Stray dogs and dead trees are among the concerns of almost every neighborhood. So when the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions were created five years ago, many citizens expected ANC activities to be limited to such concerns.
But it hasn't quite worked out that way. ANCc are fighting the demolition of some buildings and the construction of others, assisting community residents being threatened by displacement as condominium conversions spread through the city and generally playing devil's advocate on several issues in the city.
When it comes to influence over Washington's economic development, the ANCs have won some and lost some. In the sin column, the ANCs can include the ghost of a hotel and half a victory in court.
In the hotel case, the Foggy Bottom ANC persuaded the City Council to allow a necessary alley blockage at a construction site at 22nd and K streets NW, thus halting a proposed high-rise luxury hotel.
The court victory involved the Cleveland Park ANC.
A group of commissioners in that area, acting individually, took the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to court for not giving ANC views "great weight," as required by the law.
The court ruled that the ABC Board was in violation of the law. The board should have responded to all objections and suggestions raised by the ANC, instead of ignoring them, it ruled.
This decision had two effects. First, it put city departments of notice that they could not ignore the ANCs. But it also meant that while city departments have to respond to ANC objections and suggestions, they do not have to follow them.
The decision, according to Steven Sher, of the D.C. Zoning Commission, means "you must give (ANCs) consideration-not that you must listen to them."
In the loss column, the ANCs have failed to block several development projects and have suffered two set-backs in court.
In one development dispute last year, Dupont Circle ANC commissioners confronted the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustments over board approval for construction of an office building at 1901 N St. NW. What happened only served to remind the ANCs just how narrow their powers are.
As in the ABC case, the Dupont Circle ANC claimed that the Zoning Board had not given ANC views "great weight." In this case, however, the court ruled against the ANC, saying that board had responded to the ANC views adequately, even though the board had not agreed with those views.
The second case involved a downtown ANC and the Redevelopment Land Agency, which is responsible for selecting developers for city-owned real estate.
The RLA is supposed to provide "replanning and rebuilding of slum, blighted and other areas of the District of Columbia." For this purpose, it has acquired many properties in Washington over the years.
The case involved the granting of "exclusive right" to draw up plans for development of several real estate parcels around the Metro Center area to Oliver T. Carr and one additional parcel to Landow and Co. The ANC decided this was an unlawful action since it had not received 30 days notice or an opportunity to comment on the choice of developers.
The RLA contended that since granting of "exclusive right" involves no sale of land, merely a judgment of the professional and financial standing of a developer, the ANC need not be notified. It also claimed the ANC should have a say only in the type of development, not in who the developer is.
The ANC has an opportunity to offer opinions on the type of development after the "exclusive right" has been granted and before a developer gets final approval for a project from the RAL, the RLA contended.
D.C. Superior Court Judge DeWitt S. Hyde, who presided over the case, agreed with the RLA argument that no "legislative" or "public policy" decision had been made in determining "exclusive right." Any further delay, the court said, would financially harm the RLA, which was paying $2,489.33 in interest and taxes for each day it owned the parcels involved.
The ANCs' battle with developers and city departments has extended beyond their immediate neighborhoods. The proposed convention center in downtown Washington is one such issue.
Local businessmen, labor unions and the government, who favor the convention center, claim it will create new jobs and increase city revenues. Opponents, including some ANCs, fear it will become a white elephant.
However, ANC 2C-roughly bounded by the Mall, Forida Avenue, 15the Street NW and North Capitol Street-is directly affected by the project. It passed a resolution supporting the convention center, apparently swayed by the prospect of employment opportunities at the $98 million center. At the time the ANC "didn't want to get into (the financial aspects of the center) . . . it was too complex," according to Thomas Lodge, who was then chairman of ANC 2C.
At a stage, when other ANCs across the city supported putting the issue to a public vote, ANC 2C passed a resolution supporting the referendum. About 10 commissioners were actively involved in the Convention Center Referendum Committee, which supported the referendum.
The City Council eventually rejected the proposal to place the question on the May election ballot.
While it is difficult to assess the influence and involvement of ANCs throughout the action in this issue, some things are clear.
Several commissioners have been outright in opposition to it, and most ANCs have grave doubts about the benefits the center is likely to bring to city residents. On this issue, the ANCs share with many leaders of citizens organizations a sense of futility and defeat to more powerful interest groups.
The convention center, while an issue of citywide interest, did not directly threaten neighborhoods across the city. But condominium conversions, also a citywide issue, do threaten neighborhoods directly. Accordingly, many ANCs are providing tenants who face eviction with as much help as possible.
In 1978, the city government approved 10,481 rental apartments as eligible for condominium conversions-nearly 15 times the number approved the previous year. These conversions, along with renovation of old houses by upper-income groups, has led to the displacement of many lower-income families, according to several observers.
"For people who are old or displaced, (eviction) is a slap in the face," says Mary Fitzgerald, an ANC commissioner in Upper Northwest.
While ANCs can do little in the case of home renovations and sales, there is much they can do in the case of condomunium conversions.
When the owner of an apartment building decides to convert it to a condomunium, he must give tenants 120 days notice. There is also a period of time within which tenants have exclusive rights to buy the apartment. Here, the ANCs step in by acting as a tenants' "clearinghouse for information" on how to organize, said Fitzgerald.
In the Foggy Bottom area, where demolition of townhouses and conversions are becoming more frequent, the area ANC explains to tenants how the law works and what their options are. Ann Loikow, chairman of the Foggy Bottom ANC, works with the City Council to clarify and expand tenant rights and to obtain rent and homeownership assistance.
But most ANC involvement in the development saga of D.C. appear to be neither a clear victory or defeat.
One recent case involved the construction of the New World Bank building in Foggy Bottom. The ANC lost its attempt to halt the construction but managed to get several revisions to the original plan, including increased retail space on the first floor, less parking and a roof garden visible from the street.
The ANC also managed to have two townhouses on the site moved instead of razed, by having them declared historic landmarks.
In most cases where there have been clear victories for ANCs, the issues have been relatively minor.
In another case, the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development planned to raze a building on R Street between 13th and 14th streets NW to make way for a park. But the ANC for that area recommended that the building be used for housing.