by Larry Rausch
Van Ness Vision Committee
During the past year, you may have noticed a build-up of unused newspaper dispensers lining the street and literally surrounding our two Van Ness Metro entrances.
A closer inspection of these boxes shows that most of these varied colored and shaped boxes have been repurposed. No longer distributing newspapers or advertisements, they are mostly being used as trash cans.
The Van Ness Vision Committee contacted the DC government agency with the responsibility for monitoring the placement of vendor boxes, and has been disappointed to find out that DC relies on the box owners themselves to properly use and maintain these newspaper and advertisement dispensers.
Working off of an old list of vendors, the Vision Committee contacted the managers of these boxes and requested that any unused boxes be removed. Soon thereafter, about a third of the boxes were hauled away.
Unfortunately, a follow-up inspection showed that many unused or abandoned boxes still remain.
The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) actually has the task of oversight for these boxes but, at the present time, it does not have any authority to remove or require vendors to remove unused boxes. DDOT acknowledges the problem and would love to see new legislation add enforcement authority to their mission. But squarely falling under “things you just can’t make up” category, drafting such legislation is tricky as it seems to bump up against constitutional protections with respect to freedom of speech and of the press.
While awaiting further news from DDOT, we contacted other jurisdictions both inside and outside the city. Each of these noted their own struggles with this same problem and cited their own difficulties getting any local authority to forcibly remove unused or “repurposed” vendor boxes. The only recommendation they offered was to be persistent both with DDOT and any box owners we can identify.
Once we resolve the abandoned publication vendor box situation, the Vision Committee would also like to see if something might be done to house the various publications in a more contained if not visually appealing way. As an example, there are new publication condos that contain separate boxes housed in one “condominium.”
Certainly neater, but we expect resistance to these ideas as well for obvious branding reasons – currently each publication box has an easily recognizable shape, coloring, and lettering that would be lost in the condos.
We will continue to monitor the situation, but in the meantime I wonder… What would happen if I dump an old snow tire at the Metro station with this piece about newspaper dispensers tacked up on it? And I wonder what would happen if I continue to tack up other of my opinions about what’s going on in our city. From what we’ve learned thus far, it appears that as long as it is a vehicle to dispense the news, it cannot be touched. Or maybe public safety concerns will eventually trump freedom of the press. We may be onto something.