One man’s expulsion from a District marina has a community of boaters awash in anxiety.
Gene Miller is a man with two boats and no smooth sailing ahead. For several years, Miller, 47, lived along the District’s Southwest waterfront aboard his 26-foot-long sailboat, the Patti Ann.
He kept the Patti Ann docked at the city-owned Gangplank Marina, where he rented a slip and paid for such amenities as electricity, fresh water, and cable TV.
At least, he was supposed to pay.
“I had fallen behind on some of my payments,” admits Miller, who at the same time was working at Marina Management, the group that operated the Gangplank. Miller’s delinquency prompted the company to withhold his checks. Eventually, in April 2001, he was fired.
Last summer, in June, the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency sold the leasehold for the Gangplank Marina to the National Capital Revitalization Corporation (NCRC)—a semiprivate development organization run by federal and D.C. appointees. By late October, the NCRC had chosen a new management company, Annapolis-based Coastal Properties Management, Inc., to oversee the marina.
In December, Coastal Properties requested a meeting with Miller to discuss his arrearage. By that time, Miller’s slip license had expired, and he was hoping to keep the Patti Ann in port without ponying up his back payments. “I wanted to start off on a clean slate,” says Miller. “I told Coastal Properties that I would pay my slip fees and that I would keep my fees current.” But, according to Miller, Coastal Properties wanted the arrears.
Miller held out. “They told me that even if I paid off my debt, they wouldn’t renew my license agreement,” says Miller. “I told them, ‘Well, what’s my incentive to pay you?’”
In January, Miller moved his sailboat to another marina. “It wasn’t worth dealing with them any longer,” says Miller. “I couldn’t make any headway.” But even though he’d uprooted the Patti Ann, he hadn’t exactly sailed off into the sunset: Miller’s home life was still anchored to the Gangplank.
In July 2001, Miller and his girlfriend, Jackie Johnson, a 45-year-old urban planner, had bought a second boat: the Bon Vivant. Ever since then, the Bon Vivant, a one-bedroom fixer-upper, has been moored at the Gangplank under Johnson’s name.
The Bon Vivant, unlike the Patti Ann, remains debt-free, so Miller thought he could live on the Bon Vivant without irking the management. He was wrong.
On Wednesday, Feb. 6, police officers arrived at the Bon Vivant with two employees of Coastal Properties. The officers escorted Miller to shore and informed him that he had been accused of trespassing. If he set foot on the marina grounds again, he would be arrested. (Representatives from Coastal Properties and the NCRC declined to comment on Miller’s removal.)
Prior to his exile, Miller had been one of more than a hundred District residents, known as “live-aboards,” who inhabit the Gangplank full time. For many live-aboards, Miller’s dismissal underscores their vulnerability. Residents at the marina sign 12-month license agreements—not leases—on their vessels and are therefore not protected under the District’s landlord-tenant laws. “Essentially, I have been evicted without due process,” says Miller. “We don’t have the rights of tenants. We can be kicked out at anytime.”
Since taking over the helm, Coastal Properties has placed a moratorium on all new live-aboard licenses. Miller’s expatriation has some marina residents concerned that Coastal Properties may be attempting to rid the community of residents it deems undesirable.
“[A]t a meeting with slipholders and representatives of NCRC present, a representative of the management company stated that they would not renew leases to anyone they felt was a ‘troublemaker,’ whether or not they had violated any rules or policies,” wrote various members of the Gangplank Slipholders Association, in a letter to At-Large Councilmember David Catania. “We would like clarification on why the NCRC is allowing the issuance of homemade restraining orders and allowing their agents to arbitrarily decide who is the ‘right sort of person’ to use D.C. property.”
Mitch Nathanson, president of Coastal Properties, insists that the ban on new residents and Miller’s dismissal are two separate issues. He says that the moratorium was put in place to benefit current residents of the marina. “We are evaluating everything dealing with parking, utilities, and the condition of the facilities,” says Nathanson. “We want to give the people who are already there the best services possible.”
But throughout the marina, mutiny hangs in the air—and disgruntled residents challenge their captains’ every pronouncement. They point out that the Gangplank has plenty of empty slips and could easily accommodate the approximately 15 boaters who are currently on the waiting list to live at the marina. Ed Johnson (no relation to Jackie Johnson), treasurer of the Gangplank Slipholders Association, wants to know why Coastal Properties has turned away what he estimates would be roughly $100,000 in increased annual revenue.
“Who’s going to benefit from all this?” asks Ed Johnson. “They have stated reasons for the moratorium, but I don’t think those reasons make sense. The numbers don’t add up in the marina’s favor.”
NCRC officials say that they have no intention of deep-sixing the boating community. “They are a part of the current and future plans for the whole waterfront initiative,” says Barbara Heineback, communications director of the NCRC. But what exactly the NCRC has planned for the marina and the surrounding environs remains a mystery to the Gangplank’s residents.
Thus, gossip rules the marina. Rumors float from dock to dock. Doomsday scenarios abound. In one oft-repeated worst-case scenario, officials in the region legalize riverboat gambling, touching off a mad scramble to accommodate the booty-hungry citizens who stampede the shores of the Potomac in search of legal slot machines. Subsequently, opportunistic city officials respond by paving over the Gangplank to make room for a fleet of floating casinos.
“There’s this anxiety in the back of everyone’s mind, because we don’t know where the NCRC are going,” says Carol Hoffman, who has been living at the Gangplank since last summer. “We know they have development plans, and we’re all for that. We’re pro-development. We just want to be included.”
Despite the predictions of redevelopment, the Gangplank Marina has become increasingly desolate in recent years. In 1996, a fire scorched the marina’s sole restaurant. Since then, the space has remained shuttered.
In 1999, Ronald Cohen, a Bethesda developer, attempted to buy the marina and several adjacent properties. He wanted to reopen the restaurant and add new facilities. But according to a lawsuit filed by Cohen, the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency thwarted his purchase of the marina and foiled his master plan.
At the time, Cohen was also negotiating to buy Hogates restaurant, which occupies a large swath of land adjacent to the Gangplank. Without the marina in his portfolio, Cohen pulled out. Last year, Hogates served up its final crab cake and closed its doors for good.
Marina residents, fed up with the slim pickings along their waterfront turf, are pressing NCRC officials to reel in a new restaurant at the Gangplank. At a recent public meeting of the NCRC board of directors, Ed Johnson grilled NCRC officials on the fate of the marina’s long-empty watering hole. “We are looking at various options,” answered NCRC CEO Elinor Bacon. “We’re going to do our very best to get [the outdoor portion of the Gangplank restaurant] open this spring.”
Additionally, NCRC officials announced that they are working on an interim plan for the surrounding areas. They declined to detail any specifics. “It’s not appropriate or sensible to answer questions on an interim basis,” said John Heller, chair of the NCRC board.
In the meantime, the area remains a desert of development. The empty space adds to the prevailing atmosphere of ambiguity.
According to Marc Weiss, an urban-planning Ph.D. and former senior official at the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, keeping properties vacant is often a smart strategy in the face of indecision. “In general, the more you leave temporarily vacant, the more flexibility you have down the road in terms of utilizing space and implementing a new plan,” says Weiss.
“If they decide next week that there will be no more live-aboards, they can do that,” says Ed Johnson. “We have no legal recourse. It’s kind of disturbing.” CP