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  •   Ex-Amtrak Chief to Lead D.C. Nonprofit

    Downs/File
    Thomas M. Downs left Amtrak in December. (File photo)
    By Stephen C. Fehr
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, April 21, 1998; Page A01

    The former head of Amtrak has agreed to lead a proposed nonprofit corporation that would attempt to help revitalize downtown Washington through projects such as national museums for music and photography, a Major League Baseball stadium and a celebration of the millennium.

    Thomas M. Downs, who was Amtrak's president for four years until he quit under fire in December, is sending letters to D.C. business and community leaders asking them to serve on the advisory board of the Washington Center Alliance.

    Late last year, many of the same leaders — a virtual who's who of downtown economic interests — set up a downtown Business Improvement District, with street cleaners and security patrols to make the city clean and safe for visitors. With that in place, business leaders now want to establish the nonprofit corporation that would try to complete many of the proposals made in the last few years for recasting the District's downtown.

    "We do not need more studies or more planning cycles," the letter reads. "If we are to reach the millennium with a revitalized Capital City, we need concerted action. That means a focus on action steps that can be accomplished in a reasonable time frame."

    Downs, a former D.C. public works director and city administrator during the 1980s, could not be reached for comment to elaborate on why he was interested in the unpaid chairman's job.

    In the letter, Downs said he was approached by representatives of five business groups to be chairman of the corporation. Today, he is scheduled to brief the board of the Federal City Council, a group of the city's business elite, about the corporation.

    "We identified Tom and people signed on to him as a man of experience in the private and public sector, respected in Washington and someone who knows transportation," said Stephen W. Porter, the lawyer who incorporated the alliance.

    Patterned after similar organizations that have helped renew New York, Baltimore, Denver and Houston, the alliance would not be a developer or an economic development corporation that would raise money to finance projects.

    Instead, it would act as an advocate for projects, with a staff paid from alliance member contributions that would bring federal and local officials together to figure out the best way to complete projects, including the use of a tax increment financing program recently approved by the D.C. Council. Under that program, the government pledges a portion of the anticipated increase in tax revenue from a new project as repayment for bonds sold to pay for the project.

    "Basically it would be a business-backed advocacy group to provide leadership for downtown to guide its development," said Thomas Wilbur, senior vice president of the John Akridge Cos. and a leader in the effort. Wilbur said the alliance's advisory board probably will consist of about 60 people.

    The corporation was first proposed last year by a task force of business and community leaders — including Downs — which recommended creation of an interactive downtown Washington filled with "urban entertainment" — shops, restaurants, museums, galleries and sports venues that would cater not only to residents but the huge tourist base that visits the National Mall but rarely finds a reason to go elsewhere downtown.

    One of the task force's recommendations — a privately financed group of street cleaners and safety patrols — already has been launched in the downtown area. Now the group is seeking a structure outside the D.C. government to carry out some of the proposed projects, including:

    A museum of American music, at the Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square. The museum also could include a Grammy Awards section. Potential music-related retail stores could be Virgin, Sony or Tower Records, the task force said.

    A downtown baseball stadium between Massachusetts and New York avenues NW just east of Mount Vernon Square and north of MCI Center. The city's sports commission has hired an architectural firm to draw up plans for a 45,000-seat stadium in that area, although there is no guarantee the city would be awarded a franchise. A separate effort by Northern Virginia interests to build a stadium and lure a team is continuing.

    In the letter, Downs also refers to a national photography museum and a celebration of the millennium, although the details of those could not be immediately learned. He also said the corporation would work to improve transportation access to downtown, a reference to the downtown task force's finding that the city will need 15,000 more parking spaces, a pedestrian way along Eighth Street to serve as a northern extension of the Mall, and a trolley rail line along Seventh and Ninth streets NW to discourage driving.

    With the recent opening of MCI Center and the Ronald Reagan federal building, and with a new convention center planned, city leaders believe the downtown could be on the verge of a revival. The District's planning office is preparing to hire a firm to recast the downtown master plan for the first time in 16 years, providing a new road map for the next century, chief downtown planner John Fondersmith said.

    "We want to take advantage of the momentum those have created," said David Perry, executive director of the Federal City Council.

    In the letter, Downs said he would accept the leadership post on the condition that it unite all interests committed to downtown revitalization and that the alliance be action oriented.

    In addition to developers, the existing business improvement district has drawn support from restaurants, hotels, the Smithsonian Institution and the Shakespeare Theater, among others.

    "We cannot be divided on this task and be successful," Downs said.

    It was not clear yesterday whether Downs will work full time for the alliance; the letterhead lists him as chairman. Downs unexpectedly resigned from Amtrak after a series of disagreements with its board of directors, especially over his poor relations with the railroad's track maintenance workers.

    Before returning to Washington for the Amtrak post, Downs was New Jersey's transportation commissioner. He was executive director of the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration before taking the jobs in the District government.

    Staff writer David Montgomery contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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