Mayor Anthony A. Williams's Anacostia Waterfront Initiative -- a 20-year, multibillion-dollar plan to transform the city's long-standing fault line -- has won praise from urban planning and development experts across the city and around the world.
A publicly chartered corporation created to make the plan a reality has been hailed by veterans of similar projects elsewhere as the best way to get something this ambitious done.
But the rhetoric from the dais at a D.C. Council session last week on whether to approve $3.8 million in start-up funds seemed to imply that the vaunted initiative was little more than a taxpayer-funded boondoggle.
Council members David A. Catania (I-At Large), Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) blasted what Barry called the "outrageous salaries" that would be paid to the six former D.C. Office of Planning officials who have been transferred or lent to the corporation. Several council members said those staffers lacked land acquisition or development skills.
Never mind that the only waterfront corporation salary that has been set is the top one -- the $195,000 that will be paid to chief executive Andrew Altman, the city's much-praised former planning director. Or that Altman's salary was set to match that of the chief executive of the city's other publicly chartered development entity, National Capital Revitalization Corp.
As for credentials, Altman's team has been deeply involved in fashioning the waterfront initiative and has worked extensively on other major city land deals.
Catania, who has vociferously opposed the waterfront corporation since it was proposed, said in an interview that Altman "was and is a good planner." But Catania said the corporation's plan to hire consultants with some of its start-up money, which includes an additional $500,000 received earlier, proves that the skeletal team lacks the necessary expertise.
"Here's $4.3 million going into the pockets of high-paid consultants and top-paid people who do not have the qualifications to do the job," Catania said during the legislative session, televised on D.C. Cable's Channel 13.
In an interview, Ward 6 council member Sharon Ambrose (D) praised the corporation and called the use of consultants perfectly acceptable. "That's what you do," said Ambrose, who chairs the council's Economic Development Committee. "You hire consultants to do specific tasks."
But during the council session, Ambrose said little. "I have gone through this with these gentlemen before," she said. "I did not want to further inflame the arguments and end up losing the funding."
The council members eventually gave the green light to the funding, after criticizing Altman's staff for lacking racial and gender diversity -- it has five white men and an African American woman. They also insisted that the corporation locate at least half its office space on the river's impoverished east side, even though there are few if any office buildings near the waterfront on that side of the river.
Altman said he hopes the council will acknowledge the diversity he fostered at the planning office, where about half the staff are people of color. Four of the seven appointed members of the corporation's board of directors are African American.
But in the end, Altman said, he will focus on the council's actions more than its words. "They approved the money," he said. "If they really didn't want it, they wouldn't have done that."