In D.C.'s Ward 6, Wells's progressive agenda assailed as out of touch

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In the hot Saturday noontime, Tommy Wells stands on your porch in a beat-up Nats cap, short-sleeve muslin shirt and a pair of Chuck Taylors. He has a question for you: "Anything you need from your council member?"

That's a common question around town this election season. But if you ask the council member about some typical neighborhood concerns, Wells, running for a second, four-year term representing Ward 6, might have some unorthodox answers.

If you need some help finding a parking space in the evening, for instance, expect to have a chat about your new, nonautomotive transportation options. And if you need to know why H Street NE needs a streetcar line, prepare for some arithmetic.

"A bus holds 60 people; a trolley car holds 160 people. It's just mathematics," Wells told James W. Fenwick, 83, who has lived in the 1400 block of E Street NE since 1960 and remembers the last time trolleys plied the corridor.

"Didn't like it then, but that's all the choice you had," Fenwick said. "Who's gonna ride 'em?"

But Fenwick's neighbors, Ernest Postell and James W. Bragg, helped convince him that Wells deserves his vote, reminding him, for instance, about the new senior center being built in the neighborhood.

Wells has become a local politician of a modern sort, conversant in a brand of retail politics well suited to the close-knit neighborhoods and liberal politics of Capitol Hill and its environs. His animating principle is emblazoned on yard signs and on the awards he distributes to ward denizens each year: a "livable and walkable city." He has been among the council's most outspoken supporters of high-density development, bicycle and pedestrian amenities and public transportation. But his vision, combined with fast-paced development, has opened Wells to criticism that "livable-walkable" is a vision with selective benefits.

He faces a challenge from Kelvin J. Robinson, once chief of staff to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who says Wells has focused on his home neighborhood of Capitol Hill to the detriment of the ward's outlying communities.

More pointedly, Robinson said Wells's advocacy of sweeping environmental and social legislation -- including his signature accomplishment, a city-mandated 5-cent tax on disposable grocery bags -- has come at the expense of bread-and-butter concerns such as reducing crime.

"The question is always asked, 'Livable and walkable' for whom?" Robinson said. "That's how it has played out."

Ward 6, the only one of the city's eight wards to touch all quadrants, is at the crossroads of a development boom.

In Southeast Washington, Nationals Park is at the center of an ambitious redevelopment plan meant to turn an industrial zone along the Anacostia River into a living and shopping destination. On the ward's eastern fringe, a massive redevelopment of the former D.C. General Hospital campus stands to recapture another portion of the Anacostia waterfront for public use. A similarly ambitious development is intended to recast the fraying Southwest Waterfront. And in Northeast, the riot-scarred H Street corridor has rebounded with astonishing vigor after decades of neglect; the street is dotted with bars, restaurants and boutiques.

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