ANCs, or Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, have no power to directly approve or reject any proposals. Nevertheless, they can have a tremendous effect on their neighborhoods and their growth, for good or ill.
That’s why it’s very important for DC residents to learn about the candidates and cast informed votes in ANC races, and why Greater Greater Washington will be making ANC endorsements this week.
ANCs wield the greatest influence over the retail corridors in a neighborhood. Restaurants and bars need liquor licenses to sell alcohol, and public space permits to open up sidewalk cafes. They generate noise and trash which often engender specific opposition. Their business is already one of thin margins, and resistance from the local ANC is often enough to make a restauranteur give up and look elsewhere.
In a number of neighborhoods, from 14th and U to M Street SE/SW, ANCs have in recent years often raised obstacles to the growth of businesses in DC, especially restaurants and bars. We rarely really know what the majority of residents want since there aren’t opinion polls or plebiscites, but there are a great many residents, especially newer residents, who would welcome a particular business opening up in their neighborhood, but don’t attend ANC debates or speak to their Commissioner.
Just look at the tremendous hassles the beloved Hank’s Oyster Bar at 17th and Q, NW has faced just to expand into an adjacent townhouse. Getting approval has cost owner Jamie Leeds tens of thousands of dollars and taken over her life for months, and this is even with the clear support of the local ANC. Over in Bloomingdale, the ANC’s opposition blocked a liquor license for the popular Big Bear Cafe.
This isn’t to say ANCs should take an absolutist stance in favor of any business, regardless of hours, noise, trash or other considerations. I support the use of Voluntary Agreements in many cases and supported extending the 17th Street moratorium. When they try to work out a reasonable consensus between residents and businesses, ANCs can play a valuable role. In many neighborhoods, they do just that. But sometimes, they have veered toward the attitude that nothing should change.
ANCs also often get to make the call on smaller governmental decisions. For example, Georgetown’s ANC voted against a Capital Bikeshare station at the Georgetown Car Barn, and DDOT promptly deleted that station. Virtually no CaBi supporters knew of the impending vote, and so only Ken Archer, who typically attends the ANC meetings, was there to speak in favor. It wasn’t enough for the ANC.
ANCs have tipped the balance on the naming of Metro stations, on bus routings, on parking, and on whether to include bricks or bulb-outs in streetscape redesigns. Many a time, residents are upset to hear about a decision of their ANC but hadn’t weighed in or even met their Commissioner or voted in the past.
I’ve listed some cases where ANCs have done some harm, but that doesn’t mean ANCs themselves are a bad institution. They often force push large development projects to solicit some community input, and keep an eye on government projects like streetscape reconstructions to ensure contractors don’t mess up and that project managers don’t forget the impact projects will have on business.
There are plenty of instances where ANCs are a positive force in a neighborhood. That most often happens when the Commissioners are not simply those who volunteer but when residents take an active role in elections. Democracy is a great form of government, but it only works when people vote and engage their representatives. If an ANC isn’t representing a neighborhood effecively, residents have not only the opportunity but the obligation to make their voices heard and press for change in decisions and, if need be, in decisionmakers.
Next week, DC residents will have a chance to make their ANCs better. Greater Greater Washington will make a few suggestions for which candidates we would support. We also encourage you to weigh in with your own opinions.