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We’re continuing our introductions of new agency directors today with Mayor Vince Gray‘s nominee for Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, Victor Hoskins. He’s a charismatic guy who’ll both laugh uproariously and cry in public—but this city will depend more on how well he can push slow-moving projects through the pipeline than how well he can charm a bunch of housing advocates. For the last couple weeks, he’s just been figuring out what he’s got on his plate.
I was contacted by the mayor’s office in December, ended up interviewing with the mayor in January…I knew people, but I didn’t really have deep relationships. When I go to an event, for example, people would say ‘have you been watching?’ I’d say ‘yeah! Gray won, I think it’s fantastic, I think it means a lot for the city.’ And they would say, ‘why don’t you look at the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development?’ They would say ‘look, I’ll take your resume and send it up the food chain.’ And then eventually a headhunter called me and asked for my resume. So it was multiple people who asked me. I wasn’t hunting it down, it kind of came my way.
Getting settled in, have you found anything surprising about the state of the District?
The way that we collect and manage data has been a surprise. I think we’re going to improve that markedly. I’m trying to work with the team, and the mayor, and council to develop criteria that everyone can agree on and buy into so that we can prioritize projects. We have a debt cap that we’re up against. We have limited resources. So to get to a fair allocation method, you really need the consensus of a group.
Even doing the oversight hearing, I learned a lot. I asked a simple question: What were all the projects that were completed last year? Don’t you think that’s a simple question? I thought it was, but it turned out to be more complicated. Not because people didn’t know, but because there was no consolidation anywhere. So it took a while to get it all together in one place so that I could report it. It’s an oversight hearing! You tell them what you’ve done. You tell them what you’re doing. What have we done? [Laughs.]
We currently don’t have an in-house tool for recognizing the economic impact of transactions. We mostly rely on developers for that information, or businesses. So what we’re working on is creating one that we can use independently. That whole economic analysis is a foreign concept. They’ve paid for some independent ones, but in Maryland, they do it on every deal. We should do it on every deal.
Are there projects you think should just let lie for a while?
There definitely will be. Yes. Because that’s the only way we can get the priorities done, because wedon’t have the resources.
One of your biggest priorities is Skyland Shopping Center. Another court decision came down last week, ruling against one of the neighbors’ claims that the development would harm their property. Where does that leave us?
It leaves us continually moving forward. What we’re trying to do know is develop a comprehensive solution that will get it done faster. That should be just about the time the Mayor gives his State of the District [on March 28th]. There’s a lot of players involved, because the solution’s not simple. It’s been in one place for 11 years. To change that, it’s going to take a little longer than 3 weeks. I’m good, but not that good.
Are you satisfied with the number of local residents and businesses that have been hired for construction work at St. Elizabeths?
I haven’t seen the government’s numbers. So I really can’t answer that question.
Vince Gray has talked a lot about marrying development with job creation. Right now, we’re using two approaches to get there: A pilot project with rewards for developers who comply, and an amendment to the First Source law that would punish them if they don’t. Can both strategies be used at once?
Well, we’re in a situation where they are being both used at once, so I guess they can. [Laughs]. Because one is a law. First Source is a law. And we’ve for the first time, the letters have gone out from me to 22 companies, 23 violations. And a lot of the companies have called back and said they wanted to talk to us about it. They’ve responded really positively, and I’ve really appreciated that. Because I think they know what we want to do is get District residents hired. No one wants to dock them, and use the stick as a disincentive. We really want to do the incentive model, and that’s being tested.
Last week, I announced that we’re following the law. And that’s like the speed limit. Now, for staying under the speed limit, for meeting the goals you’ve agreed to in your contracts with the city, we’re talking about bonuses. So frankly, we’ll see how that works. If you ask me, my view in economic development is that incentives always work better. They really allow people to be creative about solutions. In Maryland, we used the job creation tax incentive, and that turned out to be a great success. We might want to test something like that.
The Gray transition’s committee on economic development seems to think that widening roadways is the most critical part of moving people in and out of the city. What transit improvements do you think are important, from an economic development perspective?
The streetcar is a great idea. I mean it is a brilliant idea. It’s been implemented over in Portland, and they’ve had tremendous economic success in those corridors. We’ve got a test going on on H Street, and we’re going to see how it goes. I was down on H Street last night, and it was really amazing. Even with the construction, you should have seen the number of people that were out!
Where’d you go?
Smith Commons. It was really amazing, because the last time I was there was probably five years ago. It’s so different. And part of that I think is the anticipation of that rail. That is a very good first move for the city, and it’s actually the lowest cost solution for the city. It’s less expensive than light rail, it’s certainly less expensive than heavy rail, or subway. Way less expensive. In California, I was involved in developing the heavy rail in downtown Los Angeles, and the light rail in downtown Long Beach. A series of alignments went out to the airport, went out to Pasadena, went out to the valley. That was essential to the city of L.A.’s development, as spread out as it is, because you can’t increase density without having some other form of transportation. So the short answer is, we need to look at our corridors and alternatives, and I think the streetcar’s a great solution.
Ah yes, density. Over and over again, projects get scaled down or killed because a community doesn’t want a big building next door. So how do you balance neighborhood opposition with the city’s overall need for housing and commercial development?
Well, there’s political process, there’s a planning process, there’s an economic market. So you’ve got to balance between all these, because they do have an interest, I mean, they’re there, you’ve got to listen to them. The planning department plays a great role as a consensus builder. So we just work with that. I think Harriet Tregoning has done a great job in working with consensus. And I think ultimately, higher densities around transit stations will be a natural outcome, just because that’s what the economics are going to push. And people will eventually change over time. They already have! When I saw the apartment buildings go up by the rail on H Street, I was like, okay, I’m impressed. When I saw 1010 go up on Mass Ave, I was like okay, I’m impressed. What happens is, people’s tastes change, they have less fear, they realize they get more retail with this, they get more jobs with this, they get walkable communities. They get things out of it that you don’t see. The first thing you see is, oh my God, I don’t want people! But over time, people get accustomed. There are some areas that will never get high density, they just won’t allow it in the area. But look at the density in Petworth! Did you ever think it would be like that? I don’t think people did.
The classic case is a gas station. When you start seeing the gas stations disappear, that’s when you know the economics have taken over. That’s the sign. Car washes and gas stations go, boom, they go up. That’s it! It’s happened! Time to sell!
[Long digression about a shopping center in California]
We’re trying to be extraordinary, so we’ve got to do the hard work. I love hard work. Vince Gray loves hard work. Mayor Gray is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever been around in my in my entire life. He’s unbelievable! He was in the office until three in the morning the other night! I left at like 8:30! He’s amazing.
Are you or will you be reaching out to pursue retailers, like grocery stores, for some of those shopping centers that have been languishing for lack of tenants?
What I’m trying to is understand what we currently have in our portfolio. That is really the first step. And then measuring the impact, and then being able to compare them. And then being able to pursue. You’ve got to take steps. It would be nice if I could just go recruit grocery stores for shopping centers. But I’ve got to develop a system that everybody on my team will follow, that will push our deals to completion. So the answer is, yes we will be pursuing those, but now is not the time to do that. If they come along, great. It’s not like where we’re spending 90% of our energy. I’d like to get Skyland solved. That’s where most of the consensus is. It’s like, emblematic of what hasn’t happened. So let’s make that happen first. It’s kind of like a strategy over tactics decision.