Transcript: Muriel Bowser on economic development


Muriel Bowser, chair of the D.C. Council’s economic development committee. (Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)

D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) is both chair of the council’s committee on economic development and a candidate to replace Vincent C. Gray as the city’s mayor, finishing second to him in a January poll. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview in her office on Feb. 19.

How would you characterize Mayor Gray’s record on economic development?

I think this mayor inherited a lot of economic development activity, really a steaming engine of activity. So I grow increasingly concerned about what is going to be the pipeline for the future and what are going to be the projects that are being moved out of that office that are going to help the District increase our affordable housing stock across the city.

One of the biggest projects is Walter Reed, in your ward. Would you have handled that differently had you been mayor?

I’ve been involved in that project for the almost seven years that I have been on the council. I think that the [Base Closure and Realignment Commission] process lays out a transparent way for the community to be involved and to get a good plan and we’ve kept that project on track. I think the community along with the deputy mayor’s office has kept that on track.

No specific complaints about its planning or the developer that was chosen?

I felt the need for there to be a community group that followed the project for its entire life. The mayor wanted to have kind of an ad hoc group that had no formal role and we legislated to have a community advisory group. We’re waiting for that group to be impaneled.

Two of the projects that the mayor has committed major capital dollars toward are [the redevelopment of] the McMillan Reservoir and the east campus of St. Elizabeths. What do you think about those choices?

There’s still a lot of unrest in the community around the McMillan project and I think it’s going to be important that the mayor’s views on that project are laid out so that the community can understand it. I’ve been concerned about McMillan because of the amount of affordable housing that would be included — I think there needs to be more. I think it has some way to go to meet the community’s approval, but it’s definitely got some ways to go to move forward.

Mayor Gray committed $100 million to affordable housing recently. Is that number too high, too low or about right?

I think it’s — we need to make sure we have stable funding for affordable housing. So I think moving forward that we need to make sure that we make at least a $100 million commitment every year. But then we have to get it out. So last year the mayor took Housing Production Trust Fund money and put it into [the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development], in the single family rehab program for example. It took their budget up to $10 million or something like that. So in the first quarter of this year they spent $250,000 of it. So it begs the question — do we have the right programs and personnel and leadership to put the programs out the door. We have to make sure it is utilized as quickly as possible.

What do you think of the One City One Hire employment program [in which the city pre-screens and trains residents for private sector jobs]?

I think we have to do more to get people into good paying jobs to help them sustain themselves in the District of Columbia. Still we have unemployment in this city that is almost double what it is in other parts of the city. So [the D.C. Department of Employment Services] has had some successes but I think if you ask most people we have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on job training programs and we don’t have much to show for it.

Do you think that One City One Hire is a success?

I really don’t have information about the types of jobs that people were placed in and the types of wages they are earning and whether they are keeping those jobs.

What do you think about the mayor’s handling of New Communities [in which the city aims to overhaul four public housing complexes]?

I think New Communities has just been a series of broken promises to residents, especially in Ward 7, where there’s been no movement on the New Communities. The only replacement housing that has advanced is already in the pipeline and I don’t see any new replacement housing that’s been identified by the deputy mayor’s office. I took special interest in the New Communities when we got this committee in January. I was most familiar with Park Morton and I could not understand why Park Morton wasn’t moving. But then I realized that there was no, at the time, director of New Communities in the deputy mayor’s office. They just hired somebody last April. So there’s no leadership or commitment toward pushing New Communities along. I think there has to be a new commitment and people have to believe in the program and tell our residents the truth.

Do you think the basic framework of taking these four public housing communities and turning them into mixed-income, more dense neighborhoods — can that model still succeed or does something fundamental about the program need to change you think?

That model can succeed. I think what we have to figure out is who is going to be in control of it. And in some ways it looks like the deputy mayor is saying that the housing authority needs to lead it, to which I ask, then why do we even need the staff on the deputy mayor’s staff at all? And the answer is that we have the money. So I think there’s been a leadership struggle over who is going to control New Communities and nobody has stepped up in the past three years. 

Who should be in charge of it, the housing authority or the deputy mayor’s office?

I think the deputy mayor’s office should be in charge of it, because we are going to put the money through that office. I think there can be a very structured agreement with the housing authority to make sure that we are working with them — it’s their land and their residents at the housing authority but I am concerned about them managing the process.

How would you have handled Wal-Mart differently had you been mayor?

I would not have let the discussion of the wage issue kind of swing in the breeze. I think that hurt the District of Columbia.

How so?

Because I think it sent the message to retailers that things can change here in a moment’s notice. I think the mayor’s office could have worked with the council prior to having to go through a whole summer with ‘Will he veto, will he not veto?’

He should have earlier said that he would have never signed something like that?

He should have used all of his resources to convince the members of the council that there was a better way to go.

Although at [a retail conference] a few years prior he asked the Wal-Mart folks to open a store at Skyland. To me that was a pretty early indicator that he wasn’t going to mess with them once they wanted to open their stores.

Yeah and we still don’t have a lease signed at Skyland.

Should it have been signed by now you think?

I don’t know.  I don’t know what the hold up is.

What do you think of the mayor’s choice to keep Harriet Tregoning as planning director when he came into office?

I think it was a good one. I like Harriet a lot. I don’t always agree with her, but I think she’s incredibly smart and kind of stretches our ways of thinking of how to organize our city. So I think she was a good planning director.

Are there attributes of her or her work that you would like to see in the next planning director?

I think taking on the zoning rewrite was Herculean. I think she kind of left her mark in the transportation side, in the sustainability side, and also in how the city develops. I think she was a big thinking person and that’s the type of person I like to hire. I’d rather have someone I have to pull back on on occasion than somebody I have to push out.

What has the mayor done east of the river that you think has been helpful or not helpful?

From an economic development point of view I think things are very much the same. There has been a lot activity at St. Elizabeths but I don’t know that the people who live there really feel that. Did that really give them more places to shop? No. To dine? No. More jobs? No.

I know you and the mayor have a lot of differences but on economic development it seems like your general outlook and the mayor’s align in a lot of ways.

In what way?

I mean, both of you wanted to make sure Wal-Mart was able to open, but with under various guidelines and commitments to the community – 

On Wal-Mart I would say that I was willing to say it. I was willing to step up when it was hard and say how we need to move forward, where I don’t think mayor led at all.

In terms of the living wage issue?

In terms of the living wage issue, his stepping up and saying this is what we need.

How about affordable housing. What is very different about Muriel Bowser’s affordable housing policy and Mayor Gray’s affordable housing policy?

What I think we differ on is the homeless issue and how they have just dropped the ball completely on how to house the people at the lowest income levels in our city. I think this idea that we don’t need to do anything different is wrong. We would return to that strategy that says no, we are not going to build more shelter space, we are going to build permanent supportive units.

I also think that this administration has focused less on ownership. I think that we have to encourage first-time home ownership programs.

How would that work?

I’ve encouraged DHCD for a solid year to get in this space to acquire these vacant houses that are coming up. You have money to acquire these houses and put them in our affordable housing stock and they just don’t. Let’s do that.

I also think I have a different approach to housing preservation. Creation of new units is just a drop in the bucket.

How would you be handling the street car system differently?

This is another thing where we just need to tell the people the truth. So one day it’s going to open, another day it’s going to open. I think it’s been a procurement nightmare in addition to the engineering and transportation that it’s had. The implementation is terrible. And there’s no governance. We’re basically creating our own little transit authority but there’s no governance. You know how we’re building our streetcar? With 13 council members and a mayor. That’s no way to build a transit system. The governance structure has to be in place.

On the D.C. United stadium, the mayor has proposed a series of land swaps –

Well, we don’t have it. The mayor has talked about it but it hasn’t been sent to the council. So I get concerned about the land swap idea, especially for the Reeves Center with the numbers that I have heard being bounced around about what people think it’s worth.

One of the reason they are doing the land swap is that they don’t have to go about borrowing money to pay for the needed infrastructure. How would you go about building a stadium for D.C. United?

I don’t know that that’s my first priority. My priority would be making sure that we are meeting a whole lot of capital needs that the city has, including how we’re going to transform middle schools across the city.

So if you became mayor and a stadium deal had not been done yet would you walk away from it and focus on other things and let the team figure out how to build their own stadium then? 

I would figure out where it  is, but we know some things have changed with that team including them getting a new billionaire owner. So I want to make sure that they are coming to the table with their fair share before they ask the residents of the District of Columbia for one penny.

If a piece of legislation comes across your desk in which the city would pay for roughly half the cost of the stadium with cash or assets or tax breaks would you be up for supporting something like that?

I would not support a deal that has us giving away the Reeves Center.

Anything in particular about the Reeves Center?

I think that it’s worth a lot of money. So if they come back and tell me that it’s not, that it’s worth half of what everybody thinks it’s worth, then I think that that’s a deal that deserves some scrutiny. I think we can redevelop there — I’m not saying that we have to keep the Reeves Center there — but I think we have to be paid for what it’s worth.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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