On just about any map, Peggi Graves’ neighborhood is strictly residential. Since 1986, Graves has lived on the 100 block of V Street NW, in Ward 5’s LeDroit Park. City zoning regulations stipulate that Graves’ block host nothing more disruptive than single-family homes, rooming houses, sorority houses, and the like.
Which explains why Graves and her neighbors have little patience for the auto garage that flanks their homes. Royal Auto Repair Shop, which occupies three contiguous garages in the V Street alley, opens at 7 a.m., when it begins contaminating the street with a familiar mix of fumes from oil, gas, and grease. And, like most shops, Royal Auto Repair has an overflow parking lotwith cars awaiting repairs marooned in the alley, taking up residents’ spots, and otherwise inconveniencing the whole block.
While the neighbors are plenty concerned with the problems they can see and smell, they’re downright mortified about the one they can’t: an underground storage tank on the property. No one knows what’s in it or what condition it’s in.
“We could have another Love Canal,” exclaims Graves, offering a worst-case scenario that’s probably overstated by a couple of magnitudes.
Kenneth Welch, owner of the property, dismisses all the tank talk as a ploy to put his tenants out of business. “Was it there when they came? Has anything changed?” he asks. “What do you want? You want drug dealers running up and down the alley so they can shoot up with indiscretion, and nobody occupying the buildings, so you can dump trash in them?”
The two sides have dug their heels in so deep that ravines are forming. “This community can’t be pushed around,” says Vicky Leonard-Chambers, who was recently elected to the community’s advisory neighborhood commission. “We care about the quality of our neighborhoodincluding our alleys.” Leonard-Chambers et al. cheered last month after inspectors from the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) fined Welch $1,000 for illegal storage in the garages and gave him a Dec. 22 deadline for declaring just what sits in the tank. If he fails to meet the deadline, he faces a $10,000-per-day penalty.
The garage problem began back in 1949, when some bureaucrat ignored D.C. laws and issued Dewey Cunningham a certificate of occupancy to operate an auto repair shop in the space now occupied by Royal. Then, as now, the neighborhood was a residential zone; businesses, nonprofits, and other enterprises were prohibited from locating there without a zoning variance. Cunningham, however, somehow managed to procure one. Essentially, the government said, We know you don’t belong here, but it’s OK with us.
Back then, the District government was managed by a congressionally appointed commission. It behaved not like a city but like a patronage farm for the federal government. The city’s congressional overseers thought nothing of breaking the rules for this friend, that cousin, or that girlfriend.
Various entrepreneurs ran businesses from the garages after Cunningham’s closed. Welch stepped into the picture in 1979, buying the garages for a bargain price of about $50,000. Ever since, he has leased them to mechanics, who keep the place buzzing six days a week. Currently, Robert Schools owns a certificate of occupancy on the garages that expires in October 1999.
“It was grandfathered in,” says Rob Warren, a DCRA lawyer, of the most recent permit. Welch and Schools offer the same defense. But by grandfathering the repair shop into legality, the city is honoring an ill-begotten 50-year-old exemption. Zoning officials can offer no documentation to prove that Cunningham legitimately obtained permission to run an auto shop in the V Street alley.
LeDroit Park, which sits behind Howard University, was first settled in the late 19th century by a class of wealthy white professionals. A gradual influx of upper-crust blacks, including professors, artists, and government professionals, shifted the racial ID of the neighborhood. In the ’80s, LeDroit went through a socioeconomic upheaval. Drugs, gangs, and violence ruled the street corners.
But the community is on the mend. Houses on and around V Street are valued at between $200,000 and $800,000. Middle-class professionals of various racesthe kind of residents the city hopes to seduce from their suburban mooringslive side by side. Howard University also has plans for the neighborhood. As the neighborhood has changed, tolerance for nuisance properties has all but disappeared.
Folks like Graves and Leonard-Chambers are at a loss to figure out why the city hasn’t acted to shut down the repair shop. After all, they say, the tax money from homeowner property taxes is significantly more than the garages yield. Why can’t the District government simply rescind its zoning waiver, which shouldn’t have been granted in the first place?
The process is much slower than they would like. DCRA’s $1,000 fine and ongoing probe, though, may eventually exile the mechanics to a less residential strip of real estate. “We’re just hoping we can find something wrong with the tank and use that as reason for shutting him down,” says a DCRA official, who asked not to be identified.
That candid assessment doesn’t surprise Welch, who pooh-poohs any notion of an environmental calamity on V Street. “You are closer to the dangerous contaminant when you drive your car than you are at any [other] time, because it’s the same thing that’s in your crank case,” he says, raising his hands in the air, feigning fright. He is a tough character, not likely to bend under the threat of tickets and fines.
Leonard-Chambers, Graves, and other residents are absolutely exasperated. “The city has been neglectful,” says Graves. “I can’t believe it would ignore our own laws and totally ignore the health of the neighborhood.”
Leonard-Chambers says she and others will write to DCRA Executive Director Lloyd Jordan to request that the repair shop be closed. Warren says he “would assume” that Jordan has the authority to rescind the zoning waiver. He says the department is currently attempting to determine how it was issued in the first placea finding that could have some bearing on the city’s options.
But the past has taught the residents not to depend solely on the District government. Leonard-Chambers says the group also will meet with Welch in the hope of helping him to find a better use for his property. If need be, she says, they might consider incorporating for the express purpose of buying the garages. “The repair shops have got to go.”CP