Barring some major upset, it seems pretty likely that all-of-a-sudden Council Chairman Phil Mendelson will be able to stick around after a special election. While certainly not omnipotent, Council chairs have substantially more influence over things we talk about in Housing Complex land, through their ability to make bills move quickly or slowly, and corral votes to help them pass.

So, what does Mendelson’s record tell us about his priorities? To briefly sum it up: Mendelson is as much of a nitpicker on development as he is on everything else, and usually falls on the side of less rather than more.

“Phil Mendelson got started fighting development in Ward 3,” remembers all-purpose activist Terry Lynch. “He’s tended to become ossified in being ‘none’ rather than making something happen. It’s easier to say no, politically.”

Lynch is right about Mendelson’s political awakening. The councilmember dates it to when he moved into McLean Gardens, a 40-acre apartment complex off Wisconsin Avenue, soon after graduating from American University in 1974. In 1979, the landlord tried to convert it to condominiums or tear it down, and the tenants fought back, eventually winning their battle to purchase the complex themselves.

After that, Mendelson played a significant role in laying the ground rules for development in upper Northwest; when he worked for Ward 3 Councilmemmber Jim Nathanson, Mendelson authored his ward’s section of the Comprehensive Plan, specifying that “infill development must be tightly controlled.”  He’s also been a familiar face at the Zoning Commission, both as chairman of his Advisory Neighborhood Commission and as a councilmember. A quick scan of transcipts and news coverage turns up the following:

  • In the late 1980s, Mendelson was an officer in the Tenley and Cleveland Park Emergency Committee, and got arrested protesting an office and retail development at 4000 Wisconsin Avenue NW. The reverberations were large: The organization backed a write-in campaign against Marion Barry in the 1986 mayoral election, and Mendelson attributed Barry’s poor showing in Ward 3 to a “strong antidevelopment vote.” Mendelson has since given aid and comfort to groups seeking to do the same.
  • In 2000, he opposed a proposal for 13 townhouses two blocks away from the Tenleytown Metro station, saying that it wasn’t enough units to qualify as “smart growth,” lacked an environmental impact statement, and didn’t fit the comprehensive plan he’d drawn up. “The coming of metrorail here, as in Friendship Heights, Cleveland Park, and Woodley Park, was always intended to serve rather than transform the residential area,” he said. A development half the size was eventually approved.
  • In 2003, he backed community opposition to a halfway house on Adams Place NE. With Mendelson’s help, the ANC’s appeal was granted, though the facility had already opened.
  • In 2007, he opposed Akridge’s proposal for a five-story, high-end condo project with ground floor retail near the Friendship Heights Metro station, questioning the appropriateness of its height and density.
  • During the hearings on George Washington University’s 2000 campus plan, Mendelson said that universities shouldn’t just build what they need to grow. “Campus planning should no longer start from the premise of bricks and mortar and the university’s programs,” he said. “Rather, first it should define the larger neighborhood, then state how that neighborhood will be protected, and finally build the campus or the university within that framework.”
  • In 2004, he opposed NBC’s request for an antenna tower near Mendelson’s home in McLean gardens, saying that the company should just go to some surrounding jurisdiction if they really wanted one. “It is our public policy about limiting the skyline and I wish the region would do that and we know that’s been an issue for us in terms of Rosslyn, Virginia,” he said. “But you know, if there is a need for some of these T.V. stations, I don’t know if that need to be met here in the District, but if it can’t be, it certainly wouldn’t be contrary to our public policy if they located in one of the towers that’s nearby in the region.”
  • He opposed the plan for a new mixed-use Giant grocery store at Wisconsin Avenue and Newark Street NW, saying it should remain low-density commercial.
  • This year, he submitted a letter backing community opposition to the development plan for the McMillan Sand Filtration Plant, saying that it destroyed too much of the historic site.

Aside from specific cases, Mendelson supported inclusionary zoning, which builds affordable housing into new market rate development, as well as requiring housing downtown.

“In theory he’s for all the right stuff, if it’s in a place where nobody lives,” says one development type who asked not to be named. “But as soon as you’re hitting a neighborhood where there’s any community opposition to stuff, he flips and it’s all about neighborhood preservation and whatever people want locally.”

I’m of the opinion that what people want locally is sometimes not the best thing for the city as a whole: While community involvement can and often does improve development, it also makes building things really difficult, and not always for good reasons. Which doesn’t mean Mendelson would be a bad chairman, especially since a lot of the big land-use battles have already been fought. But he’s certainly not leading the charge for a growing city.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery