On Tuesday, representatives of DC’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) faced tough questions from the Mt. Vernon Square Neighborhood Association about 5th and I.

DMPED turned the site into a “temporary” parking lot with zero advance notice to the community after the planned development, the Arts at 5th and Eye, stalled without funding.

According to DMPED, they signed a two-year contract with Franklin Parking last summer that binds the government through June 2011.  The terms include a flat payment of $5,000 per month to DC.  Residents were shocked at the pittance being collected by the city for a property use that has met widespread community opposition.

Residents allege that the parking lot does not conform with zoning, including incomplete fencing and a total lack of landscaping.  The property is also being left unlocked at night, which is raising security concerns from neighboring residential properties.

DMPED’s Clint Jackson, David Roberts and Jose Soussa blamed unnamed formal officials for failing to notify ANC Commissioners or anybody else of the parking lot contract. Supposedly, these officials have since left DMPED, so they are “unable to determine” why communication and outreach did not occur. 

The discussion thus turned to how DMPED will avoid creating the same exact problem with the next property that they might attempt to turn into a parking lot.  One resident asked that since individual property owners in the District were required to post physical, visible signs on their property about zoning requests and buildout proposals, why doesn’t DMPED also post signs on their properties such as alerts about RFPs? 

Jackson replied, “Signs? Signs? We don’t do signs. That isn’t what we do.”  But the next words out of his mouth were, “We need to talk about communication. How can we communicate with the community?” 

The DMPED representatives did give residents the direct emails of the officials involved with the 5th and I project, but since it’s now too late to do anything since the contract is already signed, they instructed residents to email the Mayor’s correspondence unit instead. They also said that DMPED officials are unable to answer all email inquiries sent directly to them. 

My emails to Deputy Mayor Santos’s published email address had all gone unanswered after weeks, so apparently DMPED is not in the business of responding to taxpayer inquiries via email, unless you go through specific channels. They also mentioned that Jose Soussa checks the dcbiz@dc.gov email address regularly and could ensure a response.

Councilmember Jack Evans (Ward 2) did not stay for the DMPED presentation, but when I asked him about the 5th and I debacle, he said, “The last thing this part of the city needs is another parking lot. They aren’t doing anybody any good.”  I thought that was a very strong and positive statement across the board.

The DMPED reps said that they had no expertise in temporary urbanism. They also said that at other such sites in the city, neighbors who liked the temporary uses sometimes opposed the development projects that had been originally planned. That might indeed happen, but isn’t a good enough reason to create parking lots just because neighbors won’t oppose their redevelopment years later.

5th and I experience is irksome, the larger issue is DMPED’s process for interim property management when the economy hits the skids. They seem to go to parking lots by default, and those plans were only stopped by well-organized residents and eagle-eyed Councilmembers. That’s simply not a fair way for DMPED to operate. DMPED needs a different process that automatically seeks community input before signing any contracts for interim uses of city property.

Jeb Stenhouse is a clean energy economist who wants to help everyone enjoy livable, walkable public places, and to reach them by as many clean transportation options as possible.  He studied in Montpellier, France and still marvels at the quality of life in its car-free downtown (and the 15 pounds he lost roaming its charming streets).  Between adventures, Jeb lives with his husband in Adams Morgan.