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Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans has few rivals on the D.C. Council when it comes to promoting big brick-and-mortar projects in his ward. He fought hard for a new convention center in Shaw, backed the deal for MCI/Verizon Center, and helped kick-start the Gallery Place shopping and entertainment complex.
So why has Evans authored a bill that could delay a high-profile development in a neighboring ward?
Maybe someone should ask the Peoples Involvement Corporation (PIC), a community-development group that has operated out of a city-owned building at 2146 Georgia Ave. NW for about 30 years. On Feb. 6, Evans introduced legislation that would declare the building surplus property and transfer the building to PIC.
If passed, the Evans bill would do more than keep a do-gooder entity in its current digs, officially known as the Bond Bread Building. It could hold up a major development project spearheaded by Howard University, which wants to build its so-called Town Center on this stretch of lower Georgia Avenue.
Though it’s situated in prime development territory, the Bond Bread Building itself has that musty D.C. government feel. Along with the PIC, it houses the Department of Human Services’ (DHS) Office of Compliance and Investigations. Water damage is evident on many of the ceiling tiles on the first and second floors. Big sheets of paint are peeling away from the ceiling in the first-floor bathroom. One DHS break room has posters on the wall that date back to the late 1970s.
PIC set up shop there shortly after its inception during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty. It was one of the 14 federally funded community-development corporations set up nationwide in 1965 and a favorite of D.C.’s first mayor, the late Walter Washington.
In 2003, the group sued the city for denying it ownership of the property. And PIC’s legal basis for the suit has a precedent-setting inventiveness.
According to PIC’s lawsuit, in the early 1970s, Washington told PIC leaders that they would get the sprawling three-story building after the group renovated and operated it for 20 years. In 2003, Washington signed an affidavit reaffirming the commitment. In letters to other mayors, Washington highlighted PIC’s anti-poverty efforts and its partnership with the city on other fronts. PIC also claims it received support for holding on to its digs from mayors Sharon Pratt Kelly and Marion S. Barry Jr.
But in recent years, the city has decided that a verbal promise from an ex-mayor doesn’t compel the city to give PIC the title to a building valued at about $5 million. Now the city just wants PIC out.
The fight over the Bond Bread Building has filled a bulging docket at D.C. Superior Court, where various complaints have been in play for years. Recent rulings favor the city’s attempt to void Washington’s posthumous staying power. On Sept. 12, 2005, the court dismissed PIC’s bid for ownership on the grounds that a politician’s promise doesn’t carry much weight.
The city has its own suit pending against PIC in landlord–tenant court to establish that the District owns the property—the first step in kicking the group out. A March 16, 2006, ruling in the landlord–tenant case names the city as the rightful owner of the Bond Bread Building. PIC is expected to appeal both cases. Lawyers for PIC did not return calls seeking comment.
The District has no interest in tossing out the current tenant, sprucing up the place, and occupying PIC’s offices. The plan is to swap the building for property owned by Howard University. The Town Center plan includes a retail area anchored by a grocery store, along with new apartments and a parking garage.
With the courts tilting against PIC, the group has turned to a time-honored strategy: pull off some kind of political miracle.
The group’s real-estate consultant, R. David Hall, recently paid a visit to Evans. The councilmember placed more credence in a dead mayor’s promises than did D.C. Superior Court. “They had a commitment from Mayor Washington and Mayor Kelly,” says Evans. “I told [Hall] I would be glad to introduce the bill.” Evans says he also called Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Stanley Jackson and encouraged him to get all the parties together to “work things out.” Hall did not return calls seeking comment.
An effort by Evans to encourage negotiations on a stalled economic development project isn’t surprising. But like most councilmembers, Evans usually works a bit closer to home. The Bond Bread Building and the proposed Town Center project are both in Ward 1.
Councilmembers tend to be very parochial when it comes to big fights in their ward. Upon learning that Evans had introduced the bill, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham fired off a March 8 letter to his colleague. “We are all entitled, of course, to introduce legislation,” wrote Graham. “Yet it is unusual for one ward councilmember to introduce a bill impacting property in another councilmember’s ward, at least without consultation.”
Graham goes on to write that Evans’ bill “has apparently been used in pending litigation by [PIC], as a basis for delay in a lawsuit over this property.” In an interview, Graham, who strongly supports the Town Center project, calls the bill “a further ploy by PIC to delay this perfectly absurd lawsuit.” He and Evans haven’t talked about the PIC-relief bill, but Graham suspects his Ward 2 colleague may not know the full effect of his legislation. “I’d like to think he introduced it unwittingly, for property in a ward that he does not represent,” he says.
It’s not as if PIC would come to Graham for help. “I don’t know that I’m their favorite person,” says Graham, who clashed with the group after it built a 100-bed nursing home that never had a single resident. Howard eventually stepped in and bought the building. According to Graham, PIC redeveloped only a handful of properties it owned in his ward. “It was a situation where they just weren’t doing a damn thing,” he says. “Now they have this as their crowning moment.”
Evans won’t comment on Graham’s concerns other than to say he received the councilmember’s letter. He also says he hasn’t had any conversations about his bill or the project with Graham, Howard University staff, or city officials.
It’s not the first time PIC has placed its hopes in the hands of city politicians. The group was a favorite of former Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, who ushered through many a city contract for the group. Jarvis eventually soured on PIC, but not before candidate Adrian Fenty hammered her during the 2000 primary election for supporting the discredited nonprofit. Fenty went on to beat Jarvis.
In 2002, a Washington Post series on community-development corporations revealed that PIC had failed to complete 14 of the 19 redevelopment projects it had proposed since the early ’90s. According to the Post, PIC had sucked up more than $20 million in taxpayer funds over the last two decades.
The group hasn’t always been on D.C. politicians’ blacklist. Millions of dollars flowed through PIC for community-development projects immediately after the 1968 riots that devastated the area around the Bond Bread Building. Mayors Washington and Barry used to have an open door for PIC’s Executive Director Andreé Gandy. She did not return calls seeking comment.
Now the city has pretty much bailed on the group. In 2001, PIC received almost $1.5 million from the city, mostly for welfare-to-work projects. By 2003, the payments had shrunk to about $803,000; in 2005, it pulled in a measly $1,320, according to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer.
That may help explain why PIC hasn’t been completely uncooperative with Howard on the Town Center project. The group sold Howard several properties in the project area that it had once planned to redevelop. Graham says gaining control of the Bond Bread Building would be the biggest payday for PIC. “They sold all their property to Howard,” says Graham. “But they didn’t have [the Bond Bread Building] to sell.”—James Jones
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