Stung by public criticism of its decision approving limited proposals to develop city-owned sites near the Columbia Heights Metro station, the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency board is belatedly attempting to explain its action.

But, with each explanation, the board raises even more questions about the controversial decision, damaging its credibility in the process.

After tentatively designating two firms to develop two of the six city-owned parcels, RLA board members eventually said they wanted to expedite development and generate as many jobs and as much tax revenue as possible for the District.

The board voted unanimously at a Sept. 9 meeting to give a local firm, Horning Bros., and Grid Properties of New York exclusive rights to develop separate parcels on 14th Street NW between Park Road and Irving Street.

Horning Bros. plans to restore the historic Tivoli Theater, which would house several small retail shops. A Giant Food supermarket and 29 town houses would be built adjacent to the Tivoli. Grid Properties proposes building a 650,000-square-foot retail and entertainment complex at 14th and Irving.

But Forest City Enterprises, a nationally known Cleveland developer, had submitted a more comprehensive proposal calling for four of the six parcels to be developed as the Tivoli Center. The RLA board rejected Forest City's proposal, despite strong community support.

Tivoli Center would have included a 460,000-square-foot urban retail center, with a supermarket, a restaurant and retail stores on the west side of 14th Street between Park Road and Irving Street. Forest City also planned to build a 12-screen theater and retail stores on the southwest corner of 14th and Irving.

Forest City further proposed building a 432,000-square-foot office building on the opposite side of 14th Street, in addition to restoring the Tivoli Theater and converting it into a center for the performing arts, job training and community activities.

There also would have been off-street parking for more than 1,900 vehicles as part of the Forest City proposal.

Forest City's proposal was so strong, according to RLA Chairman Robert C. Walker, that most board members actually favored it in a straw poll taken before the board's Sept. 9 vote rejecting Forest City's bid.

It still isn't clear what caused the majority to change its mind. But board members would now have us believe it would have been too great a risk approving the development of an office building that isn't pre-leased.

Risk? Surely the board must have realized that there might be risks in approving any of the proposals that were submitted.

Consider this, however: Forest City contemplated renting space in the office building to either the District government or a federal agency. Anyone at the RLA who bothered to check probably would have learned that D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams's staff is in fact considering a plan to relocate some agencies to private office buildings above or near Metro stations.

In yet another attempt to explain the Sept. 9 vote, RLA board members cited the participation of minorities in development teams as a major factor in their deliberations.

But Forest City's proposal clearly identified key minority members of its development team, including Millennium Development Co. and Devrouax & Purnell Architects-Planners, both District-based companies. Moreover, a Forest City official informed the RLA staff in April that the housing component would be developed by a joint venture that is 50 percent minority-owned.

And, within 60 days of being selected as developer, Forest City "will submit an amended . . . questionnaire that evidences our commitment to at least 25 percent local and minority ownership" in the project, the company's vice president, Deborah Ratner Salzberg, said in a letter to RLA Secretary Jose Nunez.

Forest City made that commitment even though the District's Department of Housing and Community Development had advised prospective developers in November 1998 that a provision in the prospectus requiring no less than 25 percent minority equity ownership had been deleted.

Still, some RLA board members grumbled that minority participation in Forest City's development team was insufficient.

Translation: Forest City didn't have the "right" minorities on its team.

Grid Properties and Horning Bros., on the other hand, had already struck a deal with the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights (DCCH), a nonprofit organization headed by insider Robert L. Moore, who was a director of the housing department when Marion Barry was mayor.

Moore's organization currently receives funding from the District for its operating budget. It will nonetheless receive at least 20 percent of the net cash flow from the project Grid Properties proposes building.

That may be all right as far as the RLA is concerned, but it certainly has the appearance of a conflict of interest, even if there isn't one.

Whether the RLA board realizes it or not, its handling of the Columbia Heights development proposals amounts to an endorsement of the business-as-usual cronyism that flourished during the Barry administration.