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Restoration Plan Gets First-Round Approval

The Capital City Market warehouse district could become the site of condominiums, retail shops and a hotel.
The Capital City Market warehouse district could become the site of condominiums, retail shops and a hotel. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Nikita Stewart and Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The D.C. Council gave preliminary approval yesterday to a controversial plan to redevelop Capital City Market, a gritty warehouse district wedged between New York and Florida avenues NE, into a $1.2 billion project, including condominiums, retail shops and a hotel.

The plan, called New Town at Capital City Market, has been aggressively pushed by Sang Oh Choi, the largest individual landowner, who seeks to develop much of the project, and outgoing council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), who represents the area.

The 24-acre site plan includes office and condominium buildings, a YMCA and an amphitheater that would be converted into an ice skating rink in the winter. Proponents say the project also might include a hotel developed by billionaire Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and co-owner of the Washington Mystics. Warehouses with three levels of parking above them would be built for wholesalers.

Supporters call New Town a catalyst that will spur development around the industrial zone, blocks from the recently opened New York Avenue Metro station. But many existing merchants fear that they will be evicted by the project.

Although the New Town legislation labels Capital City Market as blighted and underutilized, the area was bustling with workers pushing dollies loaded with produce and meats and shoppers hunting for bargains yesterday.

"I don't like this New Town. I don't want to lose my business," said Hanna Park, who has owned Ace Wholesale Inc. on Fourth Street NE for 10 years.

Park and her husband, Paul, who sell costume jewelry, handbags and other sundries in their store, met briefly yesterday with Alexander Y. Chi, who has been rallying businesses in opposition to the project.

Chi, president of the National Association of Asian American Businesses, circulated letters to business owners asking the council to postpone the vote and encouraged owners to head to the John A. Wilson Building yesterday afternoon. Chi said merchants with smaller businesses, many of whom are first-generation immigrants and do not speak English, have been disenfranchised.

Jae and Nae Choi, the sons of Sang Oh Choi, huddled outside the council chambers with John Ray, a former at-large council member, who is the family's lobbyist for the project.

Sang Oh Choi accompanied Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) on his five-day trip to South Korea in June. Williams sent a letter to council members yesterday in support of the development.

The Chois were also contributors to Orange's failed mayoral run. Orange has been a vigorous champion of the project and battled for weeks with colleague Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), who opposed the project, to move it forward.

Ambrose, who is chairwoman of the Committee on Economic Development, had refused to move the bill out of her committee and place it on the council's agenda yesterday.

In an unusual move, Orange attached the New Town project as an amendment to a bill on workforce housing. The New Town plan would make a minimum of 20 percent of the proposed 1,450 residential units affordable to teachers, firefighters, police officers and other city employees.

"This is not ready to come forward. This is not ready because there is not sufficient buy-in from the businesses and the community," said Ambrose, who left the meeting because of illness before the vote on the project, which was 12 to 0.

Ray said the merchants' language barriers and lack of knowledge of development allow them to "be easily manipulated." But he said the plan always gave them the right to be involved and to return their businesses to the site.

Advocates of the project lobbied council members yesterday, busing in about 100 senior citizens who sat in the council chambers wearing T-shirts that read, "VOTE YES TO BILL 16-868" on the front and "NEW TOWN" on the back. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Bob King said he organized the seniors because the new development could be "an oasis of affordable housing."

Opponents said the large showing of T-shirt wearers did not reflect the views of residents and businesses in the immediate neighborhood.

A half-dozen business owners from the Capital City Market came to the chambers about 7:30 p.m., but the council had already approved the project.

"It's a sneaky act," Chi said. "These are poor merchants. They haven't had a chance to voice their concerns, their issues, talk about the impacts on their livelihoods."

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