Last year, the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire a consultant to scout locations for a new D.C. baseball stadium. The company, HNTB of Kansas City, proposed eight sitesincluding a plot near the Anacostia Metro station, Buzzard Point, and RFK Stadium, an arena built to accommodate a baseball diamond.
HNTB, however, chose an undeveloped area north of Massachusetts Avenue between 3rd and 5th Streets NW as its “preferred site.” This slice of Shaw, said the consultants, had everything the bigwigs of modern baseball seek in a new park: proximity to downtown, a fallow plot of land promising virtually no residential or commercial displacement, and ready access to public transportation.
The consultant didn’t mention that the site also abuts that most endangered of species: a poor community that happens to live on prime real estate. And the community bears a convenient distinction for the developers and pro-business politicians working to bury it under a blanket of tourist-friendly megaprojects: Shaw has the most pliable community leadership of any D.C. neighborhood.
It doesn’t take Pete Rosemuch less a Kansas City consultantto give odds on how this fight will turn out.
At a March 11 meeting with his Shaw constituents, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans called chances for professional baseball in D.C. “a long shot.”
That’s savvy neighborhood politics from a man who has orchestrated construction of two other monolithsthe MCI Center and the new convention centerat nearby sites. By playing up the project’s slim prospects, Evans lulls the stadium’s opponents into a prolonged rain delay. To date, stadium opponents have yet to convene a strategy meeting.
That’s probably a good thing. Despite their current hand-wringing over the impact of a massive new stadium, the leading antisadvisory neighborhood commissioners Lawrence Thomas, Leroy Thorpe, and Rodney Foxworthall caved last year on the convention center, another enormous footprint. The only difference now is that D.C.’s business elites aren’t sprinkling position-changing incentivesyet. Perhaps that’s why each commissioner expressed pointed reservations about the project at the March 11 powwow with Evans and Sports Commission baseball point man Bill Hall.
Thomas: “Why should we have a major-league baseball stadium when we don’t have good playgrounds for our own children?”
Foxworth: “The Shaw consensus is that we see a major development coming down the pike, and we feel it would overwhelm the neighborhood.”
Thorpe: “We need something that will benefit the community….I’m against this baseball stadium,” according to a phone interview with LL.
With these guys as enemies, Evans and Hall won’t need much help from Mayor Anthony A. Williams, control board Chair Alice Rivlin, or Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. Just make a few grand promises, dole out some sweeteners, and listen to these strident voices soften to a chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” By the time it’s all over, they’ll be fighting to throw out the first pitch.
Here’s the history:
•Thomas’ expertise in milking vested interests for community treats is well-documented. Washington Convention Center Authority employees donated assorted TVs, computers, and VCRs to the neighborhood recreation center he runs as they planned to plop their giant new edifice atop his neighborhood. And according to a damning report from the D.C. Auditor, as chair of ANC 2C, Thomas in 1996 and 1997 accepted a total of $1,100 in donations from zoning law firm Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane and partner Norman “Chip” Glasgow. Thomas disbursed the funds to his fellow commissioners to purchase “gifts for the needy,” but the “ANC’s files…did not contain any documentation which justified the commissioners’ receipt of these funds and described how the funds were actually used by each recipient,” said the report (see Loose Lips, “Committees of the Hole,” 1/15/99).
While Thomas’ ANC was accepting the donations, it voted unanimously in favor of at least three Wilkes, Artis projects. Thomas did not return LL’s call for comment.
•Foxworth’s conduct during the convention center fight won’t exactly help him court an anti-baseball following. He accepted $4,000 in the form of a subcontract from a convention center economic-development contractor before voting in favor of the project from his post on the Logan Circle ANC. Citing conflict-of-interest violations, convention center opponent Beth Solomon filed a complaint against Foxworth with the city’s Office of Campaign Finance, which found evidence of “apparent ethics transgressions” but eventually dismissed the case.
“It was a smokescreen,” says Foxworth, “an attempt by folks to slander leadership in the Shaw community.”
•Thorpethe Albert Belle of Shaw activistswill delight D.C. baseball fans if he opposes the baseball stadium with the same ferocity as the convention center. In the early stages of that debate, Thorpe used racial epithets to discredit convention center supportersan indiscretion that prompted his removal from a citizens advisory group on the project. Then, in April 1997, he joined arms with Solomon in founding the Shaw Coalition. After a falling-out with Solomon, Thorpe decided he’d test out the other side of the issuea decision he attributes to the project’s inevitability.
“After it was a done deal, and I saw that this was coming down from the White House…I said, ‘OK, this shit is coming. I gotta sit at the table,’” says Thorpe. Turned out to be a cozy spot: In May 1998, Emily Vetter of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., contributed $7,000 in supplies to Thorpe’s Citizens Organized Patrol Efforts, an Orange Hat group.
A committed anti-baseball leader in Shaw would have no shortage of issues for the soapbox. For starters, Sports Commission representatives have articulated various views on the perennial promise of grand development projects: jobs. But in a presentation before the Ward 2 Democrats last week, Sports Commission member Linda Greenan proclaimed, “We’re not saying this is about bringing jobs to the city. This is about bringing baseball to the city.”
Greenan’s admission marks a candid and refreshing departure from the big-building promo handbook, which preaches overselling the employment upside of any impending development. That’s the strategy that Hall embraced at the March 11 community meeting: “The job opportunities are substantial in any negotiations with prospective owners,” said Hall, who splits his time between Sports Commission duties and work for the downtown law firm Winston & Strawn. “Some would be part-time, but there would be full-time as well.”
Shawites have heard that same line twice in the past decadeonce for the MCI Center and once for the convention centereach time promising locals hundreds of jobs. In both cases, the promises have been just good enough to get the projects through the requisite regulatory hurdles, which is precisely where their articulators have left them.
At the Jan. 28 meeting of the Washington Convention Center Authority’s board of directors, Evans hammered developers of the planned six-square-block building for failing to deliver on a pledge to offer an apprenticeship program for the neighborhood’s unemployed. Although Evans’ plea prompted the authority to issue a request for proposals for the program, the city has virtually no leverage to force compliance with pre-groundbreaking promises.
Baseball opponents should view the stadium job projections with the same skepticism as Sports Commission pronouncements that Shaw is one of eight possible sites for the ballpark. The results of the selection debate are about as predictable as the results of the 1919 World Series. Like the convention center before it, the Shaw baseball stadium location was a done deal before the first public meeting. After all, why mess around with a stadium on the Anacostia when you can buy off Shaw and become part of the emerging downtown Disneyland?
The bill of goods reads like this: HNTB did an exhaustive review of all potential sites citywide and in February revealed that the Shaw plot beat all comers based on the company’s site-selection criteria. The commission paid $200,000 for this insight, along with a companion report on the potential economic impact of the project.
That’s quite a sum to figure out something you already know. According to commission minutes, Hall was meeting with Thomas as early as last October on the baseball project. Hall termed the meeting a “briefing” but conceded that he hadn’t met with neighbors of any other potential site.
Hall’s overtures to Thomas are sound investments that will likely be redeemed in short order. He’ll have a tougher time with Shaw Coalition vet Solomon, who says she’s “coalition-building” before taking her protest to the streets.
In no time, Solomon will be trotting out her white elephant costume, flimsy street signs, and clunky slogans. And baseball geeks all around town will be marking Opening Day 2001 on their calendars.
Williams’ critics are drawing up ever longer lists of folks the mayor should have consulted before proposing to move the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) out of tony Ward 3: UDC President Julius Nimmons, UDC student leaders, the D.C. Council, and, of course, LL.
However, LL would have recommended consulting a National Capital Planning Commission document titled simply “Transfer of Jurisdiction,” which would have spared Williams the ignominy of ignorance on a fundamental aspect of his proposalthe disposition of UDC’s Van Ness site, which Williams proposed selling to pad the city’s coffers. The problem: The feds own the land.
The issue took Williams by surprise at his March 15 press conference on the proposal. “There’s a number of things we need approval from the federal government on,” Williams said when asked about the land. The press didn’t push him for clarification.
He caught a break there. Neither he nor his budget wonks had investigated the land’s status before the budget proposal rollout. Wednesday, March 17, four days after Williams unveiled the plan to his loyalists, mayoral minions were still researching the disposition question, according to a well-placed administration source. The possible ownership scenarios under investigation read like a multiple-choice question on a real estate exam: (a) joint D.C.-federal ownership, with sole federal ownership of athletic grounds; (b) D.C. ownership for educational purposes only; (c) outright D.C. ownership; and (d) joint ownership by D.C. and private individuals.
The 1972 document settles the score, transferring “to the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia…the area shown hereon…provided that the area so transferred is developed and used in accordance with the Master Plan for the Washington Technical Institute [now known as UDC].”
“They had no idea who owned the land,” said a D.C. Council source when asked about the confusion in the mayor’s office. Williams’ press office did not return a call on the matter.
Last year, mayoral candidate Kevin Chavous needed votes. So he aligned himself with all kinds of granola-munching community types who shared his views on neighborhood protection, people like Dupont Circle’s Marilyn Groves, council staffer Adam Maier, educational activist Bonnie Cain, and Solomon.
These days, though, Chavous doesn’t need votes; he needs money. His failed mayoral run and its euphoric eleventh-hour overspending left him nearly $150,000 in the hole. So the Ward 7 councilmember has a new red-meat-eating A list: lawyer and lobbyist Mary Eva Candon, restaurateur Paul Cohn, superlawyer Glasgow, and real estate developer and longtime Evans fundraiser Kerry Pearson, among others. The heavy hitters planned a debt-retirement fundraiser for Chavous on March 25.
Together, the lineup represents the big-business coalition responsible for the city’s weak liquor laws, lax zoning protections, and lust for huge downtown projectsin other words, everything that Chavous grew hoarse denouncing last summer.
“It makes me want to barf,” says a onetime Chavous supporter. “If he did it unknowingly, then he doesn’t know what’s up. If he did it knowingly, then I don’t want to know about it.”
Pearson, the event’s chair, who spent last summer raising approximately $800,000 from the developers Chavous ran against for Evans’ mayoral run, tried his best to keep Chavous’ mayoral message intact. “The average contribution to this event is $100,” he says. “We are getting a lot of contributions from the neighborhoods.” The event was slated for Georgia Brown’s. To paraphrase a Chavous campaign refrain, that’s downtown, not around town. CP
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