October 2, 2013 | by Mark Lee
D.C. proposes big rules for small boxes
newspaper boxes, gay news, Washington Blade

Restrictions on box placement urged by those who say newspaper boxes are ‘ugly.’ (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

An interesting thing happens when small business owners testify before D.C. Council members at public hearings concerning proposed legislation or new regulations.

District elected officials and city agency bureaucrats are offered a dose of common sense reality. Along with some great ideas on practical solutions to the vexing aspects of urban living. It’s always delightful to witness.

It occurred again at a mid-September D.C. Council committee hearing on proposed regulations regarding sidewalk newspaper boxes, chaired by Council member Mary Cheh. The motivation for creating new rules combined with reflexive over-thinking by city agencies is instructive. Sometimes less is simply more – and better.

As local NPR affiliate WAMU reported the following day, some neighborhood advisory groups, citizens associations and community activists have been complaining about publication distribution containers. A resident of the Glover Park area in Northwest D.C. whined his angst over the return of the familiar boxes following completion of a Wisconsin Avenue commercial corridor streetscape improvement project with “I got annoyed … these boxes just bothered me enormously.”

As a result, the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT) self-initiated drafting new regulations governing “publisher boxes,” revealed in August.

These rules include requirements to register with the city, pay a $5-per-box annual fee and acquire liability insurance of up to $1 million – standard stuff agreed to be relatively reasonable. City bureaucrats did learn that revisions are necessary, to accommodate hyper-local small neighborhood non-profit newspapers with a micro-number of boxes as well as limited budgets, for example.

Problematic, however, are proposed rules prohibiting box placement in residential zones where neighborhood-oriented and community newspapers commonly offer popular reader access convenience. Other site restrictions fail to consider the variable pavement set-ups and narrow sidewalk widths in many commercial areas. These arbitrary rules preclude box placement in whole swaths of the city. Worse, they don’t promote public safety or provide effective public space management and appear designed to mollify those who consider the boxes “ugly” or a visual nuisance.

Restrictions on the numbers of boxes are unwarranted. Ridiculous requests by the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District (BID) to require commercial building management to approve box placement adjacent to individual properties are both offensive to free-speech protections and a notion not meriting consideration. It’s bad enough that, once the regulatory door opens even a crack, neighborhood advisers and neighborhood nannies will shove their way in to behave as obstacles to fair and equitable application.

Of great concern to publishers is the unwillingness of the Metropolitan Police Department to act on documented evidence of intentional damage to boxes and targeted thievery of free newspapers. Washington Blade requests for criminal investigation and prosecution for theft and vandalism long unheeded were highlighted by Council member David Grosso at the hearing. Despite protection proffered by other jurisdictions, local police and prosecutors claim a lack of authority to act. Grosso strongly argued that regulation must simultaneously convey respect for publisher concerns.

Are there problems with some publications or commercial guides, often non-local entities, that go bankrupt or discontinue distribution, either unable or disinterested in removing their boxes or better servicing them while in use? Yes. Should there be a method to reasonably address street-side issues? Certainly.

Newspaper producers are accustomed to results-oriented, cost-effective, sensible solutions to challenges and suggested better ideas – less convoluted and without promulgating a morass of burdensome red tape. Registration stickers on boxes, like those now on taxis, identifying agency complaint contact information. Continued agency liaison with newspapers identifying box problems or those moved and obstructing egress. Removal of unregistered or abandoned boxes. Not rocket science stuff.

Cheh smartly pointed out that limited city oversight capacity recommends continued direct partnership with publications to manage problems. Grosso suggested there is little to be achieved by making something so simple and successful so complicated and counterintuitive. He also advocated that law enforcement be directed to pursue newspaper box property damage and publication product theft.

They’re right.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

1 Comment
  • “I got annoyed … these boxes just bothered me enormously.”

    As long as we are appealing to emotion and personal preference rather than to reason, do I get to play, too? I get annoyed because this control freakery bothers me enormously.

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