All the arguments come down to need

If you want an instant turn-off, say “certificate of need process.”

That nerdy, boring, bureaucratic phrase is the dull heart of a fierce, misunderstood political battle going on over a rich prize, the $412 million proposed National Capital Medical Center.

If you want an instant turn-off, say “certificate of need process.”

That nerdy, boring, bureaucratic phrase is the dull heart of a fierce, misunderstood political battle going on over a rich prize, the $412 million proposed National Capital Medical Center.

Still uninterested? Then it’s suggested you drive down and visit the abandoned hospital campus off 19th street of Capitol Hill’s East End. There you will see huge buildings in good repair, built of brick and stone.

These were once D.C. General Hospital, closed down by Mayor Anthony Williams (D) in 2001 because it was hemorrhaging money from overstaffing and mismanagement.

A bitter war followed, led by people who had lost their jobs and others who believed there ought to be a poor people’s hospital in Southeast, a part of the city where hospitals have been closing for decades. Examples: New York Avenue’s Central Dispensary, the Hill’s Providence Hospital, Sable’s eastern unit and the Capitol Hill Hospital.

The mayor’s plan, a web of clinics to replace D.C. General and take care of the 80,000 uninsured in the city, did not catch on; people were used to getting every jolt of life, from toothache to heart attack, attended to free in the emergency room of D.C. General. A substitute for D.C. General, Greater Southeast, was thought too far away.

So Williams backpedaled, and the plan of a new hospital, in partnership with Howard University and built on the site of D.C. General, emerged.

No one considered reform or rebuilding of D.C. General, except a few lonely voices. Nor did many like the idea of a financial mating with Howard, which survives with 40 percent of its annual budget subsidized by the federal government and which has laid off large numbers of professionals from its own University Hospital.

The situation has become a political football game, with one side cheering for jobs, new construction and a $400 million replacement for D.C. General, which would return things to the same state as before. Except that the new, grandly named National Capital Medical Center (NCMC) would almost certainly kill off the substitute, Greater Southeast. The other side, those against the NCMC, argues that the city has plenty of hospitals (nine), with 1,700 unused hospital beds, and that it rates far better than most other jurisdictions in access to medical care. Now the fight has centered on the “certificate of need,” a review process used in all but 14 states to ensure that capital expenditures of public money (D.C. taxpayers are on the hook for $212 million for the project) are in the best interests of the public and are not duplicating existing services.

The backers of the NCMC are fighting this review. A majority of the City Council is correctly demanding to know why. The most affected council member, the Hill’s Sharon Ambrose (D), is insisting on the review. Ambrose, who is retiring, says the questions about NCMC keep coming back and the answers do not convince.

Good-taste board screens neon

The corner building at 7th Street and North Carolina Avenue S.E., long known as Antiques on the Hill, is soon to emerge from $350,000 worth of renovation and adaptation to launch as Port City Java, another upscale coffeehouse on a wide and sunny corner ideal for sitting, schmoozing and sipping.

But rumors have been flying about a fight over neon signage for the shop, a franchise chain out of Wilmington, N.C., making its first attempt at success in D.C.

The Historic Preservation Review Board objected to the signs first proposed for the shop, according to franchise holder Abe Tafesse. “They said they did not fit into the neighborhood. We went to our architect and changed them. We are set for opening next month.”

He said it is equipment installation, not the sign issue, that has caused delay. “We are eager to open,” he said. “We’ve spent a great deal of money on the project.”

Because the project is in the heart of the Hill’s Historic District, the review board holds near life-and-death power over what may be built. It has already ended owner Doug Jeffries’s plans to build a swimming pool at his successful gym, Results.

In the case of Port City, there was not even a hearing. The board simply told the owners that what it proposed would not be approved. Port City had no choice; as the Latin phrase goes, “de gustibus non disputandum est.”

Business incentive to quit D.C.

With last week’s Superior Court decision that suburban business owners no longer must pay business tax to the city, the chasm gapes.

Experts put the loss in revenue at a possible $100 million; business owners, if the ruling by Judge Jose M. Lopez stands, have every reason to move out of Washington, or at least place a headquarters unit in the counties that surround the District on every side and thereby claim residence.

The ruling gives businesses both a reason and many ways to avoid paying taxes here.

The city has learned to live with the impossibility of fair treatment from the suburbs. Because of congressional opposition, there will not be a commuter tax, and large numbers of residents of Maryland and Virginia who work here and live there will continue to get off scot-free, unlike commuters in most U.S. cities. Some 70 percent of city employees enjoy this advantage, in effect doubly subsidized by the heavily taxed citizens of the capital.

Unfortunately there is little the city can do except to appeal the ruling. Or hope for some action by Congress.


• The Hill’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B has resolved to fight a new citywide plan for “underutilized” school and other properties. The plan, aimed at helping to pay for school renovations by selling parcels to developers, would affect Hill public schools Tyler, Watkins and possibly others. ...

• Those dreaded midweek parking tickets are landing on windshields again; street sweeping began March 20. ...

• The Capitol Hill Restoration Society and the Stanton Park Neighborhood Association are engaged in a survey to decide whether the Hill’s Historic District designation should move north of F Street N.E. from 2nd to 10th Street. The real-estate community has been extending “the Hill” for years. ...

• Eastern Market merchants have a bright idea: Why not make a D.C. Circulator bus stop at the market? Patrons have noted recent high school groups thronging the market to learn how food was distributed before Giant, Safeway et al. ...

• Trees for Capitol Hill, which has ties with the powerful and well-funded Casey organization, will be surveying next month to locate dead trees, tree boxes that are empty, stumps to be removed, etc. Call 543-3512 to inform or volunteer. ...

• Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) says she knows a “congressional corpse” when she sees one. She’s trying to end the time-honored 30-60-day congressional review of D.C. Council bills, a review that so seldom results in overturned legislation that she says it’s essentially dead. ...

• Barry Watch: The former mayor and present Ward 8 councilman, Marion Barry, has only one little problem remaining after receiving the maximum-lenient sentence for tax avoidance. He has to pay as much as $246,000 in back taxes. Lawyer Fred Cooke is working on a way around campaign laws to allow Barry friends to make contributions to help M.B. out. ...

• ANC 6A Chairman Joe Fengler is asking pointed questions of Public Schools Superintendent Clifford Janey all about Eastern High School, which Janey singled out to be the “Boston Latin” language magnet school by 2007. But why are no funds allocated for Eastern’s modernization, Fengler asks in a letter sent to Janey last week.