On Tuesday, during its last session of the summer, the D.C. Council quickly passed dozens of resolutions and laws, including two “emergency” bills designed to resuscitate major real-estate developments: a Center-Leg Freeway air-rights project that was originally approved almost two decades ago, and a West End project that involves the city selling fire, police, and library property to a private developer. Neither proposal is by any measure an emergency, but treating them as such allowed the Council to skip the messy public-hearing phase of representative government.
The West End bill came as a shock to many in that community. At the Tuesday session, members of the Council congratulated themselves on having held “public roundtables” on the two bills last week, but those meetings were scheduled so quickly and publicized so poorly that few citizens knew they had occurred. The Friends of the West End Library scheduled a public meeting with the potential redeveloper, Georgetown-based Eastbanc, for 10 a.m., Saturday, July 14—-unaware that the project would be a done deal by then.
Technically, neither deal is complete. Both proposals, which were sent to the Council by Mayor Adrian Fenty, are planned unit developments, which means the final designs will require Zoning Commission approval. They’ll also need a second Council vote. And in the West End case, the price of the three city parcels (at 24th and L, 23rd and L, and 23rd and M NW), minus Eastbanc’s cost of building a new fire station and library, must be negotiated and submitted to the Council for final approval.
The inaccuracy of the Council members’ remarks on Tuesday, however, didn’t offer much hope that the legislators will be informed or vigilant when the projects require further review.
At-large member Kwame Brown announced that the West End scheme was a “win-win situation” because it would include 30 percent affordable housing. In fact, the developer has not committed to that percentage. As a May meeting, Eastbanc Vice President for Acquisitions Joe Sternlieb suggested that the larger of the two parcels might have only 16 percent affordable units.
Another at-large member, Carol Schwartz, reported that the tenants of a moderate-rent building on the West End site, the Tiverton, had come to an agreement with Eastbanc. She voiced her skepticism about emergency legislation and selling off public property, but said she would vote for the bill because the renters have only till September to negotiate with their building’s current owner. The bill, she argued, would “protect 40 tenants” on the site.
Actually, the Tiverton tenants have merely agreed to talk with Eastbanc, and have not made any deal with the developer. After the vote, Tiverton tenant Deborah Akel stood up, loudly called the vote a “land grab,” and accused Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans (who represents the West End) of refusing to speak to the community. Akel was escorted from the chamber, and none of the councilmembers responded to her comments.
Ultimately, only at-large member Phil Mendelson voted against the measure, citing a general disapproval of such deals rather than doubts about this specific maneuver.
Although apparently less controversial, the Center-Leg Freeway project is plenty amusing. This chunk of air, stretching over I-395 in the vicinity of F and G Streets NW, was awarded in 1988 to Conrad Monts, a then-crony of then-Mayor Marion Barry. (Later, Monts was also given the rights to redevelop D.C.’s city hall, now called the John A. Wilson Building, and lease much of it the federal government. That deal was a disaster for the city, and the structure was ultimately returned to D.C. by the feds, who happened to be in an indulgent mood.)
Monts never developed the air-rights project, which would have included several buildings on a deck over the highway. His failure to proceed should have led to forfeiture, but because the city made such an inept deal, Monts was able to hang onto the claim. Now the Louis Dreyfus Property Group wants the rights, and is willing to pay Monts to go away.
So what’s the hurry? Perhaps just curtailing the city’s embarrassment that another one of its grand schemes gathered dust for years.
Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham cast the only vote against the Center-Leg developer-emergency bill; he didn’t say why.