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After toiling aimlessly for 13 years and squandering millions in tax dollars to revive dilapidated H Street NE, the H Street Community Development Corp. (CDC) apparently has come up with a new strategy: declare victory and get the hell out before the last business folds.
With H Street businesses disappearing as rapidly as D.C. parking meters, the H Street CDC seems to be abandoning its mission to restore the once-proud corridor of commerce and night life to the heyday it enjoyed prior to the devastating 1968 riots. Since the public-private partnership was formed in 1984 to spearhead H Street’s revitalization, the street has lost several businesses, including a Safeway, and H Street’s biggest booster, WOL radio station owner Cathy Hughes.
Chatty Cathy moved her ever-expanding radio empire to a new headquarters in Prince George’s County last spring, after Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening seduced her with lavish tax breaks. Hughes complained that D.C. officials and the H Street CDC treated her more like a panhandler than a thriving entrepreneur.
Recent defections from the H Street commercial strip also include the McCrory department store and a CVS. Maybe residents of the Palisades community in Northwest, who have been fighting a CVS takeover of the MacArthur Theater, could hire the H Street CDC as consultants.
Instead of cleaning up its sloppy back yard, the H Street CDC has decided to venture into faraway neighborhoods where it can chalk up quick, tidy successes. The politically well-connected CDC, which operates on an annual budget of approximately $1 million in government grants and real estate revenues, has been cut in as a partner on the development team pushing to build a new convention center at Mount Vernon Square. According to its own promotional literature, the H Street CDC was hired to assist the developers with “affirmative action and community outreach”code words for the gravy train.
It may seem odd that the H Street CDC is promoting the Mount Vernon Square convention center site over the alternative New York Avenue NE site, which would benefit adjacent H Street NE, but it’s not that hard for LL to figure out: No one offered the CDC a lucrative PR contract to push the New York Avenue location.
“Can you imagine them being responsible for community outreach?” exclaimed an astonished member of a Capitol Hill advisory neighborhood commission (ANC). “It’s outrageous! It’s an out-and-out payoff.”
The ANCs continuously battle with the CDC and Bill Barrow, its combative executive director, in a futile effort to get annual reports and other financial information from the semipublic but very private group. CDC officials emphatically refused to participate in a forum during last spring’s Ward 6 special D.C. Council election designed to get candidates to take a stand on H Street redevelopment.
Some Capitol Hill activists interpret the CDC’s convention center business as a sign that it is throwing in the towel on restoring H Street. LL is still waiting on Barrow to return phone calls to discuss the CDC’s expansion activities. Perhaps we would have gotten better results if we had said we wanted to talk about the new convention center.
Now the CDC is embroiled in a neighborhood battle in Brookland over its plans to demolish a 106-year-old house, which it purchased in February with $100,000 in federal housing funds, and build seven new town houses on the site. The Brookland demolition drive is being led by Eric Jones, former staffer to late council Chairman John Wilson, and Kenneth Brewer, whose chairmanship of the D.C. Lottery Board last year resulted in its demolition by the D.C. financial control board.
The small group of residents fighting to rescue the 19th-century house at 2900 7th St. NE from the CDC’s clutches suffered a major setback when the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) on June 26 turned down its request to designate the house a local landmark and place it on the National Historic Register. Such a move would have blocked the CDC’s demolition plans.
The preservationists, backed by retired D.C. archivist Phil Ogilvie, argued in vain that the building is architecturally and historically significant. It was built in 1891 by real estate businessman William Denison, who helped develop the Mount Pleasant and Brookland neighborhoods, and was later owned by international theologian George Duncan, the first scholar to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics.
But the H Street CDC outmaneuvered the preservationists and persuaded the Brookland ANC and community groups to oppose the historic designation or remain neutral in the dispute. The conduct of some preservationists at the board’s hearing didn’t help their cause much, either. Brookland resident Jon Pangman, who lives across the street from the endangered house and opposes its demolition, cursed board members and gave them the finger during the June 26 hearing, according to an HPRB member.
“It was a totally corrupt, inside, put-up job,” the mercurial Pangman insists.
Home renovation contractor Frazier Botsford, who lives nearby, said the H Street CDC rejected his offer to buy the house and restore it. Botsford said CDC officials gave HPRB estimates from two builders claiming it would cost $250,000-$500,000 to restore the house, which has been abandoned for nearly a decade. He said he couldn’t find the first company, and the second builder, Whitney Pratt of Woodbridge, Va., said he gave an estimate only for asbestos and lead removal, not for renovation.
“I’m a builder,” Botsford says. “I can build two of those houses from scratch for $250,000.”
Botsford and Pangman dispute the H Street CDC’s claim that the house is in poor condition.
The preservationists have appealed HPRB’s decision to the presidentially appointed Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has recommended an archaeological survey of the land before the CDC breaks ground on its town-house project. CDC officials appeared ready to demolish the house last week until D.C. Housing and Community Development Director W. David Watts issued a stern warning.
Watts told Barrow in a July 9 letter that immediate demolition of the property would bar the CDC from receiving federal funds “for this or any other project.”
To the grant-hungry H Street CDC, that’s tantamount to telling the D.C. government it can no longer write parking tickets.
HEADS ROLLING AT CONVENTION CENTER
Stumbling, bumbling Washington Convention Center (WCCA) Chairwoman Louanner Peters is being sent to the sidelines for failing to keep the Mount Vernon Square project on track and will soon be replaced by businessman Terry “Mr. Fix-It” Golden. The move is being forced by the Republican-controlled Congress, which may have to foot at least $150 million of the $650-million new convention center and will loosen Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.’s grip on the politically sensitive board. Peters was handpicked by Barry.
“This really changes it from a political board to a no-nonsense, let’s-get-the-damn-thing-built operation,” says a source familiar with the top-level changes coming at the WCCA.
Golden headed the U.S. General Services Administration under President Ronald Reagan and set up the private Committee on Political Education to fix D.C. schools. Well, one out of two ain’t bad.
Peters has appeared impotent against the motivated band of activists fighting the Mount Vernon Square site and is handicapped by her close ties to Barry, which surfaced in WCCA’s financial ledgers. In a report released last month, D.C. Auditor Tony Cooper found that WCCA picked up nearly $16,000 in unpaid bills from Barry’s 1994 mayoral campaign. The auditor also questioned travel and other expenditures by Peters and WCCA officials. The FBI now is looking into alleged improprieties cited in his audit.
But Peters’ fate was sealed by the selection of the Barry-connected law firm of Leftwich & Douglas to serve as WCCA’s legal counsel, and to write the terms of the contract governing the design and construction of the project. Leftwich & Douglas failed to draft the terms in time to meet the October deadline for breaking ground at Mount Vernon Square.
“A design-build contract is a very tricky, tough thing to put together, and they’re not the firm to write it. They don’t have the expertise,” notes one source familiar with WCCA’s inner workings.
But Willie Leftwich does know Hizzoner personally, and that’s all the expertise you need for a big city contract.
THE UNWANTED ELECTION
LL can’t in good conscience encourage voters to turn out next Tuesday for the coronation of Councilmember Linda Cropp to become permanent chair of the D.C. Council, a promotion from her current status as acting chair. Nor can we recommend a protest vote for Socialist Workers’ Party contender Mary Martin, the only candidate brave enough to take on Cropp, who is by no means a political powerhouse in this city. LL applauds Martin’s attempt to break the Democratic Party’s death grip on D.C. politics, but Martin has virtually disappeared since getting her name on the ballot last April.
Nor will LL encourage voters to boycott the polls next week to protest the sorry lack of choices offered up by the broken political system every election. After all, voting is a civic responsibility even when it doesn’t appear to matter.
So the only option left is to go to the polls and write in LLa message to the local Democrats that they need to stop shilling for the special interests and get out of the way of political reform.
SMITH’S SURVIVAL TEST
After toying all year with running for a citywide seatand then losing his nerveWard 1 Councilmember Frank Smith may now be facing a challenge just to hang onto the council seat he has occupied for the past 15 years. With Smith’s attention focused elsewhere, primarily on the council chair that became vacant with the death of Dave Clarke, Whitman-Walker AIDS Clinic Director Jim Graham is gunning for the incumbent in next year’s Democratic primary.
Smith appeared taken aback when he showed up at 3rd District police headquarters at 1624 V St. NW last Saturday, July 12, and discovered Graham standing at the podium with police officials. The occasion was the completion of the renovation of the dilapidated police building, free of charge, by Clark Construction Group and the Sherman R. Smoot Co., partners in the construction of the new MCI Center downtown.
Clark and Smoot donated materials and labor to prove they are good neighbors and score points in their bid to land the contract to build the new convention center.
During the noon ceremony marking the end of renovation and a cleanup effort by scores of community volunteers, Smith reminded his constituents that he had dropped by earlier but had left to take his daily 3-mile run. Graham, however, earned his spot at the podium by working all day at the headquarters cutting ceiling tiles and performing other menial tasks.
This episode could provide Graham a slogan for his campaign: a worker, not a runner.
His exploratory committee has already raised more than $10,000, and Whitman-Walker promotional ads now feature Graham’s name in bigger type than the clinic’s. CP
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