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City officials are on the verge of a breakthrough in economic development policy in the Shaw community. In the struggle to lure a Fresh Fields outlet to an abandoned plot at 13th and V Streets NW, the District is eschewing the usual claptrap about tax incentives, empowerment zones, and other futile enticements. Instead, it’s opting for a more direct approach: build the store with taxpayer money.

Under a scheme championed by District officials and the development firm Donatelli & Klein, the city would use bond financing to bring goat’s milk and organic produce to the former Children’s Hospital site at 13th and V. The plan has rekindled a tug of war between the Cardozo-Shaw and Dupont Circle-Logan Circle neighborhoods, which have been vying for Fresh Fields since last year.

When LL last checked, the Austin, Texas-based chain was leaning toward a location at 15th and P Streets NW, on the dividing line between Logan Circle and Dupont Circle. The prospect of a free building, however, has apparently tipped the scales toward Cardozo-Shaw.

“They’re definitely favoring one neighborhood over another,” contends a resident near the site at 15th and P Streets NW.

Fresh Fields officials have declined to discuss the latest developments. The upscale grocer must feel like that girl with so many offers to go to the prom, she just can’t decide.

Donatelli & Klein is asking acting D.C. Chief Financial Officer Earl Cabbell to issue the bonds to finance the new outlet. The bonds would be among the first approved under the new Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) legislation enacted by the D.C. Council three months ago to promote economic development of blighted parcels. Future real estate and sales taxes owed the city on the project would be used by Donatelli & Klein to pay off the bonds.

“It’s not over,” said an aide to Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, referring to rumors that Fresh Fields would land at 15th and P. “We’re going to build them a store.” That store, say Smith and city officials, could serve as the anchor for an office-retail development planned for the city-owned parcel at 13th and V.

Smith hopes the deal will help him fend off a ferocious challenge from Whitman-Walker AIDS Clinic Executive Director Jim Graham in the Sept. 15 Democratic primary. (The alternative site is located in Ward 2.) On the campaign trail, Smith touts his sponsorship of the emergency TIF legislation, approved by the council April 7, even though the bill was drafted by the mayor’s office and submitted to the councilmember for introduction.

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Fresh Fields was close to inking a deal on the 13th and V Streets site when residents of the 1400 block of Q Street NW came across an Internet update on the project posted by the developer. They immediately cobbled together a campaign to promote the 15th Street alternative. “We have extensive research to demonstrate that the site at 15th and P is a dynamic retail site,” said Wayne Dickson, a marketing consultant and leader of the push to bring Fresh Fields to 15th Street. The group’s appeal appeared to have prevailed as Fresh Fields ended months of negotiations with the District and Donatelli & Klein in late January to pursue the 15th and P site, which sits astride one of the city’s hottest condo markets.

After breaking off negotiations with the city last winter, Fresh Fields signed a letter of intent with Jon Gerstenfeld, owner of the site at 15th and P, to build its new store on his property. That move angered D.C. officials and supporters of the V Street project, who thought the Cardozo-Shaw neighborhood was being unfairly portrayed as crime-ridden.

(Diane Miller, a worker in the headquarters of Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous’ mayoral campaign, one block away at 13th Street and Florida Avenue NW, suffered a car burglary in broad daylight earlier this month.)

Cardozo-Shaw residents accused Dickson et al. of “stealing” the Fresh Fields prize from their grasp. They also lashed out at Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans for aiding and abetting after Evans wrote a letter urging Department of Housing and Community Development Director Richard Monteilh to consider the 15th and P site. Since then, Evans has avoided the controversy for fear of damaging his mayoral prospects with Ward 1 voters.

Dickson, in turn, chastised Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett for writing a letter to Fresh Fields urging it to stick with the 13th and V site. Monteilh, who asked Barnett to send the letter, bristles at criticism that his agency has taken sides in the community battle.

“We’re not trying to lure [Fresh Fields] away from the P Street site,” he insisted this week.

Monteilh, however, will have a hard time convincing Dupont Circle and Logan Circle residents that the city has remained neutral if the TIF scheme seals the deal in favor of 13th and V. News that the city may help Fresh Fields pay for a new store on the Children’s Hospital land caught proponents of the 15th Street alternative off guard this week.

“This is outrageous!” said Dickson. “What we should be dealing with is a level playing field, and I don’t think that’s what’s going on.”

Added P Street site owner Gerstenfeld: “[Fresh Fields officials] signed a letter of intent, and I haven’t heard much from them recently. It’s very unusual.”

Downtown D.C. may be experiencing an economic boom. But out in the neighborhoods, city officials, community activists, and political leaders continue to scrap over Fresh Fields like frantic shoppers fighting for the last loaf of focaccia on the shelf.

CHAVOUS HITS AN

ICEBERG IN WARD 8

Last Saturday’s Ward 8 Democratic endorsement forum for mayoral contenders was expected to be the equivalent of a Germany-United States soccer match for perceived frontrunner Chavous. In other words, no contest.

After all, Chavous had the endorsement of popular Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen and her followers. His chief political strategist, Bob Bethea, had helped pile up huge margins for Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. in Ward 8 to propel Hizzoner’s stunning comeback four years ago. Chavous, the only candidate with a base east of the Anacostia River, hails from neighboring Ward 7, which he has represented on the council for nearly six years. And lately he has been sounding Barryesque, urging compassion for the city’s poor, young, elderly, and drug-addicted at candidate forums.

No wonder Chavous felt confident enough to all but claim victory the night before, when the city’s political establishment gathered at Players Lounge in Ward 8 to celebrate owner Steve Thompson’s birthday. “Ward 8 will speak tomorrow,” the mayoral candidate said with obvious self-assurance.

But the word passed down by Ward 8 Democrats the next afternoon sent shock waves through the faltering Chavous campaign. Instead of winning the organization’s endorsement, which required support from 60 percent of the registered Ward 8 Democrats present, Chavous failed to gain the backing of even a simple majority of the party members participating in the forum.

Of the 51 registered Ward 8 Democrats present—about a third of the crowd that had crammed into the Washington Highlands Library on Atlantic Street SE for the boisterous afternoon forum—only 22 cast ballots for Chavous. The shocked look on the faces of Chavous and his sizable campaign staff present could be matched only by the look of amazement worn by former Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams, whose insurgent candidacy finished second, with 17 votes.

Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who has been working Ward 8 for several months and had lined up support from William and Wanda Lockridge, finished a disappointing third, with 10 votes. Still, Evans gave a thumbs up on his way out the door for having blocked the expected endorsement of Chavous.

“This won’t happen to us in our ward,” Evans boasted, ignoring that Chavous is from Ward 7 in his effort to attain maximum spin.

At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, who arrived late to the forum and left early, mustered only two votes, even though he’s the only mayoral candidate who has already run for citywide office.

Still, LL expected the Brazil campaign to rush out a news release hailing his strong showing, since he had gotten only one vote from Ward 8 Dems in a similar endorsement forum in the 1996 at-large council race that he won.

Unlike Brazil, however, Williams had cause to chalk up his first campaign trail victory. “That’s a message, man,” a delighted Williams proclaimed after his surprisingly strong second-place finish. “I thought I’d be roadkill.”

Chavous apparently got the message. Afterward, he reportedly threatened to shake up his campaign’s leadership unless the engine starts firing on all cylinders, and soon.

Attempts by Williams’ rivals to portray him as a “heartless bean counter” during the forum apparently didn’t sway Ward 8 voters. But the Chavous campaign is not about to abandon this line of attack.

“It is now coming to the top that some of the people over here are more interested in mortar and bricks than they are in human beings,” an angry Councilmember Allen claimed after her network failed to deliver the endorsement to her mayoral candidate.

Bethea attributed the strong Williams showing to “homeowners” living in the neighborhood surrounding the branch library.

Those damn homeowners, they’ll skew the results every time.

“We’ll win the vote that counts, and that’s the one on Election Day,” Bethea predicted.

Others hailed the outcome as a clear sign that the race lacks a front-runner, although Chavous voices the clearest message of the candidates in his defense of neighborhoods, African-American families, and home rule.

“For too long, Ward 8 has been taken for granted,” said Ward 8 activist Phil Pannell, interim ward coordinator for the Williams campaign. “This was another example of Ward 8 being taken for granted by the Chavous campaign, and it did not work.”

“If Kevin Chavous is going to have to literally fight to carry Ward 8, he’s in trouble,” claimed Pannell.

The mayoral contest is shaping up as a clash between Chavous and Williams. Evans will wear well throughout the summer because of his huge war chest. But he has to find a way to build the momentum that the two men ahead of him have generated in the early stage of this contest. His campaign slogan, “Solutions. Not Excuses,” hasn’t exactly lit any fires.

Brazil faces early elimination unless he can overcome the perception that he has little money and an inviable organization. He could also help his chances if he campaigned more aggressively; he recently failed to show up for a scheduled meeting with supporters in voter-rich Ward 4. By staying in to the bitter end, Brazil risks an embarrassing defeat that could erode the stature he has managed to gain over eight years on the council.CP

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