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Bad things tend to happen to Mayor Anthony A. Williams when he shows up in Columbia Heights. Some days, he gets heckled by irate crowds for botching development deals on 14th Street NW. Other times, locals harangue him for not doing enough to protect low-income tenants in dilapidated apartment complexes.
The earnest Williams has generally taken a direct approach to neighborhood complaints: Just stand before the crowds, take the heat, and fire back a little. Last week, though, he tried a new strategy: Throw money at them.
The strategy was on display as Williams announced that the city would commit more than $5 million to preserving the historic Tivoli Theatre at 14th Street and Park Road NW, a decaying architectural gem from the Roaring ’20s that was slated for redevelopment as a shopping mall. Developer Joe Horning, who won the rights to the city-owned theater last year, planned to carve up the theater’s historic flourishes via architectural schemes like kicking out the back wall to make room for a Giant Food supermarket.
The central role of the sledgehammer in Horning’s blueprints infuriated the neighborhood’s premier preservation group, Save the Tivoli. In classic obstructionist fashion, the preservationists promised to kill Horning’s demolition plans and nagged at Williams to do their bidding.
“Those people will wear you down,” says a former Williams administration official.
Now Williams has gotten the noisome preservationists off his backat a price of $5 million. Last Saturday, when LL asked him about the matter, he sounded like a man carrying a much lighter load. “We’re moving on now,” responded the mayor. “It’s done.”
Never one to let a public controversy transpire without citing its antecedents in public-sector management strategy, Williams said that the administration messed up the “front end” of the Tivoli development project and thus invited turmoil on the back end.
But Williams, to his chagrin, may soon find that the back end may yet cause him trouble. Like most of the government’s actions in the Columbia Heights development saga, the $5 million investment in the Tivoli’s preservation relies on as much solid planning as Williams’ 1999 scheme to sell land D.C. didn’t even own underneath the University of the District of Columbia.
Under Williams’ new initiative, Horning pledges to construct a 6,000-square-foot arts space to placate the preservationists. Everybody loves arts space. But no one knows whether any arts program will pay for the spaceor be able to fill its seats. No one even knows whether the space is the right size. Says Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham: “The 6,000 figure is wholly arbitrary.”
Local development watchdogs are reading from the same script. “You can’t just say, ‘Hey, let’s put a theater in there,’” says development watchdog Dave McIntire, who runs a Columbia Heights Web site at www.innercity.org. “Someone has to come in there and judge the market for a theater.”
Good point. And such a someone also has to take a look at the saga of a similar project down the hill from Columbia Heightsthe Lincoln Theatre. In the late ’80s, the District sunk $5 million into the restoration of that historic building. A decade later, the space is not exactly D.C.’s most vibrant arts locale. “We’re at a point now where we’re just about breaking even,” says Jocelyn Russell, the theater’s executive director.
With a flick of the wrist, the mayor has made a comparable commitment to the Tivoli. Graham notes with satisfaction that the money will pay to fix up the exterior, the lobby, and even some interior work.
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At some point along the way, though, Horning will sink the last penny of his municipal subsidy into some cornice, column, or other precious architectural detail. Once that happens, the developer will head back downtown, flanked by Save the Tivoli reps. “You can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll be asking for more money,” says a D.C. economic-development consultant who has followed the debate over the Tivoli. In asking for the handout, they’ll be preserving yet another precious piece of D.C. history.
Ward 8 curmudgeon Cardell Shelton may be a long-shot candidate for the school board vacancy in District 4, which encompasses Wards 7 and 8. Concerned citizens throughout the city, though, won’t soon forget his arguments in favor of instituting vocational programs for D.C. schoolchildren.
Whereas Mayor Williams and most school board candidates are careful to tout the promise inherent in our “precious youth” and our “wonderful children,” Shelton shuns all the kinder, gentler code words: “We’re graduating idiots from our public schools,” said Shelton at a candidates’ forum last Friday night at the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Ward 7.
The solution, says the construction contractor, isn’t necessarily better testing policies or computer modules on every desk. “We need to teach our children why screwdrivers are straight, why hammers are heavy,” said Shelton. That way, he continued, kids can make a living right out of high schooland spare Shelton the difficulties he claims to have had with D.C. public-school graduates. “There is no room in the private sector for a dummy,” said the candidate. “A dummy is one of the most dangerous people to have hanging around a work site. They just get in the way and do nothing.”
Shelton even blamed inadequate vocational training for the $9,000 in debt he says he’s “still paying” for his daughter’s education. “She’s doing nothing near what she went to school for,” said Shelton.
Other politicians’ habit of lauding local youngsters notwithstanding, Shelton’s comments found a receptive audience at the forum. One barb, however, finally turned the crowd against the longtime east-of-the-river gadfly. “No child…not a single one…that we’re graduating from the schools is ready for the world,” Shelton said.
When a band of hecklers in the seats shouted him down, Shelton rose to clarify that the “large majority” of D.C. public school graduates are unprepared.
LL surmises that failed Ward 8 D.C. Council candidate Sandra Seegars spent much of last week watching CNN reports from Belgrade. Where else, after all, could Seegars have picked up tips about gracefully admitting defeat than straight from Slobodan Milosevic?
In a rout that would make the Serbian secret police proud, Seegars lost in her Ward 8 challenge to incumbent Sandy Allen by 51 points (70 percent to 19 percent) in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary.
“The margin was too great,” says Seegars.
Most candidates would simply conclude that they’d gotten their ass kicked. But this is Seegars, the headstrong woman who stuck by her advocacy of racial profiling by taxi drivers after every reasonable person in town condemned it. Unable to reconcile herself to the polling results, Seegars has made an Oct. 24 appointment with the Board of Elections and Ethics to cross-check voter registration cards against the list of voters who cast ballots in the ward on Sept. 12.
The list is 3,295 people long. “I’ll check every one,” vows Seegars.
The soundly defeated candidate lays the suspected improprieties at the feet of Allen’s campaign people, whom she accuses of “taking down my posters, blowing up my car, and intimidating voters.”
Just in case she fails to blow a case of blatant voter fraud wide open, Seegars is hatching another route to power this fall: a write-in campaign against the person who just beat her in the primary. Aided by fellow Ward 8 stalwart Helyn Boone, Seegars claims to have assembled a staff of 70 foot soldiers prepared to assist in her second campaign of the year. “Sandra has a lot of guts,” says Boone, who shares Seegars’ theory on Sept. 12 electoral fraud. “She goes all the way…all the way.”
All the way, indeed, to political oblivion.
•Mayor Williams doesn’t have the power to intimidate congressmen who tinker with the District budget. Hell, he can’t even strike fear into the hearts of D.C. councilmembers and community politicians.
But put the guy in a room with his cabinet members and palms start sweating.
The fear-the-mayor dynamic was on display last Saturday at a meeting of the Hillcrest Civic Association, a group of Ward 7 residents who have never forgotten Williams’ plea to hold him accountable for service improvements. A goodly portion of Williams’ aides were on hand for the event, ready to update the citizens on government programs, assess local service priorities, and, yes, cover their exposed asses.
D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation boss Robert Newman was the first to quiver. The embattled parks chief was boasting that his crews were modernizing the bathrooms of rec centers across the city. When Williams asked whether the bathroom at the Hillcrest rec center had been renovated, Newman demurred and fidgeted.
The mayor interrupted his aide’s equivocation: “The answer to that is either it was or will be,” Williams said. Newman nodded.
Later, after a few attendees complained that the mayor’s office had failed to follow up on their service requests, Patrick Canavan, Williams’ director of neighborhood services, rose to announce that he would convene a big town-hall meeting in two or three weeks to address priorities. LL wonders whether that meeting would ever have made it into Canavan’s desktop organizer if it hadn’t been for the mayor’s stern presence in the room.
And the bureaucratic shuffle made another showing after Tammy Brodnax complained that the government had failed to clear away a tree that fell in her neighborhood more than six months ago. “We’re waiting for an approval from the neighborhood stabilization officer,” said Ron Duke of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in accounting for the delay. A few seats away, the mayor kept his poker face on.
Williams, of course, has no business yelling at subordinates about failures on the part of his neighborhood stabilization officers. The very position is a creature of Williams’ own good-government reforms. Unfortunately, holders of the newly created post appear to simply be reforming how effectively city hall bungles service requests. Brodnax said that officials she’d contacted about the tree merely “blamed the other office for not getting things done.”
Yet another Williams brainchild, the citywide call center, also turned up in citizen indictments of municipal service. At the Hillcrest meeting, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Kathy Chamberlain fretted that she could no longer contact directly her friendly Department of Public Works sanitation-enforcement officers. Instead, she has to call a faceless operator at the call center. “It’s sort of crazy,” says Chamberlain. “It’s hard to deal with 727-1000.”
•In his 40-plus years leading the flock at the Church of God in Christ at 1435 Park Road NW, Bishop Samuel Kelsey specialized in comforting the afflicted, righting the wayward, and otherwise tending to his Columbia Heights neighborhood. Only in death could the bishop stir angst in his community.
Kelsey, who died in 1993, has pulled off a troublesome resurrection of sorts, according to a pair of street signs between 14th and 16th Streets NW. What was once Park Road NW has been officially changed to Bishop Samuel Kelsey’s Way NW. The change is no evanescent commemorative gimmickthese are real street signs. “I now live on Bishop Samuel Kelsey’s Way,” says McIntire, a resident of the former 1502 Park Road NW. “It’s the silliest thing I ever heard of.”
If McIntire is dreading all the change-of-address paperwork, he should call up former Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith for a hand in licking envelopes. Smith rammed through the name-change legislation in late December 1998, in the waning days of his 16 years in office. Evincing a bit of the legislative cluelessness that got him ousted, Smith doesn’t remember much about the Kelsey affair. “You’re talking about something that happened a long time ago,” says Smith.
When asked to justify changing the name of a major thoroughfare over just two blocks, Smith has this to say about Kelsey: “He kept the faith and hung in there.”
If we’re using that standard, LL proposes renaming Georgia Avenue the Lawrence Guyot Trail.
Restoring the historic integrity of the city’s grid now falls to current Ward 1 Councilmember Graham, who is vowing to make Park Road whole again. “I don’t want to do anything that detracts from the honor intended for Bishop Kelsey. On the other hand, I don’t want to change the name of the street, necessitating that people get new checkbooks,” says the councilmember.
Graham had better hurry. “I’ve made the change already,” says Phil Satlof, who updates D.C. maps for ADC, the region’s dominant mapmaker. CP
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