Disposing of city-owned property as a way of promoting business expansion and economic development has never been a strong suit of the D.C. government.
Whether dawdling for years over ambitious proposals to develop highly coveted parcels at Metro Center in downtown Washington or allowing developers to tie up valuable property at Gallery Place for more than a decade, officials have squandered numerous opportunities over the past 25 years or more to leverage development at strategically significant sites.
Last week's vote by the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA), giving two developers exclusive rights to negotiate the purchase of two city-owned parcels in the Columbia Heights area, is another in a long list of blown opportunities to gain the maximum economic benefit from a District-owned asset.
The RLA, which is responsible for disposing of city-owned land, last year requested development proposals for six parcels of land in the 14th Street Urban Renewal Area. The parcels are near 14th Street and Park Road NW, near a Metro station that's scheduled to open soon.
Why the RLA would vote to negotiate the purchase and development of two separate sites while rejecting a more comprehensive proposal is puzzling, to say the least.
Forest City Enterprises Inc. of Cleveland had proposed developing five of the six parcels, creating a mix of retail stores, entertainment venues, housing and office space. The proposal further called for restoration and adaptive reuse of the historic Tivoli Theater for civic and cultural activities.
The RLA nonetheless chose to give preliminary approval to separate proposals from Grid Properties of New York and Horning Bros. of the District. Grid proposes building a $131 million, 650,000-square-foot retail and entertainment complex on one of the sites.
Horning Bros., meanwhile, plans to restore the facade of the Tivoli, which will house retail shops. The plan also calls for development of a supermarket on the site and town houses nearby.
The RLA's decision is nevertheless shortsighted at best. It not only invites suspicion about the board's motives and deliberations but sets the stage for piecemeal development and further uncertainty in a key urban-renewal area.
RLA Chairman Robert Walker says he and his colleagues voted as they did based on selection criteria in the agency's prospectus and the board's consideration of 19 development principles adopted earlier by Columbia Heights residents as part of a community-based plan.
The problem with that explanation is that only Forest City's proposal truly reflected the conceptual development plan contained in the community-based plan.
Besides, there is no reason to believe that Forest City couldn't meet RLA's selection criteria. Forest City has a good reputation and a development portfolio that includes commercial and residential projects in several urban centers. It also has a record of putting together experienced development teams that have included minority firms in the Washington area.
The RLA's decision has apparently divided the Columbia Heights community along economic and racial lines. But lost in the controversy is the fact that the Forest City proposal is almost a direct response to the community-based plan. In fact, it contains excerpts from the community-based plan in some instances.
The community-based plan states, for example, that there should be two focal points along 14th Street: "a civic and cultural heart in the Tivoli area and a commercial heart at the Metro station."
In describing its plan to capitalize on the new Metro station, Forest City said it would create a commercial-retail-entertainment node centered on the Irving and 14th streets NW intersection, while using the "unique resource of the historic Tivoli Theater to create a 'civic and cultural heart' one block north."
The community-based plan also calls for the enhancement of educational institutions in the area, thus enabling them to meet the needs of the community. Forest City's response is clear in its proposal: "Long before the RFP [request for proposals] required 'special consideration' for this issue, we committed ourselves to assisting Bell [Multicultural] High School with technical assistance, fundraising and joint site planning on parcel 27."
Either the RLA board simply wasn't up to the task or it chose to be guided by some other criteria in choosing the other two developers.
Walker in fact expressed misgivings about Forest City that had little to do with criteria set forth in the RFP, or the development principles and conceptual plan that evolved from a series of community meetings and planning sessions.
Forest City "wanted to get [D.C.] land as cheaply as possible," Walker asserted during a recent interview.
Walker further noted, "It was very difficult to determine what they [Forest City] were going to do and when they were going to do it."
Besides, said Walker, a Forest City representative declined the offer of one of the parcels in question, saying the company wasn't interested unless it would be allowed to develop a site across the street from that parcel.
As things stand now, no one can say with certainty how or when the core of the Columbia Heights Urban Renewal area will be redeveloped.