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Throughout the spring, Shaw residents Beth Solomon and Leroy Thorpe mounted an aggressive drive to ward off construction of the mammoth new convention center on a six-block plot by Mount Vernon Square. They sent out press releases, railed against the project at community meetings, and organized protests in front of the home of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, a chief proponent of the plan. Although they made some noise, Solomon and Thorpe didn’t scare the big money behind the centeruntil a couple of weeks ago.
On June 20, the president’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation withheld its endorsement of the new convention center following a public hearing at which only opponents of the project were permitted to testify. The Advisory Council’s delay has prompted the powerful National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) to postpone its vote on the Mount Vernon Square proposal pending approval of the design by the Commission on Fine Arts. And the project suffered yet another setback last week, as D.C. Auditor Tony Cooper issued a scathing report fingering the Washington Convention Center Authority for paying nearly $16,000 to resolve outstanding bills from Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.’s 1994 mayoral campaign.
The Advisory Council vote has escalated the stakes in what had been a spirited but fairly civil battle over where the massive project should be located. Racial epithets and profanities are now a featured part of the debate. Amidst a hail of criticism, the convention center authority is flailing in its struggle to keep the project at Mount Vernon Square. And Evans is reportedly teaming up with Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va) to persuade President Bill Clinton to turn the screws on Advisory Council chair Cathryn Slater, Arkansas’ historic preservation director and friend of Hillary.
If Clinton is unwilling to rein in his appointees, Davis is prepared to push legislation through Congress that would gag the Advisory Council and prevent NCPC from issuing official statements on the problems with the Mount Vernon Square site, according to Evans. Staffers at Davis’ office declined to comment on the congressman’s position on the convention center.
Up until now, it was the advocates of the convention center who were accused of allowing only one side of the debate to be heard. But a June 19 Advisory Council hearing featured only attacks on the current site from Solomon, Thorpe, and Tirsh Boasberg, former head of the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board. The hearing closed once they finished.
Afterwards, Ibrahim Mumin, a Shaw businessman who is being paid $25,000 annually by the convention center authority to build public support for the Mount Vernon Square site, angrily confronted Slater and Advisory Council staffer Ralston Cox to protest the exclusion of witnesses supporting the convention center.
Cox claims that Mumin called him “a lying bastard, motherfucker, asshole, and a couple of other choice words were in there, too.”
Mumin denies using profanity in his confrontation with Cox. But he won’t deny calling Cox a liar for claiming that convention center supporters were notified of the hearing beforehand and simply passed up the opportunity to testify.
“I’ve been in Washington since 1965, and there’s no one who could ever say I talked to them like that,” Mumin insists. “That’s a red herring on the part of Ralston, who should be embarrassed at how the hearing was run.”
Mumin claims Cox told him no oneopponents or backerswould be allowed to testify at the hearing. Other angry Mount Vernon Square supporters who participated in previous proceedings on the proposed convention center also said they were not informed by Cox that they could testify at the Advisory Council’s hearing.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a public hearing that was as one-sided and biased as the Advisory Council meeting was,” Mumin told LL afterwards. “I’ve seen things in racist Georgia and Mississippi that were essentially kangaroo courts, but this beats anything I’ve ever seen.”
Mumin said he told Slater after the meeting, “Even in Denver, Timothy McVeigh was accused of killing 168 people and he was allowed to present his testimony.”
Her response, according to Mumin, was “this is not a federal trial.”
Mumin claims he was “stunned” by the attitude of Slater and Cox. According to an Advisory Council source, Slater, in turn, was stunned to learn that the irate man in her face was a hired public relations gun for the convention center authority.
Advisory Council officials fired off a letter last week to members of Congress and the convention center authority protesting Mumin’s behavior. But the convention authority had already sent Slater a letter protesting the conduct of Cox and the alleged muting of convention center supporters. Ninth Street NW businessman Neil Donnelly threatened to sue the Advisory Council over his exclusion, and was granted three minutes to testify in support of the convention center during a June 20 meeting, but the council decided to withhold its approval anyway.
Convention center supporters, hopping mad over what they perceive to be a perversion of the input process, are threatening to go to Capitol Hill and ask Congress to slash the historic preservation body’s funding.
“Ralston Cox is dead set against the center being built at that site,” says Evans, who would prefer that the Advisory Council stay out of D.C. affairs, “and he is controlling the agenda.”
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Cox and Advisory Council officials respond by charging that the convention authority is withholding information that casts the center’s placement at Mount Vernon Square in a bad light. They also allege that the authority slants its analyses to favor the downtown site over the one at New York Avenue and First Street NE, several blocks north of Union Station.
“What’s so frustrating is that I keep giving them opportunities to put things in the record that will support what they want to do, and they just keep blowing us off,” says Cox.
Advisory Council officials figure that the authority continues to ignore their requests for information because it is convinced that NCPC approval is a forgone conclusion. However, sources at the NCPC studying possible sites for the new convention center say some staffers favor the alternate Union Station site. That site would allow the authority to expand the convention center to meet future needsa luxury not available at the Mount Vernon Square site.
Evans claims that all the studies he has seen conclude that the convention center proposed for Mount Vernon Square will be large enough to compete for major national conventions well into the next century.
What happens if the city discovers, after shoving the convention center into the Mount Vernon Square site, that the studies erred in their projections?
“Then we screwed up, and we’ll have to build something somewhere else,” Evans admits. “But from what I’ve seen, we’ll have the fourth-largest convention center in the country when it’s completed, and in all likelihood we’ll remain in the top 10.”
According to sources, NCPC staffers who find fault with the Mount Vernon Square site have been forbidden by executive director Reg Griffith from talking to reporters or discussing their concerns publicly. House D.C. subcommittee staffer Roland Gunn, who serves as Davis’ representative on the NCPC, has assured Evans that he has the seven votes necessary to win approval of the Mount Vernon Square site before the 12-member NCPC. Davis wants the convention center to land in D.C. as quickly as possible, so that Northern Virginia hoteliers can begin raking in the windfall from conventiongoers. And if the Mount Vernon Square plan falters, Davis will likely lobby for a new center in Alexandria.
The fast-track plan for opening the new convention center by the year 2000 requires NCPC approval this summer so that construction can get under way in October.
The convention center flap isn’t the first time NCPC’s professional staff has been silenced by political forces. In the early 1960s, a young upstart developer named Oliver Carr torpedoed President John F. Kennedy’s plan to establish a one-block historic preservation zone surrounding the White House. The president’s plan would have prevented Carr from destroying the 19th-century Mills Building at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where Carr planned to build the corporate headquarters for his emerging empire.
The politically savvy Carr found a friendly congressman willing to hold the president’s tax-cut plan hostage until the White House abandoned its historic preservation goals.
And in the late ’80s, then-D.C. congressional Delegate Walter Fauntroy and Maryland’s two senators quietly won congressional approval of legislation that overturned a federal court ruling blocking construction of Techworld near Chinatown. The court had upheld community contentions that the high-tech center would violate L’Enfant’s historic plan and the federal height limit on buildings. Techworld, now complete, stands as a monument to the con jobs developers often pull on city planners with the aid of willing politicians.
The opinion of NCPC’s staff also got shelved six years ago when the commission, bowing to pressures from the city’s political and business communities, approved construction of Market Square North at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, despite the building’s violation of the height limit. That plan got chopped down to size in the Senate.
Last year, evaluations of alternate sites for the MCI Center never reached NCPC’s 12 commissioners before they voted to approve construction on the current site near Chinatown. NCPC OK’d the project despite the arena’s violation of the L’Enfant plan in closing a block of G Street NW. An official at NCPC apparently trash-canned the evaluations before they reached the commissioners.
In pushing so hard for the Mount Vernon Square site, Evans and other District officials are violating the cardinal rule of D.C. governmentalways have a scapegoat for your errors. District officials can blame suburban members of Congress for the inadequacies of the current Washington Convention Center, which was already obsolete when it opened for business in 1982. Maryland congressmen kept the center small to prevent it from stealing sports events away from Prince George’s County’s Capital Centre, now renamed USAir Arena.
But Evans and company will have no one but themselves to blame if the Mount Vernon Square center ends up too small.
Building the proposed one-million square-foot convention center on that site requires putting half of it underground, which has hiked the cost from $444 million to the current estimate of $650 million. To keep the cost from soaring even higher, the new convention center will not contain a single parking space for its employees and the 50,000-plus conventiongoers it will accommodate.
Downtown parking moguls are putting down payments on Florida beach properties in anticipation of the fortunes they’ll reap from the parking-starved convention center. Not only will the Mount Vernon Square plan force all conventiongoers into the clutches of the parking moguls, it will also wipe out the city’s only municipal parking lot.
Shaw residents who back the center argue that drawbacks like parking and expansion limitations have been blown out of proportion by Solomon and Thorpe, whom they attack for running to the media.
“Beth Solomon doesn’t represent anybody here, and her word is less than dirt,” observes one Shaw resident.
During a June 23 meeting of Shaw residents and Barry, mention of Thorpe’s name prompted a resounding jeer from the 200 or so in attendance, most of whom support the project. Barbara Curtis, head of the resident’s council at the nearby church-owned Gibson Plaza housing complex, told Barry that most of the residents support the project and do not fear they will be displaced, as Thorpe and Solomon claim. Thorpe says he presided over a meeting of some 60 convention center foes the following night.
Curtis said Thorpe called her later that evening and accused her of being “a house nigger.” When asked for his version of the call, Thorpe replied, “I didn’t call her that; she called me that. I said to her, ‘You don’t have to act like a house negro.’”
It’s a wonder the issues involved in the convention center flap ever surface amid all the name-calling.CP
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