City Paper is not for tourists
D.C.-owned property rarely goes on the block. Instead, surplus parcels are most often sold through an “unsolicited proposal” from a politically connected developer. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that such a proposal has been made for the city’s most conspicuous property, the John A. Wilson Building—or, as it is still commonly known, the District Building. Turning over most of the city’s symbolic home to a private developer is the ultimate Marion Barry real estate deal.
The plan was submitted last month to the D.C. Council by developer T. Conrad Monts, whose greatest coup to date was winning the air rights and zoning approval to build a mixed-use project over a section of the Center Leg Freeway near Union Station. (He has yet, however, to announce plans to actually construct anything there.) Monts proposes that his Washington Development Group (WDG) lease part of the 87-year-old Wilson Building to the federal General Services Administration (GSA), while retaining space for the council and the mayor, whose office would return from 1 Judiciary Square, where it was moved by former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.
“We have discussed this proposal with the Executive [that is, Barry], and are assured of its support,” Monts informed Council Chairman Dave Clarke.
The developer’s plan will “renovate the entire building to its former glory [with] no out of pocket cost to the District,” Monts’ proposal explains. Leaving little more than the first and the fifth floors for city officials, WDG would rent two-thirds of the building (about 111,000 usable square feet) to GSA, then use that lease as collateral to raise funds for renovating the structure and temporarily relocating the council and its staff to 1 Judiciary Square. WDG would build a new entrance on the south side of the building for federal tenants, thus connecting it closely to the massive Federal Triangle Building currently rising on its two sides.
For coordinating the renovation and GSA lease, WDG would get a development fee, and would subsequently be paid for managing the building. The developer projects that the “soft costs” of the project, including interest, design expenses, and the development fee, will be $6 million.
Typical of claims made for “unsolicited proposal” schemes, Monts says the city must act quickly. Though “we are confident that conceptual agreement exists” between GSA and WDG, the developer notes in his letter to Clarke that “our conversations with the GSA indicate that we should move expeditiously.”
Another Stark Reminder The D.C. Council keeps ignoring the height-limitation act, and California Congressman Fortney “Pete” Stark keeps nudging it. The latest confrontation is over 1328 G Street, a proposed office building whose developer maintains it should be treated as if it fronted on 13th Street. (Under the act, building heights are determined by the width of the adjacent street, and 13th is wider than G.) The developer’s argument, accepted by the D.C. Council, is that the building will someday be connected to a structure (which currently does not exist) facing 13th Street. As Stark noted in a March 24 statement, 1328 G Street is “separated from 13th Street by 75 feet, two lots, and a public alley.” Spurred by a complaint from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Stark introduced legislation “prohibiting the District of Columbia from issuing a building or occupancy permit for the proposed development…unless the development is modified to conform to” the Height Act.
Not-So-Secret Street Life The National Capital Planning Commission has approved revised plans for a new United States Secret Service headquarters at 10th and H Streets NW. The principal change to the scheme, on which the commission previously declined to act, is the addition of first-floor retail space, which should enliven the south side of H Street. (The north side features the blank wall of the D.C. Convention Center.) The Secret Service had resisted including retail space because of security concerns, and had proposed giving only the “impression” of retail activity with services, such as an employee snack bar, that would not be open to the public.
Blagden’s Unexpected Ally It’s not quite a man-bites-dog story, but almost: The D.C. Zoning Commission did the right thing. Last week, it voted not to rezone as commercial several residential parcels in the Blagden Alley/Naylor Court area, a historic district bounded by 9th, 10th, M, and N Streets NW. This reflects both the wishes of the semi-gentrified neighborhood’s inhabitants and of the D.C. Council, which had amended the city’s Comprehensive Plan to rezone only traditionally commercial properties inside the neighborhood’s alley system. The Office of Planning, however, overstepped its mandate and proposed rezoning three residential lots that face outward to M and N Streets NW. The Zoning Commission stood by the Comprehensive Plan and did not rezone the outer parcels.