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Last Nov. 5, Mayor Anthony A. Williams stood before a group of reporters and declared an end to the District’s planning woes. “Planning in this city is ad hoc and episodic,” said the mayor, who acknowledged that the land-use controversies in Columbia Heights and near George Washington University’s Mount Vernon campus had prompted a new look at the system. “The current situation has taught us that the current infrastructure is not up to the task.”
And, as the mayor described efforts by planning director Andrew Altman to remedy the situation, he zeroed in on the political conundrum that the issue poses for him: “Development,” said Williams, “has created disputes and battles for everyone.”
“Everyone,” in this case, consists of two constituencies that propelled the mayor to power in November 1998: businesses, to which Williams promised a hospitable and predictable regulatory environment, and the neighborhood activist/historic preservationist lobby—which lapped up the candidate’s campaign pledges to do away with the Barry-era back-room dealing that had turned the city’s historic treasures into the Lego sets of local developers.
Their dissatisfaction with Barry’s rule notwithstanding, the two planning-obsessed constituencies have about as much in common as John Rocker and RuPaul.
And the mayor today appears no closer to resolving his land-use dilemma than he was upon taking office a year ago. When faced with situations that require choosing between the two groups, this chief executive prefers to punt.
The city’s best-publicized development dispute has been the most frequent spur for the mayor’s Matt Turk act. Williams’ initial refusal to meddle in the deliberations of the independent Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) board, the panel entrusted with choosing among several proposals for developing public parcels in Columbia Heights, was laudable. After all, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. had acquired his reputation for reckless governing in part by trampling on sovereign entities like the RLA board.
But then protests erupted over the RLA board’s decision, which handed development rights to local developer Horning Bros. and Grid Properties Inc. of New York. Activists argued that the board had passed up a better proposal, which would have saved the historic Tivoli Theatre. And ever since, the mayor has striven to avoid taking a stance on the dust-up. At the Nov. 5 press conference, he called for a 30-day “assessment” of prospects for a mediated solution—an effort that flopped almost before it began. Next, under council pressure, he hatched a plan to appease both sides, supporting the Horning-Grid proposal but asking that the interior of the Tivoli be preserved.
For a mayor bent on reinventing planning, the “compromise” will guarantee only that protesters and litigation will be lurking at every land-use board whose OK the Horning-Grid plans require.
The mayor has displayed a similar passion for the middle in a tug of war over a historic downtown tract. In March 1999, the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) rejected the Archdiocese of Washington’s application to demolish 11 late-19th-century buildings the diocese owns on the 900 block of F Street NW. Although the church promised to maintain the structures’ historic facades, the plan would have exiled the artist tenants and other small proprietors along the strip in favor of an 11-story office building. Following its ruling, the HPRB passed the case along to the mayor’s agent for historic preservation for a “final decision.”
City leaders for years have promised more art and housing, while landowners have acted as if more Discovery Channel outlets, offices, and meeting facilities were just what downtown needed. “Everybody has lobbied me on this,” says Williams. And they all wasted their time: The mayor emerged from his meetings on F Street and did, well, absolutely nothing.
“The mayor’s agent was reaching an important decision, and it’s important not to intervene during that process,” says Williams, quoting a passage from his Bible of Good Government.
Fine, but perhaps the mayor could have intervened just enough to ensure that the agent, Rohulamin Quander, issued his decision before expiration of his statutory 60-day deadline. Although Quander thrilled preservationists by duly denying the demolition request, his ruling came nearly two months late. In December, the archdiocese and counsel Whayne S. Quin of Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane petitioned the D.C. Court of Appeals to void the agent’s decision on those grounds. (D.C. law states that if the agent fails to render a decision within the 60-day period, an application is presumed to be approved.)
And while downtown preservationists are biting their nails over the F Street case, they’re hammering the mayor’s office for its asleep-at-the-wheel stance on a third looming development rumble over an adjacent hot spot: the Mather Building, at 916 G St. NW. A decade ago, the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) abandoned the historic property, but it never bothered to seal it properly. Accordingly, the building has suffered thousands of dollars in water damage, according to Jo-Ann Neuhaus, secretary-treasurer of the Pennsylvania Quarter Neighborhood Association.
After a 1998 summit on downtown housing, Barry singled out the building as a prime spot for residential and/or retail uses. “I favored it for housing,” says Barry, whose appointees at the Department of Housing and Community Development sponsored a $200,000 feasibility study on the property’s residential prospects.
The Williams people seem to have missed all that. On Jan. 4, Chief Property Management Officer Kenneth Kimbrough wrote a letter to downtown activist Terry Lynch noting that UDC retains “the lead in considering the alternatives for placing this property back into productive use.”
“[Kimbrough] never should have sent that,” says Eric Price, deputy mayor for planning and economic development. “That should have been vetted with others,” Price continues, adding that he is unsure if the building is suitable for housing.
Price also conceded that the Williams record on development may keep both sides guessing for a while. “That’s actually something we need to address going forward, and [Altman] has been given the task of getting involved in the front end of the process as opposed to reacting at the back end,” says Price. “We want to have community input, a clear process, and to ensure that that’s followed.” Sounds like a campaign promise.
Received wisdom has it that racism is the knife that threatens to cleave the District into warring sides. The development dispute in Columbia Heights, however, points to another dividing line—the one that separates your neighborhood from the next.
Take this example: On Jan. 5, Ward 1 advisory neighborhood commissioner Lawrence Guyot appeared on WAMU’s (88.5 FM) Public Interest show to defend the Sept. 9 development award announced by the RLA board. Reflecting on Guyot’s appearance, Mark C. Barlet wrote the following remark to a Columbia Heights electronic bulletin board: “I am looking forward to the years to come in Columbia Heights, I think that we are a great community, and I am glad that Mr. Guyot does not live here.”
Technically, that’s correct: Guyot lives a few blocks beyond Columbia Heights’ putative boundaries, in LeDroit Park. As a D.C. taxpayer and eventual patron of the new Columbia Heights development, though, Guyot has as much right to spout off on the dispute as anyone else.
The community’s champion of insular righteousness is RLA board opponent Dorothy Brizill, who instructed LL at the Sept. 18 development protests to count how many government employees and non-Columbia Heights residents figured among Guyot’s troops.
In a scary portent, furthermore, the ideology has now leaked into the mainstream press. In a Dec. 17 column on Columbia Heights, the Washington Times’ Jonetta Rose Barras said that RLA board member Lawrence Parks “took the cake” for misleading remarks on the controversy. Parks, you see, claimed that as a resident of 16th Street, he was a member of the Columbia Heights neighborhood. No way, cried Barras, who pointed out that Parks lives on the west side of 16th, which has “never been called Columbia Heights.” No, that’s the east side, which lies about 10 paces from Parks’ front door.
* The engine propelling the schools-governance debate is D.C.’s disgust with its elected school board and its love of petty and divisive politicking. If the board’s sophomoric politicos are wondering how they could have done things differently—as they pack up their files and head into the history books—they should observe the restraint with which Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson has handled the governance issue.
Starting last November, Patterson and Mayor Williams began discussing their mutual interest in an appointed school board. When Patterson said she planned to draft legislation to create a five-member appointed panel, Williams promised the councilmember that he would participate in the roll-out—by either issuing a joint press release with Patterson or perhaps appearing at a press conference.
Just before Patterson submitted her bill, Williams bagged out. “We’ve always supported her proposal,” said the mayor last weekend. “It’s just that the timing of when we came out with it was a political calculation.”
While the mayor was tending to his political interests, Patterson’s legislation failed to pick up any co-sponsors and made Patterson look like an isolated extremist. But despite the slight from the 11th floor, Patterson, her eyes on the prize, occupied Position 1 at the Jan. 5 unveiling ceremony of the mayor’s plan. “This is a very sound and comprehensive schools governance package,” said Patterson.
* You say you want a revolution?
That was the anthem of At-large Councilmember David Catania at the Jan. 13 meeting between councilmembers and Mayor Williams on the schools issue. Although his peers had come to deliberate on the merits of an elected vs. an appointed school board, the Republican councilmember was minding the bigger picture: school choice, vouchers, charters, and so on. According to one participant, Catania’s predominantly Democratic audience rolled its collective eyes at the outburst of Republican ideology—which no doubt egged Catania on.
“What you have here is a group of individuals who thought very highly of themselves, that they were making a revolutionary change,” said the councilmember after the meeting. “Don’t get too full of yourselves thinking that you’re transforming when in fact you are tinkering around the margins.”
The snickers reportedly grew more pronounced when Catania—a gas-industry lawyer by day—drew parallels between school reform and natural gas. “After two decades of deregulation, this country has the most sophisticated, efficient delivery of natural gas in the world,” Catania told LL.
The councilmember compared the D.C. public schools to the German natural gas system, a statist monolith that charges users “through the nose” and has no service standards, according to Catania. He complained that an acquaintance in Germany, who owns a sheet metal factory, can’t get a natural gas supply line: “He can’t get the state to build a line across the street.” Sounds like a job for Berlin’s Departmentderconsumeruntregulatoryaffairswaffe. CP
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