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Giselle Carela, a junior at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights, is fed up with the taunts and jeers she gets from the men who hang out in a lot next to the school. “They always stand there and drink beer and call us names, trying to get our attention. Sometimes you have to cross to the other side of the street, and they still holler,” says Carela. Although Carela tries to avoid the lot, known as Parcel 27, it’s tucked right into the school’s armpit at the corner of Hiatt Place and Irving Street NW. The lot, which is owned by the city, has evolved into a stagnant junkyard featuring an old auto shop and strewn with rusty car parts, empty malt liquor bottles, and the downtrodden who clutch them. A dog who may or may not have seen better days now patrols the battered fence.
“People hang out there and drink all day and evening,” reports Bell principal Maria Tukeva. A Metropolitan Police Department officer confirmed that the police have checked into allegations that the auto shop still standing on the corner houses drug dealers and unlicensed chop-shop mechanics, but no arrests have been made. And it’s not just human detritus making the mess. For years, Tukeva has complained that the shop has illegally dumped oil in the lot. The mechanics pump exhaust out the side windows of the auto shop, where it feeds directly into the classrooms, she says. Just in case all that hasn’t solidified the shop’s reputation as a bad neighbor, more than one burglar has used its roof as a launching pad to break into the school.
Bell’s predicament is nothing new in Columbia Heights, where District-owned properties are infested with drug dealers, vagrants, trash, and other neighborhood pests. However, Parcel 27 isn’t just one more anonymous city-owned plot—it’s been under the exclusive control of corporate mogul Herbert Haft for over a decade. The 75-year-old Haft acquired development rights to the parcel along with four other Columbia Heights properties in the early 1980s, after a fire sale of city-owned properties orchestrated by Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr.
Over the years, Haft and his infamously dysfunctional family have built one of the city’s largest property empires, including about 30 shopping centers in the Washington area, Dart Drug, Crown Books, and Trak Auto Corp. But the nearly 12 acres he controlled in Columbia Heights do not appear on his impressive roster. For over a decade, the only thing developing on Parcel 27 is additional blight. The city has finally tired of Haft’s inability to get something going in Columbia Heights and will seek new bids to develop the properties.
Evicting Parcel 27’s residents couldn’t be a higher priority for the folks at Bell, which serves 650 students, most of them immigrants from Central and South America and Africa. The school does surprisingly well, given that it’s the only one in the District with no gymnasium, field, cafeteria, auditorium, or science lab. For gym classes, the teachers lay a thin rubber mat over a concrete classroom floor. The school board has appropriated money for an auditorium, but it needs the neighboring land to build it. For at least four years, efforts to negotiate with Haft have failed.
Bell students are tired of waiting and have even put together a video called Broken Promises, which documents their struggle for new facilities. Tukeva wants the corner of Parcel 27 to build a mall/cafeteria and a multipurpose room that would serve as a gym. Tukeva even extracted a pledge from Marriott Management Services to operate a training center for students interested in retail management. But Haft would hear none of it.
Like many developers, Haft’s past is speckled with controversy. In 1981, he settled a messy legal battle with a former employee who charged that she was unfairly fired after ending an affair with Haft. In November, Haft emerged from two years of complex litigation involving ugly family disputes that made him and his high-rise silver hairdo a local media sensation. His property management company, Combined Properties Inc., is now operating under bankruptcy protection. He is estranged from his children and allegedly owes his ex-wife $14 million. And he reportedly doesn’t have the cash.
Which may explain why the Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA), which supervises city renewal projects, decided out of nowhere to revoke Haft’s development authority a month ago. When asked “Why Now?,” Duryea Smith, secretary of the RLA board, said that “it’s obvious that [Haft] is not moving forward….It’s time now for us to terminate the agreement.”
It took RLA 16 years of watching Haft sit on the properties to conclude that he had no interest in developing them. Park Central Associates Corp., a partnership between Haft and two other local businessmen—Arthur McZier and J. Gerald Lustine—promised in 1981 to build a large community service center, a grocery store, offices, shops, and a parking lot on the land. Since then, the partnership has completed only one project: the 1984 refurbishment of a home for the elderly.
RLA’s recent action is not the first instance of city officials promising bold strokes to get something moving on the Haft-controlled properties. In 1992, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly told Bell students she would intervene and pressure Haft to turn over development rights or sell them for a reasonable price. Kelly’s pledge came just after Bert Reid, an 18-year-old all-Met soccer star who led Bell to the city championship, was murdered near school grounds. Bell students blamed the city and Haft for the killing, citing the crime-ridden city-owned lots in the neighborhood. Barry repeated Kelly’s vow last spring. Still, nothing.
What’s more, Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith has been after the city for at least 14 years to force Haft to either develop the land or return it to the city.
The current occupants of the corner don’t see what all the fuss is about. Jesse “Jay” Witherspoon, a Park Central official who runs the auto shop located on the parcel, denies wrongdoing and suggests that Tukeva is more worried about empire-building than child safety. “She’s been after this property for years, and we’re not going anywhere,” says Witherspoon. “She should worry about the drug dealers in her own school.”
The finger-pointing doesn’t end with Witherspoon, however. Alex Iszard, general counsel for Haft’s property management corporation, says that the properties have been frozen in limbo because the city failed to complete the partnership’s projects. “It’s not like we sat on our hands,” says Iszard. “The city has failed to do what they’re supposed to do to allow the development to go forward. Did somebody over [at RLA] get amnesia?” Iszard said the city’s letter nullifying the partnership’s development rights came as a “complete surprise.”
Phil T. Feola, a lawyer with Wilkes Artis Hedrick & Lane who represents Park Central, wrote that the RLA’s decision “ignores Park Central’s tremendous investment in this development.” Park Central, said Feola in a letter to RLA, has “literally expended millions of dollars to date to process the required regulatory approvals through the District government.”
Park Central’s moaning about the sluggish zoning changes and community litigation rings true in one case: the redevelopment of land now occupied by the historic Tivoli Theatre on 14th Street near Park Road. Haft has long sought to demolish the theater to make way for one of his projects. Community activists protested, leading to a case that an appeals court sent back to the mayor’s office in early 1995. No news yet.
There’s no doubt that pushing development through the District’s bureaucracy is a massive pain in the ass, but no one is going to give Haft’s team an A for effort. The morass over the Tivoli may not be Haft’s doing, but what about the other four plots of land? Feola has less persuasive excuses for those, except Parcel 27, which he concedes may have been “the only place where there really could have been some development.” But, he argues, the city never condemned the building as originally planned.
Even though the process seems bureaucracy-bound, things could change quickly: When the long-delayed Metro stop opens just blocks away in 1999, the land’s value will soar. Some community types worry that breaking the property into tiny parcels or even handing one of the plots over to Bell would pre-empt large projects with the financial muscle to revitalize the neighborhood. In spite of the assurances of mayors Kelly and Barry, the city has no official position on putting land for expansion in Bell’s hands.
In the meantime, Haft’s groupies are considering challenging the RLA decision in court. RLA appears unafraid. What the city wants most, of course, is time to “consider our options,” break the land into smaller parcels, and open up the bidding process—maybe by early next year.
Or maybe not. According to David Watts, head of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, every idea, even unsolicited proposals, will be subject to thorough review. “It’s a time-consuming process,” warns a clearly patient RLA official.