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D.C. zoning board’s curious battle over city transit policy

Local developers subjected to inconsistent agency action on housing development

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Shaw, zoning board, gay news, Washington Blade
Shaw, zoning board, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The District government knows it can’t have it both ways. City agency adjudicators at the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment, however, appear not to have gotten the memo.

Or perhaps there is more to their intransigence than is readily apparent.

One thing is certain: poor attendance delaying board decisions coupled with an astonishing lack of concern for the huge costs of decision-making deferral and a startling lack of appreciation for the expense factors in the business of building are indefensible in a city no longer willing to countenance pitiful government administration.

At issue are policies simultaneously encouraging car-less households and development in public-transit-intensive areas while fulfilling housing needs at affordable cost.

Caught in the crossfire is the local development team of Brook Rose and Gregg Busch. The duo, partners in both business and life, have encountered inexplicable opposition to their languishing proposal to provide housing in one of the most in-demand areas of a city enjoying strong and sustained population growth.

On Tuesday, after an already 10-month-long process, BZA board members again postponed a decision on an application by Rosebusch LLC for a zoning variance allowing renovation of three historic rowhouses with integrated construction of 37 micro-unit apartments spanning 1456-1460 Church Street, N.W., in the Logan Circle neighborhood.

The developers are seeking an exemption to provide four parking spaces instead of the 19 required in exchange for an appropriate and allowable offsetting mitigation measure. As proposed, the micro-unit tenants would not be allowed residential permits for on-street parking.

In other words, they wouldn’t own automobiles. The encouragement of which has specifically been adopted as city policy – alongside what many consider deliberate discouragements to possess one.

Never mind that it is acknowledged as impractical to provide so many parking spaces underneath the tiny infill lot. Even if feasible, the prohibitive expense would add a cost burden to each housing unit and subsequent rental pricing – for an amenity many, if not most, would neither need nor use.

It’s simply a deal breaker.

All this despite the project being backed by the Office of Planning, the Historic Preservation Review Board, the Department of Transportation and the neighborhood advisory commission. Not unusual in local regulatory situations, opposition is limited to a small number of Gladys Kravitz types in an adjacent condo building. Of note, the ringleader is the boyfriend of a BZA board member, with both men sharing a unit in the building. (The boyfriend has recused himself from voting on the matter.)

That’s where the story gets interesting, and may explain why some board members have expressed an unwillingness to grant the same parking relief recently approved for several projects, including one nearby.

The oft-unusual universal support of relevant agencies and entities recommending approval combined with prior BZA blessing of others with no compelling variable distinction and without credible or coherent board proffer in this instance, is troubling. It would seem that developers might be well advised to light votive candles hoping that a regulatory board with immense power not include someone with a personal connection in a public matter involving their project.

Ironically, the city intends to downwardly revise parking requirements for housing developments in transit-bountiful locations. Transparent is the dysfunction of a government incapable of consistently implementing public policies designed to benefit local residents and achieve larger goals. Likewise any inability to enforce the proposed conditions, expressed as a concern. Claiming lofty objectives requires the competency to manage the details.

The controversy doesn’t involve the modest apartment sizing – a market-driven trend proving popular with a variety of diverse demographics less interested in large housing spaces and more concerned with convenience and adversely affected by affordability.

More compact and less costly housing are desired by many single adults, younger residents and older “empty nesters” with modern lifestyles. They seek proximity to vibrant streetscapes brimming with socialization options – fundamentally altering the way some residents perceive and utilize their living spaces.

It’s only a mixed-message-sending D.C. government that appears confused about what it wants.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at [email protected].

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. R

    April 19, 2014 at 11:38 am

    You article appears to be contrary to what I observed on the Rosebusch case before the BZA. The BZA last Tuesday did not delay a decision; they had already decided the case the week before. The Board of Zoning voted the previous week to grant the Applicants relief for a special exception to height. However, the Applicant did not get approval for the parking relief. I was impressed with the Board’s reasoning in discussing the parking issue and its effect on the community. To get approval an applicant must get a majority vote of the Board and in the Rosebusch case, the Applicant failed to get a majority vote. So there was not a delay of the BZA to act, they just did not agree with the Applicant. On this most-recent Tuesday, the BZA agreed to give the Rosebusch people another opportunity to submit additional evidence to change the Board’s decision. As one who frequently watches the BZA hearings, your article is contrary to what I have observed of the Board of Zoning.

  2. Mark Lee (column author and Washington Blade contributing columnist)

    April 19, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    ^ @R: It’s a bit more complicated than that. At the prior week April 8 meeting – following repeated delays in a decision spanning months – the Board vote on the Rosebusch LLC application was bifurcated between the height variance request and the parking variance request. The vote on the height variance was sufficient for approval but the vote on the parking variance was 2-1 in the developer’s favor but insufficient for approval by a 5-member panel (with one member having recused himself, as noted in my piece). However, one Board member was not present, requiring either acquisition of a written proxy vote or a final voice vote at a subsequent meeting. The Board members present decided to postpone a final decision on the parking variance to their next session on April 15 for that reason. At the April 15 meeting the again non-present Board member had filed a proxy vote opposing the parking variance, resulting in a 2-2 vote and disapproval. The Board suddenly (and somewhat comically) realized, however, that it had committed a significant procedural error some time ago in the entire hearing process by not having filled the Board position of the member who had recused himself with an alternate. Consequently, the Board voted unanimously to re-hear the case with a full Board complement – scheduling a hearing for May 20, representing yet another five-week delay.

  3. S

    April 21, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    Mark,
    The developers themselves left their scheduled December 18 hearing and asked the Board to reschedule to a later date—but I guess because that fact doesn’t fit your narrative about the Board’s “astonishing lack of concern for the huge costs of decision-making deferral” you chose to leave it out. Trust me, the Gladys Kravitz types would love to have this all resolved quickly. It’s been the neighbors, and not the developers, that have had to watch these properties go from lived in residences to rapidly dilapidating vacant structures that have become terrific attractions for the homeless and some pretty giant rats. If this is how the developers like to treat their neighbors, then we do not really need them around. At least Gladys Kravitz had a view out her front window to the Stevens’ nice, well-cared for family home; us, we have had to live with this demolition by neglect for a while now.

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Opinions

Trend of banning books threatens our freedom

‘History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas’

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National Book Festival, gay news, Washington Blade

I knew Helen Keller was a DeafBlind activist. But, until recently, I didn’t know that some of her books were torched.

Nearly 90 years ago, in 1933 Germany, the Nazis added “How I Became a Socialist,” by Keller to a list of “degenerate” books. Keller’s book, along with works by authors from H.G. Wells to Einstein were burned. 

The Nazi book burnings were horrific, you might think, but what does this have to do with the queer community now?

I speak of this because a nano-sec of the news tells us that book censorship, if not from literal fires, but from the removal from school libraries, is alive and well. Nationwide, in small towns and suburbs, school boards, reacting to pressure from parents and politicians, are removing books from school libraries. Many of these books are by queer authors and feature LGBTQ+ characters.

Until recently, I didn’t worry that much about books being banned. My ears have pricked up, every year, in September when Banned Books Week is observed. Growing up, my parents instilled in me their belief that reading was one of life’s great pleasures as well as a chance to learn about new ideas – especially, those we disagreed with. The freedom to read what we choose is vital to democracy, my folks taught me. 

“I don’t care if it’s ‘Mein Kampf,’” my Dad who was Jewish told me, “I’ll defend to my death against its being banned.”

“Teachers should be allowed to teach it,” he added, “so kids can learn what a monster Hitler was.”

In this country, there have always been people who wanted to ban books from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by writer and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe to gay poet Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

In the 1920s, in the Scopes trial, a Tennessee science teacher was fined $100 for teaching evolution. (The law against teaching evolution in Tennessee was later repealed.)

But, these folks, generally, seemed to be on “the fringe” of society. We didn’t expect that book banning would be endorsed by mainstream politicians.

Until lately.

Take just one example of the uptake in book-banning: In September, the Blade reported, Fairfax County, Virginia public school officials said at a school board meeting that two books had been removed from school libraries to “reassess their suitability for high school students.”

Both books – “Lawn Boy” a novel by Jonathan Evison and “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by non-binary author Maia Koabe feature queer characters and themes, along with graphic descriptions of sex.

Opponents of the books say the books contain descriptions of pedophilia. But, many book reviewers and LGBTQ students as well as the American Library Association dispute this false claim.

The American Library Association honored both books with its Alex Award, the Associated Press reported. The award recognizes the year’s “10 books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults ages 12 through 18.”

Given how things have changed for us queers in recent years – from marriage equality to Pete Buttigieg running for president – it’s not surprising that there’s been a backlash. As part of the blowback, books by queer authors with LGBTQ+ characters have become a flashpoint in the culture wars.

As a writer, it’s easy for me to joke that book banning is fabulous for writers. Nothing improves sales more than censorship.

Yet, there’s nothing funny about this for queer youth. My friend Penny has a queer son. “LGBTQ kids need to read about people like themselves,” she told me. “It’s horrible if queer kids can’t find these books. They could become depressed or even suicidal.”

If we allow books to be banned, our freedom to think and learn will be erased.

“History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas,” Keller wrote in a letter to students in Nazi Germany.

Anti-queer officials may remove LGBTQ books from school libraries. But, our thoughts will not be unshelved.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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Opinions

Thanksgiving is a time to share

Take a moment to think about what you can do to help others

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This Thanksgiving, many of us will once again celebrate with family and friends around the dinner table. Sadly at too many tables friends and family members will be missing. They will be one of the over 766,000 Americans who lost their lives to coronavirus. May the shared grief over lost loved ones cause us to try to bridge our differences and lift each other. As those of us with plenty sit down for dinner let us not forget the many in the world not so fortunate and think of what we can do to make their lives better.

In the midst of the pandemic we defeated a president who through his words and actions tore our country apart — a president who managed to poison relationships among family and friends. We elected a president who we felt would try to unite the nation. But we know that has yet to happen and the recent reaction to the not-guilty verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial shows us that. The use of race-baiting in the recent Virginia governor’s election shows us that. We still suffer from the implicit permission the former president gave to some Americans to once again give public voice to their sexism, homophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism. That didn’t suddenly end with his loss. While we cannot pretend those feelings weren’t always there it seemed we had reached a point in American society where people understood you couldn’t voice them in public without rebuke. While it will take many years to put that genie back in the bottle we need to try if we are to move forward again. Around our Thanksgiving table is a place to begin. I am an optimist and believe we can do that even while recognizing it won’t be easy.

Thanksgiving should be a time to look within ourselves and determine who we are as individuals and what we can do to make life better for ourselves, our families, and others here in the United States and around the world.

Around our Thanksgiving table we should take a moment to think about what we can do to help feed the hungry, house the homeless, and give equal opportunity to everyone who wants to work hard. Maybe even give some thought as to how we change policies causing institutional racism to ones giving everyone a chance to succeed. It is a moment to think about how we can open up the eyes of the world to understand how racism, homophobia, and sexism hurt everyone, not just those who are discriminated against.

We must renew our efforts to heal the rifts in our own families and make an effort to try to see each other in a more positive light. If we start to do that with those closest to us we might have a fighting chance to do it with others.

I recognize my life is privileged having just returned from a 14-day transatlantic cruise. My Thanksgiving weekend will be spent with friends in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and we will remember our experiences over the past year. For many it also begins the Christmas season and the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend each year Rehoboth Beach lights its community Christmas tree. So surely we will talk about what that season means to each of us.

For me each year it means thinking about which charities I can support as the requests for end-of-year gifts arrive. It is a time to think about volunteering some precious time for a cause you care about.
Wherever you live, there are many chances to volunteer and do your part to make a difference for others. The rewards of doing so will come back to you in abundance. As anyone who has helped someone else will tell you the feeling you get for having done so is wonderful.

So wishing all my friends and those of you who I may be lucky enough to call friends in the future, a very happy Thanksgiving. May this holiday find you happy, healthy and sharing peaceful times with those you love.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Fighting for equality for decades, trans elders still face endless hardships

Lisa Oakley rejected by 60 long-term care facilities in Colo.

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transgender, Gender Conference East, trans, transgender flag, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

November 20 will mark the 22nd International Transgender Day of Remembrance, an international event honoring and commemorating the many transgender people murdered in transphobic hate crimes every year.

Since 2013, at least 200 transgender people have been murdered in the United States alone, 80 percent being Black and Latinx women. This number is undoubtedly an underestimate, as many murders go unreported and trans victims often are misgendered by law enforcement.

These murders are not isolated crime statistics. They grow out of a culture of violence against transgender and non-binary (TGNB) people that encompasses stigma, exclusion, discrimination, poverty, and lack of access to essential resources, including health care, employment and housing. 

These challenges result in early death. In Latin America, for example, it has been reported that the average life expectancy of a transgender person is only 35 years.

This climate of stigma and transphobia is particularly challenging for TGNB older people, who face extraordinary hardships due both to the cumulative impact of lifetimes of discrimination and regular mistreatment in their elder years. Due to isolation from family and greater medical and financial needs, trans older people are more likely to require professionalized elder services and care. 

Unfortunately, these services and the facilities that provide them are often either unavailable to TGNB elders, or hostile to them. A national survey of LGBTQ+ older people by AARP found that more than 60 percent of those surveyed were concerned about how they would be treated in a long-term care setting. This includes the fear of being refused or receiving limited care, in danger of neglect or abuse, facing verbal or physical harassment, or being forced to hide or deny their identity once again. 

This is a sobering reality. In October, GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders filed a claim against Sunrise Assisted Living in Maine, which openly denied admission to an older transgender woman because of her gender identity. 

In Colorado, Lisa Oakley was, astonishingly, rejected by 60 long-term care facilities, which her caseworker ascribes to Lisa’s gender identity. One facility that agreed to admit Lisa would only house her with a male roommate. 

After waiting far too long for welcoming care, Lisa eventually got help from SAGE and other community supporters and found a home in Eagle Ridge of Grand Valley. Fortunately, Eagle Ridge has participated in specialized training to be LGBTQ+-welcoming. While Lisa feels welcomed at Eagle Ridge and has made friends, she has been forced to live far from a community she loves. 

These cases in Maine and Colorado are just the tip of the iceberg regarding the discrimination faced by TGNB elders. That’s why it’s so important that Congress pass the Equality Act, which would once and for all prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in key areas like employment, housing, and care and services.

And while legal progress is important, it’s not enough. TGNB elders need more equity in their day to day lives. Older transgender people are more likely to experience financial barriers than non-transgender elders, regardless of age, income and education.

They’re also at a higher risk of disability, general poor mental and physical health, and loneliness, compared to their cisgender counterparts.

These experiences have been part of everyday life for trans elders for far too long. We continue to see them struggle with the long-term effects of transphobia and violence every day. That’s why organizations like SAGE are stepping up our support for TGNB elders by investing $1 million to support TGNB-focused services and advocacy both in New York and nationwide.

And we are continually amazed by the resilience of TGNB elders, creating communities built on their strength and courage. 

Their resilience is nothing new. It dates back generations and was evident during the Stonewall Uprising. Over the years, trans luminaries like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Victoria Cruz—leaders of the modern LGBTQ+ civil rights movement—and countless others have repeatedly proved that they will not be invisible.  

We see this determination in so many programs and activities led by trans elders at SAGE. 

For example, the TransGenerational Theater Project brings together transgender people of all ages to create theater from their experiences and perspectives. These types of elder-driven programs serve as powerful reminders that transgender older people are leading their lives with resilience, creativity, and perseverance, despite the dangers they face. 

Transgender and non-binary elders have survived and fought for equality for decades. They are brave. They are strong. They are leaders. Here at SAGE, we will continue to walk side-by-side with them as we continue the fight to ensure TGNB elders get the respect, change, and acceptance they deserve.

Michael Adams is the CEO of SAGE, the world’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ elders.

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