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Mayor Anthony A. Williams has a fantasy about the old Washington Convention Center site at 9th and H Streets NW. He’d love to demolish the ’70s-era eyesore and replace it with an urban utopia: In his daydream, he’d stop for an al fresco sandwich on the vibrant Anthony A. Williams Plaza, catch up on Governing magazine in the new central library’s Tony Williams Reading Room, and spend the evening at a piano recital in the National Music Museum’s Williams Auditorium.
If other elected officials in this city have their way, however, these 10.2 acres of prime real estate might be dedicated as Ted Mariani Square.
Yes, Ted Mariani of Mariani Architects PC. The local architect has been shopping a proposal around the D.C. Council to build a 1,500-room convention-center-headquarters hotel on the old-convention-center site. He also wants to expand the new convention center’s exhibition and meeting-room capacity by creating an underground annex on the site, along with a parking facility for 2,000 cars. Mariani’s aboveground vision includes 340,000 square feet of retail space, 600 units of housing, a new central library, a music museum, and a glass-enclosed galleria.
The mayor’s economic-development team learned of the Mariani proposal right before it debuted in the Washington Post Business section on April 8. The proposal would upend the Williams administration’s plans for downtown revitalization. First, of course, it would ruin the mayor’s dream stroll through his new urban plaza. And more important, Mariani would scrap the current plan for the headquarters hotel and put it on the old-convention-center site.
Williams’ downtown dream isn’t just ephemeral: The city went through a drawn-out proposal process for both the old-convention-center site and the headquarters hotel. In October 2002, the city selected Marriott International, Tishman Urban Development Corp., and Gould Properties as the winning bidders to develop the hotel. The Marriott group plans to put the hotel across the street from the new convention center at 9th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW.
On Nov. 6, 2003, Williams stood before TV cameras in the old convention center to announce that the Hines/Smith/Georgetown partnership was the No. 1 pick of the city’s economic-development officials to redevelop the old convention center, a project estimated to cost $700 million.
The selection process itself cost the city a pretty penny: One of the losing bidders in the old-convention-center project, Related Cos., sued the city, saying the group had been unfairly eliminated from the competition. Last month, city lawyers settled with Related for $5 million.
Mariani decided to bypass the time-consuming, paperwork-heavy bureaucracy: A month or so ago, he had some business associates at the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., dial up D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp and set up an appointment to discuss his idea for the downtown space. Cropp, along with Committee on Economic Development Chair Harold Brazil and Committee on Finance and Revenue Chair Jack Evans, met with Mariani and watched his 30-minute PowerPoint presentation on the Mariani vision for downtown.
Mariani must really know how to make pretty pictures: Cropp and Evans raved about the proposal. The next week, Cropp invited other public officials in the John A. Wilson Building for a look-see.
Cropp left one elected official off the invite list: the mayor. Williams-administration officials say the Mariani proposal came out of the blue. “It’s a mystery,” says Arthur Jemison, a special assistant to Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Eric W. Price.
“The first anyone heard of this was 24 hours before [the April 8] article appeared in the Post,” explains Chris Bender, spokesperson for Price. Plus, Williams officials say, Mariani participated in a redevelopment task force a few years back that reached this conclusion: Build the headquarters hotel on a different site.
“I never agreed with their conclusions. I always felt they were wrong. They never paid attention to what I was saying,” says Mariani. “I couldn’t get to first base with those fellas.”
Mariani says he strongly expressed two concerns: that the new convention center needed expansion space and that the Williams headquarters-hotel plan was too expensive to get off the ground. In fact, over a year later, the city has yet to assemble the requisite parcels at the proposed site. And that’s not good news for D.C. hoteliers. Many large conventions have booked their events contingent on the building of a headquarters hotel to accommodate them. At such megashows, there’s invariably some overflow, which benefits other hotels around town.
The Mariani plan has attracted interest not only on the council but with the Washington Convention Center Authority board of directors. Mariani argues that the new convention center won’t be able to compete with venues in other cities without the opportunity to expand. Also, he contends, the city would save time and money by putting the headquarters hotel on the old-convention-center site because the city already owns the land.
The dueling proposals set up another big fight for the Williams administration, which is fresh off a defeat on its schools-takeover plan.
On both of these key initiatives, Williams-administration officials face a phenomenon rarely encountered in the Wilson Building—a frothing D.C. Council chairman. An often malleable presence in council proceedings, Cropp appears to have made up her mind even before the ritual closed-door breakfast meeting. “They’ve been hellbent on putting the headquarters hotel at the other place. I’ve questioned the hotel at the other site. I have no understanding of why the hotel has to go there,” says Cropp.
The chairman says she has been after the administration for years now about how they planned to address problems with expansion and parking for the new convention center. “I kept asking them for information. They would never give it to me,” says Cropp. “I have not heard one word. These are not secret issues. I’ve been talking about this for five years now.”
Cropp says someone finally answered her questions: Mariani.
•D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen, and Southeastern University President Charlene Drew Jarvis, among others, munched on crab balls and steamed shrimp at the City Museum Monday night in celebration of Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous’ new book, Serving Our Children: Charter Schools and the Reform of American Public Education.
Others showed up without an invitation: Protesters organized by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), who stood in the rain outside the museum entrance, spent the evening chanting such slogans as “Hey, hey, ho, ho/Kevin Chavous has got to go” and “Kevin Chavous, tell us why/You chose to write a book of lies.”
When LL asked Chavous to sign our hardcover edition, the charter-school champion blamed LL for the outside agitators. And he told the few within earshot that none of the protesters were his constituents. In an informal survey, LL determined that a majority of the protesters claimed Ward 7 addresses. “We can’t wait to vote,” said Lula Smith of the 5000 block of Nash Street NE. “We can’t wait to get him out.”
At least Chavous’ enemies bothered to show up. One prominent friend decided to blow off the book party: Mayor Williams. Even though Williams’ enthusiastic blurb appears on the back cover of the book and the mayor had been scheduled to deliver remarks, he ended up a no-show. Word spread that the mayor decided to dis Chavous after the councilmember did the same thing to him April 20 on the dais when he raged against the mayor’s schools-takeover plan. “I cannot support a change in the governance structure that only gives the illusion of change,” ranted Chavous. “I won’t do it.”
“The mayor had every intention of going to Mr. Chavous’ book event,” responds mayoral spokesperson Tony Bullock, who says Williams got stuck at a book party for Joseph A. Califano Jr., a veteran of the several Democratic presidential administrations.
“We urge Councilman Chavous to act on the clarion call for reform that he puts forward in his book,” Bullock adds.
After some deliberation Monday night, Chavous autographed LL’s copy: “Do the right thing…unto others as others would do unto you!”
•LL nominates Chavous for Guinness World Records in this category: Most Frequent Use of “Madame Chair” in a Two-Minute Round on the Dais.
The record-breaking feat occurred during council debate over the confirmation of D.C. Board of Library Trustees nominee Richard H. Levy. The Williams-administration pick had been held up for weeks after questions arose over his nomination, which included allegations by Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr. that Levy “verbally assaulted” and “threatened” him and his wife on D.C. Emancipation Day in 2002. “My wife was frightened, and she had to take refuge behind me,” Agent Orange explained to colleagues.
The Levy nomination ignited one of the most tense member-to-member confrontations in recent council memory. Chavous accused Orange of grandstanding at the eleventh hour: “I’m hearing from the nominee that he wants to meet face to face to apologize, and you won’t meet with him,” the Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation chair told his colleague at one point.
Orange shot back that Chavous might have been more aware of his concerns about Levy if he had been in his office: “This issue came up while you were abroad on vacation!”
As her colleagues chuckled, Cropp laid down a rule: Chavous and Orange could no longer address each other directly—they had to speak through the chair.
And that’s exactly what Chavous did:
I have the floor, Madame Chair. And you’re right, Madame Chair; we need to vote our conscience, Madame Chair. And we will do that. But the bottom line is I’ve been told, Madame Chair, that this nominee would apologize to the face of one of our colleagues, Madame Chair, and I’m hearing that would be acceptable, Madame Chair. And if that’s acceptable, then we should have that happen, Madame Chair. Now, Madame Chair, I want people to understand that this committee chair, Madame Chair, appreciates the seriousness of this allegation, but, Madame Chair, if it is indeed a fact that what would ease the comfort level of our colleague, Madame Chair, would be a face-to-face apology, Madame Chair that is what I extracted from this nominee: a commitment to do that and was told that the calls were not returned.
“Folks need to know the real record, Madame Chair,” Chavous stated as he glared at Orange. “How much time do I have, Madame Chair?”
Count ’em up: That’s 14 Madame Chairs!
Cropp allowed him a few more seconds, during which the councilmember seized a couple more opportunities. “Thank you, Madame Chair,” Chavous answered.
“You finished, Mr. Chavous?” asked Cropp.
“Almost,” Chavous responded. Then he paused for a moment. “I’m finished, Madame Chair,” he answered.
Levy’s nomination was confirmed 7 to 4 with Madame Chair and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham abstaining from the vote. —Elissa Silverman
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