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The prestigious national PR firm Hill and Knowlton is hoping to do for downtown developer Oliver Carr what it did for the Kuwaiti government during the Persian Gulf War. Four years ago, Hill and Knowlton helped move this country behind Desert Storm by producing a 15-year-old girl who testified before Congress that she saw Iraqi soldiers rampage through a Kuwaiti hospital, removing premature babies from incubators and leaving them on the floor to die. The sensational claim made news worldwide, and the war was long finished before anyone suspected that it might not be true: The girl turned out to be the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter, and some claim that she wasn’t even in Kuwait at the time of the violence she described. But by then, Hill and Knowlton had already demonstrated that it could incite the world to war.
Now, Hill and Knowlton has set its sights on a more local war—one that pits church against church in the District. The Oliver Carr Co. has hired H&K to carpet-bomb the only remaining opposition to its plans to renovate the old Garfinckel‘s store, converting the building at 14th and F Streets NW mainly into downtown office space. City regulators have already rolled over: Last year, the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) ruled that Carr only needs to devote 56,000 square feet of the 150,000-square-foot building to retail use.
But the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a group of 29 churches, stepped in. The Downtown Cluster is protesting the BZA’s decision before the D.C. Court of Appeals, seeking to force Carr and the anonymous building owners to abide by the city’s original plan for that site. Under that plan, Carr and whoever gave him the $40-million contract to renovate the building were required to preserve at least 90,000 square feet on the first three floors for use by a major retailer.
LL is not making up the anonymous owners. Even city officials admit they don’t know who the real live people are behind F Street Realty Co., the corporate cover that holds title to the property. “We’re not really dealing with Carr here. We’re dealing with somebody behind Carr,” said the Rev. John Mack, president of the Downtown Cluster. “And who is this somebody else? Nobody’s saying.”
In its court filings, the Downtown Cluster argues that a third downtown department store is needed to complement Woodward & Lothrop and Hecht’s. The Cluster also argues that office buildings create jobs filled mostly by suburbanites, while more than half the jobs in retail stores are filled by D.C. residents.
Supporters of the Cluster’s position see this as a key battle for the future of downtown D.C. They fear that if Carr wriggles free of the retail requirements set for downtown properties, other developers will follow suit. Then the restaurants and stores needed to attract and keep people downtown won’t be there. At night, the area will be populated mostly by empty, lonely office buildings. And before long, the people living downtown will be forced to vacate in search of humanity.
The Carr company claims that it has tried and tried, but cannot convince any major chain or department store, such as Lord & Taylor or Bloomingdale’s, to move into downtown D.C. Apparently, the city’s go-ahead-make-my-day reputation for parking enforcement has spread nationwide. City officials back Carr on that claim, saying that if a national retailer had been interested in a downtown location, one would have snagged the building during the four years that it’s stood vacant. The only feasible thing to do, claims the developer, is sign on smaller shops. That plan means less space needed for retail, and more floors available for Carr’s first love: office space.
The Downtown Cluster doubts such claims. “We believe that they will find [a major retail store] as soon as the court tells them they have to do that,” said Mack, pastor of First Congregational Church at 10th and G Streets NW. “There has been no good-faith effort so far.” Richard Nettler, the Cluster’s attorney on the lawsuit, said Barnes & Noble was interested in opening a multilevel bookstore/cafe patterned after its bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But, Nettler said, Carr and the owners refused to cooperate with the bookseller.
The brilliant minds over at Hill and Knowlton never stop churning. Two can play this God-is-on-our-side game, andH&K and Carr apparently decided to try splitting the Downtown Cluster over this issue. H&K and Carr allied themselves with the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, who had never been known to take a position on development of the Garfinckel’s site until a few weeks ago. Some see in Fauntroy’s newfound advocacy the hand of Lurma Rackley, former press secretary to the Mayor-for-Life (LL doesn’t even have to print his name anymore) and now the vice president ofH&K’s Washington office.
Fauntroy, minister of New Bethel Baptist Church and the only congressional delegate the District has ever had besides Eleanor Holmes Norton, is leading an army of four D.C. ministers who proclaim that the city’s salvation lies in more office space on that site. Why, Fauntroy and his ministers want to know, is the Downtown Cluster standing in the way of progress that will show D.C. means business about attracting new businesses into the city? And why would churches stand in the way of a plan that will bring jobs into an employment-hungry market?
Hill and Knowlton’s strategy has paid off in the media. So far, the Washington Post has run two articles on the challenge by Fauntroy and company. The first story appeared Nov. 12, on the Saturday religion page, and the second was penned by Rudolph A. Pyatt Jr. in his Nov. 17 business column. Pyatt’s column appeared under the headline “Standing in the Way of Sense on the Old Garfinckel Building.”
H&K’s PR strategists must have enjoyed a flashback to their Gulf War successes when they opened up the paper and found that headline beaming at them.
The other major maneuver in this PR war was a Nov. 15 news conference, presided over by Fauntroy, to announce a new name for the building: Hamilton Square. Ten years after Carr made room for his Metropolitan Square project by bulldozing Rhodes Tavern—the remnants of D.C.’s first city hall, which sat behind the Garfinckel’s building—he wants to honor Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first treasurer. The name change has drawn mostly snickers from local Washington, but H&K was no doubt paid handsomely to promote that yawner of an idea. And in another part of the public-relations campaign, the long-vacant windows on the building’s ground floor have been filled with photographs of formerly homeless teen-agers.
The Downtown Cluster has not been moved by these PR gimmicks, and has countered by attempting to bring Fauntroy back into the fold. “We’ve been in touch with Walter, and we’re talking,” Mack said. “We think we’ve got common ground.” Fauntroy may not be the Rock of Gibraltar H&K thought him to be on this issue. This fight could turn into a battle for the soul of Walter Fauntroy, but Hill and Knowlton probably isn’t interested in such a small mission.
RELIGIOUS WAR, PART 2
The other major war involving church and state is erupting over a bill by Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who proposes to empower residents and community groups to enforce city zoning regulations. In an era where D.C. cannot afford to hire enough inspectors to ensure compliance with zoning laws, Evans’ Building Permit Enforcement Act of 1994 would form a posse of citizen enforcers. Though Evans and zoning attorney Richard Nettler are on opposite sides in the Garfinckel’s dispute, they’re allies regarding this bill. In fact, Nettler brought Evans the idea.
Under laws already on the books, citizens can file lawsuits over the city’s nonenforcement of zoning regulations. But the Evans/Nettler proposal would let residents and civic groups collect attorneys’ fees and court costs when they prevail. As a safeguard against frivolous lawsuits, the bill would allow those being sued to recoup their legal costs if the court determines that a lawsuit has no foundation or merit. Evans said his proposal is a response to frustrated neighbors in Georgetown and Dupont Circle, who saw the city failing or refusing to act against illegal structures being built in their communities.
But churches and social service organizations are mounting a holy war against Evans’ bill, slated for council action in December. These institutions fear that the new law, rather than aiding in the enforcement of zoning laws, would encourage communities to go into court to keep halfway houses and low-income housing out of their midst. Among those leading the crusade against the bill is Luther Place Memorial Church, which is locked in a bitter struggle with Logan Circle residents who have challenged the church’s failure to obtain the proper city permits for its housing programs in the community.
“Jack really would prefer that poor people just go away,” the Rev. John Mack said of the Ward 2 councilmember. Mack said his organization has not yet taken an official stand on the proposal. But he added, “I’m not in favor of zoning that operates like a restrictive covenant.”
Evans bristles at such criticism by ministers and heads of social service organizations who live outside the city or outside the communities they are criticizing. Retorted the councilmember: “All I can say to people like that is, “Move down into the neighborhoods you’re criticizing and you’ll have more standing.’ ”
Evans and Nettler said the proposed law cannot be used to give churches and social service groups a hard time—unless, of course, those institutions are violating zoning laws.
After two weekends in a row without trash pickup, Georgetown residents and businesses don’t need any more evidence that the city is broke and on the verge of bankruptcy….
Ward 2 activist Royce Gibson has written At-Large Councilmember John Ray, advising him to “get over it” and drop his opposition to the reappointment of Mary Eva Candon to the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board. But Ray is not about to step aside for Candon, with whom he has been feuding for the past couple of years. The only ABC appointment Ray let through this week was that of Dupont Circle activist Dennis Bass….
The election of Terry Hairston to the school board in Ward 7 marked a setback for Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous. The ambitious Hairston is considered a likely future challenger to Chavous, and Chavous had endorsed school board candidate Tom Kelly partly for that reason. But Hairston won handily.
LL incorrectly identified Logan Circle ANC Commissioner Robert Ryan Riddle as African-American in last week’s column. Riddle is white.