By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 28, 2007
In the next couple of weeks, workers will begin burying sewer lines, paving streets, sinking street lights and planting hundreds of trees as they lay the infrastructure for a $2 billion development on a 42-acre industrial tract along the Anacostia River.
Empty brick warehouses where torpedo tubes and gun barrels once were assembled will be replaced by stores, offices, restaurants and lofts. Junkyards, car-repair shops and abandoned homes will gradually give way to hotels, government office buildings and a five-acre park along the waterfront. A former lumber shed will become a restaurant pavilion for residents as well as fans who will come to the $610 million baseball stadium that the District is building for the Nationals -- the anchor for the area's redevelopment.
"You really can create a neighborhood, and that's exactly what we're doing," says Deborah Ratner Salzberg, 54, president of Forest City Washington. "We are building . . . an active waterfront that will transform an entire section of this city."
Forest City is the chief private investor in The Yards, the development that will take up almost half of the 90-plus acres along the waterfront around the stadium. The plan is to get The Yards' streetlights and sidewalks ready for baseball's Opening Day next spring; then build or rehabilitate more than 25 buildings and fill them with 1.8 million square feet of office space, stores, businesses, restaurants, and residences.
"I grew up in Cleveland and know the impact that cleaning up a polluted river and lake had on the economy of a city," Salzberg said. "I know the importance of waterfront and what it can add to a city in terms of recreational use."
The Yards has been in the works since 1999, when the federal government began asking private companies if they were interested in developing the largely dormant area next to the U.S. Navy Yard -- land the government had controlled for 200 years. The deal went to Forest City, which is purchasing the land in phases.
Over the years more than 30 public agencies and community groups became involved, including various historic preservation groups, the General Services Administration, the Transportation Department, the Navy Department, the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and the Anacostia Waterfront Corp. "It's hard to imagine any place in America with a more complicated set of issues around a property," said Stephen Goldsmith, chairman of Anacostia Waterfront Corp. "You have to have the right set of political and business skills to get through something as complicated as this."
People who have worked with Salzberg say she is well-suited to lead the public-private effort.
"Deborah is good at putting together a consensus or coalition of city agencies to agree on a particular task," said Mitchell N. Schear, president of Vornado/Charles E. Smith, who has worked with Forest City since 2001 on Waterfront, a mixed-use development in Southwest. "I have been to many meetings with D.C. community groups, where Deb would sit and answer question after question for many hours. Some people were aggressive, and she handled it with grace and dignity."
Others say she can be both firm and cooperative. "I remember attending meetings where she would literally cut someone off and say 'That's great, but we don't have time for that,' " said Joshua B. Bernstein, president of Bernstein Management and a friend of Salzberg. "She is focused on the goal and wants to get to the goal. She doesn't want to get sidetracked."
Victor B. MacFarlane is managing principal of MacFarlane Partners, which has a 25 percent stake in The Yards. He recalled a point when his firm had a disagreement with Forest City, which owns the rest. After meeting with Salzberg, he recalled her saying there had been a miscommunication and then being willing to concede.
"I have been on both sides of the table with Debby," MacFarlane said. "I much prefer to be on the same side. "
Forest City Enterprises, the parent company of Forest City Washington, is a Cleveland firm that began as a family lumber business. It expanded into real estate and apartment construction in the 1930s, then built some of the country's first prefabricated housing and strip malls. Today its projects include the 52-story New York Times Building opening later this year and a new city at the site of the former Stapleton International Airport in Denver.
Salzberg's father, Albert B. Ratner, is co-chairman of the Forest City Enterprises board of directors. Salzberg heads the 45-person Washington office, one of six regional Forest City offices.
She has a long history in this area. She went to George Washington University and after law school at the University of San Francisco returned to the District to work as a litigator for the Justice Department's civil division. There, she said, she had the difficult and unrewarding task of fighting lawsuits by people who said they had been harmed by the government's atomic-bomb tests in the 1940s and 1950s.
"The cases were horrible," Salzberg said. "People were suing for radiation poisoning and I defended the government." After five years, she joined the family real estate business in 1985.
"My relatives said, 'If you're working this hard, you should be working for us,' " she said.
Salzberg said she was inspired to develop retail in Washington by a Forest City project in Brooklyn called Atlantic Center, which became very profitable by bringing Old Navy and similar stores to the inner city.
"I said we ought to start doing that in Washington," Salzberg said. In 1997, Forest City sought a sole-source government contract to develop a mixed-use project in Columbia Heights in the District. Though it lost out to a New York company, Forest City received enough positive attention that city leaders began approaching the firm about the possibility of building in other neighborhoods.
In January 2004, it won the right from the federal government to build The Yards.
"We tend to focus on underutilized urban areas, where we believe the demographics are poised for growth," Salzberg said. "When we looked at how close the Capitol was to this site and the fact that it was on the river, the combination made for a perfect long-term site. It is very rare in a major metropolitan area where you could control this much."