It hardly seems possible that the fallout from a $149 million development plan for the Columbia Heights community, which the District's Redevelopment Land Agency tentatively approved last month, could get any worse.
But comes now Ward 1 Council Member Jim Graham warning, "This project is in deep trouble."
Actually the RLA board gave preliminary approval to proposals for two separate development projects in the Columbia Heights urban renewal area. But the RLA approval hasn't kept several interested parties from gumming up the project, in so doing threatening the entire redevelopment of Columbia Heights.
At the first project, at 14th Street and Park Road NW, District-based Horning Bros. plans to restore the facade and lobby of the old Tivoli Theater in which the company plans to create 40,000 square feet of retail space. Horning also plans to build a 45,000-square-foot Giant Food supermarket and 29 town houses on the site.
Second, Grid Properties Inc. of New York plans to build a $131 million entertainment complex that would include a 12-screen movie theater, skating rink, restaurants and shops across 14th Street at Park Road.
To the dismay of many in the Columbia Heights area, the RLA board rejected a more comprehensive development proposal by Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises Inc. Forest City had proposed developing four of six city-owned parcels on 14th Street between Park Road and Irving Street.
Generally speaking, Forest City's approach was more in line with a community-based plan that evolved over a two-year period. Understandably, then, some Columbia Heights residents feel they were blindsided by the RLA board.
But the attempt by some in the community to get Horning Bros. to alter its plan for the Tivoli site threatens to undo all of the RLA board's handiwork, baffling though it may be.
At issue is Horning's plan to change the nature of the Tivoli, riling historic preservationists.
Putting retail space in the Tivoli and building a Giant Food supermarket next to it would destroy the integrity of the historic theater, says Graham.
"I want to see Giant there but I [also] want to see a compromise so more people will feel they're stakeholders," the councilman said in an interview this week.
There are nevertheless "issues at the Tivoli site" that concern him, Graham acknowledged. Basically, his complaint is the developer is unwilling to change the project's design.
". . . If we can't remake this decision, the project will be tied up in litigation and protest, and the benefits of our strong economy will pass without advantage to Columbia Heights," Graham warned in an article in last Sunday's Washington Post.
Save-the-Tivoli lobbyists not only want the building's interior preserved as a 300-seat auditorium, they are insisting that the Giant supermarket not be connected to the theater. The supermarket would be "an intrusion into the footprint of the Tivoli site," Graham contends.
The developer's plan calls for the rear wall of the Tivoli and part of the ceiling to be removed. The supermarket would in effect be the anchor for other retailers; among them, a drugstore, a consumer electronics store, a fast food restaurant, as well as home entertainment and apparel stores.
"That's what we presented to the RLA," said Horning Bros. chief executive Joe Horning. "For all intents and purposes, from the street you won't be able to see any differences in the [Tivoli] building."
As for Giant, building a store at the Tivoli site is "a risk that we were willing to take in order to bring a supermarket to the District," said Mike Bush, vice president for real estate at the Landover-based food chain.
In testimony before the RLA board last spring, Bush explained that Giant chose the Tivoli site after considering other proposals, including one from Forest City. The Tivoli site is the best supermarket location in the area because it is accessible to delivery trucks and ensures easy access and parking for customers, Bush added.
Although Graham maintains that "the vast majority of people in Columbia Heights want a grocery store," his quest for a compromise, or a "meeting of the minds," as he prefers to call it, could shatter their dream of finally getting a supermarket after all these years.
Apparently there are those who are prepared to place a higher premium on auditoriums and performance theaters than they would on grocery stores in a city that's starving for supermarkets.
If the project is in trouble, as Graham suggests, then the entire urban renewal plan for the Columbia Heights area may be in trouble.
If one developer can be subjected to delays and possibly protracted litigation, simply because a few dissidents object to a plan that's already been approved, then is it realistic to think that other developers would risk getting stuck on yet another layer of flypaper that's being spread in Columbia Heights?