By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
The D.C. Council endorsed a proposal yesterday for a $1.2 billion development in a gritty warehouse district in Northeast Washington without addressing details about the city's role in the project.
Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) has spent his final weeks as a council member securing government support for the New Town at Capital City Market project, which would convert the industrial area into a 24-acre complex of condominiums, restaurants, a hotel and a much smaller warehouse sector.
The legislation, which was approved unanimously, instructs the mayor and other city officials to prepare a final development plan with Sang Oh Choi, owner of Sam Wang Produce at the market. Choi, family members and his related businesses contributed $10,000 to Orange's failed mayoral bid.
Choi's lobbyist, John L. Ray, a former at-large council member, also pushed the plan. Ray has been a lobbyist for other major developments in the District and represented Major League Baseball in the effort to bring the Washington Nationals to the city. He also represented business interests that proposed bringing legalized gambling to the District. Ray and his wife gave $15,000 to Orange's exploratory mayoral campaign effort.
The approval came despite unanswered questions about the mayor and others' obligations and about why Choi, who has no major experience as a developer, is working with the city. Some of Choi's fellow landowners -- including his brother Philip, who owns the D.C. Farmers Market -- oppose the project.
"Some deals were cut, and I'm not sure what they were," said Sharon Ambrose, the outgoing chairman of the council's Economic Development Committee, who tried unsuccessfully to block the legislation from a first reading this month. Ambrose (D-Ward 6) missed yesterday's session.
Orange and Ambrose battled over the legislation for weeks. Ambrose had said she was worried the bill might open the door to obtaining property rights at the market through eminent domain.
Other city officials raised questions about how the land would be assembled and about the project's financing. "Where I am is the devil is in the details, and I need a little more detail to attain a comfort level in how we achieve this goal," said Stanley Jackson, deputy mayor for economic development, in October.
According to documents provided by Sang Oh Choi, the site has 69 individual landowners, the largest of which are Gallaudet University, with 3.8 acres; the District government, with three acres; and Choi, who owns 2 1/2 acres of the property, which is wedged between New York and Florida avenues NE.
Gallaudet officials said the university does not plan to relinquish its portion. "At this point, we're not interested in selling," Gary Aller said.
Still, the legislation created fear among landowners and tenants in the Capital City Market about the fate of their businesses. The market is a collection of warehouses close to the recently opened New York Avenue Metro station. It is crammed with small businesses that sell produce, handbags and other sundries and groceries that butcher whole goats, an Italian deli specializing in wine and stores catering to the region's growing population of Asians, Africans and Latinos.
An amendment inserted into the legislation by council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) stipulates that owners making up 50 percent of the site must approve the development plan in writing before it can move forward. A final plan must come back before the council.
Orange, who gave up his council seat to run for mayor, said getting his colleagues' approval yesterday was "icing on the cake" and "the way to end an excellent career."
When asked whether he planned to be involved with the project as a private citizen, he said: "I don't have any idea. I will be offering my legal, tax and accounting services for everybody." Orange is a lawyer and certified public accountant.