Last obstacle removed from development on library site

A developer says he plans to break ground within months on a downtown project on District-owned land that was delayed for nearly two years after an activist group affiliated with consumer advocate Ralph Nader sued to stop it.

The move comes after the D.C. Court of Appeals, the District’s highest court, denied a request from the activists to rehear the case. The court’s April 7 order came nearly nine months after it first ruled against the Nader group and more than six years after the project was first proposed.

The project will replace the existing West End Neighborhood Library, built in 1967, with a mixed-use tower that will include luxury apartments, retail space and a new library. As part of its deal with the city, the developer, EastBanc Inc., also will build affordable apartments atop a new fire station nearby.

Nader’s group, the D.C. Library Renaissance Project, opposed the project as an unjustified sweetheart deal that surrendered public assets to a private developer. But the city vigorously defended the terms of the deal as appropriate and said the private development on the land will increase the District’s tax base, adding an estimated $3.5 million a year to city coffers.

Anthony Lanier, EastBanc’s president, said he plans to break ground “as soon as possible” after finalizing his construction financing. Construction should be well underway on the site at 24th and L streets NW by summer’s end, he said.

Oliver B. Hall, an attorney for the activist group, said he was disappointed by the court’s one-sentence order denying the request for further review.

In its request for a rehearing, the Nader group had presented a confidential business plan showing that investors planned to reap a roughly $40 million profit over five years on a cash investment of about $45 million.

The lawsuit challenged the decision by the D.C. Zoning Commission to grant EastBanc a waiver of the city’s affordable housing requirements for private developers. Hall said the court’s decision “eviscerated” those requirements.

Hall acknowledged that the decision had ended the fight over the West End project but said that he intends to continue questioning other city land deals. He is also representing a group of Capitol Hill residents who oppose another deal between the city and a group that includes EastBanc that wants to redevelop the former Hine Junior High School site near Eastern Market. That matter is in front of the D.C. Court of Appeals.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Hall said. “We’ve been working on these issues for years, and we’ll continue working on them. One bad court decision doesn’t end the effort to protect things like affordable housing and the people’s interest in getting fair market value for public property.”

The West End deal has gained the support of numerous community groups, including the Friends of the West End Library and the local advisory neighborhood commission, which embraced the prospect of new community amenities.

Lanier, who has developed numerous projects in Georgetown and other District neighborhoods, said this was the first time he had encountered such strident opposition in spite of widespread local support. “It was very different from everything we have experienced in the past,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the city’s top economic development official, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Victor L. Hoskins, hailed the end of the court battle.

“We are grateful to finally move forward with this project,” said the spokeswoman, Chanda Washington. “It has been a long time coming.”

Hall said he expects to turn his attention toward other public-
private property deals under discussion — including a renovation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown and a possible land swap to help finance a new stadium for the D.C. United soccer team.

He said he is hoping the District’s next mayor will give those deals and ones like them more scrutiny. “The more we look at them, the worse they look,” he said. “Too often, we see it’s not a public-private partnership, it’s the public subsidizing private profits.”

In recent months, Hall has pressed D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), the Democratic mayoral nominee and chair of the council’s Economic Development Committee, to push for more transparency in city property deals.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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