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Last week, Jeff Miller and Cory Lee ventured into the lion’s den. Miller, the District government’s director of real estate, and Lee, the project manager for a controversial development, stopped by the monthly meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B to discuss that project, a planned mixed-use complex on valuable city-owned land. Miller, Lee, and their colleagues at the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development had surprised just about everyone this summer by awarding the development rights to the parcel at 965 Florida Ave. NW to a team led by MRP Realty, after the ANC had voted to support the JBG Companies and their plan to bring a Harris Teeter supermarket to the site.
In late October, Miller had made a similar presentation on the project, and it had not gone well. That meeting, in the back room of Duffy’s Irish Pub on Vermont Avenue NW, devolved into a shouting match between Miller and ANC 1B chair Tony Norman over whether city officials were required to explain to the ANC why they’d gone against its recommendations. As Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who called the meeting, tried to keep the peace, Norman insisted that DMPED was obligated to come before the ANC to explain its unpopular decision; Miller disagreed and said he was “not going to bullied by Tony Norman.”
Now, slightly more than a month later, there Miller and Lee were, in front of Norman and the ANC. This time, the tone was much more polite. But their presentation was more of a status update than an explanation, and the commissioners’ dissatisfaction was apparent when it came time to ask questions.
“How did your office decide to go against the ANC vote?” commissioner Zahra Jilani asked to open the questioning.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as going against the ANC vote,” Lee responded, to indignant laughter from the commissioners.
“Is your office considering any measures to make the bids more transparent?” commissioner Emily Washington followed up.
“Absolutely,” replied Lee.
So far, the process hasn’t been nearly as transparent as the commissioners would like. Here’s what the public knows about the two bids for the contested parcel. JBG highlighted its ownership of an adjacent parcel of land and its resulting ability to extend W Street through the site—two priorities the city listed in its solicitation for bids. The combined lots also had enough space for a full-service grocery store, which neighbors had been clamoring for. The MRP proposal included none of those things.
There were three factors DMPED cited in choosing MRP. First, the MRP proposal offered more affordable housing, if you don’t count the “micro-units” offered by JBG. Second, MRP planned to go through a planned unit development process, which involves more opportunities for community input, although it now appears that MRP might bypass the PUD if it can work with JBG to shift the property line and bring in a grocer. And finally, MRP offered more money to the city for the land.
How much more money? “Millions more,” wrote Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Victor Hoskins in a strongly worded August statement defending his office’s decision. Beyond that, the public doesn’t know, and won’t know for some time, how much either team offered. That information, says Miller, is confidential. The developers presented their proposals to the community without a dollar figure attached.
The city assessed the parcel at $17 million this year. It’s possible that JBG offered $17 million for it and MRP bid $19 million—a negligible difference in the context of the long-term taxes the development will generate and the effect it’ll have on the neighborhood. Or it could be that JBG wanted the property nearly for free, while MRP was willing to put up $10 million or $20 million more, big bucks that could buy major improvements in the city’s schools or affordable housing stock. We don’t know, because the city won’t tell us. (Nor—no surprise—will the developers.)
And therein lies the paradox of the ANC system. The city is required by law to give “great weight” to ANCs’ recommendations on public issues like zoning changes and public land dispositions, but the commissions are forced to operate without a key piece of information—in this case, information that may have been the deciding factor in a controversial city action whose rationale remains murky. And so their input becomes necessarily less informed and relevant than it could be. Which may be why, on these public land deals, the weight the city is giving to the ANCs’ preferences appears to be less than great.
None of this is to say that ANCs necessarily deserve more power. Yes, they’re the established means for a neighborhood to convey its priorities to the city authorities, and they thereby serve a valuable function. But because they represent the neighborhood and not the city as a whole, those priorities are often shortsighted and narrow-minded, overly concerned with parking, and pervaded with a sense that their neighborhood’s needs trump those of any other. (At a Tenleytown ANC meeting I attended last year, a visiting police officer had to explain patiently that while the prevalence of people driving the wrong way down a particular one-way alley was surely very troubling, there might be better uses of police resources in the city than round-the-clock patrolling of that passage.)
Nonetheless, D.C. has a system in place to ensure that ANCs have a say. The D.C. Code stipulates that “the issues and concerns raised in the recommendations of the Commission shall be given great weight during the deliberations by the [relevant] government entity,” and that the entity is required to respond in writing to each of the ANC’s recommendations and explain, if applicable, why it didn’t agree with them.
According to several ANC commissioners, this requirement is increasingly ignored. Norman says DMPED still hasn’t provided a written response to the concerns of his ANC. In April, DMPED selected a developer for valuable city-owned Parcel 42, right by the Shaw Metro, who was neither the local ANC’s top choice nor its second choice. According to ANC 6E member Alex Padro, who chaired the body when it gave its input, DMPED never provided the ANC with an explanation of why it went against the commission’s recommendation.
“In the past, it was much more the case that if the ANC supported a particular bidder, that bidder ended up getting the deal,” says Padro, who says that other city agencies like the Board of Zoning Adjustment and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board nearly always side with the ANC. “And it wasn’t until Parcel 42 that I’d come to realize that at least in this particular administration and this particular deputy mayor, asking for the ANC’s opinion just seems to be lip service.”
Padro says the Parcel 42 decision didn’t upset him much because there was a “pretty wide field” of interested developers and the ANC chose an unconventional proposal that included a hotel. “But when there was almost universal support for the 965 Florida Ave. project that had a Harris Teeter incorporated, to have that basically ignored, that was really a shock,” he says. “And that was when I started thinking, what the heck are those folks doing down there?”
When Norman requested once again last week that DMPED provide a written response to his ANC’s concerns, Lee replied, “Directing you to the Office of the Attorney General would be helpful.” Miller says that office has informed him that he’s not bound by great weight in this case, though he’s unable to share that opinion.
But attorney general spokesman Ted Gest, who declined to comment on the record about this case because his office may be asked to issue a legal opinion on it, says it doesn’t appear that the Office of the Attorney General has ever weighed in on the question of whether DMPED is bound by great weight. He pointed me to two relevant legal documents, neither of which indicates that DMPED would be exempt in the case of 965 Florida.
Indeed, the law governing great weight states that government entities are required to coordinate with the local ANC on matters relating to “the intent to change the use of property owned or leased by or on behalf of the government,” and that government actions covered by the ANC requirements include actions of the executive branch, of which DMPED is part.
That leaves people like Padro scratching their heads over why the city would feel it doesn’t need to give great weight to public land disposition recommendations.
“I can’t come up with a logical reason,” he says. “The whole point is that ANCs are the vehicle for providing the District government with the sense of the community that’s affected. What bigger decision can the government make than selections of how a neighborhood’s composition is going to be changed by the redevelopment of public land?”
Again, the city wouldn’t be unjustified in arguing that ANCs don’t have the entire city’s interests at heart and shouldn’t be permitted to throw a wrench in important development projects out of local concerns. But if that’s the case, it should change or clarify the law governing ANCs. If not, it ought to be as communicative with the ANCs, and as sensitive to their concerns, as the law appears to require. And the ANCs can’t be expected to provide fully informed input—nor can the city be expected to take their suggestions entirely seriously—if they’re denied a key piece of information in each development project, the amount of money that’s on the line.
The issue is particularly pressing now, with so many valuable parcels of public land on the table. Last week, the city short-listed four teams to develop a vacant lot in Mount Vernon Triangle, near downtown; the interested teams will soon present their proposals to the public. Soon, the city will open up chunks of the sprawling St. Elizabeths campus near Congress Heights to bids. If the local ANCs want their recommendations to be as weighty as possible, they’d do well to paraphrase a certain fictional sports agent and tell the city to show them the money.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
Due to a reporting error, the article originally referred to Alex Padro as the chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6E. While he held that position previously, he is not currently the chairman.