For the past eight years, Ramon Estrada has represented the constituents of ANC2B09. During that time he has cultivated his share of admirers and detractors for his strong positions and occasionally outspoken views. Love him, loathe him, or feel ambivalent, there's no denying that Estrada has played an integral role in the ongoing transformation of the 14th and U Street corridors throughout the past decade.
Now, however, Estrada finds himself in somewhat unfamiliar territory, for himself and most ANC commissioners: he's in a contested race.
Sunit Talapatra, a resident of the 1400 block of Swann Street NW, will be challenging Estrada for the ANC2B09 seat on the November 2 election. Given that Estrada has been something of a lightning rod in neighborhood politics over the past eight years, you might expect his challenger to be something of raging anti-Estradaite: pro-liquor license, anti-voluntary agreement and generally less confrontational. The differences between the two candidates, however, are a bit more subtle. Recently, 14thandyou had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Mr. Talapatra over coffee at the Mid-City Caffe to find out why he's running, what he'd do differently, and what he thinks about nightclubs with rooftop decks staying open until 5 AM. (Hint: he's not a fan.)
14thandyou: What initially drew you to the neighborhood?
Sunit Talapatra: In 2002, I was looking for a new place to live in DC, and I had narrowed by choices down to Georgetown, Adams-Morgan and Logan Circle. Georgetown felt a bit too established, while Adams-Morgan felt like a place I had passed in my life. In Logan however, I found a neighborhood that was being revitalized, wasn't unsafe, was walkable and central to everything. It had all of the aspects i was looking for in a neighborhood. I ended up buying a place near 14th and P, where I lived with my wife until we had children and needed more space, which is why we moved up to Swann Street.
14th: Why elect to run for the ANC2B seat now?
ST: Now that I've lived in the neighborhood awhile and have gotten to know the history, it's so much more interesting watching the things change, and I want to be a part of it. I want to be involved in the back-and-forth between the residents, businesses and the city, to foster partnerships between those group. And I want to be informed.
14th: Ramon Estrada seems to invoke rather strong feelings from those who have observed neighborhood politics over the years. Are you running against Mr. Estrada, or are you simply running for a seat that happens to be occupied by him?
ST: There's nothing that Ramon has done that makes me want to say "stop". In fact, I admire his years of civic service to the residents of the neighborhood. There's not much substantively different between us; ours is really a difference of style. I'm not challenging him because of who he is, there are simply some things I would do differently. For example, the ANC plays such a substantial role in the experience of residents in the neighborhood, but there's so little reporting on what the ANC is doing or why it's doing it. My focus is going to be on communication between residents and the ANC--to hold regular meetings with residents of my single member district (SMD), which is currently not being done; to own and operate a blog communicating what the ANC is doing; and so forth.
14th: A question that gets discussed frequently, on this blog and elsewhere, is the proper role of ANCs in the regulation of commerce in the neighborhood. What do you think is the appropriate role for an ANC commissioner to play in regards to regulating businesses in the neighborhood?
ST: I believe that the role of the ANC commissioner is to communicate the viewpoint of the SMD as a whole. One, two or three people should not be able to hijack an ANC, and a commissioner should be able to separate his or her own personal views from those of the SMD. If, for instance, I polled my constituents and discovered that they were supportive of a nightclub having a rooftop deck open until 5 AM, I would vote to support it. Although you can believe that I would be at every ABRA meeting as a neighborhood resident opposing it.
14th: Reading the candidate's statement on your Facebook page, you made a comment that I found interesting. You stated that you are "literally up at night thinking about ways to keep the noise and traffic off our streets." Can you expound on that?
ST: Actually, think I said that the traffic is keeping me up at night. (Ed.note: it is in fact the former.) But there's really not much you can do to keep noise and traffic off of 14th Street. I would like to increase the use of public transportation--Metro, MetroBus, the Circulator line--which would help keep fewer cars off the street. And I'm very supportive of the 14th Street streetscape project, with wider sidewalks that will hopefully increase foot traffic.
14th: In your candidate statement, you discuss the importance of building "healthy, respectful relationships" between businesses and residents. What do you think are the hallmarks of a healthy, respectful relationship?
ST: Well, for one, "no" is not an acceptable answer. You cannot go to a business owner who has the lawful right to do something and simply tell them "no." You should adopt a posture of cooperation. Businesses can help raise property values and improve the quality of life in a neighborhood, whereas restaurants need residents to patronize their establishments if they are going to succeed and prevent the neighborhood from deteriorating. If you say "no" to a proposed restaurant, you need supporting evidence beyond simply proximity. You need to take the pulse of the residents of your neighborhood when making a decision. It's not easy--this takes work.
14th: Speaking of restaurants, one thing that I've increasingly heard from people is that they feel the voluntary agreement process is flawed. So, do you think VAs work?
ST: Well, with VAs, it's pretty clear that most residents like them, and most businesses don't, mainly because they don't view them as "voluntary." I think there are aspects of the VA process that need to be changed. Otherwise, we risk losing businesses throughout the neighborhood.
14th: I don't know how much you have been following the efforts to brand the neighborhood as an "arts district." (Note: more info here.) Do you have any thoughts on that?
ST: Honestly, I haven't been following it very closely. However, I do believe that branding can help establish a community's identity.
14th: What would your message be to someone considering a move to the 14th and U street area?
ST: I would tell them that it's a fantastic neighborhood with everything you could want in an urban neighborhood: wide sidewalks, boutiques, restaurants, farmer's markets, professionals, artists. It's a very diverse neighborhood--i think the word I would use is "bohemian." It's a great neighborhood for people who don't want to live in the suburbs!
14th: Any final words you'd like to share with people regarding the upcoming election?
ST: I think the neighborhood needs a commissioner who can harness the wave of excitement surrounding our neighborhood. And I'd encourage people to visit my campaign website, www.sunitforanc.weebly.com.