16 Aug 2011

We've Got Answers: Office Hours with CHAMPS

photo by Claudia Holwill

Last week, we asked you, our reader, to tell us what’s on your mind about Capitol Hill business and development.  You sent us several questions through our Twitter and blog commentary thread.

Now, this week we have your answers direct from Julia Christian, Executive Director of CHAMPS, Capitol Hill’s Chamber of Commerce.

In this first of two Q&A posts, we talked with Julia about how to make use of vacant commercial properties, streetscaping and lighting along Pennsylvania Avenue and alternative energy options for Capitol Hill businesses.

Later this week, Julia will answer your questions about attracting diverse retail to the Hill, new business on Barracks Row and the latest on this year’s Hilly Awards.

Julia is no stranger to the Capitol Hill business community. She was born and raised in the neighborhood and joined CHAMPS in 2008. Under her direction, the organization helps to create promotional, advocacy, networking and educational opportunities for Capitol Hill businesses.

If you have other questions for Julia, you can ask on Twitter @capitolhilldc or by email.

Q: How can we get commercial vacant property owners to consider creative uses, i.e. art studios, small business, or shared office spaces? (submitted by Twitter user @SCLinDC)

A: The first issue with vacant properties is the city needs to do its part in terms of keeping track of what’s vacant, and where it is located. It’s not just about creating incentives; it’s also about keeping track of what’s currently vacant.

As a property owner, you don’t want to get slashed with the extra fines for having a vacant property, so if the city is doing its job, and if the city were to develop some sort of incentive program to encourage reuse, then it would be worth it to make the investment.  Any kind of program encouraging building reuse would generate tax dollars.

It’s a combination of giving the property owner a meaningful reason to act, and also having a system where people know if someone doesn’t act or care for their property, then they will be penalized.

On H Street there are a number of vacant properties or properties that can be classified as blighted. But, the process to report them has become so convoluted that it just falls by the wayside. A number of people get by with what is technically a vacant property and the city, at this point, is not equipped to make a difference.

Any plans for the 600 block of Pennsylvania? Especially lighting??? #prettyplease (submitted by Twitter user @labyrinthdc owner of Labyrinth Games & Puzzles)

A: This has been a constant problem, and we have been working on it with DDOT. We went out with city officials recently to walk the 600 block of Pennsylvania and determine the current lighting situation. Basically, there are three street lights that shine onto the street but do not light up the actual sidewalk, which is very important.

The problem is that there are not enough poles, so we are trying to figure out if we can tie into any larger city or federal projects. We should have a better idea soon on that possibility.

If that’s not an option, we would look into something similar to what they do at Gallery Place/Chinatown, where they attach lights to certain buildings and shine down onto the sidewalk, essentially creating light from above the commercial stretch.

If we end up with the second option, we need to determine who owns the land, who owns the electricity and who maintains the lighting. Right now, we are working with the Penn Quarter Neighborhood Association to see how they operate the lighting in Chinatown.

With new fantastic laws supporting solar in the District, how can Capitol Hill businesses and CHAMPS help integrate more renewable energy into the neighborhood?
(submitted by THIH blog commenter Sean Garren)

A: One of the things that we need to be looking at is group buying. Right now, we are working with organizations that support green energy. But, our business owners can’t pretend that they can do it alone.

We recently started working with Clean Currents, a wind energy company, with special pricing for our commercial customers. We are trying to encourage businesses to come together and use these sorts of programs.

I think above and beyond anything, it’s the process and level of difficulty for an individual. If it can’t be done in one sitting, then the chances of something happening are slim-to-none. We need to work with the regulatory agencies to create incentives and programs in such a way that when they get to the individual user, it’s not a huge, long process of paperwork and approvals.

But right now, we are gathering groups of business owners to find easy ways to direct people through incentives and programs to help make it happen. And, there a number of Hill business already enrolled in the Clean Currents program today.

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