Atlantic Cities

The Building Code Violation Behind Occupy D.C.'s Sunday Standoff

The Building Code Violation Behind Occupy D.C.'s Sunday Standoff
Reuters

Occupy D.C. has generally had a relatively cordial relationship with local law enforcement. As encampments in other cities have been picked apart by mass arrests, evictions and pepper spray over the last few weeks, hearty campers in Washington’s McPherson Square have for the most part calmly co-existed with police from the city and the National Park Service, which is in charge of the land they’re living on.

All of this changed over the weekend, though, when local occupiers decided to up the ante and their investment in the makeshift city by building a fairly substantial structure. The “Peoples’ Pentagon,” they called it: a 17-foot tall barn framed in 2-by-4s that was optimistically intended to house meetings and insulate cold protesters through the winter months. The volunteer architects behind the structure even planned to make it a paragon of sustainable living, with passive solar heating and a rooftop hydroponic irrigation system.

But here's the problem with protest architecture: Somewhere in between a temporary tent city and an actual building (requiring volunteer architects) lies a building code that applies to the entire city. And hard as they tried, D.C.’s occupiers, like so many do-it-yourself home improvers before them, ran right up against it.

Here's what happened Sunday afternoon in the park, as narrated by the OccupyKSt twitter feed:

What ensued was an odd new twist in the Occupy annals: a spat over building codes. Eventually, 31 people were arrested as police rolled in with a cherry picker to pluck the last holdouts from the roof of the thing.

The occupiers were miffed that they went out of their way to respect the National Park Service’s prohibition against “permanent structures.” They even volunteered that the building would have no floor and could be picked up and relocated every few days to respect the grass beneath.

But, in design terms, this also turned out to be their downfall.

“They were trying to do something that didn’t obviously and on its face violate the Park Service rules against permanent structures,” says Helder Gil, legislative affairs specialist for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. “But the problem is that the building code doesn’t really care that it’s built to be permanent or temporary, it cares about how it’s built and how it’s secured.”

McPherson Square is federal parkland, but the fire department and the Park Service asked the DCRA to inspect the structure before deciding what to do with it.

“I don’t think the park police have a resident building inspector on site,” Gil says. “Or even on their payroll.”

And the city’s building code requires an actual foundation – something that secures structures to the ground and prevents them from flipping over. DCRA’s inspector probably didn’t need more than 30 seconds to determine that the People’s Pentagon didn’t have one of these – it was explicitly designed not to.

All of this means that there was basically no way Occupy D.C. could have legally built a structure meant to house people that's both impermanent and "safe" (although, if there were, we suspect there’s much more symbolism to be mined from the effort, in an era when the built environment has been instrumental in creating occupiers’ economic woes as anything the 1 percent have done). The barn structure has since been dismantled.

As for what all this means for other cities beyond the reach of the National Park Service: Occupiers may want to enlist new allies in folks who know their building code.

Photo credit: Reuters/Jose Luis Magaua

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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