If you want to understand how magnificent a classic city hall can be, you might want to start by checking out its thoroughly modern antipode.
On a sunny summer afternoon, a half-dozen smokers are standing just outside the glass doors of One Judiciary Square. Workers on break wolf down late lunches sitting on the edge of flower-beds nearby. On the sidewalk, vendors sell hot dogs and sodas and toys for kids.
This is the spectacle upon which Marion Barry descends. His Lincoln Town Car swoops in on the spot waiting out front of One Judiciary Square. When the door opens, the mayor is a magnet for all eyes. He strolls toward the door, a politician in stride, waving at some of the folks and stopping to hug a woman before passing inside.
It’s a scene that could be repeated in any city in the country. The waves, the glad hands, the mayor who remembers people’s namesit conjures up Richard Daley stepping into Chicago’s city hall or Boss Curley pounding his way into Boston’s. Except for one thing: the building. Far from boasting imperial trappings from the golden age of urban America, the edifice Washington’s mayor has just entered looks like an outtake from Legoland. There’s glass and concrete and light and air, but not much else. A champion city pol like Barry manages to seem larger than life, but his local headquarters, these days, seem built for a pygmy.
One Judiciary Square is not a horrible place. Really. It has a food court. It has a big, glassed-in foyer. It has clean, quiet hallways. It has a big mural that depicts an ostensibly Washingtonian street scene where everyone is happy and clean.
On the upper floors, D.C.’s government headquarters has phenomenal views: Look east and the Capitol looms so close you feel like as if you could grab it. Look west and you see the modern downtown office buildings that sprang up during the District’s 1980s building boom. Look north and you see miles and miles of the city whose servants these offices house. Look down the hall and you see a comfy, 1990s string of offices.
Yet no one could ever confuse One Judiciary Square with something magnificent. The structure could serve as a peppy corporate headquarters for, let’s say, a pest-control empire or a cable-television provider. It could be in Dallas or Sacramento or suburban Seattle.
City halls are supposed to show off a town’s hopes and dreams. The seat of government is generally embellished to validate worth and inspire fealty, the columns and pedestals and imperial façade all letting you know that the people’s business is important business.
But instead of stateliness, One Judiciary Square offers fast, efficient elevators. If truth-in-packaging laws applied to buildings, D.C.’s government headquarters would go by its actual street address: 441 4th St. NW. Calling it One anything seems like a bit of a stretch.
The current building actually does reflect D.C.’s aspirationsor at least the state of them. Since its government moved to One Judiciary Square, Washington has faced fiscal crisis and political emasculation. Unable to fix its streets or open its schools, the District has seen its government usurped by the financial control board and dictated to by suburban legislators. The bureaucrats inside the building no longer even work for democratically elected city officials. Their headquarters blares the same message as have the last five years of headlines about D.C.: the feds won, and we ended up here.
And oh yeah, enjoy the food court.
Washington does, in fact, have a real city hall. The John Wilson Building, 10 blocks west of Judiciary Square at 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, on the corner of 14th Street, is hometown D.C.’s own slice of glory amidst downtown’s imperial grandeur. For eight decades, the monumental edifice housed the District’s various elected and unelected municipal governments.
That all changed in 1992, when Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon marched her executive branch from the aging building, then called the District Building, to One Judiciary Square early in her single term as mayor. The administration called the rickety old structure outmoded and trumpeted the modern new one. Predictably enough, outrage followed when it was revealed that D.C. had overpaid for One Judiciary Square by $30 million.
And it didn’t help mattersor Dixon’s aloof imagewhen it turned out that the one corner of the new building that provided the exception to the faceless corporate style was the $250,000, bulletproof-glassed mayor’s suite, replete with $140,000 worth of fine wood cabinets and a $50,000 fireplace. Some say One Judiciary Square helped cost the mayor her job.
When the executive branch fled the crumbling District Building, the D.C. Council was left alone to dodge the building’s flaking paint and leaky ceilings. With considerably fewer delusions of grandeur, the council followed the mayor’s example last year, temporarily relocating to Judiciary Square while the crumbling Wilson Building underwent desperately needed renovations.
According to Secretary to the Council Phyllis Jones, if all goes as planned, the council’s stay at Judiciary Square will only last through the end of this year. Jones says the move back to the Wilson Building is slated for shortly after the inauguration of a new mayor. The mayor, meanwhile, will have an office there as well, although most of the executive branch will stay at One Judiciary Square.
But there’s a catch: The reason the executive branch won’t come back in earnest is that there’s no room for it.
In order to finance the reconstruction, the city is permitting local developer T. Conrad Monts’ Washington Development Group (WDG) to rent out two-thirds of the building to the federal government for 20 years, according to the terms of a 1996 agreement. It’s an odd spectacle: A municipal government that pays out millions of dollars in office rent to jam workers here and there all over town will be unable to occupy some of the few offices it actually owns.
Beyond the practical problems of a bifurcated government and a city that’s given up much of its only piece of prime property, there are enormous psychological costs, too. Cities live on symbols. And the symbolism of the Wilson Building’s new real estate setup is hard to miss: In a town where defending the trappings of home rule is the one political absolute, most of city hall is about to be occupied by the feds, D.C.’s public enemy No. 1. With national-
government bureaucrats scurrying about on three floorsfloors that will be off limits to D.C. employees, who will have to enter through a separate door and won’t be allowed past the federal floors’ security postsWashington will be like just another tenant in its own house.
When the District struck its deal, it was jammed between two imperatives: a collapsing city hall and an empty city wallet. Councilmembers who were there as both the building and D.C.’s finances atrophied say that the leasing scheme was the best bargain the city could get. “I’d have preferred that it remain a city-controlled building with only city offices there,” says former Ward 7 Councilmember H.R. Crawford, who left office in 1992. “The marriage was necessary because of economics.”
Don’t tell that to WAMU political commentator Mark Plotkin. He says the partitioned Wilson Building will make soulless One Judiciary Square look like a patriotic hometown monument by comparison.
“There’s a total lack of public outrage over the farming out of our common space,” says Plotkin. “It is a symbol of us acceding to the permanent federal control. It’s like us saying we can’t afford to live in our house anymore, so let’s sell it.”
A Wilson Building fanatic, Plotkin has spent the better part of three years waging a one-man multi-
media war for the property. He’s done newspaper articles and radio screeds, jawboning writers, editors, and councilmembers, as well as pretty much anyone else who will listen. To this day, Plotkin can barely let a press conference go by without hitting some unfortunate city politician over the head with a question about the building. (The politicians, in turn, now respond to questions about the project by sayingas Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous recently did”Oh, you mean Mark Plotkin’s thing?”)
Activists did manage to kick up a brief flurry in 1995. A group calling itself the “Friends of the John A. Wilson District Building” organized protests. A number of historians, preservationists, and other busybodies got into the act. But as the city’s dire economic straitsand the redevelopment proposal’s high-octane political enginebecame evident, most people eased off. After a brief flurry of news in 1995, the issue disappeared from D.C.’s radar screen.
Plotkin says the media have failed to keep citizens informed about the fate of a collectively held treasure, as if civic pride were some kind of luxury. But many proud D.C. citizens have taken a long, hard stare at the bottom line and decided that there are more important things to do than worry about the seat of local government.
Plotkin believes that the government’s abdication of its own space is indicative of a broad municipal ennui. He grew up in Chicago and claims locals there would never have allowed their city hall to crumble or to be leased out to outsiders. “No other city would permit this to get this far,” says Plotkin. “Here we have no sense of place, no sense of history, no sense even of our own history.”
When the District Building was dedicated in 1908, Washington’s new municipal headquarters was called the most beautiful city hall in the country, a grand Italian-revival structure that rivaled the White House and the Capitol as the nicest building on Pennsylvania Avenue.
At the Fourth of July dedication, the U.S. Marine Band played as the flag was raised. Visiting mayors from Baltimore, Richmond, and other towns up and down the East Coast feted the building and the city that owned it. Washington’s Board of Trade sponsored the celebration. A former board president named John Wilson read the pledge of allegiance. (The building would be renamed the John Wilson Building after the 1993 suicide of theentirely unrelatedD.C. Council chairman.)
Of course, the new building was essentially the big house on a political plantation. As a piece of architecture, it was a beaut. But as a symbol of demo-
cracy, it was a monument to cruel ironies. The District had no traditional mayor to cut the ribbon and schmooze with the assembled dignitaries on opening day. At the time, the city was ruled by a trio of commissioners appointed by the president and supervised by Congress. The citizens who turned out to toast the new building were disenfranchised, no matter how open and welcoming their new palace was.
As a collection of bricks, though, the District Building was a crowning jewel for an urban renaissance that in just a few decades turned D.C. from a dingy architectural backwater into a grand gilded city. According to D.C. historian Kathryn Smith, the District was one of the first cities in the nation to fully embrace the City Beautiful architectural movement that was then in vogue. “They all got involved in trying out these ideas in Washington,” says Smith. “This was a statement about making a city beautiful. The buildings that were built were public buildings, made for public use. It was about civic pride.”
Even today, with windows missing and hallways filled with the detritus of construction, you can see how the place seemed like a jewel. The original front doors open right out onto Pennsylvania Avenue. Upstairs, the ornamented room that most recently served as D.C.’s elected council chamber started as an opulent ballroom. Throughout the building, wide, coffered corridors carry you from room to roomor simply provide spots to buttonhole public officials.
“You could walk up those front steps and enter a wide hall where people were supposed to enter,” says Smith. “You ran into your mayor and were supposed to talk to them. If you were a mayor or city council [member], you had to walk through the halls and out the front door.”
Meanwhile, the smaller touches testify to an era when people built for the ages. Statuettes over the main doors personify Justice and Law. Around the top floor of the original building, meanwhile, are eight statues, crafted by the Florentine sculptor Adolfo de Nesti, representing a variety of skills and virtues: sculpture, painting, architecture, music, commerce, engineering, agriculture, and statesmanship.
Nearly every one of those qualities would fail D.C.and its city hallin the decades ahead.
A D.C. Council employee recalls a small but grisly detail from the council’s last years before temporarily exiting the Wilson Building:
“Toward the end there,” says Mary Rudolph, a staffer for At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, “there was a point where there was a dead cockroach just sitting on the stairs between the first two floors. I went to clean it up one day, but then I just decided to leave it and see how long it stayed. And it stayed for, like, four weeks, just lying there, belly up. Apparently, no one swept the stairs. And it was sort of symbolic: We just don’t care about ourselves.”
Pretty much everyone who worked in the Wilson Building of the ’80s and ’90s has a similar horror story to tell.
“You didn’t drink the water there,” remembers John Ralls, a staffer for Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. “There was no hot water in the building. The temperature was either feast or famine: You were hot in the summertime and cold in the winter, unless you were next to a heating vent, where it was like a hot blast. I didn’t want to open the windowthe pigeon shit on the windows was an inch thick.”
Ward 7’s Chavous remembers the stink more than anything else: “Some days, you’d come in and you didn’t know what it was. It just made you nauseous. I think it was a combination of asbestos andI don’t know, the building just had the flu.”
When Chavous arrived on the council in 1992, it was past time for a simple cleanup. By that point, the assessment made by the councilmember’s churning stomach was also being made by the likes of engineers and electricians. “All of the roofs of the building…do not provide adequate barriers to the weather,” said a December 1995 architectural design report on the building.
Crumbling plaster also raised serious concerns. Fire safety was becoming a problem in the aging structure. And a falling light fixture once crashed down onto a councilmember’s empty seat.
“It was 70-some years old and needed major work,” says council secretary Jones. “It was sad.” But it was also a compelling metaphor: an increasingly dysfunctional city government, housed in a rapidly crumbling city hall. Newspaper articles regularly wrung their hands at both the state of the building and the state of its ailing municipal occupant.
D.C. and the Wilson Building both hit bottom in 1995. With its back against the wall, the council cut a deal that was equivalent to a pauper’s selling his only assetcrumbling or notto a landlord who fixes up the joint before giving him the terms for his return.
It was a gloomy time. In January, the incoming administration of returning Mayor Marion Barry discovered a huge budget deficit. After teetering for years, D.C. was now absolutely broke. By July, the District’s government was usurped by a federally appointed control board. Home rule was in tatters.
At 1350 Pennsylvania Ave., meanwhile, the rot went on. The D.C. Council was now essentially alone on the building’s first and fifth floors. The council was saddled with the expense of running an entire building out of its own budget, as opposed to splitting it with other agencies. And serious health risks began to come to the fore.
“We were the only ones in the building,” says Jones. “We were only on the ground, first, and fifth floors. So on the other floors, there was no one taking care of things. We had water damage. The plaster was caving in.”
“There truly was a concern,” says former At-Large Councilmember William Lightfoot. “It had become a disgusting building. We couldn’t stay any longer. It was dangerous.”
It was with this hazardous edifice as his backdrop that D.C. developer Monts and his WDG came forward with an offer. In proposing to fix up the Wilson Building and rent several floors to the General Services Administration (GSA)the federal government’s real estate wingMonts was essentially giving the council an out. It could renovate the building without dipping into empty coffers.
The 1995 deal was this: WDG was granted exclusive rights to renovate and develop the structure. The developer would raise slightly more than $47 million toward fixing up the space, building out temporary space for the D.C. Council during the renovation, and maintaining the building for 20 years. According to Jones, another $10 million to complete the job would come from an investment by Fannie Mae, which would put up its money in exchange for historic renovation credits. Twenty years of lease payments from the GSA on two-thirds of the building would then pay back the investments. WDG would be paid a developer’s fee of $2.6 million for arranging the deal to fix and lease the city’s building. It would also get a management fee of 2.5 percent annually.
Lightfoot argues that giving up most of the building to maintain access to part of it was better than the alternatives. “The government, or at least we the council, could not justify spending taxpayer dollars on the building at the same time as we were cutting so many services,” he says.
“At the same time,” says Lightfoot, “we knew there were a lot of safety problems we had to address. The building was deteriorating, and maintenance was deferred because we hoped we’d find the money to fix it. We had to leave. If we’d just left it vacant, it would have sent an even worse messageespecially at the time of the budget crisis. It would have said that the city was in total collapse.”
Nonetheless, a number of Lightfoot’s then-colleagues on the council were unhappy with the plan. “I didn’t feel good about the deal, and I’m still not happy about the way developer Conrad Monts has handled it,” says Chavous. Councilmembers particularly complained about delays that resulted in the project’s starting long after it was initially set to go and about litigation between the developer and its architect.
Sniping about the reputation of Monts, a longtime Barry ally, convinced some people that the deal was as much about greed as need. In the mid-’80s, Monts had won a no-bid arrangement to build a huge downtown office development over Interstate 395, but the development never developed, according to Washington Post reports from the time. The paper also reported that he was investigated, but never charged, during federal corruption inquiries in D.C. And Washington City Paper reported at the time that the developer had been involved in litigation over bank loans on an apartment building project in Southeast.
“The track record of the developer concerned me,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, “that he had never done anything of this magnitude and that he’d been involved with several projects that had not been successful.”
Dissenting councilmembers also said the council hadn’t spent enough time trying to scare up other options besides Monts’ unsolicited proposal. “I thought we should have gone through a very straightforward competitive process,” Patterson says. “I thought if we’d advertised extensively, we might have generated additional proposals and ideas for the building.”
Despite the dissent, Monts got his contract to renovate and significantly expand the building. Initially, the GSA wanted to lease the entire building. Council opposition reduced its share to 165,000 square feet out of approximately 270,000.
The D.C. financial control board also demanded that funds for the council’s move to One Judiciary Square be held in an escrow account. Nearly half of WDG’s fee will also be held until the building is completed.
“It is a fabulous deal for the District,” says Richard Gross, the attorney to whom Monts referred phone calls. Gross notes that in addition to getting its building fixed up without paying for it, the council will also have its electricity and other building expenses paid for out of GSA’s lease. “After 20 years, the District gets it all back with no cost.”
Of course, once the deal got wired up, it still took nearly two more years to move the council. Patterson says WDG was slow to locate and build out satisfactory temporary space for them at One Judiciary Square. In late summer 1997, the last person out finally switched off the lights, and the council was gone.
The debate that took place a few years agoessentially one of cost vs. symbolismhas actually framed the Wilson Building ever since it opened. Administrators were trying to get away from the building almost as soon as they moved in. For all the opening-day hoopla, Washington never really appreciated its government headquarters. It didn’t take too long before newspaper articles started bemoaning the expense of maintaining the massive new property. Schemes to abandon the structure for cheaper, less ceremonial digs popped up regularly.
In the late 1920s, it was almost torn down to make way for the development of the new Federal Triangle. In the ’30s, some of D.C.’s appointed commissioners hatched a scheme to sell the District Building to the Treasury Department and use the revenues to move into a new municipal building.
Another decade later, in 1949, there were proposals to unload the fancy building on the feds and move the District’s government into the old courthouse at Judiciary Square. A lot of local government was already on the square, and proponents argued, logically, that a move to the courthouse would result in greater efficiency. And in 1956, commissioners requested money to begin building a new West Administrative Building. The Washington Star described the move as the “first step to abandoning the District Building.”
In an ironic turn, in retrospect, it was always the federal governmentincluding, in one case, a powerful U.S. Senator arguing that D.C. needed a real city hallthat quashed the various plans to move.
By the time it reached its 40th birthday, the District Building was already getting derided as crusty and antiquated. Major renovations were proposed in 1953 and periodically thereafter. But funds to clean up the people’s building somehow could just never be found.
That all was supposed to change with the dawn of home rule in 1973. Until then, after all, the democratic grandeur of the District Building had been no more than a lingering architectural vogue from the building’s turn-of-the-century origins. The structure at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. might have reached out to citizens, but its plantation-master occupants rarely did.
After 1973, however, the District Building suddenly became the physical symbol of a city that carried its hometown procedural prerogatives like a badge of honor. Mayor Walter Washington suggested changing the name to City Hall, arguing that such a designation would bring government closer to the people.
That didn’t happen, but some things did change. The framed portraits of D.C.’s former overseers came down, and in their place the new home rule government periodically held things like African art exhibitsevents that would have been unimaginable under the Congressional regime.
And yet the District Building continued on its arc of decline. Walls shed paint. Rugs got progressively more threadbare. When Queen Elizabeth was set to drop by in 1976, an embarrassed District scrambled the fighters, repainting the mayor’s office, repairing the leaky roof, throwing down new carpeting, and adding decorative plants, maps, and photos in a frenetic effort to shore up a civic symbol as it faced the royal eye.
But when it was just commoners who were watching, there was little fix-it-up effort, frenetic or otherwise. After the 1976 takeover of the D.C. Council by armed Hanafi Muslims, new security arrangements also made it harder for Washingtonians to inspect the decay themselves: The grand doorway onto Pennsylvania Avenue was closed, and citizens were required to enter via a side door on 14th Street.
D.C. never acknowledged the building’s deterioration as a matter of civic pride. Not that this attitude was entirely the fault of unpatriotic legislators: According to former Ward 7 Councilmember Crawford, “The council in those days was always reluctant to appear publicly as if it was making itself comfortable.”
And the new regime was more interested in building monuments to home rule elsewhere in town. Although funds for a renovation plan were put in the city’s capital budget in 1982, four years later, according to reports from the time, Mayor Barry diverted $5.2 million to complete what was at the time a matter of even greater symbolic importance: the erection, at the riot-scarred, symbolism-laden corner of 14th and U Streets NW, of the Frank Reeves Center, a municipal office building.
A later scheme to renovate and temporarily vacate the District building, dating from the last days of Barry’s third term, was tabled by Dixon after allegations surfaced that it was a sweetheart deal.
Children shoot each other in Washington. The schools can barely open on time. Roads are pockmarked with craters. In that context, fussing over the ownership of some building seems pretty silly. But at a different level, the two are fundamentally intertwined. Something like a city hall speaks to more than cheap symbolism. It speaks to civic identity and self-respectjust the kinds of things that can focus people’s attention and help stop a city’s slide into governmental atrophy.
The government that the District was handed in 1973 was much like the symbol it was housed in: underfunded, impractical, and in massive decline. In each case, it was only a matter of time before outside engineers stepped in to fend off utter collapse.
Whereas other towns have had crises, nowhere have the cords of self-government been severed as badly as in Washington. In asking what happened, a lot of locals look for explanations beyond simple economics and electoral politics. Those kinds of cultural speculationsabout how the city relates to its own heritagewind right back to the origins and the fate of the Wilson Building.
For citizens to look up to and respect the people who govern their cities, those people have to be trusted with the trappings of power. New York’s city hall is a relatively small building, dwarfed by the towers of lower Manhattan. Nonetheless, pretty much anyone in town can tell you where it is. Among other reasons, the building’s importance was honored as the city around it grew. These days, it serves as a focus for protests, political stunts, and walking tours. Not that it is some kind of subject for reverencehey, city government is city government, and no one anywhere treats a city hall like the White Housebut the notion that Gotham’s house could be rented out to the feds, or to local powers that be like Wall Street, or to anyone else, is absurd. City hall is City Hall.
The same holds for nearly any other major eastern city. According to Columbia University urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson, 19th-century Philadelphia, Boston, and Brooklyn dipped into their considerable treasuries to erect municipal buildings that reflected their power and identity. In Philadelphia, the city hall’s statue of William Penn was for years the highest point in that city. “They were a physical manifestation of municipal aspiration,” explains Jackson.
These days, as older cities face the financial challenge of maintaining aging physical infrastructures, most are managing to hold on to historic city hallswhich, of course, were never allowed to fall into the full-scale rot that hit the Wilson Building.
On the other hand, it could be worse. Several years ago, dirt-poor East St. Louis, Ill., was hit with a multi-million-dollar lawsuit for police brutality. When the city lost the case and was unable to pay the $3.4 million in damages, the plaintiff was awarded title to its city hall. East St. Louis eventually paid up, getting its building back on appeal. At the next election, meanwhile, city leaders tried to mobilize voters against the judge who’d confiscated the hall. “I do sympathize with Washington’s problem,” Jackson says, but “East St. Louis is a lot worse off than Washington by any measure.”
The Wilson Building of today is actually as frantic as it has been in years. The building is surrounded by the forbidding byproducts of constructiontrailers, chain-link fences, and temporary wooden sidewalks. Next to and behind the building, the brand-new Ronald Reagan Building wraps its massive body around D.C.’s comparatively puny property.
Soon, it won’t be the same placewhich has significant up- and downsides. The original building is being stripped down and put together anew, with hallways and offices and wiring alike all cleaned out. Workers wielding a high-power hose are spraying off eight decades of filth from the outside walls. Meanwhile, new offices are being built in the center of what was once a U-shaped space, in a triumph of efficiency over aesthetics. The new floors, steel and glass, rise in modern contrast to the marble of the original building.
Some of the work actually looks pretty friendly. Workers are meticulously redoing the high hallways of the 1908 design. According to a construction-industry source knowledgeable about the project, they could have saved a lot of money by just lopping the tops off the corridors, but historic preservation won out. “We catalogued the oak doors, the lights, the chandeliers, the marble,” says council secretary Jones. “We took pictures of everything.”
Yet for all the efforts at preservation, the new building will be just as different from the city hall of 1908 as it will be from the living hell of 1996. Some of the changes are simply byproducts of renovating in a different age. According to Jones, modern fire-safety concerns mean its grand ceremonial stairswhich turn into ovens if fire breaks outwill forever be glassed off, and new fire-safe stairs will be built. Most visitors will use the elevators.
Other changes are solely the result of a broke city suffering the consequences of its poverty. The GSA’s occupation of Floors 2, 3, and 4 means that D.C. employees and regular citizens will be barred from those spaces. “Our elevators won’t stop off on those floors,” says Jones. Though citizens will still be allowed to come to council hearings, the building will undoubtably become more remote behind a McVeigh-era federal security phalanx.
“It was a trade-off,” says Jones. “The citizens are giving up something. It will take some getting used to. The good thing is that the Pennsylvania Avenue doors will be open, the history will be protected, and the health risks will be better.”
But exactly when the council and the people they represent will see these fancy new digs is still uncertain. Jones and Gross both promise that the building is on schedule for opening in JanuaryWDG faces fines of $3,000 a day for any delay, says Jonesbut a construction industry source who’s taken a glance isn’t so sure. “They’ll be lucky to be there a year from December,” says the source, later allowing for “a bit of hyperbole.” A lot of the building is still open to the elements.
If deadlines drift, fingers will be pointing and charges will be flying from both the contractor and the council. Jones says the council has been unhappy about the meager number of jobs that have gone to Washingtonians, as well as about delays in getting the project going. She says the council sent WDG a default letter over the schedule for completion of the temporary space into which the council relocated. But the developer eventually came around, and work proceeded. “We didn’t like the level of reporting being done,” says Jones.
But a source at WDG, in turn, says the council created delays of its own in delivering plans for how it wanted its portion of the space built out. The developer’s source confirmed that the plans were finally delivered by early September, and a year-end move-in is now realistic. “Our understanding was that given that everybody was talking about a December move-in date, that’s what we were looking at,” says Jones. Either way, the squabbling and dragging of old D.C. seems to be holding up this little slice of the glorious new future.
When Democratic mayoral front-runner Anthony Williams held a press conference to announce his endorsement by Councilmember Patterson in late August, Mark Plotkin was at it again. While other reporters were pondering questions of campaign strategy and political deal-making, the peripatetic commentator was jumping up to ask for the candidate’s take on the Wilson Building.
The former chief financial officer, like any good politician thundering toward Election Day, knew opportunity when he saw it. He could wring his hands over a deal iced years ago without having to take any blame himself. He could lustily praise the Wilson Building as a symbol of all that is right and decent in Washington, as he had done earlier at a candidates forum when asked to name something hometown D.C. could rally around.
And he could also condemn the ignominy of leaving it. “California doesn’t rent out half its capitol to Mexico,” said Williams. “We don’t rent half our federal capitol to the Brits. You fight a war to get independence. You don’t rent yourself out to them.”
In fact, when questioned, Williams quickly moves from home rule bluster to something approaching a campaign promise. “I would try to work out a deal with GSA where we could rearrange this deal and get the feds out of the building,” he says. “I would work to see that we get most of the vital government offices in the Wilson Building.” Like his rivals, Williams says he’ll start by locating his real officesnot the ceremonial onesin the Pennsylvania Avenue structure.
The stump rallying cry sounds nice, but when he was CFO, Williams’ office took a look at the deal and approved the numbers without fanfare. Now, campaign staffer Bill Highsmith, formerly the special assistant for real property in the CFO’s office, says the numbers can be looked at another way. “It was a question of our looking at the numbers and saying it works,” says Highsmith. “That doesn’t necessarily mean we agree with it….We said, If they do this, it could work. But [another] scenario could also work.”
Highsmith says that over the next two years, various D.C. agencies will see their leases on 155,872 square feet of privately owned office space elsewhere in townfor which the city pays slightly over $4 million annuallyexpire. That’s slightly less than the 165,000 square feet of the Wilson Building that the District would rent out to Uncle Sam.
Highsmith envisions a scenario in which those offices could be moved back into D.C.-owned spacesif the city wriggles out of its deal to let the feds occupy the Wilson Building. This scenario sees the city expending $6.4 million a year over the next 20 years to occupy the entire Wilson building and pay the renovation costs it couldn’t afford three years ago. Highsmith says that a three-way switchby which far-flung District agencies would backfill into One Judiciary Square to replace mainline executive-branch offices, which would return to a fully D.C.-occupied Wilson Buildingmight be worth the $2 million more per year it would entail.
“Isn’t it worth it to have government centralized?” asks Highsmith. “That’s the issueis it worth the $2.2 million to go back into the Wilson Building?”
Jones and the developer both say it’s a little more complicated than that. D.C. doesn’t actually have the right to get out of the deal until the 10th year, at which point it could get the Wilson Building back by paying off all the debt and equity on the project. Even if WDG and GSA could be persuaded to be bought out, it would be a harsh bargain, admits Highsmith. “It depends on what the feds pay for the leasewe have to buy them out,” he says. “Plus, Conrad’s still going to want his developer’s fee.” But this seems like small money in the context of the numbers presently being thrown around.
Highsmith also says that the delays that marred the start of the reconstruction may mean that the Wilson Building won’t be ready to be backfilled when those other city leases come up this year
“A 165,000-square-foot tenant is a very big deal,” says a WDG source, arguing that GSA can’t just up and find a new space. “I don’t think there’s any likelihood that it could happen before [10 years]. And given that there’s pressing needs in the community, I can’t imagine that Congress or the control board would allow the District to buy its way out of the lease. Besides, there’s no legal right to get out of it earlier.”
And that’s the real story of D.C.’s revitalization. The new and improved Wilson Buildingwhen it arriveswill be like the long-promised brave new Washington: simultaneously fixed up and utterly transformed, at a considerable practical cost and a massive symbolic one. With the feds in the middle of it all, it won’t really be the District’s. But it won’t really be broken anymore, either. And in light of the various other privileges D.C. has surrendered in the ’90s, its transformed incarnation will be a truly representative city hall once againfor better and for worse.
Plotkin, meanwhile, still clings to his own alternative fantasy. “There should be somebody who has the guts to say this is not what we want,” he says. “Pay him off, get out of it.” The city that could afford to do that would have a building that told a very different story.CP