Donna Kelly stands outside her basement apartment on Corcoran Street NW, explaining why a 7-foot-tall crate, about half full with a futon and boxes of books, is sitting on her curb. Kelly and her roommate, both law students, are leaving for Europe for the summer and needed to clear out their things for a sublessee. “It seemed like the most convenient option,” she says of the box.
Companies such as Door-to-Door Storage and Portable On-Demand Storage (PODS) offer urbanites like Kelly an undeniable level of convenience: They drop off a crate; you fill it up at your leisure; they haul it away when you’re done. But that convenience comes at the cost of lost parking spaces and traffic tie-ups, and there are few District regulations to prevent it.
Jo Subczynski, a Logan Circle resident looking for a space near Kelly’s crate, says the boxes have recently become her top parking frustration: “Every time I try to park anymore,” she says, “it seems like I pass five of those things before I find a space.”
Usually, the companies prefer to drop their containers off on private property, such as a driveway or a garage. But Kelly’s English basement in Dupont Circle came with no such amenities, so instead her box occupies a Zone 2 parking space in a neighborhood where those slots are especially precious. As she stands next to her box on a Thursday evening, dozens of drivers pass by slowly, prowling for parking.
The regulations are simple, says Denise Wiktor, the Department of Transportation’s public-space manager: If a box sits in public space (a parking space, for example), you need a permit. Securing a public-space permit is not a particularly torturous affair; one can be had for $19 and a visit to the department’s North Capitol Street offices to fill out a one-page application.
The problem is that not many people are following regulations. Moving companies estimate that scores of storage boxes are in the District at any given time. But Wiktor says she’s received no more than a dozen permit applications since she started her job, in spring 2003. Most customers, she says, don’t get permits.
The permits aren’t only a source of revenue; they also keep traffic moving smoothly. Boxes, for example, aren’t allowed on streets where parking is prohibited during rush hours. The boxes are a particular problem now, at the beginning of the summer months, as students and interns move in and out. Earlier this month, nonpermitted Door-to-Door boxes left outside of Howard University’s Meridian Hill dormitory snarled rush-hour traffic on 16th Street NW.
Nor are the crates allowed to obstruct tree boxes or any part of the sidewalk. Earlier this month, three of them on 15th Street NW not only occupied two zoned parking spaces, but they were propped over the curb, taking up part of the sidewalk.
“[The boxes] sprout up like mushrooms,” Wiktor says. “They’re a real problem.”
Ticketing nonpermitted boxes is the duty of the city’s 30 neighborhood-infrastructure-maintenance officers, but the transient nature of the boxes makes enforcement frustrating, says Daniel Harrison, who is in charge of these officers. “Unless we actually see [a box] ourselves or somebody calls it in, there’s no way to know it’s there,” he says.
Or whether it’s legal. According to Harrison, the permits don’t necessarily have to be posted on a crate, just “somewhere it can be seen.”
Harrison estimates that his officers have written about a dozen citations for illegal moving boxes since the beginning of the year, half of which he estimates were warnings, the others carrying a $300 fine. Those tickets go to the company, not the customer. “It is a growing problem,” he says. “We’ve reached out to these places to let them know if you’re working in the city, you need the permits.”
Despite the handful of tickets, both Door-to-Door and PODS agree: It’s the individual customers’ responsibility to get the permit if they want boxes dropped curbside. It’s not their fault, they say, if few customers actually do.
Door-to-Door does its best not to frustrate D.C. drivers, says David Clark, the company’s regional manager. When the company has to drop a box curbside, he says, it tries to remove it within a couple days. “We’re pretty much in and out,” he says from the company’s offices in Anne Arundel County.
PODS doesn’t even try delivering its containers—which are larger, up to 16 feet long—in busy parts of New York or Chicago, because regulations are so tight, says Paul Umberg, that company’s chief operating officer. “Downtown business is difficult to transact,” he says. But John Tompkins, president of PODS’ D.C.-area franchise, says he’ll deliver the containers anywhere in the city, as long as the customer has the proper permit.
Kelly, however, didn’t get a permit. When her roommate called to order the box, she says, Door-to-Door didn’t mention a permit specifically but did suggest that they check with local authorities. When the driver dropped the box off, she says, he didn’t ask if they had a permit.
“It’s exam time, you know,” she says. “We figured it’d just be here for a day, so we’d take our chances.” CP