City Paper is not for tourists
Casa Furniture’s Columbia Heights storefront is a repository of great bargains. Want a $99 dinette set? Casa has it. Looking to spend under $100 on a bed? You’ve come to the right place. And a classic naked-lady lamp, perfect for a bachelor pad? Yours for $49.
Known to many Washingtonians for its flamboyant cable-TV commercials, the six-location chain does brisk sales to bargain-hunting shoppers, including immigrants, as a sign reading “CREDITO SIN PAPELES DE GRINGOS” (“Credit without gringo papers”) hints. Still, neighbors allege, business hasn’t been brisk enough at the 14th Street NW retail location to justify the truck traffic it generates on neighboring Monroe Street: Instead, they say, it’s serving as a warehouse for the company.
And with the crammed goods of a warehouse comes the bustle of a warehouse. Trucks come and go from early morning until as late as 11 p.m., they say, and it’s not uncommon for trucks to damage nearby parked cars en route to the loading dock, which is accessible only via Monroe, a residential street. For nearly two years, they say, Casa-bound trucks have been knocking off driver’s-side mirrors, smacking into cars—inflicting gentle bumps and harsh scratches—and blocking up traffic with what one neighbor, Joseph Finneran, calls “20-point turns.”
The street has several signs that prohibit trucks over one-and-a-half tons. Neighbors complain that Casa consistently ignores the signage, driving up vehicles from 20-foot box trucks to full-size semis.
“We’ve got this destructive force permanently situated next to our house, and it’s just a matter of what they’re going to do [and] when,” says Finneran.
And neighbors say that Casa shouldn’t be situated there at all. Residents, such as Jeremy Grant, have complained that the retail space is violating zoning restrictions, that furniture is placed on the sidewalk without vending permits, and that the store has operated in violation of its city occupancy permit. “The basic problem is that [Casa] was never [meant] to use Monroe as one big alley and loading dock,” Grant says.
Officials Districtwide offer different explanations of the status of Casa Furniture.
Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham cooled concerns when he sent a message in July to the Monroe Street Association e-mail group, stating that the city had inspected the business and issued a cease-and-desist order for operating without the proper occupancy permit.
Upon receiving the e-mail, Grant says, he expected the return of “bright and sunny days on Monroe Street,” unsullied by Casa’s nuisance. But the store is still operating as before.
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Anne Theisen says that the store’s occupancy permit was revoked in July. “A lot more merchandise was coming in and out of the store than they could actually show receipts for,” Theisen says. “It looked more like a warehouse.”
According to a store manager, Spiro, who declines to give his last name, Casa won an appeal of that decision.
He says that Casa only has one box truck, which is small enough to legally drive on Monroe. The trucks that ply the street, he says, aren’t affiliated with the store.
The real problem, Spiro says, is that residents are unhappy with Casa’s ownership and clientele: “They don’t want a Hispanic business on the block,” he says.
Still, Neil Stanley, deputy director for permit issuance for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), says an investigation is in progress to examine whether the business is following city regulations. Councilmember Graham disputes Casa’s permit claims. “They couldn’t possibly have won an appeal, because there has been no hearing,” he says. Graham also says the case has been referred to the Office of the Attorney General, which, he says, is “the strongest step that can be taken. They will be shut down.”
Casa Furniture Manager Assistant Judith Ccaccya affirmed on Oct. 7 that Casa’s permit is in good standing. “Like any business, we know that we have to have permission from the government, and we have it,” she said.
And the days of Casa-destined trucks driving down Monroe Street are over, Ccaccya said. Instead, she said, they are driving up 14th Street. “The building administration and the government told us what areas we’re allowed to park in, so that’s what we’re doing now,” she added. “I know we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
But that evening, hours after Ccaccya said the business’s trucks would stay off Monroe Street, a sharp, loud screeching sound interrupted a Friday-evening dinner party that Finneran was hosting. He and his guests went outside to investigate the ruckus. His neighbors across the street were standing around chattering. Finneran looked for signs of damage but saw nothing from his porch view. He retreated inside to his party.
“We assumed that Casa had destroyed something,” says Finneran. But “it was sort of quick that they vanished from the scene.”
The next morning, he and his girlfriend walked up to a car they had rented for the weekend. As they approached the white Kia Sedona minivan, they saw that the door was sealed shut, and the front-left quarter-panel had collapsed on the wheel. A note was left on his windshield from a D.C. police officer, telling him to seek insurance information from Casa.
Finneran went into Casa Furniture “to do battle,” he recalls. He asked that the manager come out and inspect the damage. He was met with blank stares, and the Casa employee he spoke to “sort of said, ‘What’s the big deal? Accidents happen.’”
“When several trucks slam into several cars over the course of months,” Finneran says, “it’s no longer an accident.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Greg Houston.