The D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency Board has scheduled a meeting today to sign exclusive rights agreements with two developers selected by the board to develop city-owned property in the 14th Street NW urban renewal area.
The board should instead resign in protest over the D.C. Council's recent approval of emergency legislation giving the mayor and council the final say in the matter.
An independent agency, the RLA is charged with disposing of city-owned land, generally through solicitation of development proposals, followed by the execution of exclusive rights agreements with developers of proposals selected by the board.
The RLA board voted in September to approve proposals from two firms to redevelop two of six District-owned parcels on 14th Street NW, near the Columbia Heights Metro station. The board planned to execute exclusive rights agreements today with the two developers, D.C.-based Horning Bros. and Grid Properties Inc. of New York.
Grid plans to build a $131 million entertainment and retail complex, including a skating rink and a 12-screen theater complex at 14th Street and Park Road NW. Horning has proposed restoring the facade and lobby of the historic Tivoli Theater on the opposite side of 14th Street. The theater would not only house several small retail stores but would adjoin a new Giant Food supermarket that would also be built by Horning Bros.
Both plans appear now to be in jeopardy, thanks to a clash of ideals and interests in Columbia Heights and the Byzantine nature of government and politics in the District.
Upset by the RLA's decision in September, tentatively approving proposals submitted by Grid and Horning Bros., some Columbia Heights residents have embarked on a campaign to overturn the board's decision. Intensive lobbying and threats of a lawsuit recently culminated in emergency legislation giving the mayor and council the final word in the matter. Thus the council has effectively stripped the RLA board of its authority in what can only be described as an overreaction to a torrent of complaints from some members of the community.
At the heart of this dispute is Horning Bros.' plan to restore the exterior of the Tivoli and fill it with stores. What began as an attempt to jump-start urban renewal is now a rerun of the classic clash between preservationists and developers.
Granted, the RLA board created a furor with its selections three months ago. The decision was puzzling, to say the least. The logic behind it has yet to be explained to the satisfaction of anyone, especially those Columbia Heights residents who supported a proposal that incorporated many of the elements of a community-based plan.
Indeed that proposal, from Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises Inc., hewed pretty closely to the RLA's own selection criteria. Those criteria stated, for example, that "considerable weight" would be given to development proposals that addressed the need for a cafeteria, gymnasium and auditorium at Bell Multicultural High School, which is located adjacent to one of the parcels in question.
The RLA further declared the Tivoli a Category II historic landmark, adding that any alteration to the structure must be approved by the mayor's agency for historic preservation.
Forest City not only proposed construction of a community retail and entertainment center, including a major supermarket and off-street parking on one site, but also promised to restore the Tivoli and convert it to a center for the performing arts and other activities, as outlined in the Columbia Heights community-based plan.
Forest City's development plan also included proposals to support improvements at Bell Multicultural High School and construct a nine-story office building and a town house development in the area.
So the RLA board dropped the ball in rejecting what obviously was the superior proposal. Even so, the council acted prematurely in passing the emergency bill.
The RLA board is under no obligation to sign an exclusive rights agreement based merely on a developer's initial proposal, which is sketchy at best. The agency retains the right to determine not only the price of the land in question but also how the project will be developed. In short, there still is an opportunity for compromise, assuming the developers and members of the community are willing to compromise.
But the process was flawed from the outset, according to Richard Westbrook, a former member of the RLA board. "The [community-based] plan should have been looked at by the Office of Planning as a small area plan that would be part of the [District's] comprehensive plan," Westbrook said. And because zoning can't be inconsistent with the comprehensive plan, he added, it's unlikely that the dispute would have gotten this far.
Actually, the RLA's role in this instance should have been limited to the disposition of the properties and not the management or coordination of a major urban renewal project. Isn't that why the District received funding and approval for the much-ballyhooed National Capital Revitalization Corp.?
Indeed, the RLA is supposed to be folded into the NCRC. That's the solution to the Columbia Heights fiasco and not the council looking over the RLA board's shoulder.