The District’s old convention center on 9th Street NW was a hideous structure inside and out. Self-appointed architecture critic Mayor Anthony A. Williams once called it a monument to eastern-bloc design. When a demolition team blew it up in December 2004, the cheers were genuine.
Williams can already envision the great architecture that’ll rise from the rubble at the roughly four-square-block site. In his March 21 State of the District address, at the Lincoln Theater, the mayor said, “The old convention center site will become a new city center, a place where people…will come to work, play, eat, and yes, read in a state-of-the-art library.”
Not so fast, Mr. Mayor. You might want to consult with the woman watching from the front row.
D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp has no beef with most of the mayor’s plan. The “work, play, and eat” part is pretty much a done deal. And she’s all for reading. But Cropp isn’t so sure that a library should be built on that site, and she’ll prevent it unless the mayor can convince her otherwise.
Cropp says the land set aside for the library would be better used for a mammoth headquarters hotel to accommodate conventioneers. If that happens, the mayor’s library will likely get squeezed out.
The library-vs.-hotel debate is the latest session of the mayor’s long tutorial on the power of the council chair. Last year, Cropp made the mayor look irrelevant as she singlehandedly renegotiated the sweetheart deal that Williams had given to Major League Baseball. She wanted to build a new ballpark on the RFK Stadium parking lot to avoid paying off a bunch of greedy landowners near the mayor’s preferred site along South Capitol Street. She shrugged off the “take it or leave it” statements of Williams backers and took the city to the brink of sending Major League Baseball packing.
Her status as legislative gatekeeper gives Cropp the same sort of leverage in the fight over the old convention center. Too bad she won’t be able to milk the conflict for the same sort of media attention that the baseball staredown generated: The issue of whether the headquarters hotel lands north or south of Massachusetts Avenue, after all, won’t inspire columns by Washington Postie Thomas Boswell or denunciations from WRC-TV personality George Michael.
Cropp and Williams are bickering over a distance of about a block. The council chair wants to drop the headquarters hotel on the northeast corner of the old-convention-center site, at 9th Street and New York Avenue NW. Williams wants to place it just up the street, on a privately owned parcel at 9th Street and Massachusetts Avenue, directly across the street from the new convention center. After some rare arm-twisting from the mayor, the Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA) voted 8-1 in December to designate that area as the preferred hotel site.
The problem is that the WCCA hasn’t shown Cropp the price tag for building a hotel on the 9th and Massachusetts parcel. If WCCA execs place a call to Bud Selig, they’ll learn that the chairman has become a stickler for details like that lately.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if you planned to build something and you know how much it costs?” Cropp asks.
She says the 9th and Massachusetts site might indeed be the best place for a hotel. But just as she did with baseball, she’s looking for a good deal, not some grand vision. Right now, Cropp says, that deal is building the hotel on the old-convention-center site. “I think it should go there,” she says. Cropp adds, “Mr. Mayor, show me why it shouldn’t.”
Williams apparently didn’t meet the Missouri test when they last discussed the issue, in a meeting about his fiscal 2006 budget. According to Cropp, Williams conceded in that meeting that more cost information would be helpful in making the decision. Not that Williams has much of a choice. Cropp can hold his library hostage until she is convinced a hotel at 9th and Massachusetts makes sense.
The mayor is banking on the bean counters to bail him out of this one. The WCCA has hired an independent firm to figure out how much it would cost to build on either site. It won’t be easy. A hulking hotel might not displace only the library. It could also crowd out businesses that could produce lots of tax revenue for the city. The final report won’t be as clear-cut as the new price tag for the baseball stadium site figured by Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi.
Williams has never been one to toss aside complicated cost estimates, but the onetime numbers geek argues that building a library on the site would have a certain intrinsic value. City-controlled property should cater not to a bunch of conventioneers, but to “people who pay taxes here,” Williams says. He shrugs off questions about Cropp’s concerns, saying a hotel and library can both work on the old-convention-center site if necessary. “It is my strong belief that the site should be a city center,” he says. “A new central library should be part of that.”
WCCA General Manager Thomas Mobley is lobbying for the lazy conventioneer. Having a headquarters hotel connected to the convention hall—possibly via a tunnel from the 9th and Massachusetts site—would boost the center’s marketing efforts, says Mobley. After all, associations shouldn’t expect their members from Minnesota or Montana to walk a whole block in that D.C. humidity. He says a hotel a block or so away from the hall is clearly less attractive but that the distance was “not a fatal flaw.”
Ward 2 Councilmember and mayoral hopeful Jack Evans represents the area in question. The pro-business legislator took some heat for pushing the baseball stadium and won’t extend himself for a hotel that could cost $500 million. “Who’s going to champion that?” he asks. “I championed a baseball stadium, but I’m not going to champion a hotel.”
Evans blames the conflict on Williams. “Let’s just say if I were in charge, I would have solved this issue a long time ago,” he says.
Get used to that kind of rhetoric. Over the next year and a half, issues ranging from downtown development to trash collection will become referendums on Williams’ tenure, with Evans and his fellow candidates taking pot shots whenever possible.
Cropp’s pot shots tend to come disguised as high-minded civic duty: “Its not about politics,” she says, adding, “It’s about doing the right thing.”
Some city residents got a little surprise when they arrived at the mayor’s State of the District address: They couldn’t get in without a ticket.
Apparently the Williams administration believes in that old marketing ploy of generating demand by creating the illusion of scarcity. It was a first for the hallowed State of the District.
LL stood in line behind one hopeful resident at the will-call window who was asked by the attendant if he had called ahead for tickets. The citizen, who had a toaster-sized portable radio pressed against his ear, said he was “checking in right now,” for his ticket. He soon learned that calling ahead was a required step and was directed to the “overflow room,” one block down at the city’s Frank D. Reeves Center.
The would-be audience member decided that Ben’s Chili Bowl was a better option.
LL made it down to the Reeves Center one minute after the speech began, even though members of the press didn’t need tickets. In the overflow area, the slick introductory video to the speech was being broadcast to LL and 65 empty plastic chairs.
Mayoral spokesperson Sharon Gang says the front-row seat for LL did not mean that non-ticket-holders were frustrated and just went home. “We always set up an overflow area,” she says.
•The Democratic State Committee (DSC) racked up $50,000 in credit-card debt during the two-year tenure of former Chair A. Scott Bolden. The overspending has become a public matter now that Bolden is exploring a mayoral run. Williams, who has recently turned combative toward potential 2006 challengers, has chided the former DSC chair for failing to manage the organization’s finances. So Bolden has agreed to personally erase the red ink. Bolden says that “a lot of charges were made by the mayor’s staff and other District-government employees,” at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. He also says none of the debt stems from charges he made. Current DSC Chair Wanda Lockridge says Bolden dropped $25,000 on her two weeks ago. He’s written another check in the same amount that will clear later. Bolden told Lockridge that he’ll organize a fundraiser in hopes of getting some of the money back. Good luck—five potential mayoral candidates are already shaking down the usual suspects.
•The hostess for Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty’s Ward 7 mayoral-exploratory bash was certainly gracious. Ruth Fulwood warmly welcomed one and all to her Hillcrest home, even a scruffy and underdressed LL. But who was that tall gentleman trying to hide in the kitchen? He sure looked familiar. It seems Ruth’s husband, former D.C. Police Chief Isaac Fulwood, was quietly hanging by the fridge for most of the party. When Fenty praised Fulwood’s service to the city at length, no one could find the former chief. And when LL went to the kitchen to ask why the normally outgoing Fulwood was keeping a low profile, he had slipped away. Finally, the man of the house told LL that his new job with the U.S. Parole Commission means no more politics for him. Fulwood was appointed by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He offered no endorsement for Fenty or any other candidate. “My wife is now the political junkie in the family,” he says.
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