Castle Coverage: Where was PSC Chairman Marcou's "Process" for Permitting DC Tree Houses?
The tree house story was covered by the Washington Post several times in the span of two weeks in January 2016. In the broadcast realm, footage of the tree house aired on local NBC affiliates across the country. TV audiences learned about what the media dubbed "DC Tree House-gate" from Chicago to Chattanooga and Madison Wisconsin, from Des Moines to San Francisco. The story also made Slate Magazine and the USA Today network.
We've found it interesting to compare and contrast the coverage of the tree house war generated from the Hill with that from farther afield. Longtime neighborhood commentators (CapitolHillCorner blog, Hill Now blog, Hill Rag), and their readers who joined the discussion via message boards, mostly cast the fort builders as willful law breakers. These bloggers and journalists sought out quotes from the objecting neighbors to use in their lead stories. They also interviewed the ANC 6B commissioner who represented the neighbors, but not Ellen, Bing or tree house supporters. By contrast journalists with a city-wide reach (DC'ist, Popville, Metro Bugle), the Channel 7 CBS WJLA and ABC WUSA9 TV news teams, and the mothers of young children who covered the story for the WaPo, spun their coverage in a manner sympathetic to the family. These commentators made the case for the city's failure to put tree house-building rules on the books. But the coverage most supportive of the tree house builders was found in two publications with a national reach - Slate and Field and Stream Magazines. These writers presented the parents as having been caught in a mess of bureacracy in a capitol city where personal freedoms are incresingly curtailed, with the play fort as "monument to freedom." In short, the battle of tree house narratives on the best use of 20" of alley air space over mulch was drawn along clear generational and geographical lines.
We draw your attention to the dozen links prefaced with (**). Dip into these reports to get a feel for how the coverage tilted in favor of the tree house's survival as the story unfolded. Reporters would visit the alley, see for themselves that the fort is off the beaten path, enjoy climbing into it, review documents, and get to grips with how absurd the conflict has been. We can't help but ask, was this the sort of publicity the neighbors, the ANC6B Planning and Zoning Committee members and Commissioners who pushed for the tree house's destruction, and Marcou had in mind when they came at a kids fort off a back alley?
JANUARY 16, 2018
**The DC Urban Turf Real Estate Blog Scoops the Story on the Federal Lawsuit. Blogger Nena Perry-Brown focuses on DDOT's alleged denial of due process to the tree house builders in her write-up.
**The WASHINGTON POST Provides an Update on the Tree House Controversy after a 2-Year Break. Dana Hegepeth describes how Bing files suit in Federal court to challenge DDOT's abusive permitting practices. The article generates several hundred comments.
JANUARY 20, 2017
Intellectual Take Out, a Refuge for Rational Discourse. "Is there a War on Childhood in America?" Blogger Lillie Thomas asks the question "Is there really a war on childhood?" She refers to the "war" WaPo columnist Petula Dvorak had written about a year earlier in the context of the Capitol Hill tree house controvery, and similar battles elsewhere.
JANUARY 2, 2017
Popville "The Beautiful Life" Blog, "Well this [Treehouse] is Awesome." 17 Comments. Pictures of a just-built tree house in 16th Street Heights NW which elicit entertaining comments from readers poking fun at the DC anti-tree house movement launched by some of the Archibald Walk neighbors.
AUGUST 30, 2016
LIT's Living on the Hill Blog, "Archibald Walk on Barracks Row Heritage Trail - an Inhabited Alley in DC." Capitol Hill social blogger "Lit" describes a peaceful walk on Archibald Walk, after the PSC meeting. She posts several good shots of the host elm in full bloom, in contrast to the pictures and video footage of a starkly bare tree during the winter 2015-2016 media bliz.
JUNE 10, 2016
Arafen, a popular web site devoted to "Interior Architectural Detail" runs a tree house pictorial display with a picture of the Archibald Walk play fort.
FEBRUARY 25, 2016
Capitol Community News/The Hill Rag. "The Death of Archibald Walk" and "Historic Preservation Fails Archibald Walk." Editor Andrew Lightman runs two lengthy pieces on the DC Historic Preservation regime's "failures" in regard to preserving the historic walkway. The articles contain factual inaccuracies, because Lightman spoke to objecting neighbors, and the ANC commissioner representing them, but not the Psychas-Yees. The parents were unaware that the Hill Rag was doing a feature on their fort before publication.
Lightman's articles depict the parents as lawbreakers who refused to submit to ANC review of their tree house project before construction (although there are no city rules triggering ANC review of kids fort plans, and DDOT did not instruct the parents to submit to ANC or PSC review). He claims that the fort, which is homemade, was built from a kit supplied by a (fictious) company, describing its platform as being 70 SQF. The fort's footprint is less than 30 SQF. Nobody Lightman interviews has ever been inside the tree house.
Lightman does not write about how Ellen was granted a public space permit after following the specific instructions of senior DDOT permitting officials. He describes the tree house not as a temporary play fort but as a structure in the same category as out-buildings with foundations (sheds, garages). He also presents the fort as having been built in the property's front yard, when official land plats show that it's located at the lot's rear boundary. As it happened, Lightman did the family a favor: he inadvertently motivated non-plussed Hill Rag readers to donate to the tree house fund. Fundraising goals were met by early March, when the fund closed.
Lightman appears to try to make amends for his biased reporting by taking pictures of the Yee girls at Hill-oween 2016. A photograph of them in Star Wars costumes appeared in the 40th anniversary edition (pg.130).
DC'ist Blog, "Capitol Tree House Builders Plan Rescue." 43 Comments. DC'ist columnist Rachel Sadon writes about the family raising money in the community to rescue the tree house and raise awareness of the dearth of tree house-building rules in DC.
**Scribd On-Line. The Psychas-Yee's Proposed DC Tree House Rules. The family's "Rule-Making Petition" to DDOT, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs-Construction and the DC Historic Preservation Office, submitted in January 2016. The several city agencies the family petitioned ignored the detailed proposed rules (four pages).
**Capitol Hill Blogger, and retired US Dept. of State official, Sig Cohen Considers the Conflict Resolution Angle on the Castle Clash with "Washington's Latest Controversy over a Tree House." Cohen views conflict from the perspective of a retired diplomat and mediator in the 'hood. He notes that the Psychas-Yees got every government authorization they were told was needed, yet the neighbors demanded more.
Washington Metro Bugle, "The DC Tree House Controvery." The Bugle considers the tree house controversy on January 8th, and again on the 9th, in "Morning Rundown #109."
Tough Conversations Blog, "Washington's Latest Controversy...Over a Tree House" A look at the tree house conflict by Hill-based community mediator Sig Cohen.
Scoop Nest On-line Tweets, Washington DC. Tree house photograph and statement regarding the PSC Ruling from Washington DC News@washdc.news.
**DC’Ist Blog: Poll “Should the City have Let the Tree House Stay Put?” This poll on the popular DC blog pokes fun at tree house fever. More than 600 of 900 respondents voted that the city government should have left the tree house alone.
Fox 5 DC WTTG. "City Committee Votes Against Home Owners Tree House" by Tisha Lewis. The promised letter from the PSC "notfiying the owners of the next steps" has never come, for reasons unknown. Lewis posted the article on Facebook.
WJLA ABC7, "DC Tree House has to Come Down." Probably not, look for updates on this web site as the family stays in court.
Rare News, "DC Committee Just Rules on the Tree Fort That Divided a Neighborhood Because of 20 Inches." Video Clip from ABC. Rare staff writer Kayleen Tanner highlights community support to move the tree house back 20 inches. She notes that "even kids fun is regulated by Washington DC."
**The WASHINGTON POST Considers the Public Space Committee's Ruling that the Tree House Cannot Remain in Public Space with "The Tree House that Divided a Capitol Hill Neighborhood has to be Moved." 126
Comments. The article describes the Psychas-Yee's initial reaction to the Commitee's ruling: we will inch our fort back to save it.
**The Iconic Magazine for Sport Hunters and Fishermen Considers
"The DC Tree House Controversy." Field & Stream editor Bill Heavey wants American kids to get outside more, including by playing in tree houses such as the Psychas-Yee's fort. He criticizes the DC city government and neighbors
for trying to interfere with getting the kids outside.
UX Green Bay Press Gazette, "Permit Denied for Controversial Capitol Hill Tree House." This Wisconsin CBS affiliate reports on the story.
WUSA9 CBS Reports on DDOT's Public Space Committee Ruling with "Permit Denied for Controversial Capitol Hill Treehouse." Cursory report summing up of how the Committee ruled, and what logic the members seem to be following in reaching their decision.
4 NBC Washington. "Permit Denied for Controversial Capitol Hill Tree House" and
"Playtime is Over in DC" on Facebook. 55 Comments. Victoria Jones reports on the PSC ruling and posts a quiz on Facebook, asking "Do you think this tree house should come down?" She writes that the Psychas-Yees told her they had been
granted a "temporary 10-day permit" which was not the case. DDOT construction permits normally close after a specified timeframe (in this case, 10 days) and don't need to be renewed after work has been completed.
Scoop Nest On-line, "Permit Denied for Capitol Hill Tree House." The Daily Mail On-line newswire reports on the PSC ruling.
Juice On-line, Des Moines News Wire. "No Permit for Capitol Hill Tree House." Reporting on the tree house from the heartland, picked up from the NBC wire.
Capitol Hill Corner Blogger Larry Janezich, "City Says No to Tree House on Archibald Walk." 7 Comments. Neighborhood blogger Larry Janezich's third, and final, 2016 post on the tree house. The PSC did not in fact say "no" to the fort itself. The members voted to overrule the 20" public space construction permit DDOT issued to the Psychas-Yees in their capacity as an advisor to DDOT, leaving the door open to outcomes somewhat favorable to the Psychas-Yees.
Janezich does not address the issue of unlawful ANC and PSC review of a closed public space permit the city agency has not revoked, the basis for legal appeals. He describes the permit as temporary (because this was DDOT's spin to the media). The ANC Commissioner for the tree house property is quoted in the post as supporting the PSC's decsion not to allow the Psychas-Yees to "dedicate public space for exclusively private purposes." By the time the article ran, many local children were playing in the fort. Within several months, the parents had begun hosting regular community open houses.
7 ABC WJLA. "DC Tree House to Come Down." Innacurate reporting from Channel 7 on the PSC decision. The Psychas-Yees give statements to other media outlets that day stating that they will move the tree house back to save it.
**SLATE MAGAZINE Describes how "Children's Tree
House in DC Tests America's Committment to Liberty." The story makes national news. Slate reporter Nora Caplan-Becker calls the tree house as a "monument to freedom." She terms the backlash in the media against
the PSC ruling as "DC Treehousegate." She concludes by calling a "vote for tree houses is a vote for quality of life."
**Popville Blog, "The Infamous Capitol Hill Tree House." 70 Comments. Several good photographs and mostly pro-tree house comments on the popular decade-old blog of the "Prince of Petworth," Dan Silverman, something of an urban tree house enthusiast. The pictures generate mostly pro-tree house comments, probably from a younger and more child-minded group of readers than those who responded to Capitol Hill-based reports (CapitolCorner blog, the Hill Now blog, Capitol Community News/the Hill Rag).
Silverman followed up his first piece with an update a few days later.
Capitol Community News, "The Tree House Backlash Continues. Neighbors Battle over Alley Structure at the ANC 6B Meeting" Christine Rushton reports on the first of two January ANC 6B meetings. She reports that the commissioners voted to recommend that DDOT withdraw the 20" balcony projection permit issued to the Psychas-Yees six weeks earlier. Her take on the ANC's role is inaccurate. The ANC vote simply noted that the type of permit DDOT issued to the family was should not cover alley space. See the ANC letter to the PSC under the "Castle Paper Trail" header.
**The WASHINGTON POST Columnist Petula Dvorak Ruminates on "A War on a Tree House --and Childhood Itself." 368 Comments. Petula's 9-year-old reports that the tree house is "so cool." Dvorak's piece may have made DDOT think twice about generating more bad press for the city government by moving to force the tree house out of 20" of public space.
**The WASHINGTON POST First Considers the
Tree House Controversy with "This Tree House Extends 20 Inches into an Alley and It's Dividing a Community." Remarkably, this article generates 650 on-line comments, a huge number for a Metro Section article. Marcou tells
Dana Hedgpeth that the tree house builders should have "got a permit and gone through a process." Which permit? Which process? DC tree houses with footprints of less than 50 SQF do not exist to the city government before they are
built, apparently, including those that overhang the "property owner's street box" (the language of the Psychas-Yee's DDOT permit).
Popville "The Beautiful Life" Blog, "Random Reader Rant and/or Revel." Popville readers react to the WaPo article on the tree house war that same day. Readers comment on the Archibald Walk neighbors' outsized reaction to a kid's fort off a scruffy alley off another alley. The conventional wisdom from Popville is that the neighbors, ANC6B and the PSC should have left the tree house, and the family, alone.
**DC Urban Moms (DCUM). "Residents Upset over Capitol Hill Tree House." 83 Comments, the most recent posted in September 2017. Thread on the popular "DC Mommy Fight Site."
Fox 5 DC WTTG Takes a Look at "Where the Capitol Hill
Tree House Controversy is Heading." and "Neighbors Feuding over Tree House in Capitol Hill." Fox interviews Loraine Heckenberg. The family declines to be interviewed after Fox reporters stake them out aggressively. The Fox
news desk editor apologizes to the family the following day.
The Hill Now Blog, "ANC Sides with Neighbors, Votes to Oppose Tree House on Capitol Hill." Sean Meehan, DC real estate blogger, runs a biased headline without having contacted the Psychas-Yees. He does not explain that the ANC merely voted to comment that DDOT issued the wrong type of permit to the tree house builders. The ANC did not oppose the tree house itself, or recommend to DDOT that the projection permit be revoked.
NBC Chicago 5, "DC Neighbors Spare over Castle-Style Tree House." Reporter Carissa Dimargo gives basics and posts half a dozen good pictures of the tree house. Metropolitcan Chicago tunes into the DC tree house story.
The story also aired the West Coast, on the evening broadcast news for NBC Bay Area.
4 NBC Washington, "DC Neighbors Spar over Castle-Style Tree House." Reporter Mark Segraves interviews a neighbor, who claims that the tree house is in his front yard. In fact, the neighbor's front door opens onto
F Street Terrace. Indeed, none of the historic facades of the six Archibald Walk houses open to the walkway. The Psychas-Yees decline to be interviewed by NBC, wanting privacy in face of the sudden onslaught of press coverage.
Capitol Hill Corner Blog, "ANC6B Votes to Oppose Tree House Extension in Public Space"." 13 Comments. Blogger Janezich's second post on the tree house. His take on ANC 6B review of the 20" projection permit is that the commissioners vote to oppose the tree house's extension into public space. In fact, the ANC leadership successfully steers the Commission to a vote merely indicating that DDOT should not have issued a "balcony" permit to cover the tree house overhang. This happens after a citizen member of the Zoning and Planning Committee raises the issue that balcony permits cannot cover alley public space. The ANC vote left the door open for DDOT to take the ANC's objection to a balcony permit into account by issuing the family a different type of permit.
**WUSA9 CBS, "Tree House Controversy in a SE DC Community." The first TV news story on the tree house. CBS' coverage draws several others local TV camera crews to the alley by the week's end. The spokeswoman for the objecting neighbors tells Channel 9 that “If it had been built on their property, you know, that’s their business."
The WUSA story was picked up by the LAHU USA Today Network, including in the Lansing Slate Journal and the SCTimes.
Capitol Hill Corner Blogger Larry Janezich Breaks the Story, "Tree Masion has Archibald Walk Residents Up in Arms" 33 Comments. Janezich talks to objecting neighbors, and quotes the ANC 6B commissioner advancing their cause, but does not contact the Psychas-Yees. The blogger then accepts the family's invitation to visit the fort. He then attends public hearings where the tree house's future is debated. The blogger does not note that the platform of the roofless "tree mansion," quoting an objecting neighbor, is less than 30 SQF.
The Psychas-Yees were angered that Janezich did not give them opportunity to present opposing views to those expressed in this piece scooping the story, which doesn't provide background as to why ANC 6B became involved in the matter. The blogger does not mention that only one neighbor had complained to the city about the tree house before DDOT evicted an alley forest dating to the 1990s. Within weeks of the removal of the alley forest under threat of a DDOT Notice of Violation assessing progressive fines, one owner of the planters had collected a dozen signatures on a petition to get the fort torn down. The "impact statement" (read tear-down petition) was presented to ANC 6B. See the petition under the "Castle Paper Trail" header.