Berman's alley savvy

Who but a wild-eyed, wilder-haired artist like Mike Berman would found a Hill real-estate empire by buying 28 garages?

Who but a wild-eyed, wilder-haired artist like Mike Berman would found a Hill real-estate empire by buying 28 garages?

Definitely off the beaten track, Berman’s mind is humming with ideas. Like founding a Hill art colony on a secret, unused alley space between 14th and 15th streets S.E. Like opening up the Hill’s alleys and alley dwellings to make studios and living spaces for more artists.

He now wants to construct a building custom-made for studio space on a wide, empty parcel near his own studio off 16th Street S.E. To be designed by noted Hill architect David Bell, it will be known as the Arts Building at King’s Court.

Each weekend, Berman, the bearded and spectacled model of a young artist, hawks his intense and colorful works at Eastern Market. He’s also politically active, working for the interests of the artists at the market and watchdogging their rights as stall holders there.

But Berman’s other side is real estate. He gained notoriety as the poster boy for downtown artists fighting the developers and trying unsuccessfully to preserve commercial buildings in the 900 block of F Street N.W. The wrecking ball still crunched the buildings (and his own studio), but the fight won a compromise from the developer — a large parcel on the interior of the development will be available for an art building.

Berman moved to the Hill and with the help of developer Giorgio Furioso bought a large alley building at 29 Kings Court (the big alley between 15th and 16th streets S.E. near South Carolina Avenue) once occupied by the Better Box Co. He then became a landlord, splitting the 11,000-square-foot space in to six studios, all now rented out.

His next venture was the garages, tucked away north of Potomac Avenue S.E. With two financial partners he bought them, rented them out at $140 a month and was paying the mortgages.

“I found everyone wants storage space,” he said. Eventually, these too may be used for artists’ workspaces. As for the building plan, he says he has talked to D.C. planning officials and “they have agreed in concept. We are going to work on this one step at a time.”

My brilliant, booming row house

I am a real-estate millionaire at last.

At least under the definitions of D.C. Treasurer Natwar Gandhi and his boss, Mayor Anthony Williams (D), who have just reassessed my $52,000 row house (price when purchased) at $1,001,070. It was not a personal thing. I soon found that dozens, if not hundreds, of neighbors and friends had also joined the financially elect.

In simple terms, my D.C. row house, 19.2 feet wide, built in 1888, is now worth 19 times as much as when I bought it in 1970. This property has gained $27,116 in value for each of the 35 years I’ve been in residence.

What a swell investment! The trouble is, it is not an investment at all unless you sell it. This is the great question facing most of the 173,000 homeowners who were mailed assessments last week.

The audacity of the massive assessments, combined with Mayor Williams’s call for 100,000 new residents, may spark a groundswell of protest. High taxes, rather than competing plans to spend hundreds of millions on risky new city projects, could become a campaign issue for the fall ’06 mayoral primary. That is a hope.

The math tells it all. This year’s assessment raised the value of my house by $223,120 over last year. Not the $27,116 of the average over 35 years, but eight times as much as that average. Not the 10 percent increase promised by the tax cap, but over 34 percent.

Yet thanks to the tax cap, Hill homeowners will most likely pay only about 10 percent more this year. The downside is that the cap gives the city the green light to raise taxes 10 percent every year.

Why, you may well ask, does the city assess far in excess of the 10 percent it is allowed under the law?

Logic dictates that there are many property owners who do not qualify for the “homestead benefit,” a financial air kiss to people whose property is their “principal place of residence.” These non-qualifiers will be gouged to the full extent of the new assessments; there may even be some people so dim that they’ve not applied for the benefit, which is not automatic.

What can Hill-dwellers (who were hit much harder, for instance than residents of super swank Foxhall or Chevy Chase) do about it? They can appeal — within 30 days, or all appeal rights are lost.

Wise people have told me always to appeal. And I always have, mostly without result. But at least one year I was rewarded by a reassessment.

One word of advice: make a concrete argument, like a leaking roof, a fire, dampness in the basement, termite infestation, dry rot, standing water, etc. After all, most homeowners on the Hill are living in buildings well past their normal lifespan, held together by crumbling lime mortar and slowly sinking into the yellow clay of Jenkins Hill. But at least, someone thinks we are millionaires.

Getting around to artwork

One of the Hill’s top developers — Stanton Development partner Ken Golding — is pushing a plan to make the Hill’s iron manhole covers into works of art.

“Other cities have done this. Some of them are fabulous,” Golding enthused last week. He has contacted artists, including the highly regarded Fleishell father-and-son engravers, and has worked up preliminary designs for the decorative covers, which would be used in about 50 Pepco and D.C. Water and Sanitary Authority manholes on commercial corridors such as Pennsylvania Avenue and 8th and 7th streets S.E. Designs include images of Hill row houses, images of merchants on 7th Street and an image of the U.S. Capitol surrounded by typical Hill buildings.

Golding’s idea was sparked by a wacky art contest in April 2004 in Vancouver, British Columbia, challenging citizens to come up with designs for cast-iron manhole covers. The thing grew to a frenzy of popularity, drawing 640 entries from everyone from schoolkids to professional artists. A $2,000 (Canadian) prize was offered, and a website,, spread the excitement.

Golding has forwarded his proposal to Monte Edwards, the head of the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee’s capital-projects committee. He’s also received assurances from the D.C. Department of Transportation that city funding for the project may be available.

Best known as a partner with Frank Reed and Kitty Kaupp in numerous Hill development projects, such as the Kresge Building, the reuse of the former post office on 7th Street and others, Golding is a part owner of the Willard Hotel, shopping centers and apartment buildings in D.C. He is also a member of the Market Row Association.

• Farewell La Colline, hello Johnny’s Half Shell. Long a favorite haunt of expense-account journalists, Paul Zucconi’s bo