To say that there are risks involved in a venture to which the D.C. government has agreed to spur redevelopment in the Shaw community is to dwell on the obvious.
The less obvious and less publicized aspects of the venture, which District officials and private developers announced this week, are likely to be the more crucial issues in the long run. Indeed, a more important issue is the commitment or lack thereof among some District banks to share investment risks in communities such as Shaw. In the case of the Shaw proposal, at least, three D.C. financial institutions are willing to stand up and be counted.
To be sure, the complex deal that District officials negotiated with a community group and banker-developer Jeffrey N. Cohen leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Indeed, the deal may be weighted with flaws. But there is much to be said in favor of Cohen's plea to skeptics to "give us the benefit of the doubt."
If the D.C. government had agreed, as it has in the Shaw partnership, to acquire property from a developer to help him and a nonprofit group build a major commercial and residential project in downtown Washington, the element of risk probably wouldn't be an issue. Developers regularly take risks in building speculative office complexes. Exhibit A can be found in the thousands of square feet of empty office space in downtown Washington.
When developers build speculative buildings in downtown D.C., it's generally viewed as part of an economic development boom. When a consortium of banks provides initial financing for a D.C. government-supported cooperative project in Shaw, it becomes a risky deal, something that the principals themselves acknowledge.
The difference between downtown and Shaw is what people in the real estate industry call location, location, location. Until now, Shaw and other older depressed commercial areas of the city haven't been the right location as far as banks and developers are concerned. The Samuel Jackson Plaza Project that Cohen and the Shaw Coalition Redevelopment Corp. (SCRC) propose to develop is more than a risk. It is a crucible that will test the commitment of the District's banking and development industries. And if this unique partnership between the city, a developer, a nonprofit community organization and a consortium of banks works in Shaw, there's no reason why it can't work in other depressed areas.
"It can be replicated, subject to the involvement of the community," maintains Curtis McClinton, deputy mayor for economic development.
A similar arrangement would also be subject to involvement by the financial community. But that sector's commitment to the city's development remains in doubt. It is ironic that only two D.C banks besides the National Bank of Washington -- D.C. National Bank and Columbia First Federal Savings Bank -- chose to participate in the consortium, along with Maryland's and Virginia's biggest banks -- Maryland National Bank and Sovran Bank. Does anyone doubt the validity of a recent report suggesting that local financial institutions have yielded initiative and market share to major competitors in the region?
Meanwhile, Cohen's friendship with the mayor has prompted some very legitimate questions about the Shaw deal. But this isn't a test of friendship. Nor is there evidence of a sweetheart deal. The true test of the arrangement is in finding another developer who is willing to enter into a similar partnership with a community organization.
"What Cohen comes out with is a great risk to him personally," McClinton said, referring to Cohen's net investment of $5 million in the deal. "The gain is in the hands of the city and the community."
After buying and holding properties in the Shaw area over a period of almost 10 years, Cohen has agreed to sell them to the District as an interim step to a plan calling for him and SCRC to develop retail and office space, 1,000 housing units, and cultural facilities in the depressed 14th Street NW corridor. A consortium of banks headed by NBW has provided a loan of $11 million to the partnership, but the District will repay the loan from several sources, including revenue from the proposed project.
To complete the plan, the city will either lease or sell the properties back to Cohen and SCRC to be developed. In the meantime, however, the District holds veto power over the development plans. "We will attest to the feasibility of projects as they are proposed," said McClinton. Moreover, the agreement calls for the forfeiture of any property that isn't developed according to an agreed upon timetable. The city would be free to sell the property if there is a forfeiture.
"Everybody says I'm crazy for going to 14th and U streets," said Cohen. "I want to do something more than making money. I want to get around the image of being a wheeler-dealer developer. When I go, I want somebody to say that I did something good for the city."
Whatever his motives, Cohen, in all fairness, deserves the benefit of any doubt for now, at least.