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Adams Morgan Business Improvement Group Up for City Re-Certification; Supporters And Critics Present Comments at Hearing

By Anthony L. Harvey

Accompanying images can be viewed in the current issue PDF

A beautiful late summer day in August found a carefully selected group of four-dozen Adams Morgan business and property owners, DC Council staff, DC agency officials, Unity Park street vendors, and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham assembled in a cold and functional committee meeting room in the rear of the Wilson Building’s ornate first floor to hear a scripted, showcase-style presentations of the asserted accomplishments and professed failures of the Adams Morgan Business Improvement District (BID).

The stated purpose of this session was to provide a written record for use by the session’s presiding officials from the District’s Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD) in their crafting of a recommendation to the Mayor on the current question of re-certification of the BID for another five years.

Scheduled for 5 p.m. on the last day of August — during the Council’s summer recess, this lightly publicized event was staged like an administrative hearing with DSLBD official Robert Summers serving in the role of committee chair, calling on witnesses in a pre-arranged order and, together with DSLBD’s Lincoln Lashly, receiving copies of their respective written statements. 13 witnesses read these statements in their entirety;  two statements of witnesses not present were also read into the record.

Councilmember Graham, the BID’s longtime advocate and legislative sponsor, and Constantine Stavropoulos, the BID co-president and owner of Adams Morgan’s highly popular Tryst and The Diner, opened and closed the session with informal remarks. In spite of the explosive and contradictory nature of much of the witnesses’ statements and that of the two sets of informal remarks — none of which was presented as sworn testimony — not a single question was asked by the session’s conveners. This led one of the business owner “back-benchers” –Bill Duggan of Madame’s Organ, who did not testify — to conclude that the outcome of this “re-certification hearing” was a foregone conclusion rather than a fact-finding exploration leading to a resulting recommendation by DSLBC to the Mayor.

Riding on the outcome of this process, however, is the life of the BID itself. Established according to previously enacted statutory provisions in late 2005 (see, “Adams Morgan Launches Its Own Business Improvement District,” InTowner, January 2006, issue PDF page 1) with a budget of $246,000 from property tax assessments on commercial property in the BID-defined area of Adams Morgan — roughly 18th Street between Florida Avenue and Adams Mill Road, a spur of Florida Avenue, and the commercial blocks of Columbia Road — of 21-cents per $100 of valuation and collected by the DC Office of Tax and Revenue, the BID has grown to a current budget of $537,000, more than double that of the BID’s first year.

Sources of funding have grown, as well. $420,000 in the current budget represents the increase in property valuations and the adding of several properties missed in the first census of affected properties. Government grants from DSLBD, Department of Public Works (DPW), and the transit agency (WAMATA) serve to swell the budget to its current level. Staffing has kept pace with these budget increases. The BID’s executive director has been joined by a director of security, a transportation consultant, and a position designated as “Safety Ambassador.” Contracts have been negotiated with the Gospel Rescue Mission’s Ready to Work program for daily street cleaning and with the police department (MPD) for reimbursable off-duty police officers (RDOs) for weekend safety and security assistance.

Controversy regarding these burgeoning programs has grown apace. Especially intense has been that surrounding the RDO program and the very legality of the BID — this following its failure to be re-certified when its certification lapsed last year, five years after its 2005 establishment — together with the asserted disproportionate allocation of BID resources to mitigate the problems caused by Adams Morgan’s lively nightlife establishments, and continuing unresolved questions over the promotion of a coherent themed Adams Morgan identity for promotion of the business community.

Testimony in Support

But first the success stories, especially the combined efforts of DPW and the Gospel Rescue Mission’s clean team crews, coordinated by the BID’s indefatigable –according to all accounts – Executive Director Kristen Barden:

Beginning with DPW Director William Howland’s concise and enthusiastic account of the dramatic improvement of cleanliness in the area of the Adams Morgan BID — thanks to the successful collaboration between his agency and the BID, he said, with the added support of the annual DSLBD litter abatement grant — and continuing with Barden’s informative account of that and other BID programs, the late afternoon session began on a positive note.

This was reinforced with supporting testimony from BID Vice President Arianne Bennett, co-owner of the Amsterdam Falafel shop; Matthew Wexler, of Foxhall Partners, whose statement noted that his “company owns a number of commercial properties in Adams Morgan and is a partner in the development of the so-called Adams Morgan Historic Hotel”; Kurt Meeske, Construction Vice President of Ronald Haft’s Combined Properties; and BID co-president and well-known Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle property owner and developer Stephen Greenleigh.

Meeske and Greenleigh’s testimony offered vivid reflections and overlapping visions of the changes occurring in Adams Morgan.

Meeske noted that his firm had purchased three adjacent buildings on Columbia Road eight years ago. “I am happy to report,” he stated, “that Combined has completed the redevelopment of these three buildings and has replaced the existing marginal tenants with solid long-term tenants . . . with projected increases in sales of 400 to 500 percent over the sales of the tenants three years ago.” These three new tenants are CVS, 7-Eleven, and Game Stop.

Greenleigh’s account of Adams Morgan was almost elegiac, noting that he and his partners had only been partially successful in achieving their vision of an “Adams Morgan, absent the Metro and office buildings, becoming an eclectic mix of ethnic restaurants, boutique shops and businesses serving both the Adams Morgan . . . and surrounding communities.” He praised highly the BID’s successes and its effectiveness in areas where the now superseded Adams Morgan Business and Professional Association (AMBPA) was ineffective. He also credited the BID with enabling Adams Morgan “to attract a first-class hotel project that could anchor and revive daytime retail business.”

Adams Morgan Main Street President and non-voting BID board member Lisa Duperier concluded her supporting remarks by invoking Bourbon and Jack Rose owner Bill Thomas’ “voiced viewpoint,” said Duperier, “that the BID allows everyone to contribute to the overall well-being of the commercial area, and does not allow absentee or uninterested owners to be making money while not in any way contributing positively to the challenges faced by all.”

Testimony in Opposition

Disagreement was then boldly interjected into the proceedings, with some especially powerful, contrarian viewpoints offered by Allan Jirikowic of Chief Ike’s Mambo Room, one of the defining Adams Morgan’s night spots. The BID, testified Jirikowic, “was originally intended to be a bare-bones, lean and mean project to improve safety in the neighborhood and clean the streets — both of which are included in the taxes already paid. The business owners and landlords were told that these services would enhance our commercial viability thus offsetting the new BID tax. Unfortunately this did not occur for me and many other businesses as well. And we were shocked how high the tax was. Although the clean-up has been very good, the safety aspect of the equation has yet to be realized. . . . Any in-roads in the safety area have resulted from Operation Adams Morgan — approximately one month old — which has been completely dependent on additional MPD forces.” Jirikowic additionally asserted, “The BID RDO program has been ineffective in crowd control and the prevention of simple assaults as well as other street crimes and harassment”; thus it makes no fiscal sense to continue the RDO program, he concluded.

BID board landlord representative and P\president of the AMBPA Pat Patrick echoed Jiriikowic’s complaints and recommended that the BID tax be retained just for the cost of trash pick-up and administrative and marketing costs with a revised BID tax reduced from 21-cents per $100 to 12-cents.

The next bombshell came from attorney, developer, property owner, and longtime BID board member Jeffrey Schonberger, who testified on behalf of himself, his partners, and the seven tenants of his firm Alturas, LLC, of which he is managing partner, “which owns approximately 24,000 square feet of retail space in Adams Morgan at a site located near the intersection of Florida Avenue and 18th street.”

Schonberger challenged the legality of the BID’s present existence, citing chapter and verse of the DC Code as it applies to the BID’s lapse in certification last fall and the asserted dubious nature of the Council’s emergency, retroactive legislation enacted to remedy that lapse. He also questioned the magnitude of the RDO program, noting its creation as an emergency effort and the fact that it is devoted solely to the problems in several blocks of 18th Street on weekend nights — Friday and Saturday — and the following early mornings. This program, he noted, has become permanent and now accounts for 30 percent of the BID budget, in clear violation of the BID’s own bylaws which specifically state the following: “If any . . . service of a nature above the level of . . . services provided generally by the BID . . . shall be specially charged to such owner(s). . . .” Concluding, Schonberger stated, “In summation, it is my opinion that the BID needs to be re-certified — not re-registered — with a lower general tax rate in line with BIDs such as the Capitol Hill BID and that special assessments need to be made for the RDO program for those businesses/property owners who operate during the time that that service is provided.”

Yet another salvo against re-certification of the BID was launched by Denis James, president of the Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA) and non-voting member of the BID board. James attacked the BID for doing, in his words, “practically nothing to attract new, neighborhood-serving retail to Adams Morgan. In fact,” he continued, “it is not in the interest of most of the members of the BID board to do so, as it is so heavily controlled by the nighttime, alcohol-serving businesses.” James echoed the complaints of disproportionate expenditures for trash removal caused by a minority of business establishments and reiterated the KCA’s longtime opposition to the RDO program as presenting both a conflict of interest between MPD officers and the nightlife establishments and an opportunity for MPD to decrease the officers assigned to Adams Morgan weekend crowd control and crime prevention. He did, however, praise the recent efforts of MPD, individual business owners and residents, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) acting together to launch Operation Adams Morgan with an inter-agency approach to these long-standing problems.

James further attacked the BID’s campaign to remove the Unity Park vendors and what he termed interference in other organizations, including the KCA itself, and public policy by the BID — in this case by shutting out the ANC and neighborhood organizations from coordinating committee meetings with DDOT concerning the 18th Street streetscape project. Finally, he criticized the manner in which the BID conducted its re-authorization vote and recommended that “DSLBD require the BID to hold a stand-alone vote, executed by a disinterested third party, where it is clear what is being voted upon.”

Eliezer Albino testified on behalf of the Unity Park Market Vendors, six of whom were sitting behind him and were, said Albino, responsible for “offering some of the best Latin American food available in the District, serving Puerto Rican, Mexican, Argentine, Peruvian and Salvadoran food and drawing a diverse clientele from all over the city . . . to Adams Morgan.” Albino complained bitterly about apparently successful efforts by the BID and individual members of the BID to force the city, its Parks and Recreation Department, and its Office of Latino Affairs (OLA) to cancel the popular program as of September 30th. Albino noted that the Adams Morgan ANC had twice provided the Unity Park Vendors with supportive resolutions and called the BID leadership and current OLA leadership’s opposition to the vendors “irrational.”

[Ed. Note: The Unity Park vending arrangements were the subject of our news story one year ago; see, “Unlicensed and Non-DC Resident Vending in City Funded Adams Morgan Program Exposed,” InTowner, September 2010, issue PDF page 1.]

Concluding the session in a “wrap-up mode” with informal remarks praising the BID, co-president Stavropoulos added a few biting words for Denis James’ criticism of BID salaries and voting procedures, disassociated the BID’s opposition to the Unity Park vendors — the program was illegal, he said — from actions of individual BID board members, and expressed the hope that the Adams Morgan hotel project might bring more daytime business to the neighborhood.

An additional statement from Jim Nixon, co-owner of Toro Matta, was submitted to DSLBD on September 2nd in which Nixon seconded earlier complaints over the legality of the RDO program; noted the success of the community’s Operation Adams Morgan; criticized the disproportionate use of BID resources in the Kalorama to Columbia Roads stretch of 18th Street; and asked that Board executive committee meetings be opened to at least the taking and distribution of meeting minutes.

Absent from testimony or witness statements were those of any other agency officials who work with cooperative projects in the BID area or that of any of the Adams Morgan ANC’s eight commissioners.