An Imperfect Circle
Updated: Jul 4
At any point in time, there are thousands of American road construction projects in progress.
If you're like me, you have found yourself stuck in traffic wondering what possible upside could warrant the nuisance caused by these orange cone zones. On rare occasions, prolonged delays have maybe led you to question how these initiatives -- the vast majority of which would be extremely tough to classify as vital fixes for our nation's crumbling infrastructure -- were able to lock down the funding that they received.
As someone who hates government waste, I would love to write a book that plainly exposes the comprehensive list of transportation boondoggles. Alas, that's not going to happen, since finishing it would require insight into every project ever. What I can do, though, is focus on one specific undertaking and use it to show how these things frequently play out. As it just so happens, there is upcoming work slated for an area near my house in DC that highlights the profligate nature of these campaigns while also demonstrating the varied ways that "community" projects dismiss the concerns of the community.
Allow me to dissect the Dupont Circle Deckover Project.
They Can't Be Serious
The aforementioned deckover debacle promises to beautify a half-mile stretch of Connecticut Avenue with touchups to the vehicle surface and sidewalks (that will be further accented with new trees, lighting, and benches). But the real cherry on top comes in the form of a plaza they plan to create by covering the one-block, open-sky underpass closest to the northern edge of Dupont Circle. According to recent reports, the tab for this endeavor will hover around $30,000,000.
Put another way, bureaucrats have rubber-stamped the conjuring out of literal thin air of a "flexible and welcoming space" directly across the street from a 2.25-acre park famous for being the flexible and welcoming site of countless important events and rallies for almost 150 years... at a projected cost of over $10,000 per linear foot -- an average that is light years away from the ballpark estimate associated with typical paving and landscaping work.
[I should also note that there are two additional closed-street plazas adjacent to Connecticut Avenue; meaning you could walk a block in any direction from the future deckover location and run into a welcoming space. Yet they are still advocating for building a fourth leisure spot regardless of the commerce headache caused by quadrupling what is currently a two-minute, quarter-mile trip for trucks and buses from the corridor's edge to its center.]
Oh, and the whole affair will take between two to three years to complete!
At first blush, does any of that sound the least bit necessary? In light of all the other civic issues that could benefit from an eight-digit budget infusion, I would argue vehemently no.
But don't take my word for it. Hop on the listservs; where you will find everything from locals worrying that the new plaza will act as a magnet for the unhoused to more pointed remarks, like those of an 18th St NW resident who said, "we taxpayers are being charged for a useless plaza no one wants or needs except for a developer and the contractors who will make a fortune." Attend an informational meeting, where people with legitimate concerns have outnumbered deckover supporters 9-to-1, according to Dupont Circle Citizens Association board member John Hassell. Talk to small businesses on these blocks who have expressed doubts to me about their ability to survive another multiyear nightmare after what they just went through during the pandemic.
So why is this streetscape scheme happening and who stands to gain from it?
The Usual Suspects
Bureaucrats. Elected officials. Quasi-governmental entities. Landlords. And preferred vendors. Everyone you'd expect to be pushing for a stratagem that regular folks do not want appears here.
It starts behind the scenes. Members of officialdom decide to manifest their warped vision of utopia no matter how impractical or expensive it is. In the Dupont Deckover example, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is guiding this project, with assists from a variety of local and federal agencies who also have their fingerprints on it. At a certain point, they were required by law to present their plans to the public. That's where the rubber meets the road, as the saying goes. Ideally, the collaboration and criticism would yield an even better result. That's how democracy works. Only in this case, and many others like it I anticipate, the bureaucrats have no intention of letting commoners decide the proposal's fate.
As John Hassell tells it, "They don't want to listen. They just want to talk down to us." He has asked them multiple times (across three forums) to answer basic questions about the process and various alternatives. Each time he has been stonewalled with responses that enable city employees to avoid addressing inconvenient objections on the record in the vein of "that's a different division (of the same agency)" or "that's out of the scope of the study."
Perhaps the biggest procedural red flag revolves around the environmental considerations, or more accurately, the administrative state's built-in categorical exclusions that sanction eschewing potential deal-killers. Both Hassell and I have a serious problem with government coming up with backdoors that let them bypass the need to study programs which might individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment. In case it is unclear, it's very strange for people who love to talk about studying things to carve out dozens of ways to avoid studies instead of just doing the research to justify their designs. It's even more dastardly that they brandished a slide that uses doublespeak to hide (in plain sight) their plans to exclude the very impacts they tout as measures of their "conformity" to environmental principles.
Even worse, they have shrugged off Hassell's requests for written documentation that would verify the deckover doesn't need to be studied. I'm no lawyer, but I have to wonder how above board the exclusion approval could have been given what I have read in the Federal Regulation Code 771.117 specific to the FHWA. [Sections a, b, d, e4 all have language that gave me pause.]
**The Elected Officials**
Maybe if the people we elected were on our side, we'd stand a fighting chance. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be true in numerous precincts around the United States. Even in the small area around Dupont Circle, I could point to a bunch of politicians who regularly disregard the lion's share of their constituents. But there's one parliamentarian whose actions, I believe, warrant an investigation: Commission Chair Meg Roggensack. On 12/6/22, she barred the public from a deckover presentation despite months of objections to "closed-door discussions" from her fellow commissioners. Even after ANC Commissioner Kyle Mulhall informed her and DDOT of the myriad ways the session violated DC law, none of the culpable parties seemed to show much remorse.
You would think a story about their secret meeting would be all over the news. It wasn't. But that doesn't mean she wasn't. In typical media fashion, they swooped in to interview her about the deckover without addressing the controversy. She even had the gall to exclaim, "it's really only now that people are realizing, oh, there's going to be a construction zone in my backyard and that's frightening." Hey Meg - any chance residents only started realizing this in 2023 because you preferred to "sit tight on DDOT engagement" in 2022?
Needless to say, she fully supports the plan. Not very neighborly behavior for someone who has made a career in the human rights realm. Absolutely disgraceful!
**The Quasi-government** If you live in a region long enough and aren't bored stiff by topics related to municipal administration, you start to see just how many quasi-governmental groups either peddle influence or engage in activities that come awful close to it. The example I most commonly cite here is the Federal City Council, a nonprofit with no relation to the elected members of the DC City Council. I have always found it odd how much power this shadowy org wields in the cradle of democracy and how few of my friends even know of its existence. That said, the FCC doesn't have anything to do with the deckover, at least as far as I know.
But you know who does? The Dupont Circle Business Improvement District.
Before we dive in, do you know how BIDs are structured? I thought I did. Turns out I was sorely mistaken. In DC they are District-certified nonprofits that use our government to collect supplemental taxes from property owners in their footprint. [Can BID opponents even opt out of this levy? Could the ones who predated the BID's formation do it?] The money that accumulates is then earmarked for BID use. Clearly, no one would say this model fits the textbook definition of money laundering. But isn't the way the dollars are filtered still kind of icky?
Whatever you think of it, the Dupont Circle BID not only exists but has put the streetscape project at the very top of its latest strategic plan. Only a fool would predict they will change course and pull the metaphorical ship out of the water rather than continuing forward at 99-100% steam. Their Executive Director (ED) confirmed this notion when he said, "It's going to be block by block. It will be painful." Sounds like a general sending his soldiers off to the meat grinder if you ask me.
[In that same segment, the reporter nonchalantly dropped in the following bit: "Consensus from the community is that the pain would be worth the gain." I'd love to know what data informs that statement. Did he conduct an informal poll? Did the BID? Did he decide the one random guy he interviewed constitutes a consensus? Or did he merely graft his personal desires onto the story?]
Sure, the ED softens the blow with talk of abatements and grants. Yet, there is no guarantee that they will materialize. So, given everything, why does his Business Improvement District appear so gung-ho to inflict suffering on the businesses they represent? I have a theory...
Go look at who sits on the BID's Board of Directors. There are eleven officers and members in total. Seven of them run or are involved in real estate concerns. Three of the others are founders of high-end restaurant chains. Do you think this voting bloc might have different motivations than the small business owners situated next to them or those who rent from them? If I forced you to wager $100 on either (i) renters getting meaningful grants or (ii) commercial property owners getting tax abatements, where would you put your money? Exactly.
[By the way, the last Board member is a C-suiter at a consumer advocate firm that supposedly "resist(s) corporate power and fight(s) to ensure that government works for the people..." Ugh.]
I talked to some of the managers at businesses that rent on Connecticut Avenue. For obvious reasons, they do not want to be identified. One mentioned that their landlord is involved in the bidding and construction of the streetscape project. Another told me she feared the deckover would make Dupont feel like the nearby Cleveland Park construction "wasteland" she calls home. A third hinted that his/her shop would soon be moving partially because of the unknowns associated with the three-year road work timeline.
One last thing: while I was walking around, I noticed two eyeglass stores that have been in the neighborhood for 30+ years (in other words, 25+ years more than the BID). Seeing them reminded me of an article I skimmed while researching the deckover. In it one of those real estate tycoons verbalized how "cool" Warby Parker is and how they were "looking for retailers like that" to enter the district. Ignoring the absurdity of picking that particular brand as his ideal choice to revitalize the area (as if consumers are regularly going to come out of the woodwork for the fifth DC location of a chain that isn't known for daily or even weekly visits), what does it say about the BID when they openly pine for direct competitors to their current tenants?
**The Preferred Vendors**
I'll make this one quick. We're all well aware that construction and its affiliated industries offer lucrative paydays to the companies that nab the contracts. I doubt the Dupont Deckover and its scheduled $30,000,000 price tag would deviate from this much.
Three Possible Solutions
So where does the deckover go from here? Can the genie be put back in the proverbial bottle?
Objectively speaking, it shouldn't be that hard. We're still six months away from the construction start date. All it'd take is a few brave souls in positions of power who are willing to pull the plug.
I hate to be pessimistic, but I'm afraid profit potential limits the likelihood of that happening. Still, there are insanely attainable compromises that would satisfy many of the aggrieved parties. For John Hassell, the remedy could not be simpler. If DDOT tweaked the flow on 19th St NW to make it northbound one-way traffic north of S St NW and southbound one-way traffic south of that intersection (thus avoiding years of drivers trying to blaze a second detour around the suggested Connecticut Avenue detour), he has assured me that his opposition would dissipate in an instant. On the commercial side, it sounds like ironclad grants and rent/tax reductions would go a long way toward compensating small biz for the trouble.
Of course, none of that would satisfy me. But that's okay. I don't live or work right there, so my hopes and dreams should take a backseat to those that do. Nonetheless, I want to log a more proactive approach, lest it might assist any Dupont neighbors who share my frustration. As luck would have it, the Dupont Circle BID needs DC to approve its re-registration. A hearing has been set for June 29th to give the public a chance to comment either in written form or in person. I imagine if enough people demand accountability, it could emerge. At least it should. We'll see!
Note: the post above may contain commentary reflecting the author's opinion.