IN A CITY WHERE the laying of a single brick downtown can set off a bureaucratic battle royal between federal and local planners, zoners, overseers and sundry kibitzers, there generally would be little or no official to-do over the zoning fate of a modest property in Far Northeast. Yet for miles around a certain site in the 600 block of 56th Street NE, there is great and understandable concern these days that a source of intense pride is threatened by a recent zoning decision. And because it should be a matter of concern well beyond the confines of this often-forgotten quadrant of the city, we share with you the plight of the Sign of the Times Cultural Workshop and Gallery.
It begins in 1970, when James L. Greggs, a native of Far Northeast, and a group of fellow artists set out to counteract an atmosphere of isolation and to create a center that would offer the young and old of the neighborhood some exposure to, and basic training in, various enterprises: drawing, painting, dance, music, graphics, sculpture, black studies, writing, design and photography. With donations of supplies from local stores, free activities were started for more than 500 youths in schools, churches, libraries and housing projects. Then came the donation of a house on a half- acre lot, from Dr. and Mrs. Frank G. Davis, for these not-for-profit activities.
But now comes the threat: it seems that back then, the city's zoning officials didn't officially object to use of the house for the workshop activities, and may even have approved a variance for it. But now a review shows that such approval should not have been given for that residential zoning category, and in fact it is still not legally permissible. The D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment has so ruled -- it had no apparent alternative -- and the workshop has now filed for review with the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Rules are rules, and the court may so conclude. But to evict Ward 7's first and only gallery, its showplace for talent and its center for cosntructive activities for youth -- in one technical swoop, after all these years of letting it exist where it is -- would be a cruel shame. Though the BZA may have had no alternative, the city government is looking for a way -- involving a slight change in the residential zone -- that would permit the variance. That is what should happen, so that this program can continue to flourish.