That is largely because of a band of activists, backed by Ralph Nader, who have assailed the project as a bald giveaway of public assets to private interests. They have fought the deal before the council, in front of a zoning board and in the courts, losing at every turn but repeatedly delaying groundbreaking as they raise alarms.
“We’ve been warning the District government,” Nader said. “It’s just like hitting a stone wall. There are very few people who stand up for the taxpayers’ assets.”
At issue for Nader is the price of the land, which the city intends to sell to a private developer planning to build more than 150 luxury apartments and retail space — in addition to the library, firehouse and affordable housing.
In recent weeks, a lawyer affiliated with Nader’s group asked the District’s U.S. attorney to investigate the deal, citing in a Sept. 30 letter an “appearance of corruption and possible illegality.” The letter renews claims of a giveaway, citing a private document it obtained showing that investors stand to make tens of millions of dollars.
The unyielding opposition, however, has deeply vexed neighborhood groups, who accuse the Nader group of advancing an agenda biased against public-
private partnerships at the expense of the community’s wishes for new residents and amenities. And frustrated city officials and developers say that the activists have twisted facts and shown little understanding of the practicalities of urban development in the course of delaying a project expected to return about $3.5 million in taxes annually to city coffers.
“We’re going to be one of the last libraries renovated,” said Susan Haight, who lives near the redevelopment site and leads the Friends of the West End Library. “I just find [the opponents] very, very frustrating. . . . It’s over, and it’s time to move on.”
The fight also carries implications for other public-private land deals, which have become a favored vehicle for city officials to promote economic development with public spending without violating the city’s strict debt cap. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has proposed financing a new professional soccer stadium by swapping a city office building for privately held land in Southwest Washington.
Some of the same people who oppose the West End project are fighting another deal: the redevelopment of a former public school on Capitol Hill that involves the same developer. And the Nader-backed Library
Renaissance Project has been skeptical of another plan, in its early stages, to refurbish the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library by expanding the building and leasing part of it to private parties.