74°Partly Cloudy

Ugly Billboards at 4th and P Streets, NW To Be Removed by Oct. 6th

by Prince Of Petworth October 5, 2009 at 3:00 pm 55 Comments


A friend of mine lives a couple of blocks away and everytime I’ve passed them I’ve thought they were a terrible eyesore. I’m happy to see that the Bates Area Civic Association has a photo of the removal order which says:

“The notice, authorized by DCRA Director, Linda Argo, cites DC Code that stipulates that billboards must not be located within 200 feet of another billboard and within 200 feet of a residential neighborhood.”

I think this is great news. What do you guys think about billboards like this? What about the big signs on the sides of buildings?

  • voiceofreason

    I think there are much bigger fish to worry about than billboards or building signs. Most big cities in the world have advertisements *everywhere*. Sure, they’d look better without ’em, but battles need to be picked.

  • Free-standing billboards are an abomination anywhere but the interstate. Billboards attached to the windowless sides of buildings, on the other hand, can be effective in covering up ugliness/jazzing it up.

  • Anonymous

    It’s been an ongoing problem in that area for a while. If it was just billboards people probably wouldn’t raise that much of a stink. It was the vagrants camping beneath them, the 3ft high grass that wouldn’t get cut, trash getting dumped there, and on top of it, a property that was taxed on an assessed amount of under 60k.
    And it’s not really a battle, just getting dcra to enforce what was already on the books. There was a call earlier from dcra to help identify legal and illegal signs. http://dcra.dc.gov/dcra/cwp/view,a,1342,q,599840,dcraNav_GID,1691,dcraNav,|33420|,.asp

  • Joe

    Drugs, gangs and wasteful politicians are much more important than this ever will be.

  • Prince Of Petworth

    It’s not a zero sum game world. Just because I think this is an ugly sight that should be remedied doesn’t mean I don’t think crime etc isn’t important.

  • U

    Boo. While these may be a particular structural mistake given that the area might otherwise be a mini park or something, I disagree with the decision. Mainly because this is just another example of a small, select group of vocal Washingtonians telling other people what to do on their land (and for the most petty of reasons–it offends their “eyes”). Yea, yea, there is a DC billboard regulation, but its been on the books unenforced for decades–the better course would be to revise the law (despite the reference to the DC Code above, I believe it is actually just a regulation), which would allow everyone who has a stake in the outcome to voice their concerns, rather than the process being hijacked by a select, vocal group that was able to convince the relevant authorities that this dusty old regulation that no one has every bothered to pay attention to should suddently be dusted off and interpreted in the manner that suits them.

    And, one of the biggers issue is where do you draw the line? Because there is a non-ugly McDonald’s mural on 14th street near those new condo buildings, and that is as much advertising as these billboards are; and I bet it will never be taken down / covered up, despite the fact that it violates the same regulation. Its a dangerous path to go down when you have a system that allows a select, vocal group to selectively enforce the rules against a minority of the population.

  • Starving children, human traffiking, corruption, fire, flood, earthquakes and trying to figure out what I’m making for dinner are more important. However, the only things that we can really actually solve within a few years or hours are dinner and the billboards.
    Good job for neighbors who found sucess with their talents and time. This had been a problem for YEARS and other neighbors have tried and haven’t had the same results.
    Yes those other tragedies of life on Earth will be more important, but that shouldn’t stop you from solving those difficult problems that can be solved.

  • this is 4th and P, not 3rd. :)

    and agreed so much, PoP, about how this isn’t a zero-sum situation. if we took that point of view in this city (let’s not do anything else until we’ve eliminated burglary, let’s say), then we would never do anything else whatsoever in this city. it’s a terribly stupid way to think about things, and i’m glad you don’t subscribe to that small-minded view.

  • Divine

    Yeah, I love how people complain about the way PoP reports crime, and say the blog is getting too negative, and then when PoP posts about something else, it’s “There are more important things going on!”

  • voiceofreason

    If only people with the time and energy on their hands to fight billboards fought burglary. But they don’t. They fight billboards. Think about that.

  • U

    According to the page that Anon @ 3:53 linked to its a municipal regulation (not helpfully called a “code” because its located with the construction code) that was put in place in 1931. And while enforcement wasn’t mentioned, they “lost the list” of grandfathered billboard sites in “the early 1970s.”

    Even if you feel like the city should be devoting some of their scarce resources to removing billboards that residents dislike, they should just go through process of enacting a new regulation and following general common sense norms of due process. Geez, I feel like a disgruntled billboard owner and their lawyer could have an absolute field day with this one. And that would be just even more scarce DC resources down the drain. Why does common sense seem to elude elected officials / government bureacrats?

  • Truxton K

    I was not involved in this issue, though the billboards are about a block and a half from my house. I think the implication that this was the work of a small group of entitled residents who fiddled while Truxton Circle burned with gang violence and drugs is not at all based in fact. There was long-term, broad-based support from the economically and racially diverse community surrounding this corner lot to get these signs removed. I don’t doubt that the gentrifiers versus minorities trope applies in some of these cases, but this isn’t one of them.

    Also, I cannot think of a single place in this country where land ownership allows you to do whatever you want within the confines of your property. There has to be a process to fairly raise and adjudicate issues that affect the community or society as a whole. Of course that process can be corrupted or bent to particular interests at times, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t essential to a well-functioning community. It just means you have to get involved.

  • Truxton K

    VOR, I don’t know where you live, but down here we multi-task.

  • U

    @Truckton K:
    I was not implying what you put in your first paragraph. Not anywhere close. But, I agree with what you put in your second paragraph, which is why I have trouble thinking that a 1931 regulation that somehow hinges on a “lost list” from the 1970s is anything close to “a process to fairly raise and adjudicate issues that affect the community or society as a whole.” It smacks of a lack of due process and unfair treatment. And, if the residents cannot get the DC council to pass a law calling for the removal of certain billboards, then maybe there isn’t really the long-term broad-based support of which you assume there is.

  • voiceofreason

    Truxton, if the folks who fought the billboards are also fighting burglary with the same energy, time and dedication, then I retract my comment.

  • Anonymous

    As PoP pointed out, it’s not a zero-sum game. Just because neighbors managed to get the city to enforce its own rules after decades, doesn’t mean they aren’t actively calling about the drug boys on the corner or reporting all the dumped cars in the alleys. To assume this was the most important quality of life issue for the area is foolish. To assume that this has nothing to do w/ public safety is just as foolish. Nearby residents had been threatened by homeless living under the billboards and in the vacant lots across the street.

  • voiceofreason

    If the homeless are living in the vacant lots across the street, what will stop them from living where the signs used to be when they are removed? And threatened how? Homeless folks may be annoying, but they are rarely threatening. I’d imagine there are much more threatening people around that actually live in homes.

  • Angry Parakeet

    How exactly does one “fight burglary” when it occurs while residents are not home, or under cover of darkness when it isn’t seen? I’ve been burgled so I put more locks on. Does that qualify me as a burglary-fighting concerned citizen?

  • U

    I want to sort of modify what VOR is saying. I’ll give you that threatening homeless people live underneath those signs and somehow they won’t be there, or won’t be threatening, etc., after the signs are gone. If so, then its a nuisance property; go after it as a nuisance property. Its akin to an vacant building that has squatters living in it. Take down the billboard’s under the authority to deal with nuisance properties, don’t start dredging up this old 1931 regulation and having people spend time cataloging billboards, and adding legitimacy to those who will selectively going after certain billboards, murals, signs on buildings, etc., when you just want to get rid of these dangerous, nuisance billboards.

  • voiceofreason

    Personally Parakeet, I spend my Saturdays in a cape and tights patrolling the neighborhoods thwarting would be burglars. I don’t recommend that to everyone though.

  • isn’t that 4th/New Jersey/P St.? rather than 3rd and P?

  • Anonymous

    U — By the “McDonald’s” mural, I think you mean the Family Reunion one, with the McD logo on it — it’s a Byron Peck mural (he did the Duke Ellington one etc.), and McDonald’s donated a bunch of money so he could hire art students to do it, a community art project — but he has an interesting quote about wishing he could take the logo off — just fyi, this Post article is on his website at http://www.peckstudios.com/:

    “On the Black Family Reunion mural (1994) at 14th and Florida NW is, strangely, a McDonald’s logo. The company hired Peck for the job and insisted on the golden arches.

    “I got a lot of criticism over accepting corporate money,” Peck says. “What if the difference is between dancing with the devil and not doing anything at all?”

    He danced. McDonald’s paid about $15,000, and Peck got to employ three students and three artist assistants. The corporation suggested the reunion as the subject, but the design is Peck’s, a collage of photos arranged on a tiled table, based on generations of family snapshots lent by a friend.

    Peck figures McDonald’s has received more than its money’s worth. “I’ve been thinking of going up there after so many years and knocking the logo out,” he says. “

  • dcpublius

    It’s not that I’m pro billboard per se, but I do think that if you own the land or a building you should be able to put as many signs and messages on it as you desire.

    I’ve never been a big supporter of “this looks pretty – let’s infringe on other people’s property rights to make everything look the way we like”.

  • dcpublius

    And you guys are wrong. It IS a zero-sum game. DCRA and other agencies have X amount of staff hours to do work each week. When they use Y hours on Billboards, those hours are gone and they can’t use them to deal with Abandoned/trouble properties/other issues.

  • U

    Yup, that’s the one Anon @5:04. And, now I know the rest of the story.

  • Anonymous

    I’m willing to bet more time and city personal has been wasted on the ghost bike saga than the Billboard project. So far, what city resources have been used? It looks like just the time it took to write up the notice. DC hasn’t removed anything, the order listed on the bates site says the property owner has to remove them. The ghost bikes have now involved dpw on a few occasions, the mayors office, and who knows how many others. Those are resources that could have been used better…

  • Anonymous

    I agree with the poster above. Whoever put all the ghost bikes around should get a bill from DPW.

  • Stacylg19

    Baby steps guys. I live in that community and I will be happy to see those billboards go, that’s why I signed the petition, and hopefully step two will be getting the grass mowed, and step three will be a place where people can stop and sit for a minute–maybe installing a couple benches–including the homeless. For as many as there are that can be horribly annoying and sometimes even down-right scary, there are homeless who are perfectly nice and humble. Let us not forget they are people too.
    The larger problem is the “cover” that those billboards provide for those doing illicit things. And the trash that accumulates there. Hey, here’s an idea, let’s put in a trash can too! I must say, the picture does not really portray the “dankiness” of that area the last time I walked by it.

  • i like ’em. they look a lot better than anything else around there. i used to ride my bike to work down P st years ago, and i enjoyed the billboards as some kind of sign of life.

  • knackers

    @U, dc publius, Anonymous: so nice of you to take so much time out of your crime fighting/drug war battle to contribute to this blog. I’ll put any spike in crime this afternoon down to your attention to other matters. BTW the DC regulations regarding billboards, date to 1972 (not 1931!), clearly state they shouldn’t be in residential areas. Would you like them on your block, maybe?

  • Why rag on people who are working to improve their neighborhoods? Every little bit helps. VoR- I hope that your Anarcho-Syndicalist utopian vision for this city keeps billboards out of residential areas as effectively as it stops burgulary.

  • U

    (1) Most people here are DC Vote fanatics. The fact that this regulation was enacted before Home Rule (1973) should be reason enough to have the citizens of this District to weigh in on the issue.

    (2) The regulation is from 1931 (see cut and paste job from the DCRA webpage below). The current “list” that governs this ridiculous regulation is as of a date in 1972, b/c all updates to the “list” have been lost since then. That is, while it is unclear if ANYONE ever enforced this regulation (I can find no proof of that post 1931, and if you have ever spent any time looking at old photos from DC, you can see plenty of billboards everywhere; check out this historical law breaker from 1939 that I found after 10 seconds of searching: http://www.shorpy.com/node/6746 —ohhh, criminal!), it is certainly beyond clear that people determined that the regulation was so out of date and pointless that they stopped even pretending to care in 1972. It wasn’t until about 2 years ago (I think) that someone found it and started using it to push their agenda (which I will assume did not include this nuisance billboard site—in fact, I believe it had to do with the billboards on NY Ave, but I may be wrong about that).

    (3) I stand by my original statement on this issue: “. . . this is just another example of a small, select group of vocal Washingtonians telling other people what to do . . . the better course would be to revise the law . . . which would allow everyone who has a stake in the outcome to voice their concerns, rather than the process being hijacked by a select, vocal group that was able to convince the relevant authorities that this dusty old regulation that no one has every bothered to pay attention to should suddently be dusted off and interpreted in the manner that suits them.”

    (4) If these billboards are truly a danger to the community, then they should be taken down as being a nuisance (the same way other nuisance property is handled), NOT because of some outdated, archaic billboard regulation.

    From the DCRA website:

    DCRA is been trying to piece together the history behind this moratorium. From what we’ve been able to gather, billboards were first constructed in the District in early 1931. Their appearance caused an outcry by residents concerned that billboards were a blight on the city’s aesthetics. By the end of 1931, the District’s government had banned the construction of any new billboards in the city. The only billboards that could remain were those contained on the “Authorized List of Billboards, Three-sheet Poster Boards, and Wall Signs,” dated November 30, 1931.

    That authorized list was updated about once a decade until the early 1970s. Unfortunately, after contacting the National Archives, the DC Archives, the Commission of Fine Arts, and the National Capital Planning Commission, we have been unable to find a copy of that authorized list.

  • Jay’O

    Wow, where did all these conservative property rights people come from? I bet they all home school their kids and keep a gun byt the night stand in case the feds try to come and confiscate them late at night!

    But seriously, in any other nice neighborhood or suburb, who would accept their nieghbor sitting on a empty lot (that was once a house) and erracting billboards?

    Every self respecting village, town and city has zoning laws so your neighbor won’t demolish his house and set up a pig slaughterhouse. Sure 2 billboards are nowhere near as bad, but a line has to be drawn somewhere. When you live near others in a residential neighborhood you get lost of benefits, but you also have to compromise to neighborhood norms. If you don’t like it, lobby your neighbors or move out to some rural, remote area!

  • Jay’O

    U wrote:

    “(3) I stand by my original statement on this issue: “. . . this is just another example of a small, select group of vocal Washingtonians telling other people what to do . . . ”

    Hey, if a law is on the book it is THE LAW! If someone like the lot owner wants to have billboards counter to the standing law, then they have the burden to propose a change to the law. We must remember that the law is considered the will of the poeple UNLESS until it is changed. Even if there was no home rule, DC residents have had the opportunity to change the law anytime over the past 40 years.

    Sorry if I seem ryled uo about this, but I really believe in Social Contract theory and if you want to live in a civilized society there are common rules and norms that must be lived with.

    I’ve lived years in a 3rd world country were you COULD do anything you wanted and there was no enforcable community norms – just the law of the jungle (anyone stronger than you get’s to do whatever thay want). For too long parts of this city have been lawless like this and all I can say is good ridence!!!!!

  • knackers

    @U: sorry for the delayed response, rather than reading blogs I was at a meeting with the local ward police commander talking about crime. Anyhow, about that single issue…the objection to these billboards was hardly from a select group of “vocal Washingtonians telling other people what to do”, unless you consider close to 500 petition signatures, a resolution from the entire ANC 5C, and multiple letters of support from surrounding community associations a small group. Luckily I didn’t have to search the web on this, it was all on the BACA blog.

    I think the larger issue is that many Washingtonians aren’t happy when some large corporation uses a piece of land illegally against the interests of local residents and pays far less taxes than everyone else. Maybe that’s cool for you…

  • K Arrow


    Zoning and other land use policies are a driving factor of why real estate prices are so high on the East Coast and in California, which, among other things, decreases the amount of affordable housing. (But at least we’ll have fewer non-community-approved billboards and poor people blocking our views.) Also, social contract theory collapses under an ordinal-utilitarian analysis. Just sayin’.

  • dcster

    As a DC resident who doesn’t live anywhere near these billboards, I am glad that they will soon be gone. Just because some criminal “got away” with putting multiple billboards up on a property for several years does not mean that they should be off the hook when, *gasp*, neighborhood residents actually care enough about their community to remove blight. And, yes, that’s what these billboards are: blight.

  • ogden

    @U: A single billboard is not a violation of the law, not in 1931, 1939, or 2009. It is the location of billboards in proximity to one another or in proxmity to residential zoning that is illegal.

    And most municipalities regulate billboards and signs, with laws that have been on the books for decades or longer. It is not a new uprising of a few local, vocal citizens living in DC.

  • Jay’O

    K Arrow: It might not be perfect in light of your analysis, but it’s the best we got. Move down to central America and live in a average town for a while that doesn’t have zoning laws. I knew some very conservative – libertarian expats down there. After living in a country with de facto no zoning laws, they agreed with me for the need for them.

    Honest – I’m not shitting you! We had this very discussion over and over again! When you’re neighbor starts up a little store selling gum & candy bars – it’s cute. Then they decide to expand and have and include a chicken slaughtering service or a child labor firecracker factory, it’s not so hot.

    I know billboards aren’t chickens or firecrackers, but when people start talking about how zoning laws are just ways to push poor people out or take our Charelston Heston rights away, I reflect back on my years down, way south of the border…

  • U

    Tyranny of the majority as usual. What I find the most sad (beyond those putting words in my mouth because they want to change the argument to something they think they can retort, or pretending to speak authoritatively about something without bothering to actually look up what the REGULATION from 1931 actually says compared to what the REGULATION says today) is that if this was a “cool” billboard (say for an iphone) people wouldn’t be so quick to say it is a “blight” but rather focus on the real problem with this billboard (apparently the dangerous homeless people living beneath them —maybe this is why the people on Georgia Ave didn’t want the Central Union Mission building a homeless shelter near their houses…but that’s another point entirely), and would be focusing on the real problem rather than the billboard. Sigh. I wonder what regulations unelected officials will force upon us next and who will face the brunt now that we are making aesthetic judgments about things on private property? No more watermelon house? No more murals unless they pass muster with the 3 person mural board? No more statues in people’s yards? Are you going to make dancing illegal? Is this the tiny town from Footloose?

  • Jamal

    I agree. If these were organic, wind-powered billboards for the iPhone, Whole Foods, and the Peace Corps, people probably wouldn’t be complaining so loudly.

  • knackers

    Oh, U. From a “small, select group” to the “tyranny of the majority”. Smooth. Anyway, I’ll have a kleenex for you if the billboards actually come down. Still, I think I finally actually understand where you are coming from: in some weird, post-Warholian sense, you see these billboards as the free, artistic expression of the landowner. And you’re just sticking up for the little guy by supporting the large corporate interests that own the land. Wait, no: you are sticking up for the little guy by opposing the little guys who are taking on the corporation who just happen to be making a profit from the “artistic expression”. Wait, dang, no, I lost it. How are you sticking up for the little guy?

    BTW the billboards are in violation of the 1971 Code (yes, I said that word). Look it up!

  • @Voiceofreason: “If only people with the time and energy on their hands to fight billboards fought burglary. But they don’t. They fight billboards. Think about that.”

    What exactly would you have people do to fight burglary? Stake out high crime areas at night? Start a vigilante burglar-hunt?

    I suppose that you think as long as there is crime in the world we should not fix potholes?

    Everything is important. Everything. You are a fool if you think that as long as someone is starving in Africa we should stop fixing leaky pipes.

  • voiceofreason

    Leaky pipes? That’s not the same as energized, organized opposition to . . . billboards. It’s ridiculous to even think about! People have limited time, energy and resources. To spend it on billboards just boggles the mind.

  • U

    The Tyranny of the Majority line was directed at Jay’O’s first post. Also, the billboard rules (all of them, including the 1931 one and more recent ones concerning permitting) are part of the construction code (which is a municipal regulation), not part of the “D.C. Official Code” (its name, not mine) which is where the bills that become laws reside. So you can call it a “code” all you want, but its actually a municipal regulation, which are (badly) enforced and (today) written by the DCRA.

  • U

    Also (and because contrary to my postings here, I don’t give much thought to billboards when blogs aren’t posting about them), what happened since the DCRA letter in May that said that these billboards were okay? That letter read (in part, and as reproduced in full here: http://theother35percent.blogspot.com/2009/05/dcras-response-to-illegal-billboards.html ).

    “We also have received several emails regarding four billboards located near the intersection of New Jersey Avenue, Fourth Street, and P Street, NW. Both these emails and your letter refer to those four billboards as “illegal.”

    Based on our research, however, we believe those four billboards are grandfathered by Section 3107.7.6.1. I have attached a copy of a building permit issued in July 1961 by the D.C. Department of Licenses and Inspections (DCRA’s predecessor regulatory agency). The 1961 building permit authorized the removal of five billboards located on the property, to be replaced by four billboards. While such a replacement is not allowed under the current D.C. Construction Codes, it was allowable under the Construction Codes in place at that time. ”

    Also, here is an examiner article that says the same thing and also gives a little peek into the resources that this project is wasting (my word, not theirs…obviously some people think that its okay to allocate budget dollars to do this kind of work): http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/local/Spotting-illegal-billboards-tough-for-the-District_05_28-46259532.html

    I don’t know what changed their minds, but chalk up another win for the nanny state, and for those that obviously know a lot better than the rest of us of how “things should be.” I suggest you run for an ANC post; Cleveland Park is taken care of, as well as Mt. Pleasant, but I’m sure there is some other place where you could impose your will and stand in the way of others (that guy in the Dupont/U Street area that opposes St. Ex, etc., might need your help).

  • Anne

    I totally agree with POP. Billboards in Washington, D.C. period are an eyesore. I think Lady Byrd Johnson had it right when she said that Washington is a unique city and it should be addressed that way (I’m paraphrasing). She had many of the billboards taken down, and thank goodness she did.

    It is my opinion that no billboard is tasteful. The only thing worse than stationary billboards are the ones plastered on the side of the buses, that are in motion. We can do better people. Let’s not become another visual urban chaotic disaster.

    And while I’m at it, I hate the name “Columbia Heights USA”. Any name with “USA” dates itself, and cheapens the concept. We know where we are, Columbia Heights would have been just fine.

  • oboe

    I think there are much bigger fish to worry about than billboards or building signs. Most big cities in the world have advertisements *everywhere*. Sure, they’d look better without ‘em, but battles need to be picked.

    Why wipe my ass when there are hungry children in Africa?

  • voiceofreason

    wiping your ass shouldn’t take as much time and energy as a petition drive and lobbying local governments. if it does, you should see a doctor.

  • voiceofreason

    “Let’s not become another visual urban chaotic disaster.”

    Except that many, me included, think visual urban chaos is great and not really a disaster at all.


    Take it from someone who looks at them everyday. “They are awful!” Just think of the type of Ads you might see during the course of a year. Fast food, stupid movies, precrip.drugs, insurance. These are always ALWAYS tacky and soul-less.
    Good Riddance! I get my ads from TV thank you very much.

  • Sully

    I liked them. There was something that reminded me of my childhood like drive-ins. We atleast we still have the big boards on condos downtown.

  • Neener

    ainly because this is just another example of a small, select group of vocal Washingtonians telling other people what to do on their land (and for the most petty of reasons–it offends their “eyes”).

    Yes, we are winning the war and I for one feel giddy about it. ;-)

  • Neener

    Except that many, me included, think visual urban chaos is great and not really a disaster at all.

    totally not a believable statement. yawn. oh, you may write it and you may even talk about it to your friends and maybe you’ve even fooled yourself into thinking it, but your actions will speak louder than your words and I’ve seen this all before in the last 20 years. What is shocking and new that first year becomes an eyesore when the new residents realize it’s not changing and they’ve become the target, not the hip observer.

  • voiceofreason

    Neener, I’ve lived in places with billboards on just about every free inch of space. It’s chaotic and “ugly” and whatever, but I kind of liked it for its haphazardness and urban chaos. I”m not a new resident here and I have no problem with billboards. There are MUCH bigger fish to fry in DC than this petty fight. You of all people should understand that.


Subscribe to our mailing list