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Want to have Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s ear? Then be fortunate enough to get invited to her mayoral suites at the District’s sports and entertainment venues.
In April 2017, D.C. developer Geoffrey Griffis received a ticket to a Washington Wizards playoffs game from Bowser’s office, according to emails obtained by City Paper and a list of 2017 ticket recipients published by her office. He appears to have used the opportunity to discuss how to advance a significant redevelopment project that has been tied up in litigation with D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine‘s office since January 2016.
Griffis, who owns Adams Morgan-based real estate firm CityPartners and whom Bowser appointed to the National Capital Planning Commission in 2015, is spearheading a project above the Congress Heights Metro station that involves land formerly owned by notorious D.C. landlord Sanford Capital. Managed by Bethesda resident Carter Nowell, Sanford Capital quietly transferred the land necessary for the project to CityPartners at the end of December, despite Racine’s lawsuit against Sanford over poor living conditions at the properties, a set of dilapidated buildings still occupied by a dozen tenants. (CityPartners now owns the properties, though Racine is contesting the transfer. His office declined to comment about ongoing litigation.)
The remaining tenants and their advocates do not trust either CityPartners or Sanford, and have proposed an all-affordable housing project with a nonprofit development partner—NHT-Enterprise—at the site.
The tenants have asked to meet with Bowser, but have only met with the director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, according to their attorney Will Merrifield.
Griffis, meanwhile, enjoys a cozier relationship with the mayor and her orbit. In May 2017, Bill Militello—a financial advisor to Sanford, according to court documents—asked Griffis and his CityPartners coworker Greg Faron in an email obtained by City Paper: “What political discussions have taken place by you with the City to assure investors that you will be provided a clear path to ownership?”
Militello, a Virginia resident who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, seems to have been referring to Sanford Capital’s original investors in the Congress Heights properties.
The next day, Griffis answered:
“A valid and important question. As we discussed when we met, we have and have had a strong plan to align political and social elements involved in making our projects and this project in particular a success. There are no guaranties [sic], and I don’t want to underestimate the work it will take to put this development back on its proper course, but we do have the ability to communicate with this administration and other City leadership. As recently as the last week in April the Mayor asked me to join her for the Wizards game at which questions of Congress Heights progress and potential positive outcomes were discussed.”
Among others who received tickets to that Wizards game, courtesy of Bowser’s office: Earle “Chico” Horton III, who served as CityPartners’ attorney in the Congress Heights land swap and co-chaired a pro-Bowser political action committee called FreshPAC that shuttered in late 2015, and Bill Lightfoot, Bowser’s current campaign chair.
The game took place on April 26, about a month after Bowser publicly shamed Sanford Capital for the terrible conditions across its vast D.C. portfolio. “Like you, I was horrified to read residents’ complaints about apartments in buildings owned by Sanford Capital,” Bowser told all D.C. residents during her March 2017 State of the District Address. “They will have a choice … fix the violations … face nearly half a million dollars in fines … or see us in court. Lawyers in Karl Racine’s office are primed and ready to go.” She did not mention the Congress Heights redevelopment project in her speech.
City Paper has reached out to Griffis, Faron, and a spokesman for CityPartners for comment and will update this post should they provide one. The firm has received millions of dollars in subsidies from the District government for a few projects, including the Wharf, that got underway before Bowser’s tenure.
Asked whether Bowser attended the Wizards’ game in question and whether she or her executive leadership have ever discussed the redevelopment project with Griffis, a spokeswoman for Bowser merely said “this game was not on the Mayor’s schedule.” Nowell, Sanford’s co-founder and principal, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Last Wednesday the Ward 8 Council Member ask [sic] us to his office for an update on the development progress,” Griffis continued in his May 2017 email to Militello, alluding to D.C. Councilmember Trayon White. “We have not requested these meeting [sic], and we have a receptive audience at this point, but we can only discuss what we would like to happen, rather than moving forward with actions.” (White has met with the tenants, says Merrifield, their attorney.)
After City Paper reported in late June that Nowell had cited CityPartners’ “political connections” in a September 2017 letter to Sanford’s investors as a way to “get the project back on track,” Griffis denied Nowell’s implication in a statement to City Paper. “While CityPartners certainly has expertise in local politics, it never promised to use any ‘connections’ to further the project,” he said. “In fact, CityPartners was not asking the DC government for anything.”
Griffis further said CityPartners’ goal was to create “a world-class development, enhancing the safety of the neighborhood and its sense of community.” The project, which the D.C. Zoning Commission approved in 2015, calls for offices, retail, and more than 200 apartments, most market-rate. Griffis has promised that CityPartners will allow the remaining tenants to return to the site once it is redeveloped and offer them negotiated buyouts should they opt not to return.
In June, the company provided the tenants required notices under D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, the 1980 law that permits tenants to buy their buildings when those buildings are slated for sale or demolition.
CityPartners says that it would sell the building to the tenants for a “fair market value” of $7.5 million—or more than twice the $3 million that the tenants had offered Sanford in December as part of court-ordered negotiations that were supposed to be “exclusive” between the tenants and Sanford. But according to internal documents unearthed by Racine’s office through legal discovery in the lawsuit, Nowell and Griffis were discussing transferring the properties between their companies at the same time—unbeknownst to the court, the tenants, or Racine’s office.
“For whatever reason,” Griffis wrote to Militello in his May 2017 email, “several parts of the DC government are going after Sanford Capital. … Frankly, I’m not certain anyone can remedy the situation that has been created, but I am certain we have a realistic plan to fundamentally change the perception and reality of this development.”
This post has been updated with comment from Bowser’s office.