five years ago, there was NEVER any mention of turning the Verizon Center into a carousel of billboards. HAD there been, then we could have made informed decisions whether to buy based upon that.

    This is a new law being foisted upon residents with very little input frm them, and th proposed bill lacks ANY protection of residents' rights. The rules are being changed AFTER the fact. We did not have any knowledge that that this way coming.

    And the notion that these billboards are going to attract tourists to see these amazing things is nonsense. It's all about profit to the Verizon Center. Adjacent businesses are not going to earn an extra dollar out of this.

  • Bob

    I was one of the first residents to move downtown (7th and Penn) in 1992. Back then, the "entertainment" district largely consisted of street walkers who were even close to Pa. Ave. and their late night cat fights would wake nearby residents. Of course, there might have been those who said, "hey you moved into a city, deal with it," but fortunately DC and residents worked together to clean up that kind of entertainment. When the Verizon Center was built, it was designed as much as possible to blend in with the motif of Chinatown. I certainly understand those who live nearby not wanting to see more neon (and sound) added. As for those who suggest that the "temporary" billboards that one sees around DC add much to the city's coffers, think again. DC used to be largely billboard free, until some friendly council members introduced an excption for "temporary" billboards, which have turned out to be anyting but temporary.

  • DCster

    I bet all of these "pro billboard" comments are from the developers. What DC resident is saying "please please can you add more obnoxious advertising in my neighborhood?" Even New Yorkers hate Times Square.

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  • lily

    DC has an inferiority complex. It's unlikely that putting huge TV ads in the heart of the city is going to attract anyone but teenagers. It's Times Square writ pathetically small--and Times Square isn't Times Square anymore.