Friday, May 28, 2004

DON'T LOOK UP: Smithsonian Building Closed to Public Due to Threat of Collapsing Roof

While this isn't exactly breaking news, I realized yesterday I haven't written about the threat of a collapsing roof at the historic Arts and Industries Building. The A&I Buidling, constructed next to the Smithsonian's Castle from 1879-1881, has been closed to the public for many months, but still is open to staff of the Smithsonian's associated academic programs housed in the building.

"They don't want to have large amounts of people in there," a Smithsonian source tells the Oculus. "For us, they say it's fine."

Essentially, large amounts of snow on the roof could threaten the integrity of the building, therefore, they don't want busloads of children inside.

According to the AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C. (third edtion), it was "the least expensive major structure ever put up by the federal government" ($3 a square foot). And it was also the "most speedily and efficiently constructed." It was finished in time for President James Garfield's inaugural in 1881. (Garfield was shot by an assassin across the way at the old B&O Railroad terminal, where today's National Gallery of Art stands.

The building was closed for renovations from 1974-1976.

For more history on the building, click here.

GOP SPLIT: District Republicans at Odds

D.C. Councilman David Catania, one of two Republicans on the City Council, has left the local GOP over a spat with party officials. Catania, who has publicly said he would not support the re-election of President Bush, had his convention delegate status stripped by Betsey Werronen, the chairwoman of the District GOP, because of his refusal to support President Bush. Though Catania, a Log Cabin Republican, said he would vote for Bush at the convention, he said he wouldn't vote for him in the November general election.

From The Washington Post:
Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay GOP activists, called Catania's break with the party "a great loss . . . and what it is for us is another very harsh reminder of the fact that the effort to amend the United States Constitution is causing a culture war within the GOP."

Carol Schwartz, D.C.'s other Republican on the City Council, resigned as a delegate to the convention in protest.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

COMMUTING: That Pesky Bus Transfer

Tuesday, I had a quick appointment in Foggy Bottom after work. By 6:15, I was done and was standing at 22nd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, waiting for one of the 30-series buses to take me to my apartment uptown. A bus came, I boarded and moved down the aisle. Right behind me was a 20-something female with obnoxiously large sunglasses, who was called out by the bus driver.

"Excuse me, miss," the driver said is a tone that I thought was overly harsh.

She looked back, confused.

"This isn't valid," he replied, pointing to her bus transfer.

"You have to get these before you get on the train ... not when you get off," the driver said.

"Oh I didn't know that."

They never do, or at least they always do and pretend they don't. The reality of the bus transfer is that a good percentage of those who ride the subway and metrobus know that you're supposed to get a transfer before you board a train, or cheat. Bus drivers rarely check bus transfers. So it is really easy get away with it.

But today when I transferred to a 90 bus at Woodley Park, I noticed that my bus transfer said simply "METRO." Was that referring to Metro Center? The Metro in general? I normally start my evening commute at Union Station, and my bus transfer didn't say anything even close to that. So if I had tried to transfer to a bus at Metro Center, would I have run into trouble if I would have encountered a pesky bus driver who was particularly anal about bus transfers?

I'm not sure what kind of answer the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority would give in response if I used their complaint/comment service.

Much of the bus transfer guesswork will be eliminated by the end of the summer when SmarTrip is installed on the entire bus fleet. If everything goes to WMATA's plan, there will be automatic 45 cent bus-to-subway and subway-to-bus transfers via the SmarTrip system and innovative global positioning system upgrades on the bus.

But I have concerns that the plan can be carried out effectively. While I have very limited knowledge of how the system works, it would make sense that the system that controls the destination signage and the bus stop announcement system would be integrated with the GPS, so that a 45 cent transfer would be recorded accurately when buses come within the 2-block subway station zone in which transfers are valid. But any bus rider knows that WMATA's buses can have difficultly displaying the correct destination or calibrate the correct bus stop announcement program for any particular route. (e.g. On my way home, the 90 bus said it was the 54 bus, with a 90 taped to the window.)

Perhaps I'm assuming too much that WMATA would employ such an integrated system to do universal transfers. If WMATA does pull it off flawlessly, my faith in the system might be restored.

Driver Distractions. I was sort of amused by DC SOB's posting today about the car-bus collision at Connecticut Avenue and Dupont Circle for two reasons. First, there's a good chance that it's my old bus, the D2; and two, stupid people think they can park in what is a cramped bus turning zone. I have no sympathy for the owner of the parked car. They should have known better.

For other driver distractions, I noticed this evening on my walk back to my apartment from Newark Street and Wisconsin Avenue that a 90 bus driver pulling around to the terminal stop at the Giant Foods was rabidly tearing at her complex braids. As she was tearing at her hair at the four-way stop at Idaho Avenue and Newark Street, she didn't realize there was a line of four to five cars queued up behind her. That must violate a few WMATA driver regulations.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

CAMPAIGN '04 AND TRANSIT: Trippi at a Gallery in Georgetown; Bush HQ Next to a Metro Station

The Oculus was forwarded a notice for a fundraiser in Georgetown at Hemphill Fine Arts Gallery on 33rd Street featuring Joe Trippi, the former campaign manager for the presidential campaign of Howard Dean.

Hemphill Art Gallery is hosting this event in conjunction with its "Hole Shebang" exhibit on the 2000 Florida ballot disaster. Artists Eduardo del Valle & Mirta Gomez present numerous moving campaign images from those pivotal weeks, many never publicly shown before.

While the Oculus is officially politically neutral, there is something quite interesting worth noting (besides the fact that the e-mail doesn't say when the event is). It has a link to WMATA's Ride Guide and strongly encourages participants to arrive via public transportation. Would Republicans ever encourage their ranks to use public transportation to arrive at a campaign event? My gut reaction would be to say no. (There are images of stereotypical SUVs with Bush Cheney stickers getting stuck in M Street traffic popping into my head.)

But then again, Bush-Cheney '04 campaign headquarters is located within walking distance of the Court House metrorail station in Virginia. (Its address, 2107 Wilson Boulevard, is a location the re-election effort doesn't advertise to the general public.) According the Arlington Economic Development organization, the campaign secured more than 33,000 square feet of office space back last August.

The Kerry camp is housed in office space about a block from the White House at 901 15th Street NW.

CRIME: Real Man Steals Almost-Real Statue

The Washington Post reports that an art installation in the Reston Town Center has been stolen. Some may call it a kidnapping, as the statue was nearly a real human.

From The Washington Post:
The woman, last seen wearing a bikini, goes by the name "Legs Folded." That's according to Marc Sijan, the Wisconsin artist who spent six months painstakingly crafting the life-size, eerily lifelike image out of poly-resin.

Apparently, the statue was stolen in broad daylight. According to the Fairfax County Police nobody realized that statue was being nabbed. "Someone carrying that life-sized sculpture down the street, you'd think it would be easy to spot. ... But it didn't draw the right attention because no one called us."

Ahh, crime in the suburbs. Kidnapping that's not really kidnapping.

RESIDUAL EFFECTS: Army Digs Up Arsenic-Poisoned Ground in Spring Valley

The Washington Post reports this morning that the Army Corps of Engineers has started to dig up portions of the Upper Northwest neighborhood of Spring Valley to remove arsenic from properties that were found to have elevated levels of the poison.

The neighborhood, adjacent to American University, was built on land used for World War I-era chemical weapons testing. To learn more about the contamination, refer to my posting from Monday.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

LOVE IN GEORGETOWN: Columnist Laments Perils of Soulmate Search

The Georgetowner's "Sex & the Village" columnist Kitty Tyler writes in the current issue about finding true love in the capital city. While she doesn't reference herself, she does talk about a "friend."

From The Georgetowner:
It’s like finding a needle in a haystack and sometimes, the haystack seems infinite.

I think we are all guilty of stalking the "Single’s Safeway" and hunt hopelessly among a crowd of Capitol Hill suits wishing that one turns out to be the end to it all. It’s not that being wild and single isn’t a good time, it’s just the mystique of the "soulmate" that draws curious hearts out on the weekends in search of that one person that will complete the whole.

But apparently, finding a soulmate in the capital can be a fruitless pursuit.

She explained that she had been doing some thinking and was convinced that she had several soulmates - her mother, her sister, her chocolate lab, Abigail and her best friend from college. To her, all of these people were soulmates because without them, she would be missing irreplaceable pieces of her self.

Instead of allowing herself to be engulfed in self-pity on a daily basis, she now walks Abigail along the Potomac, or calls her mother for lunch whenever her soul begins feeling empty.

So here's the D.C. dating scene boiled down: It lacks a soul and therefore lacks soulmates. So if you aren't successful, get a dog and call your mother for lunch.

COMMUTING: Higher Metro Fares for Late Night?

According to a public meeting notice on its website, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is considering an "adjustment" for subway fares during late-night Friday and Saturday service. As you may remember, WMATA began phasing in later service Friday and Saturdays in the past few years.

For fiscal 2004, WMATA began an 18-month demonstration period to see whether or not a 3 a.m. closing on Fridays and Saturdays was a good move. While ridership has increased (143,200 passenger trips over nine months), the cost effectiveness hasn't met expectations.

This imbalance between operating cost and operating revenue has caused the Board of Directors to examine the fares received during this time period if the cost recovery ratio (passenger revenue/operating cost) could be raised to Metrorail cost recovery rates experienced during other periods of time during the day.

A translation and a prediction: With late night service popular but not cost effective, they're probably going to charge more after midnight. WMATA has floated other cost-cutting possibilities, including running two-car trains late at night and closing some stations (like Federal Center SW ... but that might be an improvement).

Public hearings on the matter are scheduled for June 7, 7 p.m. at WMATA's Judiciary Square headquarters.

DINING: Entering the Mandarin World

Oculus readers may remember a few posts on the new Mandarin Oriental hotel located in Southwest Washington. Since its opening in March, I've been curious as to how long it would take the hotel, which is aiming to secure a coveted five-star rating (something no hotel in the capital can claim), to register on the social radar screen of the average Washingtonian.

The conventional wisdom for the Mandarin's eventual success goes something like this: Although the hotel is located in the middle of nowhere (wedged between a graffiti-scarred railroad trestle and the approach to the 14th Street Bridge), development along the Southwest Waterfront will make the hotel an anchor, drawing people to a deserted part of the central city.

And the hotel's Cafe Mozu got a badly needed dose of free advertisement on Sunday in a Tom Sietsema food review in The Washington Post.

From The Washington Post:
To reach my table at Cafe Mozu, I cross a lobby with enough polished marble to build a monument, then a long hallway lined with wide rocking chairs and pillow-strewn banquettes. The passage is impressive, and so is what follows: an airy, high-ceilinged room set off with a giant chrome-and-walnut grid and framing an uncommon Washington vista of both water and memorials. "Good evening," the hostess practically purrs as she guides me to a chair facing a floor-to-ceiling window. Before I see a morsel of food at Cafe Mozu, my senses are awakened, my interest piqued.

Sietsema gave Cafe Mozu two stars.

Not all agree with Sietsema's reading of the place ...

From the Cafe Mozu page:
Posted by georgetowngourmet on May 23, 2004
I just read Tom's review which reads like three stars but then he gives it only two. Must be a typo! I've been to Mozu a couple times now and it has always been amazing. I certainly agree with Tom on that Mozu has the most beautiful Bento box in town - it's also a bargain! However, I don't know what desserts Tom tasted - mine were yummy. Food is delicious, service personable and efficient, the view georgious - what do you want more? Definitely my new favorite place.

Shocking Chardonnay
Posted by Louise Glenn on May 07, 2004
We were going out for a simple pre-theater dinner for four. The review said the prices were moderate. We were expecting about $200 for the four of us. The bill came to $341! We were shocked. Part of the problem - a glass of Chardonnay was $22. Perhaps we should have asked, but when you order a house Chardonnay, is that what you expect? I don't. The food was good, but the portions were very small. Service was excellent.

So the combination of its location, the price and the relatively luke warm/favorable reviews, it seems that the Mandarin's Cafe Mozu has some maturing to do if its host hotel wants to garner a five-star rating.

You may remember me saying that the hotel's roofline reminds me of the Willard. Let me amend that slightly. While the hotel's Mansard-like roofline is similar to the Willard, it looks like it would be better placed in Orlando.

FROM THE EDITOR: Technical Difficulties

A good chunk of Tuesday, the Oculus was down, but it appears that it is up and running just fine now. If there are technical difficulties, please check my old site, at ...

I'm hoping to have all the bugs worked out of the new system soon. Thanks for reading.

CICADA CACOPHONY: Music to Your Ears

The Washington Times assures us this morning that despite the complaining of some, the buzzing of the billions of cicadas isn't that loud.

From The Washington Times:
"Unless you're an extreme outdoorsman or bird-watcher, it's not going to affect you," said Dr. Ednan Mushtaq, a McLean-based ear, nose and throat doctor. He added with a chuckle: "We've heard some general complaints, but we haven't treated anyone for cicada hearing loss."

I have to say that the "War of the Worlds"-like buzzing has been more interesting than annoying. And it can be a benefit if you find yourself listening to live music out in the woods. The party I was at late Saturday night featured two guitarists and a violinist from the French Embassy playing cafe music -- including a novel rendition of the "Inspector Gadget" theme music -- well past 4 a.m. The venue was a terrace overlooking a secluded ravine in North Arlington.

"The cicadas," which were humming along by the thousands in all the trees around us, "will be loving this music. They will be in the mood," said a French Embassy intern. "There will twice as many cicadas here 17 years from now." (A few cicadas found themselves trying to climb in empty Heineken and Corona bottles that littered the terrace.)

While it is not known whether cicadas actually like French cafe tunes, they do seem to like pulsating dance music. The bugs flocked to the sliding glass door that led inside to the dance floor, with even a few of the creatures figuring out a way to fly inside the house.

U STREET: Townhouse Collapses

The Washington Post reports this morning that a townhouse near the booming U Street corridor partially collapsed yesterday.

From The Washington Post:Firefighters noticed a large crack on the three-story townhouse about noon when they responded to a report of a gas leak at a neighboring construction site in the 2100 block of 11th Street NW, said Alan Etter of the D.C. Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services. While firefighters were looking at the damage caused by the crack, it grew worse, so authorities evacuated the building, Etter said.

The crack may have been caused by work at the construction site, where firefighters found a small leak of natural gas trapped in old pipes. No one was injured.

Monday, May 24, 2004

RESIDUAL EFFECTS: Mustard Gas Concerns Spreading Beyond Spring Valley

The Northwest Current reports that the scope of the U.S. Army's inquiry into Upper Northwest chemical weapons testing is spreading.

From the Current's Charles Bermpohl:
"Whatever the case, adding Westmoreland Circle and Tenleytown to the Army Corps of Engineers' Areas of Interest that require investigation would push the parameters of the U.S. Army's 85-year-old chemical-weapons testing program headquartered at American University beyond the areas that have been associated with it: Spring Valley, American University Park and Fort Gaines [Ward Circle], the banks of the C&O Canal, Catholic University and the Dalecarlia Reservoir area."

For those who are unaware, the U.S. Army used the land that is now American University to test chemical weapons -- including mustard gas -- during World War I. About 10 years ago, parts of tony Spring Valley were evacuated when toxic munitions shells were found under 52nd Court. According to the Current, parts of 52nd Street, Woodway Lane and Westmoreland Circle are now in the suspect area. The area around the Tenleytown metro station is in the "early" stages of being investigated.

And this sounds comforting: "The task force recommended that a four-property area around the 5000 blocks of Upton and Van Ness Streets undergo investigation after it discovered that a "1995 [Army] Record of Decision indicates that no sampling was conducted at this location' ..." where "some very disturbing anecdotal health effects" have been recorded.

And if you've been freaked out by the lead in the water, do you want some more potential hysteria? The Army doesn't exactly know what kind of impact the WWI testing had on the Dalecarlia Reservoir, which is part of the network where we get our drinking water (though it does know "that live shells were buried there rather than fired from guns and exploded in the area"): "But the area of interest report distributed at the Restoration Advisory Board meeting last week calls the Dalecarlia an impact area." ... but "the reservoir grounds were 'simply an impact area.' ... 'But the Corps thinks this is a probable impact area.'"

Whenever the word "think" is used in the guessing where chemical weapons are buried in the capital city, that is comforting.

Speaking of Your Water Supply. The Current also has an ad on page 40 for a "Notice of Public Meeting: Proposed Water Treatment Residuals Management Process for the Washington Aqueduct, Washington D.C."

If you have any interest, head on up to the Sibley Hospital auditorium on May 26 to learn about how the Washington Aqueduct has to comply with new regulations to avoid "returning water treatment residuals to the Potomac River ... These residuals are river sediment and particulate matter that are removed from the water by using a coagulent." Coagulent, mmmm ... tasty.

"Alternatives to be evaluated in detail include processing the residuals on the property of the Dalecarlia Treatment Plant and trucking them to an offsite location, disposing them to an offsite location, disposing of the residuals in a monofill on the Dalecarlia Reservoir property [with the mustard gas shells maybe], or constructing a pipeline through which the residuals would go ..." blah blah, blah ...

Taking into consideration that my old boss contracted a rare form of cholera from the D.C. water system more than 10 years ago, I'm not sure what is better for our water drinking consumption: a "coagulent" or lead.

GROCERIES: No Parrano, But More Cheese

One of the reasons why I was bittersweet when moving out of Glover Park was abandoning a three-minute walk to the neighborhood Whole Foods. (Yes, call me a 24-year-old yuppie, call me part of the organic bourgeois, but for those of you who are content with the Soviet Safeway on 17th Street, I have no sympathy for you if you complain that the store is sold out of bread.) Now that I'm living farther uptown, the Tenleytown Whole Foods is somewhat more convenient to my new location.

But the store is located inside a parking garage, the layout is cramped and the customers are slow. But the cheese sample selection is excellent. This evening, gruyere, smoked provolone, comte were the featured samples at the Tenleytown location. Typically, the spacious Glover Park Whole Foods would feature only parrano and goat's milk gouda, which are good, but over and over again get a little old.

So if my theory is correct, the more cramped and inconvenient the Whole Foods is, the better cheese sample selection is. For those who have ever ventured out to the River Road Whole Foods in Bethesda (I will sometimes go there to shop for my 85-year-old great aunt who has very particular food demands.), you may agree. The parking lot is tiny (they will have private traffic cops direct cars in and out), the layout is tiny, but the food samples can be vastly superior than is what is offered at the Glover Park and P Street locations.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

PANDAMANIA: Not Meaning to Be Offensive

Saturday evening, I was at a European embassy staffer party at a secluded home in North Arlington, where I wanted to stick my foot in my mouth. The conversation in the kitchen had shifted to the grand public art project, Pandamania, where hundreds of pre-formed pandas have been decorated by local artists and will be later auctioned off for charity.

"Oh no, not the stupid pandas," I said.

"I designed one of them," someone said from across the way.

Oops. I didn't mean it exactly that way. (For the record, I think public art initiatives are very important, but Pandamania, along with the Party Animals two summers back, are representative of D.C.'s restrictive appreciation for public art and the creative classes. The pre-formed pandas can be kitschy, non-threatening or not very imaginative. But others can be quite interesting and innovative. Overall, my complaint is that the general public loves these kinds of sidewalk art initiatives, but when they're gone, the mass appeal for public art evaporates. So my ridicule is more of symbolism, rather than substance.)

The artist, Oliver Dupeyron, told me about his panda and we later got into a discussion about the awkward arts scene in Washington. I haven't seen his panda up close, but Dupeyron, a native of France, said that it represents the two sides of Paris: One of all the tourist landmarks, and the other the pain, despair and poverty present in the French capital. And that concept is overall quite interesting as a similar dichotomy is present here in Washington. After doing a little research on The Washington Post's Pandamania guide, I think that Dupeyron's work is stationed at Connecticut Avenue and L Street. It's not necessarily a fun and cute panda, so perhaps that why they stuck it in the middle of the central business district instead of at a tourist landmark.

CHINATOWN: The Radio Shack Exception

I was walking down Seventh Street this evening in the middle of MCI-ville when I noticed that the Radio Shack next to Fuddrucker's does not have Chinese characters like every other business in Chinatown. If an Irish bar (Fado) and the Hooters have their names translated into Chinese characters, why is there an exception for Radio Shack?