Friday, April 20, 2012

Street Closure Permits, or "More Block Parties!"

The District isn't a city for block parties. Public streets are rarely closed for community events focused around food, drink, fun or local music. And when they are, it's most commonly for large annual events like the Beer Festival, Saint Patrick's Day or enormous foodie fests that are more like two day concerts with big-name headliners - quite a bit of fun, but not really a "community" event. At first I thought the remarkable absence of festivities was perhaps just my own biased perception, having come out of cities like San Francisco and San Jose where neighborhood parties are almost common phenomena by comparison. But DC has no lack of micro-community organizations, sometimes encompassing no more than three or four streets.

Neighborhood parties are a great way to get to know the people living around you, and the benefits of resulting social capital in areas of social stability, poverty alleviation, human security and disaster resiliency are pretty well documented at this point. But it turns out that getting a permit for a block party in Washington is at the "stupid difficult" level.

First, hopeful party hosts are required to collect paper-copy approval signatures of at least 51% of the residents in the "affected area", which means blanketing the neighborhood with a pen and clipboard.  The affected area is generally interpreted to mean the street on which the party is going to take place (simple enough), but with the presence of live music, or recorded or amplified audio over the public-nuisance threshold (a number that seems impossible to find on the DCgov portal) the affected area pretty vague. But this doesn't sound unreasonable, despite the ambiguities and potential liabilities.

Secondly, applicants must submit relevant paperwork and signatures to the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (DC-HSEMA) for review by hand. Ya, your block party needs to be approved by HomeSec. After their initial review HSEMA will forward the application and petition to DC Police, Fire/EMS, Department of Transportation, Dept. of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), and WMATA, among others. There is also a Supplemental Permits section of the application which may require additional review for temporary structures such as stages, tents, lighting and electrical, stands or bleachers, ramps, and what have you. FYI if your block is part of a METRO bus route, your permit is automatically rejected.

Next, the application must by hand-delivered to the Office of Tax and Revenue for a special IRS audit to make sure that you or any of the other applicants do not have outstanding tax or payment issues (no, this is not typical of other cities). The application requires the same type of "clean hands certificate" that is required of people trying to open a business or sell liquor (even though a block party is neither incorporating a business nor allowed to sell liquor).

After your successful tax review, the next step is to try and obtain a DCRA Waiver from the District's Special Events Fee. Good luck with that. I think they have returned my calls a total of never times.

If all goes well, you can eventually pick up the event permit from HSEMA in person no later than 72 hours before your party, and put up no parking placards (from DDOT) all over your street. But that doesn't mean the District still can't suck the fun out of your party. Additional requirements include things like:

  • Applicant must be an adult resident (21 years or older) of the block being closed.
  • Area must not exceed two intersecting streets (i.e., must be limited to one block).
  • Street must be reopened no later than 10:00 p.m.
  • Vending is prohibited. No sales, fees, or donations shall be solicited or accepted at the event.
  • No sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages allowed.
  • Accessibility for emergency equipment via an unobstructed 20-foot emergency access lane must be maintained at all times. (think about that, how wide is your street...)
  • Posting of street closure/no parking signs must be completed no less than 72 hours prior to date of event.

As can imagine, there aren't a lot of community groups willing or able to go through this process. The Disctrict government has been on a bit of a community building stint recently, and as part of these efforts several Council members (Wells, Evans, Alexander, Graham, M. Brown, Thomas, Brown) have proposed legislation to reform the block party application process - appropriately called the Block Party Amendment Act of 2011 (BPAA) - and will attempt to repeal or at least streamline the "Clean Hands Certificate" requirement. It was introduced in October 2011, but as your can see from the DCleg portal, there hasn't been a lot of work on it since then except for public hearing this past January. It's currently sitting in judiciary committee collecting dust.

Confusingly, several permit reforms will be kicking in this Monday, April 23 despite the stalled legislation. According to an April 19 Press Release by DDOT, all block party permits will be submitted through the DDOT and referred to other agencies internally. Additionally, permit applications will supposedly be accepted through their Transportation Online Permit System (TOPS). Unfortunately no one seems to know if or how this will actually change the internal application review process. But if the one-stop-shop idea is functional, and if the BPAA gets more attention with the new Council, we could be in store for an awesome summer. But who knows.

(Park View's website actually has a good checklist for applications, prior to the April 23 changes anyway.)

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