Angry neighbors confronted a senior city official and the developers-to-be of a valuable parcel of public land last night over the city’s decision this summer to award the site to a team that was not favored by local groups.
Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham presided over the gathering in the back room of Duffy’s Irish Pub after he and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission had both expressed frustration that they hadn’t received the explanation they’d demanded from the city over the award of the parcel. The land in question, at 965 Florida Ave. NW, was widely expected to go to the JBG Companies, which own an adjacent parcel and planned to combine the two to bring in a Harris Teeter supermarket and reconnect the street grid via W Street. Instead, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development surprised just about everyone by choosing a partnership of MRP Realty and the Ellis Development Group.
“I believe that the mayor’s office has let us down,” shouted one angry neighbor, who directed his comments at DMPED’s real estate director, Jeff Miller. The neighbor called the city’s decision “underhanded” and potentially influenced by “graft,” and then turned to two MPR officials present and yelled, “Your half project is not gonna do it, MRP!”
Miller responded by asking sharply, “Is this going to be the tone?” Graham asked the neighbor to stand up and apologize to Miller, which he did.
But MRP officials did provide some insight into the future of the site. Neighbors have strongly pushed for a supermarket there, and their push gained urgency after plans for the nearby grocery-anchored Howard Town Center fell through. Now that the Howard Town Center has “morphed on us,” said MRP Principal Matt Robinson, the company is looking into the possibility of bringing a full-service grocery store to the site, rather than the market in the company’s plans presented to the city.
“We hear the community loud and clear that a grocery store is very important,” he said.
Miller cited three major differences between the JBG and the MRP/Ellis proposals that led the city to choose the latter: a bigger payment to the city, the inclusion of more affordable housing units of reasonable size (the JBG plan featured so-called micro-units), and the expectation that the plan would go through a planned unit development, or PUD, process, which involves additional community input.
But Robinson and Ellis CEO Chip Ellis said that if the team does land a grocery store or collaborates with JBG on a joint effort for the adjacent sites, the team may forgo the PUD process in favor of an expedited schedule.
The meeting remained heated as local ANC chair Tony Norman challenged Miller over DMPED’s failure to appear before the ANC to explain its decision, despite two requests from Norman for an appearance. (The ANC had voted to support the JBG plan, and typically ANCs’ recommendations are given “great weight” in the city’s decision, which requires an explanation to the ANC if the recommendations are not followed.)
“I’m sure we’ll be happy to talk to the ANC when it’s appropriate,” Miller responded.
“You are required to come to the ANC,” Norman countered.
“No, I’m not,” Miller said.
“Yes, you are!” Norman shot back.
Miller later said, “I’m not going to bullied by Tony Norman.”
According to Graham, JBG was planning for about 24 hours to protest the city’s decision, but then decided not to. “I believe the reason they pulled it back was so they could have meaningful discussions with MRP and Ellis,” said Graham. Robinson confirmed that account.
JBG had said that a grocery store on its site or an extension of W Street would not be possible if the two sites were not developed together. A collaboration could theoretically solve this problem, although it’s not clear exactly how the two companies would arrange such a solution—-a W Street extension, for example, cuts away at developable land without bringing any profit to the company that does it.
Image courtesy of Ellis Development