August 15, 2012 | by Mark Lee
Neighborhood commissions changing with city

Love ’em or hate ’em, the biennial opportunity to vote for a hyper-local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) member comes this fall, as it has for the past 36 years following the advent of Home Rule in the District.

Last week was the deadline to submit voter signatures to qualify for the D.C. general election ballot for nonpartisan ANC seats. While the usual majority of uncontested single contender races and those without a declared candidate will appear on localized ballots garnering votes of only a portion of those participating at the polls, there is a detectable change underway in many areas of the city.

In addition to the normal “churn factor” of departing ANC members, a number of high-profile and long-serving commissioners have chosen not to seek reelection.

In the rapidly developing and population increasing 14th and U streets commercial zone in Northwest Washington, for example, controversial 10-year incumbent Ramon Estrada is not a candidate. A notorious objector of nearly every restaurant and bar liquor license application and development project in surrounding areas and representing the Dupont Circle outer extremity comprising ANC 2B-09, Estrada had won increasingly narrow victories in recent elections.

Observers have noted that both newer and younger residents have filed to run this year, continuing a nascent trend, particularly in areas experiencing significant development and an influx of their contemporaries. For many, the decision to seek election began with basic investigation of what the obscure ANCs do and how they operate.

A newfound spirit of engagement by a more forward-thinking segment of residents of all ages supporting the aspects of urban life that attracted them to the city and their neighborhoods is frequently the motivator.

Many of these new faces have a refreshingly divergent attitude about a potential role as a commissioner, eschewing past objections about neighborhood growth and opposition to expansion in the number of restaurants, bars and other popular amenities. They tend to be more focused on public safety and crime, transportation and parking, recreation facilities, environmental and sanitation issues – as well as engendering a more cooperative context for businesses and residents.

The threshold for ballot access is low, requiring the signatures of only 25 registered voters within a Single Member District (SMD). Each of the now reapportioned 296 ANC-SMD areas represent approximately 2,000 total residents, including those not yet of voting age. Most residents are unable to identify their complex district designation or name their commissioner.

ANCs, as the name implies, offer advisory input at D.C. Council public hearings, recommendations to city agencies and commissions during citizen input opportunities, and opinions about liquor licensing and zoning matters at agency board hearings for which they are granted formally deferential consideration. Critics complain that ANC tactical ability to complicate neighborhood development approvals is oftentimes unrepresentative of majority opinion.

ANC 1B-02 commissioner Alexandra Lewin-Zwerdling, having won a special neighborhood election late last year for an open seat abutting U Street opposite Estrada’s district along 14th Street in the adjacent ANC but not seeking a full term, describes the rigors of the position in stark terms. Despite having earned broad-based commendation for her diligent and dedicated efforts adjudicating resident tensions and mitigating concerns, she says the experience can be frustrating.

Although representing “close to 4,000 constituents” in the now-Census-adjusted newly designated and reconfigured district – double the proscribed number due to recent population increases, “I always hear from the same 10 people,” Lewin-Zwerdling says. She notes spending “a lot of time attempting to navigate between these loud voices and the overall neighborhood” indicating that it is extremely difficult to resolve the “angst and anxiety of a few toward neighborhood businesses, even long-term ones.” Nonetheless, she looks forward to remaining active in community projects in a more selective and productive way.

Whether an illustration of democracy gone wild, a fiefdom for aspiring overlords, an opportunity for residents to make a civic contribution or the first rung on the ladder of seeking higher office, ANCs are an entrenched local institution.

How the function and focus of these small neighborhood commissioner groupings evolves to better reflect a changing city increasingly desirous of – and reliant on – neighborhood development and commercial enterprise remains to be seen.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

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