After passing the formidable scrutiny of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., renovation plans for the National Press Building have drawn the ire of another group: tenants.
"The NPB attempt to play God is immoral, unethical and I believe illegal," charged Lou Brott, who runs a public relations firm out of the building. "It does seem that they're using friendship, being fair to some and not to others," attorney Jim Nicholls said.
The target of these strong words is the building's renovation plan and the evictions that go along with it. Erected in 1925, the home of the National Press Club and hundreds of journalists is crumbling. Last year, the National Press Building Corp., which owns the edifice and is in turn owned 78 1/2 percent by the press club, put together a rescue package. The deteriorating facade will be restored and the dingy interior remodeled at a cost of $40 million.
Since the building's interior will be torn out one-quarter at a time, 30 percent of the 400-odd tenants must be kicked out. brott and Nicholls, among others, aren't among the lucky 70 percent. And they complain that the corporation is being, well, discriminatory in choosing who must leave.
The corporation is unflinching in the face of such verbal barbs. "Our basis for selecting those who are being invited to stay," says Henry Keys, the corporation's executive director, "has been that since this is a media building principally owned by the press club, preference should go to the media."
Anyway, Keys says, the troublesome tenants all signed leases that allow them to be moved out, and the corporation is doing them a favor by giving them advance notice. He also says everyonw will be invited back once renovations are completed in 1983.
Much of the working press lines up behind Keys. "The building has historically been a media building," said Arthur Wiese, manager of the Houston Post's news bureau in the building. "Any nonmedia people were there through the good offices of the press club." Tenants doing news-related jobs fill about 70 percent of the building now.
But some of the lawyers, public relations specialists and real estate agents being evicted say it's not just the press that is being retained. They point to printers, photographers and some ex-presidents of the press club who are no longer journalists. Keys says printers are necessary to the building's smooth operation, photographers count as press, and the ex-presidents deserve their space "because of their willingness to undertake the onerous duties of heading the club."
As if gripes from the evicted tenants were not enough, the corporation is also faced with grumbling over rent from some of those who are being allowed to stay. "We're considering buying a small building," said Walter Riley, who heads the Dateline Washington news service. Riley said he fears the building may double his $10.50-a-square-foot rent. "When I can get office space elsewhere for $12 a foot, I'm not sure I want to stay in the new building," he said.
Keys says rents average $12 to $14 now, but he says the minimum will be $26 a square foot in the renovated building. But even that figure "will be at the lower end of the competitive market scale," said Joel Barry Brown, a vice president of DeFranceaux Realty Group Inc. who is assisting the corporation with the renovations.
Brown said last week that if press tenants are upset over potential rent increases, they haven't spoken with him. "All the major tenants I've spoken with are pleased with the building plans," he said. "This will be the best building in town for media tenants."
Brott and Nicholls also say they have heard rumors of reverse discrimination, charges that the NPB Corp. disproportionately may be allowing blacks to stay. The press corporation says its plans allow some preference for minorities, listing them as fifth among seven priorities in a tenant relocation plan filed with the PADC.
But Brown says the minority preference provision is a tacit requirement of the PADC, which has a federal charter to regulate redevelopment along Pennsylvania Avenue. Moreover he says, the number of spaces left in the building will probably be exhausted before priority No. 5 is reached.
Nicholls, a lawyer who doubles as a clergyman, has held out the possibility of legal action as a way of keeping his spot. Keys pooh-poohs such talk. "You know how many lawsuits are filed in the country each year? Anyone can file a suit," he said.
Keys is less than thrilled with the guerilla war being carried out against the renovation plan. "This all seems so insignificant," he said last week. "I've talked to only one person who was upset."