February 2, 2012 at 12:35 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
D.C. Council myopia on Ward 5 warehouses

What is it with Northeast Washington’s Ward 5 and the ferocious opposition by some neighborhood leaders and residents to development plans for usage of even the tiniest number of the long underutilized area’s vast array of abandoned former light industrial commercial buildings that causes D.C. politicians to roll over like puppies wanting their stomachs rubbed?

Why doesn’t the area embrace realistic economic development opportunities and functional applications for a very few of the plentiful unused warehouses that blight the ward at both visible and tucked away locations?

Why have issues related to zoning-specific and usage-appropriate business revitalization relevant to the LGBT community in recent years not been effectively or successfully addressed – if at all – by local advocates and organizations?

Perhaps most important, what causes the city’s elected officials to buckle so quickly to such anti-business protestations, abandoning common sense along the way?

The D.C. Council previously limited both the number and permissible locations in the area for gay strip clubs displaced by the Nationals stadium hoping to re-open, at the insistence of disgraced former Ward 5 Council member Harry Thomas Jr.

The result? No venue relocated to Ward 5 due to insurmountable prohibitions, with only Ziegfeld’s/Secrets surviving at a grandfathered new location near the previous cluster of businesses and the stadium site.

The latest dust-up is over D.C.’s medical marijuana program that hit another snag two weeks ago when the D.C. Council approved emergency legislation to limit the number of cultivation centers allowed in Ward 5.

Introduced by At-Large Council member Vincent Orange, who previously represented Ward 5 prior to an unsuccessful mayoral campaign, and co-sponsored by Council Chair Kwame Brown, it primarily affects a ward encompassing the upper northeast corner of the city from the nexus of New Jersey Avenue at 3rd Street, N.E., and surrounding the New York Avenue commercial corridor within a southern boundary continuing along Florida Avenue and extending outward via Benning Road.

The approved legislation limits the number of marijuana cultivation locations in any ward to six, passed with lightning speed within a week of introduction.

Gay At-Large Council member and Committee on Health Chair David Catania was credited with striking a deal reflecting the best possible compromise. With neither side certain of the vote alignment, and Mayor Vincent Gray’s statement that the bill would “further delay implementation of this important program, which is necessary to assist individuals who suffer with chronic debilitating pain” not making much of an impact, Catania negotiated the lessened limitation.

The original regulations, approved by the Council more than a year ago, dictated the city’s business proposal solicitation and qualification process to date. The Council’s action has upended and complicated progress and will likely cause further delays and difficulties in determining locations for the small necessary number of production sites. This may result in insufficient product becoming available and eventually being more difficult to obtain at the separate dispensaries at only five locations scattered across the city for patient access convenience.

Nearly all of the 28 business applications to operate each of only 10 cultivation centers permitted citywide – including a signed property lease – selected available and appropriate sites in Ward 5. Eight qualifying proposals have been forwarded to a respective Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), which have a near-veto opportunity under scoring rules that portend more obstacles to come. Six of the eight sent for ANC review are for locations in Ward 5, resulting in the probability that remaining applications under review won’t fulfill the new geographic restriction.

Because these businesses are production facilities only with no distribution component, strict security protocols are required, only 95 plants are allowed at each location in order to avoid heightened criminal penalties should the Obama administration continue with threats and prosecution interfering with programs nationwide and require only a modest and discreet size with a nondescript and non-commercial exterior, the reaction is both dumbfounding and disappointing.

Cultivation businesses – essential to implementation of the District’s pending medical marijuana program – do not constitute behemoth “Walmart of Weed” footprints or activity. Their presence will actually be difficult to detect.

The D.C. Council’s kowtowing to opponents of these businesses is cowardly and will further delay and potentially limit or ultimately deny patients the benefit of physician-prescribed medical relief.

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

  • Mr. Lee – You should be aware that New Jersey Avenue and 3rd Street NE don’t ever meet. If you’d like to accurate describe where Ward 5 Starts along the New York Avenue corridor, you’d be better served to note that it happens within the Northwest quadrant of the city. Is this picky? Sure. But I question your understanding of the situation in our ward if you don’t even know where it is.

  • Nobody who owns a house wants to live next to a strip club, marijuana factory, or night club. Get real. Thank goodness the council listened to the reasoned outcries of residents of Ward five and decided on a compromise that means equitable development. We want the same mixed use and sustainable development happening in Wards six and one. The Feds can and have stated they would shut these grow houses down, and where will that leave the residents of Ward 5? Living adjacent to abandoned industrial buildings. How is that progress?

  • Mark Lee, author of this Washington Blade column

    @IMGoph: You are correct. Ward boundaries are difficult things to summarize and detail, due to their irregular and complicated construction. I might have more simply noted the southwest originating point of Ward 5 as essentially beginning at the intersection of the commercial corridor of New York Avenue at North Capitol Street, for easier reader convenience and reference. It is important to note that, with the exception of a very small number of blocks vertically hugging the west-east city quadrant boundary line of North Capitol Street above New York Avenue, Ward 5 is almost exclusively situated in Northeast Washington.

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