City Paper is not for tourists
The countdown clock to election day stands at 18 days. Nationally, all eyes might be on the presidency, but here in the District, the competition to watch will be the at-large D.C. Council race. A brand-spankin’-new City Paper poll finds independent challenger David Grosso just five points behind incumbent Michael Brown—-a near-statistical tie, given the 2.8 percent margin of error. And Grosso has picked up a string of key endorsements, most recently from the Post this morning. Since Brown chairs the Committee on Economic Development and Housing, Housing Complex sat down with Grosso earlier this week to discuss what he’d do differently on housing and development. Here’s what he had to say.
Let’s start off broadly. Where do you see the biggest potential for a change in direction in housing and development policy?
With any kind of development, I think one of the problems we’ve had in the city is the question: Do you go and beg people to come and set up shop here, or do you have the attitude that they have to come and ask to be here? And that’s a big maturation process that’s happening in D.C., where we have historically been saying, “Please come here, please come here, please come here,” when in reality, we have a whole lot to offer and wonderful opportunities in the city for businesses, so it’s not so much a “please come here” as, “Well, we should be bidding on that. That should be a place where people want to come and put their business.”
So you think it’s not the city’s place to be offering special tax incentives for, say, tech companies to come?
No, I actually think it is. I think it’s a good idea to do that; I just think it’s about shifting the attitude. So then what you could do is you could leverage your power around those subsidies, around those kinds of incentives, toward other goals. Rather than just, “Please come here,” it’s about, you know, can we get more D.C. employees trained and then engaged in your office, can we get more, whatever it is, affordable housing, whatever we have to do as a priority in the city, how do you make that happen?
Do you think there are certain industries that the city should be trying particularly hard to lure?
I think there are two industries in D.C. in particular, aside from government, because government is the main industry; it’s what drives our economy. One is tech stuff. I totally support having a tech campus. I think that we should have more, well, manufacturing is a bad word, but you know, end uses outside of the ward, or outside of the city, products being produced—-and in [ward] 7 or 8. Because then what that’ll do is, it’s kind of a trade-off. It’ll have more daytime activity there, which I think is extremely important. We have to shift that so people aren’t just exiting the city, exiting wards 7 and 8 every day, but they can actually live near where they work. That’s very important.
The other sector that I think we underestimate in D.C. that is extremely valuable is the health industry, health care and health research. It would materialize a lot more if we put some energy into it. So when we think of a campus—-when you think of Walter Reed or the campus at McMillan—-you have to leverage the hospitals and combine them with the kind of educational institutions that we have here. We could be a world-class city for health research, health care innovation, and all things that go with that, which is a huge market and huge industry.
Since you mentioned McMillan and Walter Reed: If you could play God for a day on a very limited parcel of land, say McMillan or Walter Reed or Saint Elizabeths, what what would you put there?
In my dream world—-I’m afraid my dream world may be a little bit boring. I would be doing a tremendous amount of research to figure out what’s best for the neighborhood, but no matter what, here are some of the priorities that I would push: making sure that you have mixed-use development. You would have the right amount of retail, the right amount of residential—-mixed-income residential, so you would have the market rate as well as affordable, you’d have some commercial in there. You’d really make it so that the campus livens up the neighborhood, too. So you have the right amount of park space. For me, McMillan is a great example of that. I think that they did not have a very strong leader on the Council that could lead that effort, which was needed, and as a result, it kind of languished a little bit.
You know the Committee on Economic Development well—-you used to work there as a committee clerk. What do you think Michael Brown’s failings—-or successes—-have been as that committee’s chairman?
I think in general he’s just not somebody who’s engaged in a part of this whole process and never has been for four years. I don’t think he will be if he stays on the Council, for a lot of reasons. One is he’s got an outside job that pays him twice as much as what he gets paid on the Council. His focus has always been on that outside job. The other is, for some reason he doesn’t show up to hearings, and I know, as a staffer, that’s where you learn the most, that’s where you can really engage the community and be a part of the discussion.
The other thing the Economic Development Committee does is it creates a space for the business community to interact with the residents and with the neighborhood. In order to do that, you have to have a decent relationship with both. Michael Brown has a decent relationship with the neighborhoods, but the business community and him do not get along at all. You notice the Chamber of Commerce didn’t even endorse him, even though normally, the Chamber would want to get behind the chair of that committee. And I think that just speaks volumes to his inability to reach out, create a collaborative atmosphere where people can all come together.
Is that a committee you yourself aspire to chair someday?
You know, I speak a lot about economic development because of my experience on it, but in fact, I’m most engaged in education reform. So that’s going to be my main focus. I wouldn’t mind lending my ear and lending my expertise to the Economic Development Committee. But no, I’m not looking to be on Economic Development, which, people think you’re crazy, because that’s where all the money is.
You don’t want to be on the committee at all?
I mean, I wouldn’t mind being on the committee. I certainly wouldn’t mind helping, but I don’t want to be, like, the head of economic development. I want to be the head of education.
Let’s talk a bit about affordable housing. You’ve said before that your top priority on affordable housing is oversight. What exactly do you mean by that? Where has oversight been failing?
Let’s just take the Housing Production Trust Fund as a good example. The Housing Production Trust Fund, when we created it on the Council, basically it had a dedicated fund. It still does. It has this dedicated fund from deed and recordation taxes that goes into it. I don’t know if people just didn’t anticipate that there would be a downturn in the economy and therefore not many houses bought and sold. And as a result, the money dries up in there. So then the question becomes, how do we get a one-time hit in there? Well that, to me, is an irresponsible question. What you need to do is you need to figure out how to change the stream of money going in, find more dedicated resources to get in there.
Another question that I think is really lacking on the Council is, where’s the regional analysis of the need for affordable housing? So when you talk about Walter Reed, how many affordable units are we going to create there? Where’s the leverage to do that? I noticed that Bread for the City and others are going to be there, trying to create housing for the homeless. Well, I’m not going to support a project being put up in Walter Reed. It needs to be mixed income. I think it’s important we have housing for the homeless, but I think we also need to make sure that we have the programmatic system to make sure that the homeless aren’t just going back out on the street, the mental health services and all that, and then mix that in with the market rate. Mix it in with the workforce. That stuff is important to be mixed. We’ve already gone done the path of creating projects in this country—-it doesn’t work. So what I’m saying is, each region of the city needs to recognize that they have a real position on this. And just because poverty is moving somewhere else doesn’t mean that affordable housing can’t be everywhere. In fact, most of the people that are poor in 7 or 8 or in Ivy City work in other areas of the city already. We should put housing near where they work.
You’re sounding a bit like Marion Barry, who’s said he’s against building new apartments in Ward 8. So where do you want to see affordable units end up? Is the model of the future building mixed-income buildings in the wealthier parts of town?
All over. I think any project, if we have the right atmosphere and we have the right kind of creation of a culture of understanding and partnership and everybody is engaged in the city, you will see that there can be an embracing of affordable units everywhere.
What Marion Barry is saying in that situation is valuable. He’s saying, “Look, we’ve had enough of this built in Ward 8.” And you know, I agree with him. Ward 8 does not need more housing. Ward 8 needs daytime development; it needs economic development that brings jobs.
As you may know, there’s a zoning update in the works, and one of the major changes would see the elimination of minimum parking requirements for residential buildings in transit zones. Do you support that?
I’m supportive of doing it based on the market. I think that if you have the transportation node right there, if you have the Metro right on top of it or you have a streetcar hub, for me, you can do less parking there.
I think it’s important that we embrace kind of the new modes of transportation in the District of Columbia. I was talking to one business owner, one apartment owner, who built this building, and he said, “We still have, after four years, 16 spaces that haven’t been even bought, for parking.” And it’s like, if that the reality near the Metros, then why should we require that simply just to increase the cost of living? If you want to make it more affordable, you’re going to have to continue to have priorities that do that.
Last question. There’s been some talk in Congress about giving D.C. more autonomy in certain areas, including the Height Act. If D.C. did get to amend the Height Act, how, if at all, would you like to see it amended?
I actually don’t support it being changed. I think it needs to stay the way it is. You know, opening that can of worms, to me, is not worth it. I think people in the District are used to it the way they have it. We would benefit over he long run, probably, from having more density in certain areas of the city, and, you know, along New York Avenue and other areas where it wouldn’t have an impact.
But the problem is that the Height Act has been in place since 1920 or something—-
1910. The people of the District have really embraced it, and, you know, the developers haven’t, and I know that. But the people of the District have. And I have to say, I got in trouble on this one a year ago. Not in trouble, but I spoke before thinking about home rule issues and all this stuff. The reality is every meet-and-greet I’ve gone to—-I’ve done 90 meet and greets now—-every time it’s raised, people were like, “Look, man, just leave it the way it is.” So I’m going to listen to the people and say, just leave it the way it is.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery