September 5, 2012 | by Mark Lee
D.C. regulators cost city millions

Here we go again. The D.C. government shoots itself in the foot by bending the rules to placate a tiny number of noisy naysayers and doesn’t appear to realize the damage done to its own economic health. Is there not a doctor in this house of pain?

This time the controversy involves a city regulatory agency singlehandedly modifying standard development project construction permit protocols on the fly, justified only by a spurious interpretation of agency regulations and the tossing around of a few bureaucratic buzzwords.

The dismaying result is a precedent-setting anti-development literal roadblock initially affecting two new residential-retail projects currently in early construction phases along the vibrant 14th Street corridor in Northwest Washington. Projects that Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. Council members publicly touted as a concrete example of the city’s revitalization at a groundbreaking ceremony only a few months ago.

Regulatory rebelliousness by agency apparatchiks at the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and a lack of effective statutory compliance oversight by the mayor’s office will cost the city millions of dollars in lost revenues in this single instance. Also in jeopardy is the economic viability of future development projects, the availability of financial investment sources wary of unpredictable delays resulting from inconsistent city decision-making and the willingness of commercial enterprises to commit to local retail storefronts subject to an uncertain completion schedule.

All this is the result of a mayor and local elected officials not keeping an eye on city government permit purveyors.

Once a local development firm manages the maze of design and zoning approvals and survives myriad protests by the usual small cadre of citizen complainers, it gets down to the nitty-gritty of construction planning. A key component is negotiating a Traffic Control Plan that identifies public safety preparations associated with sidewalk closings and coverings or barriers, delivery truck access, traffic flow and temporary use of curbside parking spaces. Elaborate plans are cooperatively prepared between developer and agency, guided by uniform policies and past practices at prior sites.

Although different locations require modified planning solutions, the basic rules are well known and long established. Minor short-term construction inconvenience in a compact urban environment is a given, with the objective of protecting pedestrians and mitigating impacts for both residents and businesses the shared goal.

JBG and Level 2 Development, both well-regarded local development firms with recognized conscientious performance constructing major projects and builders of adjacent residential-retail properties with more than 400 combined units of housing across from one another at 14th and U streets, recently began finalizing construction planning with DDOT. That’s when the agency issued a devastating restriction unknown to have been similarly imposed.

Both firms did not suspect that they would be denied the regulatory standard of weekday delivery access to their sites from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Agency managers, however, took the extraordinarily irregular step of eliminating early morning and end-of-day access – cutting the timeframe by half. The decision is cloaked in a questionable regulatory evaluation without regard for common sense solutions or the massive costs to the city or the developers. No insurmountable practical safety benefit is at stake.

It’s tantamount to telling a coffee shop that donut deliveries have to wait until midday.

This decision will cost the city more than $4 million in lost tax revenues of various types and suddenly increase construction costs by nearly $3 million. It will also lengthen construction inconvenience by a full six months.

Both projects endured lengthy building configuration protests by chronic objectors. DDOT has now initiated a subjective regulatory review requirement without statutory authority or benefit of approved agency rulemaking to ensure that these edicts are equitably applied. Rogue regulators have instituted new obstacles and opponent protest entitlements citing only vague mantras of “citizen empowerment” and “best practices” as justification.

It’s a nakedly plain paean to vociferous protesters eager to extract a pound of flesh from developers they were unsuccessful in thwarting – “legislated” by apparently opinionated bureaucrats.

The ongoing ramifications will be big, broad-based, and bring barriers to future growth and local revenues. A responsibly managed city cannot conduct business this way.

Adult supervision instilling respect for the law and fairness for local businesses benefiting the city’s future is needed – not the fancies of functionaries.

It’s time to get busy, Mayor Gray, and start cracking a few eggheads.

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

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