When Robert Riddle took his seat on the Logan Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) in 1993, he expected to have a voice in all official matters affecting his constituents: law enforcement, zoning, liquor licenses, and so on.
But as Riddle served out his term, he discovered that certain commissioners were more equal than others. He watched with interest in the spring of 1993 as then-ANC Chairman Jim Brandon appointed an ad hoc committee made up entirely of members of the Logan Circle Community Association (LCCA).
Riddle’s exclusion from the committee wouldn’t have been a big deal if the committee had been entrusted with the usual ANC fareplanning a neighborhood cleanup, organizing a holiday party, or complaining to the Department of Public Works (DPW) about trash pickup. This ad hoc committee, however, was concerned with something a bit biggernamely, how to spend $500,000 to enhance the neighborhood’s housing stock.
The cash didn’t wind up in Logan Circle courtesy of the city treasury or a generous philanthropist. The funds came from a local developer in exchange for the ANC’s support of a high-priced zoning exemption for a downtown office-building project at 1331 L St. NW. As part of the deal, the developer agreed to chip in $500,000 for an unspecified development project in Logan Circle.
What happened next is a textbook case of chummy white activists banding together to keep low-income housing out of their neighborhood.
The parking lot at 1331 L St. isn’t much to look at. It’s potholed and littered with newspapers, broken glass, and cardboard boxes. An alley that stinks of garbage and dead rats separates the lot from the notorious Green Lantern bar and an empty lime-colored building draped with a banner proclaiming it “The Ultimate Fitness Club.” The lot is flanked by a hollowed-out, squat brick building on one side, and a modest brown office building on the other.
While 1331 L St. is an eyesore to most passers-by, it embodies a sparkling ideal to city officials. Under city zoning laws, lots like 1331 L are supposed to lead the transformation of downtown from nightly ghost town to a mixed community of residences, offices, and neighborhood stores. The plot lies squarely within the city’s Downtown Development District, a zoning designation that requires residential development and a cap on the volume of office space that can be built on designated lots. Absent such restrictions, local developers would erect a structure on the lot filled with office space from cellar to dome.
But even though the zoning clearly prohibits conversion of the plot exclusively into offices, that’s just what the lot’s developer, Square 247 Associates Limited Partnership, is going to do. In 1991, Square 247 managed to wring a decision from the D.C. Zoning Commission turning the project into something called a planned unit development (PUD)a move that allowed Square 247 to circumvent the city’s housing requirements and build a 10-story office building instead of the four-story mixed-use building the site was zoned for. The commission allowed Square 247 to fulfill its housing requirements by donating $3 million to the Peabody mixed-income housing project at 5th and K Streets NW. At the time, the ANC thought it sounded win-win: It could support low-income housing without it being anywhere near its neighborhood.
In an age of increasingly regulated downtown development, a PUD can be a trump card for land-hungry developers.
“In the District, practically speaking, a PUD is how you get around zoning regulations,” says Ellen McCarthy, a local planning consultant and a former member of the Committee of 100 on the Federal Citya coalition of community activists with an interest in housing and development. The grease behind the PUDs is money: Large cash contributions to housing projects in distant corners of the citylike Square 247’s $3-million pledgeallow developers to get out of their downtown housing requirements. “That’s known as zoning for dollars,” says downtown housing activist Con Hitchcock.
In 1993, Square 247 requested a modification to its PUD agreement: The Peabody project had folded, so the developer applied to transfer its housing funds to a Salvation Army drug treatment facility on New York Avenue in Northeast.
Square 247 secured the modification in large part because the Logan Circle ANC backed the developerseven though the amenity was nowhere near Logan Circle and did nothing to create additional housing. Brandon explains that the ANC supported the facility because, “The Salvation Army benefits all neighborhoods, not just our neighborhood.”
True enough, but not all neighborhoods received an additional $500,000 dollars for backing the proposed modification. “Oh yesthe bribe,” says a source who opposed the renewal and modification granted to the developers of 1331 L St. Brandon disagrees. “When a community can get a half-million dollars for improvement, I don’t think it’s a bribe,” he says. “I think it’s a wonderful offer that we should be anxious to take advantage of.”
The apparent cash-for-approval deal smells fishy, especially when you consider that since the cash comes from a private company, its handling is exempt from city regulations. Brandon and the ANC appointed a special committee of local residents to work with Chip Glasgow, the Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick, and Lane attorney representing Square 247, to find a suitable use for the $500,000 around Logan Circle. The committee was chaired by LCCA member Pat Durkin. The committee’s other membersLeslie Steen, Helen Kramer, and Greg Melcherwere also LCCA members.
Glasgow instructed the committee to keep the prospective sites a secret from the rest of the ANC. “We just said [to the ANC] that you all can operate this internally however you want, we just don’t want the site that we’re potentially negotiating discussed at a public meeting,” Glasgow said. He worried that once property owners became aware that there was interest in their buildings or lots, they would immediately raise the prices on the properties.
Secrecy around where the money might be spent may have business advantages, but it raises serious questions of accountability when the money is intended for a public purpose. And even though the money helped secure the ANC’s acquiescence, Brandon plopped the decision in the hands of a group primarily composed of LCCA, a narrowly focused community association with well-established NIMBY credentials.
Riddle went along because he was an ANC neophyte when Brandon anointed the special committee. “I had just come into office,” he says. “I was sitting back and listening to learn the history and learn what was going on, and that’s why I didn’t object when [Brandon] appointed the members of the special committee. I just hoped and assumed that at some point they’d come back to the ANC and give some kind of report.”
According to Riddle, the special committee never issued such a report. And the soft-spoken Riddle began to regret not having objected to the committee. He began to feel that the ANC was really functioning as a subcommittee of LCCA. “The problem,” he says, “is that legally and ethically, ANC commissioners are elected to represent approximately 2,000 persons living in each District, and [the ANC] was never intended to function as a rubber stamp for some private homeowners club.”
LCCA is a collection of mostly white yuppies who work hard to make their neighborhood a cleaner, safer place to liveeven if it means squelching the poorer black community the ANC is also supposed to be looking out for. And that’s the rub, as Riddle sees it: “It’s nice that there are upper-middle-class white folks here in big houses, but they are not the only people that live around here. Of course, when I expressed opinions like that, I got in a lot of trouble….But the ANC is not intended to represent one certain economic segment of the populace.”
Affordable, multiunit housing is a priority for the city and many residents of the Logan Circle neighborhood, but Riddle worries that the special committee is more interested in further gentrifying single-family units than providing multiunit housing for the city’s needy. He can’t say for sure, though, because the committee won’t even tell him what type of buildings it’s looking at, let alone specific properties. Riddle mentions a building on 12th Street that has stood empty since a fire destroyed its next-door sister building years ago, one that could be renovated to house perhaps as many as 12 families. According to Riddle, Durkin and the rest of her special committee never investigated this property or others like it. “From telephone conversations with Pat Durkin, I got that…they did not consider any multifamily buildings,” Riddle claims. Many community activists fear that development of additional multiunit dwellings will lead to higher crime rates.
Durkin denies any bias against multiunit properties. As she tells it, Durkin and the other special committee membersfollowing the ANC’s explicit instructionsconducted their investigation by focusing on abandoned, boarded-up buildings in the neighborhood. They walked the streets individually (the committee only met once, conducting the rest of its business on the telephone), and came up with a list of more than 20 possible propertiesnone of which, she claims, were single-family units. Disclosure of the list must wait until the developer is ready to move ahead with the construction at 1331 L St. “They were all multifamily buildings,” she stresses. “They all would’ve resulted in developments that would’ve been at least six units or more.”
Of course, no one knows what the committee’s intentions are except the committee itself. Back in 1995, Riddle became uncomfortable with the committee’s secrecy and advanced a resolution calling for its disbandment. The resolution was defeated by the pro-LCCA commission.
ANC commissioner Christine Young, who voted against Riddle’s resolution, recalls, “They were operating under a good set of guidelines, and those guidelines were approved by the ANC,” says Young. “It was a very embarrassing moment for Robert,” she says. “He had led us to believe that there had been some breach of contract, and it turned out that there hadn’t been.” And Kramer, a special committee member and current ANC chair, took strong exception to Riddle’s attack. “The idea that there was something conspiratorial going on is just ridiculous.”
Maybe. But the ANC and its de facto overlords in LCCA have hardly earned high marks for open civic leadership. They’ve helped a rich developer choreograph a lucrative dance around zoning regulations, failed to advocate a residential downtown, and assented to the diversion of housing funds to a charity unrelated to residential housing in the city. With those priorities, it’s no wonder people are asking questions about how the committee will spend $500,000 in its own neighborhood. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa