Last month, Mayor Anthony A. Williams traveled to Las Vegas for a convention of the nation’s premier retailers. Among the messages he received in his chats with the assembled Wal-Marts and Old Navys was that name-brand department stores and the like won’t throw anchor in downtown D.C. until the city’s core attracts more residents.
Armed with industry’s suggestion, you’d think the mayor would have come straight back from Las Vegas to install signs on every downtown corner proclaiming, “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now.”
Williams opted for a different tactic. On June 3, the mayor wrote a letter to D.C. Zoning Commission Chair Jerrily Kress pleading for expedited action on a proposal to downgrade housing requirements at the Woodward & Lothrop building at 11th and F Streets NW. The commission last week rejected the appeal on a 5-0 vote. Despite its failure, Williams’ proposal attests to a law of nature in District politics: Once you’re ensconced in the mayor’s suite, you develop an incurable fondness for developers and the notion of downtown as the antiseptic domain of the salaryman.
That’s the picture that history paints, anyhow. Despite city plans that call for a “living downtown” with thousands of new housing units, the past two decades have featured an endless march of office-building construction, draining the center city of nightlife, taxpayers, and the intangible energy that comes from full-time residents invested in the downtown neighborhood.
The Williams administration, of course, claims that downtown planning has entered a new era—no matter how familiar the mayor’s letter to Kress sounds. “Yes, the mayor is committed to a diverse living downtown,” says Lindsley Williams, the mayor’s senior adviser on land-use planning and zoning. “That means arts, retail, residential, and even offices.”
Put the accent on offices. In appealing to the zoning commission, Williams is greasing the rails for developer Doug Jemal, who earlier this year bought the Woodies property from the Washington Opera. Jemal plunked down nearly $30 million for the property, knowing full well that existing zoning rules mandated a mix of residential, entertainment/arts, and retail uses for the building.
Now, Jemal wants the zoning revised to some more profitable—and less living-downtown-friendly—proportions: half office and half other uses.
“When you take on a project, you don’t know what your tenancy is going to be. That’s business,” says Jemal. “If everyone knew what would happen, it wouldn’t be business.” Here’s what Jemal’s current “business” conditions have in store for Woodies: retail establishments in the basement and first two floors, topped by several floors of office and residential space. Jemal even muses about building some additional floors for “courtyard” apartments.
Downtown observers worry about how much Jemal will actually do with the property.
“It is possible that Jemal is in this to flip the [newly rezoned property] to somebody else,” says Charles Docter, chair of the Downtown Housing Now Committee.
In spite of their expressed support for expediting the zoning process, administration officials aren’t too anxious to link arms in public with Jemal’s changing business vision. Lindsley Williams, for one, says the mayor has no opinion on the “merits” of Jemal’s office-space amendments but views their speedy consideration as fulfillment of a campaign pledge. “This government was elected under a number of different tenets, and one of them was regulatory reform,” says Lindsley Williams, “and one of the aspects of regulatory reform was to move things along more quickly.”
Perhaps Lindsley Williams should consult his Woodies file. In there should be a May 10 memo from the mayor’s Office of Planning vowing to “make it very clear…why office space is needed to achieve the other goals for the building.” So much for Lindsley Williams’ assertion that the mayor’s request was simply a matter of speeding up slowpoke regulators.
For a guy who’s so often hammered for ignoring history, Mayor Williams should feel happy about falling right in line with one of the city’s most sordid traditions. While he was watching the books in spots like Boston and St. Louis, big-time developers here in D.C. were tiptoeing around city requirements that they build housing in the central business district.
The scam usually went like this: In order to extract maximum profit from their projects, downtown developers strove to jam as much office space as possible within four walls. And in exchange for the right to evade zoning rules that required housing at the downtown sites, they pledged either to build low-cost housing in far-flung neighborhoods or to contribute millions to housing nonprofits. That practice goes a long way toward explaining why apartment buildings have yet to advance beyond the fringes of downtown.
If the mayor does indeed intend to reverse that pattern, there’s no better place to start than the Woodies building. Located right at Metro Center, the 500,000-square-foot building is commonly referred to as the downtown’s “grande dame” and has fueled a four-year municipal obsession over its fate since the store’s closing. Says downtown housing proponent Terry Lynch: “It’s a flagship building for the city and for the region.”
But instead of using Woodies to trot out his commitment to a living downtown, says Lynch, the mayor is showcasing something far more familiar to his political skeptics. “This speaks to the mayor’s style,” says Lynch. “He has no planning director, is changing historical course with no consultation, has no orderly planning process, and comes right out of the blue with this proposal. He’s going to upset a well-crafted effort over several years to get that building back in use.”
Lynch is referring in part to the tenor craze of 1996, when opera star Luciano Pavarotti appeared via videotape before the zoning commission on behalf of the Washington Opera appealing for an amendment converting the building to full entertainment use. The appeal succeeded, but the Washington Opera’s plans failed. In response, the council last fall recommended its mixed-use plan for the building. Now comes Jemal asking for yet another mix—except that instead of Pavarotti, he has Williams as his star tenor.
If all these guys can tinker with Woodies, so can LL. Here goes: Designate the property for use as the D.C. Museum of Zoning. Eager wonks would visit displays documenting classic zoning frauds in city history—including office construction around Franklin Square Plaza, an area once reserved for new urban apartment buildings and the wonders of Techworld, the heinous building that blocked a city street so D.C. leaders could feel Space Age. In an interactive wing, visitors could push buttons with labels such as “Housing Buyouts,” triggering displays of projected profits for developers. And on their way out, the throngs could buy copies of current zoning regulations at the bookstore. The constant changes introduced by developer allies on the D.C. Council would mean shoppers in search of up-to-date volumes would have to return again and again and again.
Should LL’s dream crumble, all sides of the Woodies building dust-up will have to work out a resolution. Lynch says that at the very least Jemal won’t do what most of his developer counterparts would—namely, build no residential component whatsoever. “I’m a big fan of Doug Jemal’s,” says Lynch. “He is doing the city a great service by buying the building and paying taxes on it.”
Still, Lynch could do without the mayor’s intervention on behalf of a 9-to-5 downtown. “This project is going to work despite the mayor,” says Lynch.
Heavy-hitting Georgetown lawyer Max Berry was a natural candidate to sit on the board of directors for the newly formed Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID). The longtime D.C. political strategist, after all, claims to have been the first advocate of the BID concept in the District, and he lobbied to clear the way for Evans’ bill authorizing the districts. “I am the reason for the Evans legislation,” says Berry, who last year chaired the Tony Williams for Mayor Committee.
Berry’s bona fides, however, didn’t impress an alliance of disgruntled small-business proprietors in upper Georgetown. At the Georgetown BID’s inaugural elections in late May, the small fry mustered to show their disapproval of what they view as the BID’s bias in favor of large retailers in the heart of Georgetown. The object of their disapproval? Berry, who failed to gain a seat on board.
“We were opposed to the BID in the first place,” says Lisa Thompson, owner of Baldaquin Fine Linens and ringleader of the anti-Berry faction. “We are what make Georgetown unique—not Banana Republic or the Gap.”
LL asked Berry, a kingmaker of sorts in D.C. politics, how it felt to get bounced around by a bunch of no-names; he responded with all the savvy of a guy who’s been managing campaigns since the dawn of home rule. “It’s really a blessing in disguise, because [board membership] takes a lot of time,” he said.
Moments later, Berry apparently decided that time constraints weren’t such a big deal after all: “I want the BID to succeed, so I’m going to be on a couple of committees.”
In his last term, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. drew fire for plucking workers from ground-level agencies—like the police and fire departments—and placing them on his administrative staff. Williams’ personnel moves are headed in the opposite direction.
The mayor in May relieved Henry Sumner “Sandy” McCall of his duties as deputy chief of staff and dispatched him to help plan the city’s millennium celebration. Two other aides—education adviser Rosslyn Snowden and public-private partnerships adviser Kay McGrath—are headed out the door as well, Snowden to a post under schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and McGrath to a yet-to-be-determined position, possibly with the Metropolitan Police Department. Mayoral spokesperson Peggy Armstrong insists the downsizing stems from the change in the mayor’s management portfolio. “During the transition, we set up for one kind of government, and we have to change now that we are going back to normal government,” says Armstrong, referring to the restoration of Williams’ authority over the agencies.
Columbia Heights activist Dorothy Brizill strongly objects to LL’s characterization of her stance on Mayor Williams in last week’s column. Brizill insists she has never said that she hates the mayor and has never called him a carpetbagger. She says she would never have said Williams knows nothing about her neighborhood—where, she says, she gave him a tour herself; her comment to that effect, she claims, was about one of Williams’ economic development underlings. Furthermore, Brizill argues that the column leaves the reader with the mistaken impression that she has criticized the mayor’s neighborhood stabilization officers, when in fact her criticisms are directed only at the mayor’s task force on neighborhood stabilization. CP
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