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Government and People
|Published in the Washington Times,
October 4, 1999, p. A17
hy did the Redevelopment Land Agency make such a bad decision in Columbia Heights regarding the development of twelve acres of land on 14th Street near the new Columbia Heights Metro station? To understand the issue, you have to know the three factors that have ruled economic development in the District of Columbia for many decades.
First, economic development means dividing the spoils; it means rewarding favored developers with city assets. It is not about job creation or business opportunities, and it certainly is not concerned with the best interests of the neighborhoods or the city's residents.
Second, minority participation means making sure that politically connected insiders are given a cut of any deal. And, third, community planning means distracting citizens with an endless round of meaningless meetings, resulting in position papers that will be ignored when the deals are made behind closed doors.
In Columbia Heights, we thought the rules had finally changed under a new mayor, Tony Williams. The vacant lots that surround the newly opened subway station in Columbia Heights are owned by the city's Redevelopment Land Agency, whose mismanagement has kept them desolate and vacant for nearly three decades now.
In 1997, spurred by the scheduled extension of the subway's Green Line, the District government began the lengthy process of awarding these land parcels for development. It began with planning meetings, called charrettes, held in the community and open to all community residents. These meetings resulted in a long list of specific recommendations about the best and highest kinds of community, retail, office and housing development that would be appropriate for those parcels.
When the Department of Housing and Community Development and RLA finally issued a request for development proposals on four of the major Columbia Heights parcels, those community recommendations were incorporated, and developers were told that these recommendation would be given great weight when the RLA evaluated the proposals. More surprisingly, when developers replied with their proposals, one developer, Forest-City, actually came up with a comprehensive proposal for all four parcels that responded to and adopted every one of those recommendations.
Fourteenth Street in Columbia Heights used to be the second most important retail strip in the city, next to F Street downtown. The Forest City proposal would have brought major retail shopping back to Columbia Heights, including a 70,000 sq. ft. grocery store, the largest in the city. It would have built an office building, which could have housed the District agencies that Mr. Williams says he plans to locate in the citys neighborhoods. It would have restored the historic Tivoli Theater the architectural gem not just of the neighborhood, but of Ward One as a living, performing theater, as well as the headquarters for a consortium of several of the city's major arts groups, including the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Washington Youth Symphony Orchestra, the Gala Hispanic Theater, and the Gay Mens Chorus.
Forest Citys proposal got the support of most of the community, because the developer listened to the community and followed its wishes. In a surprising alliance, community activists testified for and enthusiastically supported the plans of a multibillion dollar developer.
But when RLA announced its unanimous decision on Sept. 9, two competing proposals that ignored the communitys needs and desires were awarded two of the four lots by the RLA. The Tivoli Theater parcel at 14th and Monroe Streets was given to Giant Foods and Horning Brothers, who plan to destroy 90 percent of the theater to build a 40,000 sq. ft. food store. Since the theater is a protected landmark, on the National Register of Historic Sites, that demolition wont happen soon, if ever. Another large parcel was given to Grid Developers, which has spent eight years working on a single project in Harlem that still hasn't opened, and which doesn't have any funding to build in the District. Grid proposes to build an entertainment complex, movie screens, fast food restaurants, arcade games, an ice-skating rink, and shopping geared to teen-agers. Meanwhile, the other two lots, directly over the subway station entrances, weren't awarded for development at all, with the RLAs stated rationale that piecemeal development over several years would be better than comprehensive, integrated development.
No objective observer who has looked at the four proposals that were submitted to the RLA believes that their decision was made, or could be explained, on the basis of the merits of the proposals.
The Redevelopment Land Agencys decision sends one message to citizens and to developers alike: the same old rules are still in effect. To developers, it says that you have to be on the short list of favored insiders in order to work with the city. And to citizens, it says that the city's planning process that "involves residents in the future of their neighborhoods" is still a sham and a fraud, and a waste of their time.
Residents of Columbia Heights are angry, and rightfully so. The people of Columbia Heights will not back down. We are tired of the old rules. We shall not accept a compromise that consists in accepting the results of a corrupt process, resigning ourselves to the destruction of an historic landmark, and settling for third-rata development as the best that our community deserves. We will continue to demonstrate. We will litigate. We will expose and dig out the rot at the heart of the citys development process. This time, the rules will change.
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