The District’s elected leaders have never viewed the John A. Wilson/District Building as the seat of local government. Instead they treat the magnificent, dilapidated structure as their own Lorton—a prison from which they are perpetually trying to escape. Four years ago, after the city purchased characterless and overpriced 1 Judiciary Square, D.C. councilmembers thought they had finally succeeded in busting out. But when public opinion turned against then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly‘s sterile choice for a new city hall, Chairman John Wilson canceled the council’s jailbreak from the District Building. Kelly moved to 1 Judiciary Square alone, and the expensive, monstrous building became an albatross that contributed to her 1994 election defeat.
Soon after Wilson’s 1993 suicide, the council voted to rename the 87-year-old building it hates so much in honor of its fallen chairman—which made LL wonder what the councilmembers really thought of their departed leader. Now the council has been handed another opportunity to abandon the District’s city hall and render the renaming in Wilson’s honor even more insignificant.
The latest escape plan was hatched by developer T. Conrad Monts. He proposes to give the Wilson Building a desperately needed top-to-bottom renovation—at no expense to city taxpayers. But Monts’ plan would make the federal government, not the city, the dominant presence in the rehabilitated Wilson Building. The General Services Administration (GSA) would occupy two-thirds of the structure after renovation. The scheme, which sounded preposterous when Monts first suggested it in July, is gaining momentum. Council Chairman Dave Clarke has scheduled a vote on the proposal for Nov. 7.
The council would move out during construction, a fact that has many political observers raising their eyebrows. They suspect that Monts’ plan is an excuse for the council to leave the historic building permanently. Even if the council were to return after Monts’ rehab, it would occupy only the first and fifth floors of the six-story building. GSA would take the rest of the space, and use it for at least 20 years.
Monts needed the long-term lease with the federal government to win private financing for his plan. Restoration could cost $60 million, and city politicians know they can’t spend even $60 on the building at a time when they are slashing government jobs and city services.
Monts’ plan will enable the feds to accomplish what they have been trying to do for at least 70 years: remove the District’s seat of government from America’s main street. During the 1920s and early ’30s, the feds sought to tear down the District Building to make way for Federal Triangle, and even they offered to build a new city hall elsewhere, out of national sight and mind. But, relates D.C. historian Nelson Rimensnyder, a letter-writing campaign sponsored by the Washington Daily News and the Washington Herald prompted the Senate to block the federal scheme.
The Wilson Building and the Old Post Office today stand as the lone structures not razed by the development of Federal Triangle during the ’20s and ’30s. Now the feds, through Monts’ plan, may evict the District from Pennsylvania Avenue with nary a whimper from home-rule-conscious politicians and civic leaders.
The council is rushing to approve the Monts plan not because it is the best proposal for renovating the Wilson Building, but because it is the only plan on the table. The D.C. Building Industry Association has volunteered to help the city devise—for free—the best deal for renovating city hall. But, according to the association, Clarke has ignored the offer as he maneuvers Monts’ plan into position for a quick vote.
Former Washington Historical Society head Kathy Smith convened a group of Wilson Building buffs last week to devise a strategy for slowing down the council’s rush to Monts’ plan. The group hopes to delay the vote and gain time to find a better alternative.
In an era when councilmembers are complaining loudly and bitterly about the usurpation of their power by Congress, it’s strange that they are so eager to surrender their prominent seat on the national stage to GSA. The answer to this mystery may be found in the very design of the Wilson Building. With its wide hallways and high ceilings, the building is user-friendly. It invites residents to come in, wander around, and buttonhole their elected leaders for a quick chat. For politicians and bureaucrats, there is no escape: Unlike D.C.’s pseudo-city hall at 1 Judiciary Square, the Wilson Building has no hidden stairways, private elevators, or secret passages. The Wilson Building is an old-time city hall, one constructed for the convenience of the public, not the politicians.
That may be the real reason D.C. officials hate it.
The bitter feud between developers R. Donahue “Don” Peebles and John “Chip” Akridge over city leases continues to smolder (see “Loose Lips,” all of August and September). The latest player to enter the fray is Peebles’ wife, Katrina Peebles. PR businessman Art Schultz confirmed that Katrina Peebles complained last week after she learned that Schultz was slated to hand out prizes at Cora Masters Lady MacBarry‘s golf tournament. The Oct. 20 event benefited the first lady’s charity, Recreation Wish List. Katrina Peebles serves on the board of Recreation Wish List.
Schultz was participating because he represents trash giant Browning-Ferris Industries, which sponsored Lady MacBarry’s tournament. But Schultz also does PR work for Akridge, and Don Peebles blames Akridge for his loss of a $48-million lease deal to house city workers displaced by the downtown sports arena. Akridge also had sought the city lease, and he suspected that Peebles had used his connections to Mayor-For-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. to snare the deal. (The mayor ultimately withdrew Peebles’ deal before the council voted on it.)
Despite Peebles’ objection, Schultz showed up and did his duty. The Peebles family stayed away. Don Peebles did not return phone calls inquiring about his wife’s complaint.
…AND AN EAGLE
Speaking of trash, the city has quietly renewed its recycling contract with Eagle Maintenance Services through the end of January, despite earlier pledges that the contract would be put up for competitive bids before it expired at the beginning of this month. Department of Public Works (DPW) spokesperson Linda Grant says DPW has the authority to renew the contract for up to 120 days while it prepares its request for bids on a new recycling contract.
But the extension of Eagle’s existing contract was seen by the firm’s competitors as further proof that the D.C.-based, minority-owned company is the city’s recycler-for-life. According to one rival firm, the extension will put Eagle in a better position to win the competition for the new contract.
Rivals complain that Eagle has failed to live up to the terms of its current deal with the city. Eagle had promised to handle all recyclable materials at its North Capitol plant, but it has not completed construction on the facility. Despite promising to subcontract to minority-owned firms, Eagle hired Waste Management Inc., the nation’s largest trash company, to collect newspapers and other recyclables. (Waste Management recently notified Eagle that it wants to be paid more for its D.C. work, prompting Eagle to begin searching for a replacement subcontractor.) Eagle also promised to open public recycling centers and to undertake a recycling educational campaign. Critics say it has done neither. Eagle did not return calls inquiring about the recycling contract.
Eagle is the only recycling company the city has known. When the District launched its recycling program in 1993, Eagle won the first contract. But the recycling program lost money and other firms challenged the validity of the original bidding. So in April 1995, DPW canceled the contract and rebid it. To the surprise of no one who has observed the Barry administration, the politically connected Eagle triumphed again, winning the emergency contract covering the last four months of the fiscal year ending Oct. 1.
In winning that emergency contract, Eagle also promised—in addition to the promises cited above—to pour 21 percent of its earnings back into the D.C. treasury. Grant says Eagle has paid the city only $38,000 over a three-month period. She says she expects that Eagle will pay more. But the price for recycled newspapers, the most lucrative part of the recycling business, has fallen in recent weeks, which could jeopardize future payments to the city.
After Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith recently offered a ceremonial resolution honoring the controversial Church of Scientology, he told LL, “I figured we were safe talking about the tutorial program. So I focused on that.” The resolution, introduced at the request of local Scientologists, designated last Saturday, Oct. 21, as “Church of Scientology Community Betterment Day” in the District.
In his resolution, Smith singled out for praise the organization’s reading and math tutoring program for District students, its anti-drug campaign, which claims to have obtained drug-free pledges from more than 2,000 District kids, and its restoration of Dupont Circle’s historic Fraser Mansion as the organization’s new national headquarters.
The resolution also depicted Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard as a leader in the District’s home-rule movement, which was news to local self-government supporters….
Acting Metropolitan Police Chief Larry Soulsby has been telling community groups that about 400 officers—10 percent of the city’s police force—have made 85 percent of D.C.’s arrests. Soulsby has cited this amazing statistic in explaining why he wants to put more cops on the street.