Protip: If You Want a Building to Move Faster, Check Tax Records
It's easy to bemoan the decrepit state of an historic building. Fortunately, the District has a couple of powerful tools to compel landowners to take care of them.
Take the building on the northeast corner of 11th and K Streets NW. Doug Jemal's Douglas Development bought it in 2003, and wrapped in one of the 32 "special signs" (read: billboard) permitted by the District, which can generate quite a tidy revenue stream. It's also part of a pending landmark nomination for the whole block, which describes the largely lost Second Empire architecture from 1875 and personal histories of the people who lived there. (Much of this was detailed in 2010 by former Ward 2 activist Cary Silverman, who has since decamped for Maryland.)
The property is now assessed at $1,645,550, and for as long as tax records are displayed, Douglas has just paid the normal commercial tax rate, not the vacant or blighted rates. Which, if you look at the building's terrible disrepair, seems ridiculous. If it were blighted, the owner would have paid about $164,000 last year, not the $37,000 it skated by with instead.
Wondering about this, I dropped a note over the weekend to Reuben Pemberton, the hardworking chief of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs' vacant property unit. The same day, I received a call saying that his office had actually missed that property, thinking it was part of the same lot as the one next door, which Douglas also owns. DCRA dispatched one of their two vacant property inspectors to check it out on Monday morning, found that the building is in fact blighted, and will notify Douglas Development that they're in for a hefty bill.
Douglas has a couple levels of appeal if they don't want to pay that kind of money. But this seems like a pretty clear case, and if there's any justice in the world, the appeals will be denied. It's not that Jemal is a bad developer—he does beautiful historic renovations, when the right opportunity comes along. But the combination of advertising revenue and low taxes gave the company very little incentive to do anything with this one.
As a last resort: If the appeals are somehow granted, the Historic Preservation Review Board could go ahead and landmark the building, and then sue under D.C.'s demolition by neglect statute (theoretically, at least—it hasn't happened yet).
In the mean time, DCRA can't be everywhere, and likes it when you let them know about vacant properties that might not be taxed like they should be. You can email Pemberton at email@example.com.