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Whayne Quin, president of the law firm Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane, expected the D.C. Zoning Commission hearing on July 28, 1994, to be “a piece of cake.”
The five-member body was debating an obscure, technical amendment to the zoning regulations, and the discussion promised to be as riveting as, well, a Zoning Commission meeting. Quin, a 29-year veteran of such hearings and the leading land-use lawyer in the city, figured the commissioners would race through the testimony and vote in his favor. He spoke first, petitioning the board to allow “tolling” of zoning permits, a procedural change that would protect developers from lawsuits.
Quin may have expected a piece of cake. What he got was a pie in the face. When he completed his dry, legalistic presentation, an army of community activists rose to rebut him. These witnesses—nearly 20 in all—condemned the tolling provision, but that wasn’t the only reason many of them had come. They also wanted to attack Wilkes, Artis.
Barbara Kahlow, vice president of the Foggy Bottom Association, complained that “communities are powerless against [the] arrogance” of Wilkes, Artis and its wealthy clients.
Marie Drissel, head of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) in Sheridan/Kalorama, blasted the tolling measure as a scheme to help Quin and his partners. “The sole purpose of this regulation is to…provide a defense to the law firm of Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane for any claims its client may have against it,” declaimed Drissel.
Stephen Koczak, president of the D.C. Federation of Citizens Associations, tarred Wilkes, Artis as “a law firm which seems to have far too much ex parte access to all the zoning authorities of the District of Columbia.” He also accused D.C. agencies of being too “compliant” with the firm’s requests.
The parade continued for three hours. ANC commissioners from the West End, Cleveland Park, and Palisades unleashed their 15 minutes of blame. Representatives of the Capitol Hill Preservation Society, the Glover Park Citizens Association, the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, and the Citizens Coalition—all organizations that have warred repeatedly against Wilkes, Artis—testified in opposition.
“That hearing was not really about tolling. It was a rant-athon about Wilkes, Artis,” says Con Hitchcock, a lawyer who represents community groups against the law firm. “It was a great communal wailing, emblematic of popular discontent with the firm.”
Some weeks after the meeting, the commission voted the way it had been expected to vote (and the way the commission usually votes): It ruled in Wilkes, Artis’ favor and adopted the tolling amendment. Today, as he recalls the July hearing, Quin still professes bafflement about why the meeting erupted into a slam session. “It was sort of a strange hearing. The Capitol Hill people came at it from one angle. Foggy Bottom had about seven angles,” Quin says. “Frankly, I was very surprised.”
But after a generation practicing with Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane and a decade as its commander-in-chief, Quin should never be surprised to attract a mob of furious opponents. Wilkes, Artis represents virtually all of the city’s big developers, and D.C.’s community activists—particularly those from affluent, development-shy areas of the city—have come to view the firm as the No. 1 threat to their neighborhoods. Wilkes, Artis may be one of the most successful law firms in the city. It is also one of the most disliked.
“People are tired of this firm getting whatever it wants,” says Georgetown ANC Commissioner Westy Byrd, a foe of Wilkes, Artis. “They are willing to take out an entire evening and spend hours on their testimony just because of the depths of their hatred for this law firm.”
Whayne Quin’s adversaries have dubbed him “The Prince of Darkness,” but it’s hard to imagine a more unlikely nickname for the 57-year-old lawyer. He is too Establishment. Born into a prominent Tennessee family, Quin earned his B.A. from Vanderbilt, graduated from the University of Virginia Law School in 1964, and moved to Washington to take a federal judicial clerkship. He joined Wilkes, Artis in 1966—remaining in D.C. to escape his “domineering mother”—and never left.
Quin looks and sounds like a patrician lawyer. He is tall and lanky. His eyes are pale blue. His face is beginning to wattle and wrinkle, but his features remain alarmingly boyish. He dresses in the attorney uniform—conservative gray suit, muted red tie, well-polished wingtips—and he speaks in a bland, emotionless voice, distinguished only by a vestigial drawl. The only remotely odd thing about him is the “H” in his first name.
Quin may ooze Kiwanis Club blandness, but almost from the moment I enter Wilkes, Artis’ office—a swank 11th-floor suite at 1666 K St. NW—I understand why his antagonists hate negotiating with him. When I arrive for a 9 a.m. appointment, Quin makes me wait briefly in the office lobby. After a couple of minutes, just long enough for me to grow nervous, but not long enough to permit snooping around, Quin strolls in. He welcomes me effusively and escorts me back to his office, a long room offering a commanding view of Farragut Square.
He gestures to a low, squishy couch, and says, “Why don’t you sit there.”
It is not a question. I sink into the couch. A coffee table blocks me from stretching my legs. (The office carpet, I note, is the color of dried blood.) Quin takes a seat in a high, straight-backed chair to my right. Daylight shines through the window behind him. To look at him, I must crane my head upward and squint through the glare.
Then Quin springs a double team on me. Norman “Chip” Glasgow Jr., another top Wilkes, Artis lawyer, marches into the office and grabs a chair, guarding, as it were, my left flank. I turn on my cheap tape recorder; Quin switches on his fancy tape recorder. I uncap a blue ballpoint Bic; Quin whips out his elegant gold pen. I glance at his bookshelves, expecting to see a copy of Negotiating to Win.
Finally, his alpha-male dominance secure, Quin settles back, adjusts his suit jacket almost imperceptibly, crosses his legs at the ankles, folds his hands in his lap, and smiles confidently.
Quin has good reason to smile. He presides over what may be the most influential law firm in the District. Barren of industry, D.C. has become a city of real estate. Land is its most precious resource, and property tax revenue sustains the District government. Most of the local tycoons and power brokers—Dominic Antonelli, Kingdon Gould, Morris Cafritz, and Oliver Carr, to name a few—have built fortunes through land speculation and real estate development. And Wilkes, Artis has been at their side. By dint of hard work and relentless networking, Quin and his 40-odd colleagues have virtually cornered the market in the narrow, arcane, and absolutely essential field of land-use law.
Everyone, from Wilkes, Artis’ most loyal client to its harshest critic, agrees: If you are in the District and you want to buy a building, sell a building, demolish a building, erect a building, permit a building, or pay taxes for a building—and you have a pile of money to throw around—the first thing to do is trek to 1666 K St. and powwow with Quin and his partners.
“If I were a commercial property owner and I needed a law firm, I would go to them,” says Jeffrey Kraskin, an ANC rep from Spring Valley who has negotiated frequently against Wilkes, Artis. “They work hard. They know the law. And they have the eyes and ears of government.”
Wilkes, Artis’ client list reads like a guide to D.C.’s ruling elite. The 69-year-old firm has represented powerhouses such as George Washington University (GWU), American University (AU), Georgetown University, WETA-TV, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF); blue-chip developers such as the Oliver Carr Co., the Stephen A. Goldberg Co., the Donohoe Cos., Landow and Co., the Kaempfer Co., W.C. & A.N. Miller Realtors, and Equitable Real Estate; and 80 percent of all foreign chanceries in the city.
“They have done a very good job representing us,” says Fran Trachtenberg, WETA’s director of development. “I have found them to be knowledgeable, responsible, and committed to the District.”
Wilkes, Artis’ attorneys are not only among the most powerful lawyers in the city—they are also the busiest lobbyists. Registration forms filed with the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) show that the firm represents 22 clients before the D.C. Council. The firm speaks for property owners about critical land-use issues such as alley closings and amendments to the Comprehensive Plan, the city’s land-use constitution. These clients—the firm’s usual mix of rich, richer, and richest—include the IMF, the Donohoe Cos., Georgetown University, Steuart Investment, Ulysses “Blackie” Auger, Wells Fargo bank, GWU, the Walton Cos., and the Oliver Carr Co. According to the OCF forms, no other lobbyist in D.C. represents more than seven clients. “They are everywhere,” Charles Docter, vice president of Market Square West Condominium Association, says of Wilkes, Artis’ lawyer/lobbyists. “Whenever I am walking into a council office, someone from Wilkes, Artis is walking out. Whenever I am walking out, someone from Wilkes, Artis is walking in.”
Property owners patronize Wilkes, Artis in part because there is nowhere else to go. Lin owes & Blocher, a Silver Spring, Md.-based firm that was Wilkes, Artis’ only serious competition, shut its District office a few months ago, and its top D.C. lawyer was just given a job by Quin’s concern. Except for a few other attorneys representing the odd developer or two, Wilkes, Artis is the only game in town.
But D.C.’s ruling class also hires Quin and company because they are the experts in the Byzantine universe of D.C. zoning law. Average citizens, average developers, and even average lawyers go cross-eyed reading the 300-page zoning regulations. They need translators to decipher the jargon of “overlay zones,” “FARs,” and “special exceptions.” And they get hopelessly lost trying to navigate the alphabet soup of agencies—DCRA, HPRB, BZA, NCPC, CFA, OP—that regulate building in D.C., all the way down to the color of the last roof tile. (Forget the old saw that the law does not concern itself with trifles: D.C. zoning is nothing but trifles.)
“I give them credit for having delved and thought about these issues,” says opposing attorney Hitchcock. “Being a good zoning lawyer is like being a good tax lawyer. You need to find creative solutions in the face of intractable requirements. That is something that a generalist cannot necessarily figure out.”
Wilkes, Artis’ attorneys understand the rules, both written and unwritten, better than anyone. They have become the District’s champions at getting deals done.
Just ask the IMF. In 1992, Wilkes, Artis represented the international agency when it sought to build a new headquarters in Foggy Bottom. The project, which required both demolishing the 60-year-old Western Presbyterian Church and closing an adjacent alley, enraged neighborhood groups, who repeatedly tried to derail it. But Wilkes, Artis persuaded the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) not to landmark the church, allowing the IMF to raze it. Later, the firm’s tireless lobbying (and perhaps its generous campaign contributions) helped convince the D.C. Council to close the alley and OK a compromise between the IMF and the neighborhood opponents.
Or ask American University. Spring Valley residents were outraged when the university tried to relocate its law school to an off-campus office building. The neighbors challenged the move in front of the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA). But Quin and his colleagues, who know the BZA regulations better than its five members combined, induced the board to OK the scheme.
Wilkes, Artis knows how to coax permits out of the testy inspectors at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), sweet-talk the Zoning Commission into adding an extra floor to your office building, convince the U.S. Department of State to approve your new embassy, and fill out the correct forms at the zoning office (no mean feat). Wilkes, Artis can even help you cut your taxes—if you own millions of dollars’ worth of property. The firm specializes in winning huge property tax reductions for the owners of office buildings. According to statistics compiled by the Service Employees International Union, Local 82 (“D.C. Justice for Janitors”), Wilkes, Artis petitioned the Board of Real Property Assessment and Appeals (BRPAA) to reduce assessments on 128 commercial office buildings in tax year 1995. BRPAA slashed the tax bills of Wilkes, Artis’ clients by $8.4 million. Attorneys typically pocket one-third of property tax rebates, which translates into a $2.8-million windfall for Wilkes, Artis.
It’s not just tax appeals that reward Wilkes, Artis handsomely. While the firm does not release salary data, one land-use attorney familiar with Wilkes, Artis estimates that its lawyers earn $200,000 to $300,000 per year and bill clients $200 to $300 per hour.
Wilkes, Artis may have won the hearts (and lightened the pocketbooks) of D.C.’s plutocrats and zillioniare institutions, but it has made enemies all across the city. Visit almost any neighborhood in D.C.—especially any one west of Rock Creek Park—and you will meet someone, or a dozen someones, who despise Wilkes, Artis. “At some citizens’ association meetings, all you have to do is say that Wilkes, Artis supports something and the association will vote to oppose it,” says a local urban planner.
Wilkes, Artis represents almost every big developer in the city, and it has embroiled itself in every big development fight. The firm has brawled with Cleveland Parkers, Shepherd Parkers, Woodley Parkers, Glover Parkers, and American University Parkers, squared off against residents of Friendship Heights and Wesley Heights, annoyed East Enders and West Enders, and tussled with denizens of Capitol Hill and Hillandale.
Quin rejects the charge that his firm is a magnet for controversy, asserting that Wilkes, Artis reaches agreements with neighborhoods in “75 to 80 percent” of cases. The remaining few erupt in conflict, Quin adds, principally because a small, vocal group of people opposes progress (in Wilkes, Artis’ dogma, adversaries invariably come in “small, vocal” groups). “There always seems to be…a group that feels there should not be change. The status quo should be maintained,” Quin says. “And we are involved in changing.”
But the firm’s critics retort that it’s not “change” that upsets them. According to many who’ve battled the firm, Wilkes, Artis often tries to crush community opposition and overpower the city government.
“They generally represent the big guy. They are very tough negotiators, and they play hardball,” says former Zoning Commissioner Tersh Boasberg. “Often their tactics are confrontational, which can lead to tremendous antagonism, hostilities, and a we/them attitude.”
Consider, for example, the August 1991 scuffle on the 2500 block of Pennsylvania Avenue. The Foggy Bottom Association and the local ANC, hoping to stop a proposed “Gateway to Georgetown” project, petitioned the HPRB to designate the block as a historic district. In particular, they hoped to preserve two turn-of-the-century houses owned by Wilkes, Artis client Chatham Lake Associates. The historic district application was pending, but that didn’t deter Wilkes, Artis and Chatham Lake. They asked the city for a permit to demolish the houses anyway. The city complied immediately, issuing a demolition permit for the following day. In granting the permit, the city violated its own regulations requiring a 30-day warning to the neighborhood before any demolition.
The construction crew began bulldozing the houses at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Later, a Wilkes, Artis attorney arrived to watch the wrecking.
According to the Foggy Bottom Association’s Kahlow, the city never should have issued the permit to Wilkes, Artis and Chatham Lake. “It violated a familiar process, a process that everyone—especially Wilkes, Artis—knew about,” she complains. “We got screwed, and the city lost a block that everyone knew.”
No land-use fight demonstrates Wilkes, Artis’ power and savvy as clearly as the five-year battle over downtown housing. In the course of this conflict, Wilkes, Artis thwarted its opponents in front of both the Zoning Commission and the D.C. Council, and secured huge benefits for wealthy clients, yet still virtuously claimed to be helping the city’s poor.
For decades, Washingtonians—especially idealistic urban planners—had fantasized about a “living downtown.” And for decades, downtown had been about as lively as the average morgue. Like New York’s Wall Street, D.C.’s business core bustled from 9 to 5 and emptied at dusk. Downtown offered nowhere to live, nowhere to eat, and nothing to do—except troll for prostitutes or get mugged. Since the ’70s, planners urged that the District should imitate cities like Seattle and Portland by encouraging residents to live, shop, dine, go to the theater, and stroll downtown.
By the mid-’80s, everyone had jumped on the living downtown bandwagon. The D.C. Council embraced the concept when it approved the Comprehensive Plan in 1984. The mayor’s Office of Planning (OP) also cheered the idea, and the city marked off an 88-block Downtown Development District (DDD) that would mix retail stores, offices, and apartments.
Even developers and development lawyers touted the living downtown. The Greater Washington Board of Trade boosted downtown housing in a 1982 report, and in 1984, Mayor Marion Barry convened a downtown planning committee of community activists, urban planners, developers, and lawyers. That committee, which included Wilkes, Artis attorneys, wrote a “Mayor’s Downtown Plan” that endorsed the idea of jazzing up the DDD with housing.
In 1989, the Zoning Commission finally began to draft the regulations that would create the living downtown. But Wilkes, Artis and its downtown-property-owning clients balked.
“All of us agreed to downtown housing. All of us agreed,” says a development lawyer who served on the downtown planning committee with Wilkes, Artis. “Then they turned around and opposed it. It was complete hypocrisy. They were acting for a bunch of property owners and they were doing it for money.”
The housing supporters—led by Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations—petitioned the commission to require housing downtown. The Zoning Commission, they said, should not eliminate any current property rights—developers could still build the same amount of office space that they had expected to build—but the commission should also insist that developers put housing in all their new downtown buildings. Current zoning allowed property owners to construct six-story office buildings. Under the scheme of Lynch and his allies, developers could erect nine-story buildings with six floors of offices and three floors of apartments.
The housing advocates admitted that the required apartments would not be as profitable as commercial space. But in the long run, they said, the housing would repay the city and the developers many times over. Downtown apartments would lure fleeing taxpayers—perhaps as many as 7,000 of them—back to the city. These urban hipsters would revive the downtown theaters, invigorate the art galleries, support snappy shops and restaurants like Coco Loco, and transform the dreary office canyonland into a vibrant neighborhood.
But Wilkes, Artis and its downtown-property-owning clients rejected the idea of a housing mandate, and petitioned the Zoning Commission to scrap it. Downtown housing may be a nice idea, they said, but it makes no economic sense: Housing costs too much to build, requires complicated plumbing, mixes badly with commercial office space, and generates too little rent for a developer to turn a profit. If developers were stuck with a housing mandate, Wilkes, Artis warned, they would stop building entirely. Downtown construction would screech to a halt, robbing the District of jobs and property taxes.
“[Downtown housing] is not a bad goal,” says Chip Glasgow of Wilkes, Artis. “[But] there is no economic justification for the construction of residential. There is nothing…to give economic incentive to the potential developer of that housing to produce it.”
Wilkes, Artis set out to scuttle the proposed requirement and also to wrangle enormous new benefits for its clients out of the Zoning Commission. As the commission debated the DDD regs, Wilkes, Artis and its property-owning clients forged a brilliant—critics say “Faustian”—alliance with D.C.’s nonprofit housing providers. According to Wilkes, Artis, the city should allow developers to “link” development to off-site housing elsewhere in the city. Instead of erecting that nine-story tower with six floors of offices and three floors of housing, a developer would erect a nine-story office building with nine floors of offices. In exchange for the three extra floors of commercial space, the developer would donate money to a nonprofit housing fund. Nonprofit housing providers would then spend that money to construct low-income housing elsewhere. Builders would keep erecting snazzy office buildings. The city’s poor would move into desperately needed housing. Everybody would win.
“What are your real housing needs?” Quin asks. “Clearly a major part of that need is serving low-income people….The benefit, the bang for the buck in terms of housing, the social benefit to the city, comes…through that linkage.”
Nonprofit housing providers adored the Wilkes, Artis scheme. The Coalition for Nonprofit Housing Development, Jubilee Housing, Manna Inc., the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), D.C. Habitat for Humanity, and more than a dozen other low-income housing providers made common cause with Wilkes, Artis and its clients. The firm and the nonprofits submitted alternative proposals to the city, suggesting that developers be allowed to “buy out” 100 percent of the proposed housing requirement with linkage money. Wilkes, Artis prepared crisp charts proving the infeasiblity of downtown housing and illuminating the glorious benefits of linkage.
But Wilkes, Artis didn’t emphasize linkage’s most glorious benefit: financial windfalls for developers. According to two studies cited by the housing advocates, for every dollar property owners paid into the low-income housing fund, they would bank about $4 from extra commercial office space.
The competition between the linkage and downtown housing proposals also incited a nasty race and class conflict, pitting the mostly white professionals who would live downtown against the poor blacks who would benefit from low-income housing. In negotiating sessions and at council hearings, representatives of the nonprofits lambasted downtown housing as welfare for the rich and insisted that the city should help the Washingtonians who really need shelter.
Promoting linkage, say housing advocates, was a crass political maneuver by Wilkes, Artis. “I understand the economic interest Wilkes, Artis represents, and they have every right to do what they were doing,” says Market Square’s Docter, a leading advocate for downtown housing. “But Wilkes, Artis tried to muddy the water with racial issues….It was a cynical and callous mixing of two issues that don’t mix.
“Nobody in our area is opposed to nonprofit or low-income housing,” Docter continues. “That is not the issue. The issue is: Will the city benefit from housing in the downtown area that will increase the city tax rolls because there are people paying income taxes? In the long run, if we have more revenue from that, we will have more money for low-income housing.”
Quin rejects the charge that his firm was exploiting race for profit. Linkage, he insists, serves Wilkes, Artis’ clients and serves the city. “It was a win-win situation,” he says. And, Quin adds, the firm has always helped D.C.’s nonprofits. He and Glasgow rattle off a list of groups they have served pro bono, including Marshall Heights Community Development Corp (CDC), Columbia Heights CDC, Manna, and Jubilee Housing. They are also happy to provide the names and phone numbers of nonprofit leaders who sing their praises.
One such fan is Alverta Munlyn, director of educational services at the Center City Community Corp. (CCCC), a low-income housing provider. “The city and the federal government don’t have money to provide services for poor people,” says Munlyn. “If Wilkes, Artis can come in and provide help for people, why shouldn’t the community support them? They are supporting us.”
Whether Wilkes, Artis’ linkage campaign was “cynical and callous” or whether it was “a win-win situation,” it won massive concessions from the city. In its 1990 vote, the Zoning Commission didn’t cave completely to the 100 percent buyout proposal, but it did OK a generous compromise. The commission required some downtown apartment units, but it also let developers use linkage money to escape 30 to 40 percent (depending on the neighborhood) of the mandated housing.
Wilkes, Artis wrung more concessions from the city last year. While the council was debating Comprehensive Plan amendments, the firm waged an intensive lobbying campaign on behalf of almost a dozen different property owners, wooing D.C.’s legislators with another 100 percent buyout scheme. Wilkes, Artis again didn’t win a total victory, but it chipped away at the housing requirement. The council upped the buyout percentage to 55 percent.
According to planners, residents of downtown, and many community activists, Wilkes, Artis’ strategy deep-sixed the idea of the living downtown. The firm’s lust for office space, they say, is stifling the neighborhood, quickening the flight of taxpayers to the suburbs, and turning downtown back into a shell. And while the firm’s effort to gut the downtown housing requirement may aid nonprofit housing providers, it principally means that its clients can now construct millions of dollars’ worth of extra office space.
“Wilkes, Artis is feigning interest in poor neighborhoods…and giving them the crumbs of the process,” says one lawyer who has battled the firm. “They have set neighborhood against neighborhood, black people against white people, to help their clients.”
Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane has been winning zoning battles for powerful Washingtonians as long as there have been zoning battles to win. The firm practically invented land-use law in Washington. “It started in 1926, and it has always been probably the leading firm in land use in the city,” Quin says.
As bizarre as it may sound to our modern, litigious ears, Washingtonians managed to build and demolish for more than a century without the aid of land-use lawyers. Though the first District building regulations were instituted in the 1790s—“We did not have anything to do with that,” Quin says, only half in jest—130 years passed before District officials started thinking seriously about city planning. The Supreme Court approved zoning in the 1910s, and the District issued its inaugural zoning regulations in 1920. The city followed a few years later with its first comprehensive planning.
D.C.’s property owners realized quickly that they needed experts to steer them through the new building bureaucracy, and James Wilkes, a 27-year-old graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, seized the opportunity. In 1926, Wilkes quit his job with the D.C. Corporation Counsel and hung out his shingle.
“There was one fortuitous event in [Wilkes’] career,” says the founder’s grandson, Charles “Sandy” Wilkes, a developer and former land-use lawyer. “He had an interest in land use and how cities are planned and developed. This coincided with landmark constitutional cases which gave political jurisdictions the authority to comprehensively zone and plan….He was on the scene when the law was created.”
Wilkes’ embryonic practice survived the Depression. In 1940, he teamed with James Artis and Joseph McGarraghy to form Wilkes, Artis & McGarraghy. (McGarraghy was dropped from the letterhead when he was named a federal judge in 1954.) Working out of the Tower Building at 1401 K St. NW, the firm handled almost all significant D.C. land-use cases, representing universities, big developers such as Morris Cafritz, and, as Sandy Wilkes says, “anyone who was building a building larger than a single-family house.”
In collegial, clubby, pre-home-rule Washington, James Wilkes’ firm practiced a collegial, clubby kind of law. With citizen interference at a minimum, the city’s power brokers casually arranged development projects and hired their friend Wilkes to make sure their schemes passed legal muster. Wilkes schmoozed with other civic leaders at the Metropolitan and Capitol Hill Clubs, sat on the boards of the YMCA, several banks, and the Washington City Orphan Asylum, and headed the D.C. Republican Party throughout the Eisenhower years. He also served as the general counsel to the Federal City Council (FCC), the cabal of downtown business leaders that has pushed much of the city’s major development since the ’50s.
By the time Wilkes died in 1968, the firm had passed into the capable hands of Norman Glasgow Sr. Glasgow, who was as much a networker as Wilkes, also belonged to the FCC and served as the general counsel to the Greater Washington Board of Trade. Wilkes & Artis opened satellite offices in Maryland and Virginia, and in the early ’70s, the firm relocated from the Tower Building to 1666 K St. Several years later, Wilkes & Artis dissolved its partnership and became a corporation (since then, top lawyers have been promoted to “shareholder” rather than “partner”). In 1982, Wilkes & Artis merged with Hedrick & Lane, a firm specializing in federal administrative and communications law.
Quin ascended to the firm’s top job in the mid-’80s, just as D.C.’s downtown began to boom. Developers raced to grab the city’s choicest parcels of land, and Wilkes, Artis’ practice ballooned. The firm more than tripled in size between the late ’60s and the late ’80s. Wilkes, Artis also fended off the first serious challenge to its hegemony. Linowes & Blocher muscled into D.C. land use in the early ’80s, attracting a series of high-profile developer clients. At its peak, Linowes & Blocher employed as many as 20 D.C. attorneys (including, coincidentally, Sandy Wilkes), but when the real estate market crashed in 1989, the firm’s D.C. office crumpled. Wilkes, Artis, whose clients included universities and embassies immune to real estate fluctuations, barely flinched at the market’s collapse.
In Whayne’s world—at least the world he conjures for reporters—Wilkes, Artis has survived and prospered because it is stolid, hard-working, and civic-minded (not to mention dull).
“The people we have not only work hard, they know the law,” Quin says. “They know the codes. They are really competent at what they do. They have high standards. And over a period of time, that is what continues the client base and gains respect.”
A typical Wilkes, Artis case, Quin says, depends on research, research, and more research, not on courtroom antics or backroom dealing. “First, someone would contact us,” Quin says. “We would try to figure out what it is he wants us to do and make sure he understands what he wants. Normally, we would run a check of all the codes and applicable regulations and see whether what he wants to do complies with codes and so advise him. In most cases there are no major hearings. You are simply applying the law, giving guidance.”
But in practice, Quin and his colleagues have shown Washington that zoning cases are won outside the law library as often as they are won inside.
In 1990, for example, a Wilkes, Artis client, the Stephen A. Goldberg Co., asked the Zoning Commission for permission to raze a hotel and build an office tower at 12th and K Streets NW. The site’s zoning required the developer to include housing in the building, but Wilkes, Artis petitioned the commission to exempt the Goldberg Co. from the mandate. Instead, the Goldberg Co. offered to donate $3.4 million to the H Street CDC, $400,000 to the I Have a Dream Foundation, and $1 million to the Edward C. Mazique Center, a nonprofit day care facility. The commission denied the exemption and squelched the proposal.
Rebuffed once, Wilkes, Artis and Goldberg switched their point of attack to the D.C. Council, focusing on then-Chairman John Wilson. The strategy succeeded. Wilson and his colleagues exempted Goldberg from the housing requirement, revising city land-use maps to permit the building.
Critics note that Goldberg and Wilkes, Artis attorneys donated thousands of dollars to Wilson’s 1990 campaign. And the Mazique Center was one of Wilson’s favorite charities.
“Wilkes, Artis and Goldberg said: “If you adopt this legislation, we will give $1 million to your favorite charity,’ ” says one foe of the 12th and K project. “Wilson had gotten money from Wilkes, Artis. It cloaked a favor for a campaign contributor and turned it into public service for a charity. It was unbelievable.”
Project opponents laughed last, however. They appealed the council action on procedural grounds. Last summer, D.C. Superior Court Judge Gregory Mize overturned the council’s rezoning and blocked the building.
These sorts of incidents cause the firm’s more intemperate opponents to hurl unsubstantiated, unprintable, and untrue charges—off the record, of course—about Wilkes, Artis’ abuses of power. In fact, Quin and his partners are guilty of nothing more than being rich, influential lawyers who represent rich, influential clients. And like all lawyers, they do whatever it takes, within the bounds of the law, to advance a client’s interest.
Just as James Wilkes massaged egos and cozied up to power brokers in order to get things done, so Quin and his colleagues court all the Washingtonians—in both the public and private sectors—who can help the firm.
Wilkes, Artis attorneys have climbed to the top of virtually every business organization in D.C. Quin is a key player in the FCC. Until last year, he also served as chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade’s Economic Development Committee. Christopher Collins sits on the Executive Committee of the D.C. Building Industry Association (DCBIA), the most powerful developers’ trade group. Dana Stebbins was just named president-elect of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. Former Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed Chip Glasgow to a spot on the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, one of the most powerful boards in the region.
The firm’s shareholders also butter up D.C. political candidates with big contributions. During the ’80s, Mayor Marion Barry showered opportunities on developers, and Wilkes, Artis lawyers wrote checks to the mayor’s re-election campaigns. Before the 1990 mayoral primary, firm attorneys made contributions to at least four Democratic contenders. John Ray alone received more than $6,000 from Wilkes, Artis lawyers, including $4,000 during the week before the primary (candidates are slavishly grateful for late infusions of cash). When Ray lost, the firm immediately nuzzled with primary victor (and eventual mayor) Sharon Pratt Dixon, ponying up $1,200 for her campaign. More recently, Wilkes, Artis attorneys contributed to Dave Clarke’s 1993 campaign for council chairman. Chip Glasgow and Stebbins also sponsored a Clarke fundraiser.
Not even the humble ANC commissioners escape Wilkes, Artis’ largess. Because city officials are required by law to give ANC positions “great weight” in development matters, the commissions can sometimes make or break projects. So no one will be surprised to hear that Wilkes, Artis attorneys have contributed to the campaigns of friendly ANC commissioners. Keith Mitchell, for example, chairs ANC 6A near Judiciary Square and frequently backs Wilkes, Artis-sponsored projects. Mitchell says that Chip Glasgow donated $100 toward his most recent campaign. Mitchell adds that Glasgow has also given money to CCNV, the organization for which Mitchell is spokesman.
“There are two main thrusts to Wilkes, Artis as I see it,” says J. Kirkwood White, a retired land-use attorney who worked at Lin owes & Blocher. “They want to do very good legal work and they want to control the D.C. government. And they have done both.”
Nonsense, counters Quin. His firm exercises no sinister influence over District affairs. Campaign contributions, he asserts, don’t buy favors. They help elect the most qualified candidates. “I want the best person in office that I can get,” he says. “I have found—without getting specific as to names—that people I have not contributed to at all, I have had about the same access to as those I have contributed to….It is a little naive to think that by giving someone money you are going to get access.”
Former Ward 3 Councilmember Jim Nathanson, who frequently opposed Wilkes, Artis’ projects, agrees that donations don’t soften up the council. “On general policy issues, Wilkes, Artis is no more effective, and may be less effective, than neighborhood groups,” Nathanson says. “My own feeling is that campaign contributions never bought that much in return.”
But campaign contributions constitute only a small part of Wilkes, Artis’ courtship of the D.C. government. The firm has also made itself a kind of zoning government emeritus, providing a soft landing for at least half-a-dozen top D.C. government officials who quit the public sector. Frank Murphy, D.C. Corporation Counsel from 1971-1975, worked at Wilkes, Artis from the time he left the government until his death in 1993. Former Deputy Corporation Counsel Louis Robbins joined Wilkes, Artis in 1979.Steven Sher, the longtime executive director of the BZA and the Zoning Commission, came to the firm in 1985. Wilkes, Artis also employs a former assistant corporation counsel, a former chief of zoning services in the D.C. Office of Planning, and a former staffer in D.C.’s office of historic preservation.
Wilkes, Artis touts these government connections to potential clients. The firm’s prospectus boasts that Robbins “had primary District of Columbia executive branch responsibility for the drafting and implementation of the 1979 comprehensive historic preservation law,” and that Sher “played a significant role in drafting major portions of the present Zoning Regulations.”
Wilkes, Artis also outgoverns the government when it comes to keeping records. The zoning office’s book of land-use maps, for example, is almost useless. Phone numbers are scrawled all over its cover. The maps are ripped and wrinkled. The book was published in 1987 and is hopelessly out-of-date. On a few maps, someone has made a futile attempt to mark zoning changes in blue ballpoint pen, crossing out the “R-5-C” near Dupont Circle and replacing it with an “R- 5-D.” In addition, the D.C. government does not publish a subject index of zoning decisions, rendering it virtually impossible for citizens to conduct legal research about historic precedents.
Wilkes, Artis wouldn’t let me visit the firm library—“We have to preserve our secrets,” Quin says—but those who have entered that sanctum sanctorum say that the firm has drafted its own, constantly updated zoning map and compiled a complete index of BZA and Zoning Commission decisions.
City officials are hopelessly outmatched against the firm’s vastly more experienced lawyers. The Zoning Commission, which consists of three mayoral appointees, a representative of the Department of the Interior, and the Architect of the Capitol, rarely includes commissioners who know planning and zoning regulations as well as the firm. None of the current commissioners are lawyers. The BZA’s five members, who include four mayoral appointees and one zoning commissioner, also bring little experience to their part-time jobs. All the board members and commissioners are unpaid.
“They are just normal citizens,” Guy Gwynne, vice president of the D.C. Federation of Citizens Associations, says of the city’s zoning arbiters. “Most of them have no special expertise.”
The District’s professional staff does not fare much better. The Office of Planning, which advises the BZA and the commission on all important matters, is shrinking almost daily. According to Director Al Dobbins, the office’s staff has dwindled from 86 people in 1989 to 42 today. By the end of the year, the office will employ only 27 staffers.
“Government officials are intimidated by Wilkes, Artis,” says Foggy Bottom’s Kahlow, echoing a common complaint. “They say, “We are Wilkes, Artis. We have former corporation counsels. We have former directors of planning. We have all the knowledge. We have the library. You don’t even have a full set of books.’ ”
Wilkes, Artis exerts this professional advantage at every opportunity. At a recent BZA meeting involving the proposed Armenian chancery, for example, board member Craig Ellis questioned the embassy’s parking plan. Letting the Armenians park in their driveway, Ellis said, could set a bad precedent. No sooner had Ellis stopped talking than Christopher Collins, the Wilkes, Artis attorney representing Armenia, cited four recent cases in which the BZA had approved similar chancery parking schemes. Ellis, looking somewhat abashed, made no reply.
Former zoning commissioners and BZA members scoff at the charge that the city kowtows to Wilkes, Artis. “Because Wilkes, Artis is down at the commission so often they are better known to people on the staff,” says Lindsley Williams, a zoning commissioner from 1981-89 and a frequent critic of Wilkes, Artis. “But it certainly did not affect people, as far as I could tell, when it came to a vote.”
“Did Wilkes, Artis receive preferential treatment? Absolutely not,” concurs Carrie Thornhill, a BZA member from 1981-93. “Were the board rules and zoning regulations relaxed in favor of Wilkes, Artis? Absolutely not.”
But according to those who have battled Wilkes, Artis at the commission and the BZA, the inexperienced, understaffed, and impressionable D.C. agencies may not intentionally bend the law for Wilkes, Artis, but they do let the firm dictate the rules. “The problem is not Wilkes, Artis. The real problem is a very pliable D.C. government,” says Hitchcock.
City officials, Hitchcock says, suffer from “glittering new office building syndrome.” Wilkes, Artis dazzles the BZA and the Zoning Commission with architectural drawings and charts. The drawings, in one community activist’s words, always “look like Paris.” The charts demonstrate that a new building will generate countless millions in taxes for the city, provide jobs for thousands of elderly, poor, homeless veterans, and eliminate all traffic congestion inside the Beltway. In a city starved for revenue, Hitchcock claims, zoning commissioners and BZA members salivate at these presentations and ignore reasonable criticisms that a project might destroy a neighborhood, violate zoning regulations, or undermine the Comprehensive Plan.
“If you represent developers, you must be a salesman,” says Hitchcock. “You are selling the Zoning Commission or the BZA on why the world will be a better place if this building is built. And the opposition is crabby neighbors. They’re shrill. They filibuster. They are negative, negative, negative. They are standing in the way of progress. That is the dynamic.
“It is very difficult if you are a neighbor or opponent to show why your vision is better than all the glittering new office buildings being proposed,” he continues. “The property owner is selling hope and a better future. That plays better than crabby neighbors.”
But the crabby neighbors are wreaking their revenge. Sick of losing to Wilkes, Artis and disgusted by the firm’s tough tactics, community groups are challenging and defeating the firm with clever lawyering and relentless lobbying of their own.
“People are starting to realize that they are like an old West gunslinger,” says Ward 1 activist Dorothy Brizill. “Their reputation far exceeds their ability to kill.”
For some Washingtonians, battling Wilkes, Artis has become an avocation, or even a vocation. Neighborhood gadflies such as Brizill, Kahlow, Byrd, and Phil Mendelson have pored over the zoning regs and devised their own sharp replies to Wilkes, Artis. Con Hitchcock counsels community groups in his spare time. And Richard Nettler of the firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi has carved out a practice representing neighborhood associations against developers.
“Wilkes, Artis has helped create its own opposition, its own amateur-but-professionalized opposition,” says former Councilmember Nathanson.
The crabby neighbors have realized that while Wilkes, Artis rarely loses at the BZA, the Zoning Commission, and the D.C. Council—the bodies where it has forged powerful connections—it fares less well outside the friendly confines of the D.C. government. In recent years, opponents have bottled up WETA’s proposed Foggy Bottom headquarters in court, convinced the D.C. Court of Appeals to stop the demolition of the Woodward Building, persuaded Congress to overturn the council’s approval of the Market Square North project, and repeatedly delayed AU’s law school move. But none of these victories is as dramatic or instructive as their 1993 defeat of the Georgetown University power plant.
In the late ’80s, when the university proposed replacing its aging steam boiler with a large, efficient cogenerator, the school expected its neighbors to applaud the idea. The cogenerator, after all, would produce enough electricity, steam, and chilled water to serve the campus, spew much less pollution than the current boiler, and lower the university’s fuel bills by millions. The school promised to spend that windfall on new dormitories. Those dorms, in turn, would relieve the biggest tension in Georgetown, the conflict between rowdy, off-campus students and their staid neighbors.
The university entered a business partnership with Dominion Energy, a Virginia utility company. Dominion, the school said, would build and operate the plant.
From 1989 through 1992, the cogenerator sped toward approval. Maureen Dwyer of Wilkes, Artis guided Georgetown University and Dominion through the elaborate zoning process, winning OKs from the BZA, the zoning administrator, DCRA, the Fine Arts Commission, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Old Georgetown Board, HPRB, and other bodies—20 regulatory approvals in all.
But the cogenerator didn’t win in the court of public opinion. The citizens’ associations of Hillandale, Burleith, Palisades, Foxhall, and other neighborhoods coalesced into an anti-plant Citizens Coalition. Coalition members complained that the developers and Wilkes, Artis had misled them about the plant. Dominion would not simply build and operate the plant, it would actually own it. In addition, although the university would save money by using the steam and chilled water generated by the plant, it would not use any of the cogenerator’s electricity. Instead, Dominion would sell to Pepco all 56 megawatts generated by the plant. Pepco would distribute that power to Maryland electricity users, and feed the university’s electricity demand from other sources. So the cogenerator would not be a university power plant. It would be, in essence, a commercial plant, owned by a Virginia utility, producing power for Maryland, occupying tax-free university land, and polluting a charming residential neighborhood.
Wilkes, Artis’ behavior fueled the plant opponents’ anger. When Zoning Administrator Joe Bottner issued a decision in the university’s favor, Dwyer sent him flowers. Bottner immediately returned the bouquet, but the gift enraged community activists, who perceived it as an example of the mighty law firm trying to manipulate the city. Dwyer says today that she sent the flowers “to show appreciation” for Bottner working overtime, adding that, “in hindsight, I wouldn’t do it again.”
The District government also angered the coalition by appearing to side with Wilkes, Artis and its clients. On several occasions, neighbors charge, city agencies provided documents to Wilkes, Artis hours or days before the plant’s opponents could obtain copies.
Infuriated, the Citizens Coalition counterattacked. Wilkes, Artis had impressed the BZA and other agencies with shrewd legal arguments, so the coalition hired Hitchcock to make the opposing case. He filed two suits challenging BZA approvals, tying up the developers in the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Wilkes, Artis and the developer had issued reports touting the environmental benefits of the cogenerator. The coalition retorted with warnings that the plant would emit massive quantities of air pollution and cancer-causing electromagnetic radiation. The opponents further delayed the project by demanding additional environmental studies.
The developers launched a PR blitz celebrating the glories of the cogeneration project. The coalition countered with its own fight-the-power posters, bumper stickers, and T-shirts.
The developers petitioned members of Congress, trying (unsuccessfully) to persuade them to order D.C. to approve the plant. The coalition responded by working the halls of the Wilson Building like old pros. They lobbied councilmembers to stop the project and implored Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly to interfere, warning the politicians that the 1994 elections could hinge on their action.
In fall 1993, four years after the project was proposed and a year after the plant was slated to begin operation, the coalition triumphed. The DCRA, under pressure from the mayor, withheld the developers’ building permit. The council passed emergency legislation blocking the construction of any cogenerator in the District.
“Looking back, I don’t think there is anything we would have done differently. We followed all the laws and regulations,” says Dwyer. “There was a small, but very vocal, group of people that opposed the project and were able to be effective [in stopping it].”
Byrd, one of the leaders of the Citizens Coalition, takes a different view of the cogenerator fight. She believes that Wilkes, Artis was punished—by a huge number of neighbors—for being a bully.
“[Wilkes, Artis] did not tell the community what the project really was because it would have made getting zoning approvals initially more difficult,” Byrd says. “But they would eventually have gotten all their approvals. Instead…they made people angry, and that dragged the case on for years.”
But neither Dwyer nor Byrd imparts the real lesson of the cogenerator war: Wilkes, Artis’ clients don’t always win, but the firm never loses. Dominion Energy spent $10 million on the aborted project. Georgetown University wasted $2 million and missed out on millions in energy savings. The District sacrificed the opportunity to obtain a new, clean power plant. City officials wasted thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars arbitrating the case.
And Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane? It collected four years’ worth of legal fees.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery and Charles Steck.