Washington real estate developers have adopted a new tactic that is proving surprisingly effective in their continuing war with community groups. I call it the Trojan goose game.
If you will only bend your zoning laws, amend your land-use plan and give me a few million dollars in favors, I will build you a goose that will lay golden eggs, the developer promises.
You know how rare such creatures are, the developer stresses. And you certainly wouldn't want to do anything to endanger the health of a goose that lays golden eggs, or make it run away to your neighbor's place.
But the golden goose often turns out to be a Trojan horse. In the belly of the beast are enemies that tangle traffic, overpower neighborhoods and destroy communities. And if the creature lays eggs at all, they turn out to be no better than those produced by every other development.
You can see the Trojan goose game being played in two different parts of the Washington region right now, with quite different results.
One Trojan goose is named TechWorld, the other is called Konterra. In both cases, developers have gone beyond hyperbole into the land of fairy tales in extolling the gilded benefits of their projects.
Konterra is the quiche-generation name for 2,000 acres of gravel pits in Prince George's County. Developer Kingdon Gould Jr. proclaims it to be the largest undeveloped tract between Baltimore and Washington, though one look at the map discloses Konterra is not one parcel, but several disconnected pieces. With a few zoning changes, Gould insists, the pits could be transformed over the next 30 or 40 years into a billion-dollar megaplex of housing and hi-tech. You can't sell anything these days unless it's hi-tech.
The hi-tech designation for Konterra means no more than the hi-tech claims of TechWorld, the four-block megaplex proposed for downtown D.C. by Guisseppe Cecchi's International Developers Inc. Neither Cecchi nor Gould has signed up a single tenant of any technological persuasion; instead of hi-tech, both projects ought to be labeled hype-tech.
Cecchi says his office-hotel complex will include showrooms for computer and communications companies. The fact that two existing computer marts in Boston and Dallas are dying for lack of customers strongly suggests there is no great demand for a third one here. When you get past the hype, TechWorld turns out to be nothing more than three speculative office buildings and a very large Ramada Inn.
Like Konterra, the four TechWorld parcels could just as easily be developed separately, but have been grouped into one megaproject in hopes of making more money for the developer.
Cecchi says TechWorld could bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of taxes to Washington, a veritable golden egg-laying goose for the District. That claim is impossible to argue with, but it is no justification for giving the developer the special perquisites he is demanding from the District building.
The developer says his golden goose will not nest in Washington unless he gets to build a structure that will be at least one story higher than any other building in downtown Washington; close one of the streets running through the property, and hang a six-story building over another of the taxpayers' streets, blocking a vista planned 200 years ago.
What the developer doesn't say is that if TechWorld is rejected, someone -- probably Cecchi himself -- will use the land to build conventional office buildings and maybe a hotel that will produce almost as many benefits without giving away the store. The only additional jobs and taxes generated would be the result of bending the law to make the building bigger.
The National Capital Planning Commission has been smart enough to spot this Trojan goose. It says there's no need to sacrifice the fortuitious streets planned by Pierre Charles L'Enfant and Benjamin Banneker just so the developer can build a bigger, more profitable building. Nor is there any justification for stretching the building height limits that have made Washington the world's most beautiful low-rise city.
The future of downtown Washington does not depend on a Ramada Inn connected to three office buildings in a monster project that disregards 200 years of city planning. If there is a genuine need for a multi-block structure, a much better site is available three blocks away at what was once to be the downtown campus of the University of the District of Columbia.
But the District government has sniffed golden goose eggs and is already moving to give away a city street to TechWorld.
PG officials, on the other hand, have not been fooled by the Trojan goose of Kon- terra. They recognized there is no urgency in rezoning land that the owner admits will not be developed for another 25 years, especially when the county is preparing a new comprehensive land-use plan.
The county agreed to rezone about a quarter of Gould's property, but told him he will have to wait to build on it until adequate roads have been constructed. When the new county plan is completed, rezoning of the rest of the land will be considered, the County Council promised.
For daring to look Gould's gift goose in the mouth, the PG council members are being accused of endangering the species that lays golden eggs. That is no more true than the charge that scaling down TechWorld would threaten the redevelopment of downtown Washington.
The real estate market is not ready for either project to be built tomorrow, but eventually both can become major sources of new jobs and tax revenue.
Prince George's officials have shown they know their history well enough not to be taken in by a spectacular gift on their doorstep, but the reaction to TechWorld suggests the District government still believes in fairy tales.