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Charlene Drew Jarvis is running out of time to spruce up the shoddy Georgia Avenue corridor. The five-term Ward 4 Councilmember was first elected to office in 1979 and has chaired the D.C. Council’s committee on economic development since 1981. Most of the projects that Jarvis has promoted in her two decades of servicetwo convention centers, the MCI Center, and sundry office developmentslie several ZIP codes away from the pauperized merchants of her own ward’s main drag. Promises to revive the avenue have been a boilerplate feature of the councilmember’s campaign rhetoric.
Unfortunately, the last Georgia Avenue development initiative did more to embarrass Jarvis than to enhance her standing. Under pressure to do something for the four-mile eyesore between New Hampshire Avenue and Eastern Avenue, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. in 1996 proposed associating it more closely with its more thriving southern extension, 7th Street NW. With straight faces, Barry officials sat before the council suggesting that “Georgia Avenue” signs replace “7th Street” all the way down to the MCI Center. The notion went nowhere.
Having jettisoned the Burma-Myanmar approach to neighborhood revitalization, Jarvis is now pursuing a strategy of comparably dubious merit: luring D.C. government agencies to Georgia Avenue. Through meetings with Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other city leaders, Jarvis is pimping her back-yard albatross as an ideal haunt for the city’s Department of Employment Services (DOES), which must soon vacate its offices at 500 C St. NW.
In a city where changing street signs doubles as an economic policy initiative, the relocation of a 330-employee agency and its daily stream of customers cannot go uncontested. The council’s three east-of-the-river representativesWard 7’s Kevin Chavous, Ward 8’s Sandy Allen, and Sharon Ambrose, whose Ward 6 includes historic Anacostiahave allied themselves against Jarvis for the DOES prize. The conflict sets up a sticky political choice for Williams and signals that Barry’s reigning economic-development strategy has outlived his 16 years in office.
Where to move DOES has weighed on Williams since his first week in office. Residents of Hillcrest, the Ward 7 community where his campaign germinated last spring, pressed the issue during a Jan. 9 mayoral visit to the neighborhood. And Chavous and Allen have piled on in recent weeks, harping on the disintegration of the consumer base for retail outlets east of the river and playing up the benefits of hosting more than 300 city employees in one of the area’s blighted strips. “We are laying down the gauntlet on the DOES relocation,” Chavous told LL. “We have to come together around this issue. It’s a gut check for the administration.”
With Chavous questioning his guts, Williams responded like a veritable Louis Gossett Jr. On Feb. 17, the mayor held a press conference at One Judiciary Square at which he trotted out east-of-the-river appointees Vincent Spaulding and Lamont Mitchell, along with a few choice lines about how he will reward the neighborhoods that sponsored his candidacy. “In two months, there’ll be no question in anyone’s mind about our commitment [to economic development east of the river],” said Williams.
To date, Williams has come forth with no parallel calls to action for upper Georgia Avenuean omission that clearly rankles Jarvis. “Historically, the Barry administration has not paid much attention to Georgia Avenue,” says the councilmember. “Their priorities have been east of the river.”
Apparently, the Ward 4 councilmember no longer has any designs on citywide office.
Jarvis’ contention countervails the Williams administration’s prevailing wisdom, which holds that the city government has traditionally cut off services at the western bank of the Anacostia. “Anacostia and east of the river are of such importance that they require separate attention,” said Williams at the Feb. 17 press conference.
If that’s the case, asks Jarvis, then how do you account for the Good Hope Marketplace, the Safeway-anchored shopping center in Ward 7 that was built with the aid of taxpayer dollars? The answerclear to anyone who has chaired an economic-development committee for 20 yearsis one Jarvis is happy to provide: Because the census tracts surrounding the Good Hope project are poor, says Jarvis, the mall’s developer qualified for $11 million in federal loans.
Ward 4, as it turns out, isn’t blessed with any comparably impoverished neighborhoods. “Four months ago, we filed a $100 million empowerment-zone application,” says Jarvis. “Not one census tract in Ward 4 is eligible for empowerment-zone money, and that was true of only one other wardWard 3.
“The Georgia Avenue corridor needs the city’s focusing and targeting of city office buildings,” Jarvis adds. “The Ward 7 community has resources that the Ward 4 community does not from the federal government.”
“That’s horseduckets,” counters Greg Rhett, a Ward 7 activist and failed 1998 candidate for an at-large seat on the council. “Previous administrations may have focused their rhetoric here, but come here and show me where the results have been focused. Where are the new retail shops?”
Ambrose, who has trouble hiding her contempt for her Ward 4 colleague, can’t resist commentary on Jarvis’ lobbying ploy for the DOES relocation. “That’s how the federal funding formulas work, and they’re pegged to need,” says Ambrose. “She’s always so successful in getting support for things downtown that I couldn’t imagine she wouldn’t be as successful in her own ward.”
The council’s tug of war over DOES attests to the stunning durability of city office buildings as an economic-development gimmick. “It would do for us what the Reeves Center did for U Street,” says Chavous. Says Jarvis: “It would act as the catalyst for the re-attraction of retail along the corridor.”
Or, alternatively, it would blend into an already dreary cityscape, just like the Department of Human Services (DHS) offices at 6th and H Streets NE. Barry announced the relocation of 900 DHS employees to the site in August 1986, an initiative that coincided with the christening of the Reeves Center and a new paradigm in municipal economic development. “If it were Sunday, I’d shout, I’m so happy,” Hizzoner said at a ceremony announcing the DHS project. Barely a decade later, H Street residents shout every day of the week, in distress over store closings, violent crime, and the war-zone retail outlets along the strip that DHS was to have revitalized.
Nor has the Reeves Center triggered the explosion of the U Street corridor, which owes its renaissance to clubgoing types from Adams Morgan, Howard University, and the suburbs. Last time LL wandered into State of the Union, he didn’t run into his buddies from the Office of Campaign Finance.
And to posit that DOES will revitalize Georgia Avenue or Minnesota Avenue is like projecting that a White Castle will prompt an upscale surge in Georgetown. For starters, DOES is relocating only 330 employees, a third of the DHS total. And many of the folks who visit the department each day aren’t quite ready to fuel Jarvis’ Ward 4 retail engine: They’re unemployed.
Given the agency’s dubious economic-development credentials, perhaps the Williams administration should look at a new priority in its relocation decisionnamely, how to improve services for the District’s unemployed. If the mayor follows that mandate, he’ll locate the agency east of the river, where up to 70 percent of DOES’s customers reside.
A Ward 7 siting would also allow Williams to begin payments on the political debt to Chavous he has incurred since his Jan. 2 inauguration. In various pronouncements, Williams has ripped off the neighborhood-promotion platform that made Chavous an early favorite to take the mayor’s office. The Feb. 17 press conference yielded this choice bit of mayoral plagiarism: “The issue we have to be concerned with is neighborhood development from Anacostia to Georgia Avenue. We have to lay the groundwork brick by brick, bringing dry cleaners, pharmacies, and grocery stores back into our neighborhoods. That’s my vision,” said Chavousoops, check that, Williams.
The next day, Williams announced a problematic first plank in his pro-neighborhood platform: a $300 million baseball stadium supported by D.C.’s wealthiest downtown development interests. Residents of city neighborhoods apparently need Ball Park franks, peanuts, and skyboxes, toothey’ll just have to hop on the Metro to get them.
Chavous has his doubts about the baseball idea helping neighborhoods, but nonetheless expresses gratitude for the appearance of his pet issue on the mayoral agenda. “One thing I’m pleased about is being able to elevate the discussion,” says Chavous. “He obviously thinks that a lot of what I said makes sense.”
Developers who wish to destroy a building in the city must jump through an array of regulatory hoops worthy of Siegfried & Royincluding demolition permits, historic-preservation waivers, and other painstaking paperwork. And if the building happens to lie on the boundaries of Ward 1, add another hoop: the signature of Councilmember Jim Graham.
Last week, Graham stopped the wrecking ball from descending on the American Security Bank building on the southeast corner of Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street, at the juncture of the Duke Ellington and Taft bridges. The demolition would have made way for a mixed office/retail development housing the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. “I have indeed delayed the demolition, and I’m very proud of that,” Graham told LL.
Come election time, Graham’s political opponents won’t be able to criticize the incumbent for ambivalence. After years of city politiciansincluding Graham’s predecessorpaying lip service to preservation while helping turn historic architecture into so many strip malls, Graham has apparently decided that when in doubt, it’s better to preserve. The building that Graham “saved” is not even a historic landmark, and it doesn’t command the emotions of its neighbors. No one was poised to throw flesh and bones in front of the wrecker.
The project’s opponents cite a more personal motivation behind the councilmember’s coup. “He talked about how he enjoyed banking there,” says Stan Schwartz, who has spearheaded the development for the association. According to Schwartz, the association has devoted $3 million to the undertaking, which had cleared most regulatory hurdlesuntil Graham caught wind of the plan.
“I’m a friend of historic preservation,” says Graham, who in February killed a proposal by Safeway to destroy the landmark Tivoli Theater in Columbia Heights. “Sure, I happen to have banked there, but so what?” The councilmember said that the building, constructed in 1948, had never undergone a “detailed” historic review, even though city officials had twice pointedly excluded it from the neighborhood preservation area.
“The place is infested with rats and was formerly a crack den,” says Schwartz. For his part, Graham looks beyond the building’s rats, vegetation, and boxy profile. “It’s made of limestone and marble, and the style is restrained art moderne,” says the councilmember. “There are very few examples of this style left, as we’ve demolished so many.”
Armed with his architectural expertise, Graham last week requested a Historic Preservation Review Board hearing on the building’s status. The board rejected the request, according to Graham, “on a technicality.” However, Graham’s concerns convinced preservation officials to delay approving the demolition permit for at least several weeksa prospect that Schwartz says could void the entire deal. “If we can’t get into the building on time, we’ll have to pay double rent, and we aren’t a rich association,” claims Schwartz, citing penalties the association will incur by overstaying its current lease.
At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson calls Graham’s campaign a “wake-up call” for the project’s developer, the Brodsky Group, to upgrade the design for the association’s new complex. “The design is widely viewed as disappointing, and that’s really a signature corner,” says Mendelson.
And Graham makes no apologies to Schwartz, who complains that his association worked “for two years” with former Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith on the plan. “I have been the councilmember since Jan. 3,” says Graham. “The people of Ward 1 have vested their trust in me.”
Taking the baton from raw potholes and downed tree limbs, the city’s electrical-inspection crisis over the past year has stood as the symbol of lousy District government. At-large inspectors from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) have held up construction projects from Friendship Heights to Congress Heights. Remedying the problem even made Williams’ Jan. 25 list of short-term goals.
Well, the crisis is easing perhaps a bit too quickly for some city officials. Last week, an electrical inspector short-circuited DCRA’s own plans to move into its new offices at 941 North Capitol Street NE. “We have parts of the building where construction is ongoing,” says department spokesperson Lyn Alexander. To override the inspection problems, DCRA issued a temporary certificate of occupancy for the officesa special authorization reserved for the DCRA’s most cherished applicants, a group that apparently includes the agency itself. “It’s extremely unusual,” says a DCRA source. CP
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