Not so long ago, At-Large D.C. Councilmember David Catania reveled in hammering T. Conrad Monts, the D.C. developer renovating the council’s historic haunts at 13th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. In a series of council hearings on the subject, Catania painted the reviled head of the Washington Development Group as a slick real estate type determined to cheat the council out of its sacred office space in the 91-year-old Wilson Building.
“You owe me and members of this body an apology, and I’d like to have it,” said Catania at a Feb. 2 hearing, after Monts had ignored a council request to testify. Later, Catania ruled out any middle ground between himself and the controversial Monts, whose 1995 deal calls for him to fix up the building at no cost to the District—and then rent out large chunks of the space to federal tenants in order to cover the expenses. “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us,” Catania told LL at the time.
If so, the first-term councilmember should pack his bags. After all, Catania and his colleagues have exchanged the fighting language of last winter for silence on the Wilson Building. “I don’t want to say too much on this right now,” says council Chairman Linda Cropp.
That’s what happens when you lose.
On April 8, D.C. Superior Court Judge Gregory Mize rejected a council request to stop the “build-out” on the Wilson Building’s office space. The council argued that the drastic measure was necessary because Monts was planning to screw the council out of critical floor space promised in contractual negotiations and hand it over to a paying tenant, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Mize frowned on the notion of any such real estate conspiracy. As a result, the council is now all but begging for enough space to house its operations—and the civic dream of accommodating both the council and the mayor’s office in the beaux-arts building appears years off.
Of course, the notion of the Wilson Building’s accommodating anything more than spider webs and vermin looked dreamy to the 1995 D.C. Council, which OK’d the court-tested deal with Monts. Dank and drab, the building was riddled with so many structural flaws that councilmembers wondered if they’d find new office space before the building collapsed on them. They did know one thing for sure: They couldn’t afford to pay for the repairs.
In February 1995, Monts ginned up a perfect scheme for a city weighted down by a $700 million deficit and about to welcome a financial control board. Under the deal, the city would pay nothing for the $52 million top-to-bottom renovation, which would be funded by lease payments from the federal government. As proof that home rule is only as strong as the District’s finances, the plan called upon the feds to occupy two-thirds of the building.
Unfortunately, the Wilson Building doesn’t slice up like a pizza pie. In a September 1995 appearance before the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board, Monts said that the council’s one-third of the building would consist of all of the ground, first, and fifth floors. In early discussions with the council, Monts made similar representations, but he amended them slightly in a lease signed in August 1996 by D.C. Council Secretary Phyllis Jones. Unbeknownst to Jones, the documents carved out half of the ground floor for the federal government, in a tactic that she later described as “bait-and-switch.”
The council deemed Monts’ dealings underhanded enough to sue him in December 1998, seeking an end to the build-out and a ruling on the ground-floor problem. In his April ruling, Mize found that the lease bearing Jones’ signature was clear on the disposition of the ground floor. (Mize’s April ruling was preliminary but left the council little hope for a more favorable final ruling.)
The ruling has spawned a quiet crisis at One Judiciary Square. Contrary to popular perception, the building’s ground floor will not serve as the monumental public entrance to the council offices. That’s the role of the first floor, an area Monts’ people describe as “majestic.” However, Cropp and her cohorts aren’t necessarily sweating the ceremonial space; they’re worried whether they’ll have to fit their oversized leather chairs into tiny corporate cubicles. “We need that ground-floor space for our operations,” says Cropp.
And so does the EPA.
Instead of plopping down on her living-room couch during the council’s two-month break, Cropp is busy negotiating with the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal government’s office manager, to score enough space for the council. The talks, she says, are delicate but so far positive for the District. “My effort thus far has been to get as much of the ground floor as possible for the city,” says Cropp.
Cropp’s pledge clarifies just how far officialdom’s expectations have fallen this year.
Just six months ago, everyone from Mayor Anthony A. Williams to Catania was spicing up press conferences with talk of commandeering the entire Wilson edifice, a prospect that would keep the city’s executive and legislative branches (at least physically) united under one roof. “As I stated in my campaign, I believe the Wilson Building is an important civic symbol for the District of Columbia,” said Williams in February.
The reoccupation troops, though, never made it past the dollar figures. Buying out all the parties in the deal—including Monts and John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co., which put up a loan for the renovations—would have cost the city between $60 million and $90 million, depending on who was working the calculator.
“The numbers just got out-of-hand,” says Bill Highsmith Jr., a special assistant in the mayor’s economic planning and development operation, who as a Williams campaign staffer a year ago sketched out plans for reoccupying the building in an interview with Washington City Paper (“Ballad of the Wilson Building,” 9/25/98). “And satisfying Conrad’s expectations—no one knew for certain what he would have been willing to settle for. It didn’t seem truly in the best interests of the citizens to pursue that path.”
As a result, Cropp is now blazing her own trail, knocking heads with the feds without much support from the mayor or anyone else. Richard Gross, one of Monts’ attorneys, has been tracking the council-GSA negotiations and predicts that Cropp will get the space she needs. “Mr. Monts and his advisers are interested in everybody being happy,” says Gross. “We would like everyone to come out a winner.”
That’s an impossible scenario for the city. Even if Cropp wangles enough cubes for the council’s interns and clerks, the very transaction reeks of humiliation for the District. After all, the city’s elected legislature is pleading with the feds to find enough space in its own six-story building to conduct business. Only after she concludes the ongoing negotiations, say Cropp, will she turn her energies toward getting the EPA out of the building altogether—a process that she says will take at least three years.
While it’s tempting to view the feds’ leverage in the Wilson Building affair as just another manifestation of its dominion in the capital city, the facts won’t allow such an interpretation. Unlike in the conflicts over needle-exchange riders, death penalty shenanigans, and anti-abortion mandates, the federal government’s power in this case derives not from the Constitution but from the hasty actions of a deficit-ridden city government.
And those actions have no single author. Although Cropp is now assigned to damage control, she voted against the Monts deal in 1995. Nor should council Secretary Jones carry the weight; the council’s lawyers should have scrubbed every square inch of the real estate docs.
Instead, the blame lies with an entire culture of government: One that spends its way into desperation. One that accepts the first bid to come along (the council never considered any alternatives to the Monts proposal). And one whose approach to ensuring friendly treatment by its business partners consists of crossing its fingers.
Cropp’s latest projection is that the council will move back to its building next spring—more than two years after the completion date supporters cited when the deal was first proposed. And Williams’ promises to move his official office to the structure are also on hold. At a time when city residents are embracing nostalgia for the old days through the memory of the late Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas and the prospect of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.’s return to politics, the Wilson Building is there to remind us that they weren’t so good.
It’s gotta be the name. When Mayor Williams took office in January, he changed the name of the Office of Constituent Services to the Office of the Public Advocate. The new moniker confused the public as to just what its advocate was charged with doing. And it appears to have spread the mayhem bug among the office’s staffers as well.
How else to account for the unrest at Williams’ constituent services bureau? On Sept. 13, current Director Carlene Cheatam will step down and clear the way for the third director in eight months, Charly Carter. As she departs, Cheatam can at least take heart that she lasted nearly six months longer than her predecessor, “niggardly” user David Howard.
As the whole world knows, Howard uttered the “n-dly”-word in a meeting with public advocate staffers Marshall Brown and John Fanning. To this day, both Brown and Fanning have kept mum on who turned the proper use of English into a racial brouhaha.
There’s no mystery, however, about who gave Cheatam the most trouble during her tenure as director. Not long after Cheatam took over, she caught Fanning politicking for a run against Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans in 2000. Fanning’s private advocacy angered both the mayor and Cheatam, but he received no reprimand for his activism.
According to Cheatam, Fanning opted not to play by her rules. “He would just be doing independent things, and this has to be a cooperative effort,” says Cheatam. “He would go to meetings, and I wouldn’t necessarily get reports.”
Citing that record, Cheatam says she asked for Fanning’s transfer in July. Cheatam’s higher-ups declined to transfer Fanning, but mayoral legal aide Max Brown did discuss the office’s problems with Fanning, according to Cheatam. “He told [Fanning] to get back on the team,” recalls Cheatam.
Fanning insists that playing on Cheatam’s team was akin to playing for legendary Indiana hoops Coach Bob Knight. “Carlene has this control problem,” says Fanning. “She is treating some of the employees like students….And I think that there was a perception in the office that she was singling me out.”
Perhaps mayoral aide Dion Jordan feels the same way. Last Thursday, Jordan was working in the public advocate’s office on final preparations for the Ward 8 picnic. Although Jordan had once worked under Cheatam, he’d been transferred to another office, so Cheatam told him to leave. According to eyewitness Fanning, she hung up on one of Jordan’s phone calls to make her point. “He’s not on my payroll—he’s not in my office—so I asked him to leave,” confirms Cheatam.
Then she called building security, and Jordan left on his own.
In her new role, Cheatam will advise the mayor on gay and lesbian issues. “She’ll be effective if she has no employees to supervise,” says Fanning.
To judge from his 4 percent showing in last year’s mayoral primary race, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil will have to grovel for every last supporter to win re-election in 2000. Already, though, the three-term councilmember appears to have decided that he can do without the backing of Ward 2’s activist set—you know, the folks who stage fundraisers, work the phones, and staff the polls.
Brazil’s offense? Holding his Aug. 30 Ward 2 community meeting at the O Street Mansion, the controversial bed-and-breakfast/meeting hall run by H.H. Leonards. On Aug. 6, a cross-town coalition of civic associations—including the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, the Federation of Citizens Associations, the Kalorama Citizens Association, and the Capitol Hill Restoration Society—filed a brief in the D.C. Court of Appeals to kill the establishment’s liquor license. The petitioners insist that the club is operating illegally and lament that it has turned a half-block of residential real estate into a mini-convention center.
“It just means I can’t attend,” says Ward 2 resident Bud Lane of Brazil’s choice of venue. “Everyone who heard it could not believe it. And the reaction was laughter.”
That reaction apparently surprised Brazil—even though the mansion conflict has run like a civic version of Days of Our Lives in the local media over the past few years. “We are meeting with the councilmember and his chief of staff on this choice,” says Brazil aide Douglass Sloan. Too bad the invitations have already gone out. CP
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