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Credit Columbia Heights activist Dorothy Brizill for her environmental consciousness. When it came time to print up billboards protesting a decision over development rights in her Columbia Heights neighborhood, Brizill used the back side of campaign posters from her failed 1994 bid for the Ward 1 D.C. Council seat.
The recycled posterboard gambit would have worked fine anywhere in town except for the environs of One Judiciary Square, the city government’s headquarters and a hotbed of petty disses. Within days of the postering, mischief-makers had turned several of Brizill’s signs inside out—making it look as if Brizill were back on the campaign trail, rather than organizing against a controversial development edict. “For a minute there, I thought Dorothy was already prepping for the 2002 Ward 1 race,” commented a council staffer. “Then I took a closer look.”
The poster inversion trick neatly frames a dispute that is fast turning personal. It started on Sept. 9, when the city’s Redevelopment Land Agency announced its decision to grant development rights for two publicly owned parcels to the partnership of D.C.-based Horning Bros. and New York’s Grid Properties Inc. The ruling, in effect, endorsed Horning and Grid’s vision of placing a Giant supermarket in the hollowed-out Tivoli Theatre and building retail and community space on a neighboring plot.
Led by Brizill, a large group of Columbia Heightsians protested the decision, lobbying instead for a proposal by Forest City Enterprises, which promised a more upscale plan plus development at two additional idle parcels in the ‘hood. Forest City also earned some loyalists with its pledge to preserve the Tivoli as an arts space, rather than a grocery emporium with a classic theatrical facade.
That’s the policy-wonk version, anyhow. On the street level, Horning-Grid proponents have tagged the protesters as newcomers who care not a whit about the neighborhood’s poor minorities; Forest Cityites, in turn, blame their adversaries for practicing divisive racial politics to mask old-school cronyism. And the casualty has been a community’s—never very robust—appetite for conciliation.
At a press conference last Friday, both Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham went almost as far as to ID the intransigent parties by name as they announced a plan to mediate the ongoing land-use conflict.
Williams: “I feel like I’m in Beirut. Both sides don’t want to talk to each other.”
Graham: “We have to see whether common ground is possible.”
And after the press conference, Brizill confirmed her elected leaders’ impression that Columbia Heights has about as much room for compromise as the Golan Heights. When asked whether she would come to the table for Williams’ mediation, the Ward 1 stalwart said she’d decline. “Jim Graham is hand-picking the mediators,” said Brizill. “And the purpose of the mediation is just to get this dispute past [Williams’] Neighborhood Action summit,” she continued, suggesting that Williams merely wants to ensure that the controversy won’t spoil his citywide planning sessions scheduled for Nov. 18 and 20.
“The decision needs to be reversed,” says Brizill. “So what is there to mediate?”
So the olive branch will not take root in Brizill’s back yard yet. In fact, it would take a team of D.C.’s most resourceful archivists to find a mayoral initiative that she has actually applauded.
But the glasnost scheme has problems beyond Brizill’s attitude. On its merits alone, the mediation plan would have a tough time making it out of the mayor’s office and up the 14th Street hill. The concept, as conceived by newly installed Planning Director Andrew Altman, would engage both sides of the dispute in a 30-day “assessment” that would determine merely whether there’s any prospect for a formal mediation. If there’s not, Williams and the RLA board will have to choose between following through on the Horning-Grid award or starting the whole process anew.
Brizill & Co. spot several bona fide flaws in the mayoral mediation proposal. First off, how can the administration appoint impartial assessors or mediators when it is a party to the RLA decision—especially after Williams told critics in September that as mayor he couldn’t second-guess a duly empowered city board? Moreover, who decides on representation for the two sides of the dispute? And just what is being mediated? The RLA decision? Or a mixture of the competing proposals?
“This is not a thought-through process,” says Gary Imhoff, a Columbia Heights advisory neighborhood commissioner who is also Brizill’s husband. “Since they haven’t told us what’s on the table, it still appears to be a stalling tactic.” Tactics notwithstanding, other neighbors are ready to sit down with the mayor. “I am ready to go and talk,” says Geoff Griffis, organizer of a two-year neighborhood planning process.
But in her years of D.C. activism, Brizill has marked herself as a loner with no shortage of time and resources to snuff out cronyism and waste in local government. One skill that doesn’t appear on her municipal C.V., though, is teamwork. She disdains the compromises necessary to play community politics and last year split with Williams’ people, a group that courted her and shared her civic priorities.
Given her history, Brizill’s uncompromising handling of the situation comes as no surprise. Williams’ behavior, however, is baffling. Reprising his penchant for the flip-flop, the mayor is managing to alienate folks who form the very core of his natural constituency. Minus the anti-RLA signs and anti-Tony chants, Brizill’s followers resemble a convention of Williams-for-mayor poll workers—largely white, professional, and hungry for the responsive city services Williams promised. And if the folks who want to save the Tivoli put Williams where he is, prominent Horning-Grid partisans like Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Lawrence Guyot have been among his most vocal foes.
But when the RLA board announced its decision, Williams showed little sympathy for his longtime supporters. He justified his inaction as a case of a mayor shunning the politics of meddling that characterized Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.’s 16 years in office. The procedural point may have been right, but to supporters feeling abandoned by a friend, it came across as downright sanctimonious.
Once Williams learned that the Forest City constituency cared as much about results as about process—and that it wasn’t going to fizzle as a movement—he proposed mediation. In throwing his natural following a bone, however, Williams acted like the most obtuse species of nonpolitician. At last Friday’s press conference, he dissed as “not scientific” Griffis’ community “charrette” consensus urban-design workshops, which many Forest City proponents participated in and today hold as dear as a stroll through Crate & Barrel with a cup of chai in hand.
Maybe Williams should forsake all those texts about what constitutes a “scientific” urban-design process and instead pick up some reading that might help him get re-elected—Machiavelli’s The Prince.
COUNCILMEMBER AT VERY LARGE
So long as Mayor Williams is hiring mediators, he may want to call one in to facilitate a dialogue with Republican At-Large Councilmember David Catania. Troubles between the Type A legislator and Type CPA mayor started with this year’s tax-cut plan and have only grown more acute with each passing initiative.
The latest flashpoint is leadership on an item known as “brownfields” legislation, a trendy notion in recovering urban centers all across the country. The term refers to idle, polluted industrial sites whose cleanup costs and environmental liabilities scare off investment and renovation. Although D.C. has fewer brownfields locations than many Rust Belt cities, there are still enough to prompt a race among local politicos to claim credit for their revival. That’s where Catania and Williams come in.
Catania on Nov. 2 introduced a thorough, four-part brownfields bill that sprang from hours of investigation. “My staff and I worked on it starting last June,” says Catania. “I can show you 10 inches of research material in my office.” It seems that whenever two male pols get to bragging, it’s only a matter of time before inches come into play.
While the councilmember was in the midst of compiling his brownfields compost, he says he alerted the mayor to the issue. “I gave him a tutorial on the subject,” recalls Catania, referring to an August meeting with Williams. “The fact is, I brought the subject of brownfields to his attention.”
If that’s so, Williams didn’t acknowledge as much last Thursday at his press conference near a rusty PEPCO facility at Buzzard Point, on a home-grown brownfield where the mayoral flock christened their own legislative package. Theodore J. Gordon, a high-ranking Department of Health official, says Williams demanded a bill on brownfields last April, a directive that kicked off a drafting collaboration with the George Washington University Law School and the Environmental Law Institute. “There are 44 states with brownfields laws, and we looked at 33 of them,” says Gordon.
And as for Catania’s boast, Gordon’s team reportedly compiled 1,000 inches of research material.
At the Buzzard Point event, Williams did thank Catania for his interest in the environment but saved his compliments for the councilmembers who showed up for the occasion: Chairman Linda Cropp, Jack Evans (Ward 2), Sandy Allen (Ward 8), Charlene Drew Jarvis (Ward 4), and Sharon Ambrose (Ward 6).
Making nice with the mayor on a sparkling fall day by the Anacostia River, however, doesn’t comport with Catania’s notion of work. “The fact is, I was doing my job,” says the councilmember, noting that he was on the council dais for over five hours grilling witnesses on the D.C. Public Schools’ special education transportation crisis. “I thought I was being pretty productive there.”
The fact is, Catania thrives on conflict with Williams. The hard-driving legislator got into the same sort of spat with the mayor’s folks in September, when he authored legislation to privatize substance abuse services—a concept that dovetailed with a Williams proposal dating back to March. The mayor responded to Catania’s legislation with a Catanian line: “I appreciate the fact that you and other members of the Council now recognize” problems in substance abuse treatment, wrote the mayor.
Months ago, clashes like these would have folded neatly into a familiar narrative about hostile mayor-council relations. Forget the history: Last week, the mayor appeared at two events—brownfields and the Columbia Heights initiative—flanked by a healthy constituency of councilmembers. Eight months of bickering and backstabbing have finally delineated where executive-branch territory ends and legislative-branch territory begins.
Meanwhile, Catania appears in no mood to negotiate his own Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo with the 11th floor. “He hates the mayor and wants the mayor to hate him even more,” says a council source. That’s because Catania is vying with the mayor for the same space in the public eye: as the D.C. government’s premier reformist.
So this is what it’s come to in 1990s Washington. Back in the day, pols bragged about who was the most courageous freedom fighter or the most generous jobs-provider. Now they fight about, well, who’s the bigger research compiler. What’s next—council oversight hearings on how many footnotes in the mayor’s environmental research?
Even the mayor’s folks concede that Catania’s brownfields legislation is strong and will be well-represented in the bill that the council eventually sends upstairs. The councilmember also deserves credit for pushing for reform in substance abuse services and the city’s powerless advisory neighborhood commissions. It’s just Catania’s insistence that he fathered every municipal innovation that rankles the administration.
“It’s like he pulls up in his BMW, hops out in his Gucci shoes, and all of the sudden he’s the council’s leading authority on the environment,” says a Williams official, who asked for anonymity.CP
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