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Back in the spring of 1998, D.C. Councilmembers Sharon Ambrose (Ward 6) and David Catania (At Large) mouthed dire predictions about the proposed new convention center at Mount Vernon Square, just north of downtown. The six-square-block project, they argued, would soon resemble the existing center on 9th Street NW—namely, an obsolete trash heap too small to compete for major conventions against colossal venues in Chicago and other metropolises.
Nor did the skeptics buy into the notion that the largest construction project in D.C. history could rise from the depths of the Shaw neighborhood at the bargain price of $650 million. Both Ambrose and Catania warned that the project’s $30 million contingency fund was too shallow to absorb the cost overruns that inevitably dog government-sponsored construction.
Only in the District of Columbia can plain common sense qualify you as a public-policy soothsayer.
Last Saturday, the Washington Post reported that construction costs for the convention center had ballooned to $756 million. That’s $106 million over the number that Ambrose and Catania’s D.C. Council peers relied on when they voted to approve city financing for the controversial project. The revelation has touched off a crisis at the Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA), whose brass is now scurrying to reassure decision makers at One Judiciary Square that the overrun is no big deal, that it won’t recur, and that, really, everything is fine and dandy.
Like a conventioneer after one too many expense-account drinks, WCCA is starting to repeat itself. “According to current estimates, the authority has more than adequate funding to meet the needs of this project,” maintains WCCA General Manager Lewis H. Dawley. But last June, when WCCA upped its cost estimate to $714 million, authorities made the same assurances.
“This is only the beginning,” says a construction industry analyst.
Each round in the cost-overrun routine will further vest the District in the land-use/planning/economic development/tourist-attracting catastrophe that is the new convention center. It would have been hard enough for elected leaders to withdraw a $650 commitment. A $756 million promise is even tougher to scoot away from. And as prices keep rising—the project is only a few clicks away from a billion dollars, after all—city leaders will feel even more determined to throw good money after bad. You don’t have to be Pete Rose to feel compelled to keep going once you’re that deep in the hole.
Before the current spiral fleeces D.C. taxpayers even further, the only prudent course is to act now: Haul away the construction trailers, say goodbye to the notion that name-tagged conventioneers constitute economic development, and eliminate that damn hole between 9th and 7th Streets NW.
“Fill it in,” says Ambrose. “But don’t fill it in with all that contaminated soil that they took out of there and almost dumped on the banks of the Anacostia.”
During the original fight over financing the project in 1998, Ambrose never managed to assemble a council majority to shoot the oversized white elephant. And she’d have even more trouble convincing her colleagues to dump the project now that it’s started. Even Catania, who called the center a “sham” two years ago—and famously owns the most sensitive outrage meter in city hall—isn’t prepared to slap a stop-work order on the Mount Vernon Square site. Catania says that, on Monday, he discussed the recent overruns with convention center officials and emerged with a less drastic view of the problem. “In the end, it’s not as bad as I had thought,” says the councilmember. “It’s not something I’m willing to go crazy about right now.”
The councilmember is aging before our very eyes.
The ordinarily calm folks at the D.C. financial control board, however, have gone bonkers over the overrun. Last week, the board decided to delay action on $10 million in convention center contracts until it gets a good explanation of what’s happening with the center’s budget. The delay could in turn hold up the project’s planned March 2003 grand opening. Convention center officials, though, should train themselves in even longer-range forecasting if an increasingly likely scenario materializes: At some point, as the cost of the center rises beyond its approved budget, the elected D.C. Council—not the secretive control board—will have to publicly OK spending more money to make up the difference.
Such a vote would give the lie to WCCA promises that businesses would foot the gargantuan project’s bill. In hope that a giant convention center will sprinkle downtown sidewalks with thousands of suit-wearing expense accounts, the city’s restaurant and hotel associations voluntarily upped their tax rates—to 10 percent for meals and 13 percent for hotel occupancy—to finance the bonds for construction. This taxation scheme equipped convention center supporters with the specious argument that businesses—and not restaurant patrons like LL and Mrs. LL—were paying for the sinkhole.
But paying for overruns with funds drawn directly from D.C. taxpayers would supply the sort of civic embarrassment and political reckoning that a mistake of this enormity deserves. “There’s a big hole in the ground, and taxpayers are paying for it, and they need to know what they’re paying for,” says a source close to the dispute. “The question should be to what degree is the business community subsidizing building the convention center and to what degree are taxpayers doing it.” Sorting out the answer to that question would have to take place in the council chambers, most likely at the insistence of the control board.
Don’t count on its happening this summer. The two councilmembers who worked hardest in 1998 to push the convention center proposal though—Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, chair of the Committee on Economic Development, and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, whose district includes Shaw—face challengers in the Sept. 12 Democratic primaries. Neither wants to hear the word “boondoggle” at every candidate forum, parade, and Little League game this summer.
Jarvis wasn’t available for comment. Evans was: “More than anyone, I feel responsible for this,” says Evans. “Not only on [overruns], but on jobs and other things, in the final analysis, I’m the guy.” Evans says he plans to hold the convention center contractor team, Clark Construction Group Inc. and Smoot Construction Co., to its $501.6 million cost ceiling.
With $756 million of political capital tied up in the project, Evans won’t soon recognize the new convention center for what it is—the cowardly replacement of real community development by an oversized edifice. Yet the conditions that originally sold a majority of his constituents on the project have now changed. In all candor, Shawites embraced the boondoggle for one of two reasons: (1) They hungered for WCCA contracts, jobs, walking-around money, catered meals, free drinks, or free turkeys; or (2) they wanted something—anything—to happen on a site that had sat idle for nearly 30 years, and they didn’t think private developers would ever fill the void.
Now, with the convention center’s budget on specimen slides at the control board, the perks for supportive locals have dried up. And the revitalization that is now sweeping eastward from Dupont Circle could finally lure private developers to furnish the little things that don’t occupy entire square blocks—e.g., row houses and delis—but do build a neighborhood. “We are running out of available room for the numbers of people who want to move in and want quality housing in the District,” says Jim Abdo of Abdo Development Inc.
In other words, fill it in.
LL has good news for the local Consortium of Universities, which represents the interests of most private colleges in D.C.: You no longer need to send any suits down to One Judiciary Square to lobby for your pet initiatives. Your interests are already well-represented.
And in case you need any assurance, just check out the tape of the council’s June 6 legislative session.
Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous introduced legislation to create something called a “state education office.” The proposed body would assist the board of education, the control board, the school system’s advisory board of trustees, the two charter school boards, the council, and Congress in monitoring the D.C. public schools’ compliance with federal funding requirements. Although the council agreed broadly on the duties of the new office, Ambrose advanced a “friendly amendment” suggesting that the director of the office examine the responsibilities of other state education offices before settling on its own scope of work.
For example, said Ambrose, state ed offices elsewhere review and certify federal grants to private colleges—a function that the office here in D.C. might want to explore.
Not for long: “The Consortium of Universities has taken the position that this state education office should not include higher education, particularly with respect to private institutions in the District of Columbia….If it is the will of the council to include the University of the District of Columbia, which is a public university, in the ambit of the state education office, then the consortium has no objection to that.”
After two emotional offensives by Jarvis in defense of the consortium, Ambrose relented. “If it’s going to make Mrs. Jarvis more comfortable,” said the councilmember, who agreed to amend her amendment so that the state education office would not mess at all with private colleges in the District.
(Jarvis is president of Southeastern University, a private college in the District. LL includes this fact in his column because Jarvis forgot to mention it in the council debate.)
* If harnessing all available resources for the job at hand is critical to an advisory neighborhood commissioner’s portfolio, then Shaw Commissioner “Mahdi” Leroy Joseph Thorpe Jr. deserves to win his 2000 campaign against neighbor Randy Wells. Thorpe, you may remember, was accused by Wells of prodding city inspectors this spring to examine properties held by Wells and his girlfriend (Loose Lips, “Noise in the ‘Hood,” 5/26). The pair spent hours rebuffing the inspectors’ warnings and complaining to Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs higher-ups about politically motivated inspections.
Late last month, Thorpe apparently decided that his campaign could use the endorsement of another key D.C. agency: the Metropolitan Police Department. According to Wells and other Shaw sources, Thorpe on the evening of May 25 convened a meeting of his “Red Hats” patrol at 6th and Q Streets NW. Wells said that “four or five” locals and a “large number of police officers” attended the event.
Unlike traditional anti-crime groups, which generally pace the streets in search of bad guys,
Thorpe’s group piled into seven police cars that moved slowly through Shaw with lights flashing, according to Wells. Thorpe was in the lead car with his very own bullhorn pointed out the window.
“Leroy Thorpe for ANC commissioner,” roared Thorpe, along with another catchy slogan: “Public safety brought to you by Commissioner Thorpe.”
In a complaint to 3rd District Commander Mark Beach, Wells wrote, “Effectively, this caravan of vehicles ceased being a public safety rally and became a political parade.”
In a chat with LL, Beach used a stunning string of bureaucratese to say the same thing: “We have reviewed Randy’s complaint and continue to use such incidents for coaching, mentoring, and training all our officials,” said Beach. Third District officers, continued the commander, would continue to support the Red Hats but “would not be used as a vehicle to support [Thorpe] personally as a commissioner.”
Thorpe, who fancies himself Shaw’s representative in Congress, said, “I’m on congressional recess right now in the Shaw community, and when recess is over, I will have a comment.”
* With a possible challenge from Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. lurking in the June humidity, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil needs all the free publicity he can get in the run-up to the Sept. 12 Democratic primary. At Sunday’s Pride Day Parade, a woman approached the candidate’s campaign outpost and grabbed two “Brazil” stickers. Apparently under the impression that the stickers represented her native country—not the distinguished D.C. councilmember—she ripped off her shirt, affixed them to her nipples, and paraded on. “She wasn’t the only topless woman walking,” says Brazil campaign spokesman Scott Gastel. “But she was the only one who chose to advertise the councilmember’s campaign in that manner.” CP
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