Ryan Velasco is a child of the Virginia suburbs, but moving to the Hill in 2004 was more of a spiritual homecoming than trips out traffic-choked Route 66. His cul-de-sac youth, coupled with a degree in historic preservation and community planning, make him an Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) member with particular sensitivities to preserving the fabric of city living.
Above all, Velasco wants neighbors to know the value of attending the ANC monthly meetings. One inherent problem of the ANCs, he said, is “the amount of influence a very vocal minority has in neighborhood politics.” Often ANC opinions, on matters as contentious as liquor license recommendations, are swayed by neighbors who do “show up,” however in the minority their opinions may be in the neighborhood. He does admit the meetings are not for the faint of heart. “I was appalled at the first meeting I attended – it was more like community disorganization, not community organizing,” he said, and added there has been significant improvement in ANC6-C.
Velasco moved to the District in 2003, and then to the Hill in 2004. After doing community organizing work in post-Katrina New Orleans, he returned to the neighborhood and wanted to get involved in local grassroots initiatives.* “The bread and butter ANC issues” of historic preservation and community planning lured him to his first ANC6-C meeting in 2006, and he quickly joined the committee as a citizen member. In 2007, longtime commissioner Bill Sisolak retired from his position and suggested Velasco run for his seat. The job, a volunteer position, takes about ten hours a week, but Velasco’s passion for grassroots politics gives him the boost needed after a day at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Until recently, he was the chairman of the zoning and planning committee. Velasco, 29, is the youngest member of ANC6-C.
Historic preservation issues will continue to take a significant amount of the ANC’s focus this year. Velasco said he anxiously awaits the next step in the H Street streetcar project, and is hopeful that the development of the H Street Connection shopping mall at H and 9th will “correct this urban planning mistake from the 80s.” His vision for the the future of H Street includes progressive modern architecture that melds well with the historic facades and syncs with the artistic feel of the neighborhood. “There’s such opportunity there,” Velasco said. “There are some really great buildings of significant historic value, but there are a number of not-so-great buildings.”
The H Street corridor is split between ANC6A and 6C, with the boundaries of 6C ending at 8th Street Northeast. Velasco says the two ANCs often have different philosophies and interpretations about the H Street Overlay, but work best when they’re able to mediate between resident and business disagreements.
“I want to do everything I can to encourage small local businesses to start up on the west end of the street, and it’s important that we guide what goes in there,” he said, and added the ANC takes it’s role negotiating between neighbors and potentially disruptive tenants seriously. He says neighbors living near a commercial area should be open-minded and keep the big picture in mind. Incentives that work both ways for the developers and the neighborhood are often win-win solutions and “we shouldn’t limit economic development by imposing too many limitations. I’d like to see small businesses thrive in the area, but I’m not opposed to seeing some national anchors.”
Another sensitive issue that’s frequently on the ANC agenda is parking. “Across the Hill parking is a huge issue, and honestly, it’s one I’m not that sympathetic to,” he said. “I don’t operate under the assumption I’m going to be able to park in front of my condo, and yet there are many who think on-street parking in front of their homes is a right.” Velasco thinks more people are moving to the Hill from the suburbs for its village-like qualities, but bring with them suburban expectations. “The nature of the community will suffer” if more people don’t embrace public transportation and the walk-ability of the neighborhood,” he said.
When thinking about neighborhood issues such as real estate and commercial development, historic preservation and parking, Velasco recommends taking a big picture view. “I’d like to see people widen their perspective. There’s a lot of NIMBYism in Hill politics, but you’ve got to think beyond your ANC,” he said and reminds residents that the decisions and recommendations made at ANC meetings has significance for the both the city and the region, “not just our parking spaces.”
The ANC 6-C meeting is Wednesday, January 13 at 214 Massachusetts Avenue N.E. at 7 p.m. You can see the agenda here.
* Information updated 1/13/10