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The biggest development project on Lower Georgia Avenue has taken a bitter turn, with Howard University terminating the development agreement and the developer suing in response. But when you ask both sides what they want to see in the Howard Town Center—-a 445-apartment complex with retail including a grocery store, developed by a partnership of the Cohen Companies and CastleRock Partners—-the answers are largely the same.

“The University’s goal is to continue working towards the successful implementation and completion of the Howard Town Center,” writes Howard spokeswoman Kerry-Ann Hamilton in an email. She declines to comment on the litigation.

“We remain committed to this project, if we can find an honest broker in Howard,” says Cohen’s Eric Siegel. “We regret that we’ve been forced into a corner to ask the courts to intervene.” Siegel likewise says he can’t comment on the lawsuit, but says “we haven’t wavered at all” and thinks Cohen and Howard can continue to work together.

Clearly, there’s more to the termination and the lawsuit than a disagreement over whether Howard was required to give the developers 10 or 20 days of notice before canceling the deal, as the lawsuit lays out. If both sides really were determined to complete the project, they wouldn’t be going through this public and expensive fight over something so petty as timing.

The lawsuit alleges that Howard was “most likely motivated by a desire to obtain a better deal with another developer.” Hamilton wouldn’t comment on this allegation. But Howard has found itself in serious financial straits, with one of its trustees going so far as to say that the university is in danger of extinction. It’s possible that financial matters changed Howard’s calculus on the project.

I’ve also heard speculation that the retail landscape may have shifted with the growing possibility of a Harris Teeter supermarket around the corner at 965 Florida Ave. NW, putting the planned Fresh Grocer at the Howard Town Center in a tough position. And the Historic Preservation Review Board’s May decision to declare two buildings on the Howard Town Center site historic landmarks made the development project that much more difficult.

One way or another, I suspect there’s more to the story than contractual details. We should expect to learn more in the coming weeks.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery