Mayor Anthony A. Williams's proposal to sell D.C. government buildings as a way of spurring economic development in city neighborhoods represents a dramatic shift in public policy on the disposition and construction of public facilities.
Williams nevertheless appears to be gauging public support for the strategy at this juncture by singling out a few highly visible buildings as possible candidates for sale.
Including the Reeves Center on that list, meanwhile, is an odd beginning given that building's history and its role as a catalyst for reinvestment in an area that still bears many of the scars of the 1968 riots.
What could the mayor possibly gain by selling the Reeves Center and replacing it with a government office building elsewhere in the 14th Street NW corridor?
Built at a cost of $50 million 14 years ago, the Reeves Center probably would fetch a handsome return on the city's investment. Still, even though selling the building may be fiscally sound, doing so would be shortsighted and counterproductive.
The Reeves Center already stands as a model on which to build the very neighborhood economic development strategy that Williams hopes to implement. If the intent is to place more city agencies and employees in neighborhoods in the hope of stimulating economic development, then why not attempt to strengthen the Reeves Center's role in that regard?
That was the whole point, after all, in building the Reeves Center at 14th and U streets in the first place. Despite obvious differences in philosophy and management styles, Williams, on this issue at least, shares a view that his predecessor, Marion Barry, passionately articulated at the height of his tenure as mayor.
Barry pushed tirelessly for development of the Reeves Center amid criticism, construction delays and cost overruns, calling it an "anchor" for redevelopment of a highly visible blighted area. Redevelopment in the area is far from being completed, but the Reeves Center clearly has been pivotal in sparking renewed interest in investing in that part of the city. Surely that has to be apparent to Williams.
Either the mayor is listening to bad advice in this instance or he's sending up a trial balloon, in much the same way that he did in controversially suggesting earlier that the University of the District of Columbia's
campus be sold and the institution moved to Anacostia.
Clearly the concept of selling government buildings and using the proceeds to build replacement facilities in neighborhoods around the District has been made the cornerstone of Williams's plan to stimulate economic development in those communities.
Generally speaking, the proposal has considerable merit. Even so, the salability of real estate should not be the sole consideration in formulating a policy in support of the idea. There are social, land-use and quality-of-life issues that must be considered as well.
Williams, meanwhile, is apparently trying to win public support for his neighborhood economic development proposal before building a case for the underlying real estate sale strategy. "We have an opportunity to build a new plan for the District for the next 100 years," he said during a conversation in his office last fall. Relocating government agencies in city neighborhoods, he added, is one of several initiatives he hopes to incorporate in that plan.
Williams did not mention the Reeves Center during that discussion but made a point of emphasizing that the site currently occupied by the Municipal Center (Metropolitan Police Department headquarters) is extremely valuable and would generate a huge windfall for the city if it were sold.
Less than a block away, at Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, is the D.C. Department of Employment Services building, the second jewel that's being considered in connection with Williams's real estate sale strategy. Because of its highly visible location, on the ceremonial presidential parade route between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, the Employment Services site is highly coveted by developers.
The Carr Co., in fact, recently submitted an unsolicited offer to city officials to buy the site and relocate the department's headquarters to a building the company would develop just east of the Anacostia River. A high-ranking administration official says Williams is opposed to the idea but the city nevertheless plans to move Department of Employment Services headquarters from its present location.
It is interesting that Williams would consider selling the UDC campus and moving the institution to Southeast Washington but isn't yet sold on the idea that Employment Services should be located east of the Anacostia River.
Like other agencies that typically provide services to large numbers of visitors daily, Employment Services should be as central as possible, with access to public transportation. Should Williams's plan to sell government buildings be approved, it's possible that some agencies would be forced to vacate facilities near Metro stops downtown or in other attractive real estate submarkets.
Thus Williams runs the risk of being accused of creating a hardship for some employees and indeed some residents, while doing the bidding of powerful real estate interests who want to get their hands on prized locations in downtown Washington.
Raising funds for economic development is a worthwhile goal, but what exactly will the trade-offs be?