For the Federal City Council, a group of influential executives that for five decades has played a major role in shaping the face of Washington, it is an unusual situation.
One of the group's top priorities, the construction of a $222 million national music museum on the old Washington Convention Center site, appears to be losing political support. As recently as this spring, the music museum, which the business group has been pushing for six years, seemed on track to become the District's latest big new public amenity.
"It's always been tough to do these big projects," said Kenneth R. Sparks, the executive vice president of the council for three decades and a driving force behind the music center idea. "If it were easy, there wouldn't be a need for the Federal City Council. What has changed is we've become a more mature city, and we are trying to adapt to that."
Since its founding in 1954, the invitation-only Federal City Council has been a key business voice in a city that for years struggled with limited resources. The Federal City Council worked closely with Mayors Walter E. Washington and Marion Barry, helping strike deals with Congress and D.C. officials to build the Metrorail system and the first Washington Convention Center, and to renovate Union Station. In those early days of home rule, the leaders of the council sometimes carried more clout on Capitol Hill than the District's political leadership.
Now the 240-member group is facing a more sophisticated government, a city with more resources, more competing well-funded groups and a more difficult path.
Some D.C. Council members now say they would prefer to build a big new hotel on the old convention center site, which could preclude the National Music Center. The Williams administration shows signs it is leaning away from the project. The staff of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) f has begun investigating other locations for the music museum, according to a source in the Williams administration.
"The whole site right now is in a state of flux," said D.C. Council Member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who represents the area that includes the convention center.
The handful of downtown businessmen who started the Federal City Council 50 years ago set out to apply business wealth and know-how to improve the District. They decided to focus on such issues as economic development and the fiscal health of the District. (The late Washington Post publisher Philip L. Graham was a key founder of the group. Current Washington Post Chairman Donald E. Graham is on its executive committee, and Boisfeuillet Jones Jr., the current publisher of The Washington Post, is also a member. Neither Graham nor Jones has been heavily involved in the push for a music museum.)
The group has been effective and, at times, controversial, in part because it was largely a group of rich white men wielding influence in a majority black city. In 1975, according to a photo directory of members, the Federal City Council included 137 white men, nine blacks and two women. (The club now has 194 white male members, 31 blacks and 35 women.) Some activists have also complained that Federal City Council's undertakings did not reflect the views of residents in neighborhoods affected by the group's projects. "From my experience, they do not take community input very seriously," said Alexander M. Padro, a neighborhood commissioner for Shaw.
In the mid-1990s, the influence of Federal City Council's members was evident in the District. MCI Center, a project the group had brokered, was about to be built. Planning was underway for the new Washington Convention Center, an effort led by Federal City Council member Terence C. Golden, who was then chairman of the Washington Convention Center Authority and president and chief executive of Host Marriott Corp.
During that period, the Barry administration asked Federal City Council member Herbert S. Miller, the hyperactive retail developer behind mega-malls including Potomac Mills, to head the "Downtown Interactive Task Force." The task force was told to come up with ways to help the District lure more tourists and residents. One of its recommendations was a music museum and performance center, which Miller thought would create a sense of fun and excitement.
Miller called Sparks with his idea. Sparks, now 70 and planning to retire in September, had joined the staff of the Federal City Council in 1969. (Sparks's successor will be John W. Hill Jr., now chief executive of the charity In2Books and former executive director of the D.C. financial control board.) The tall, avuncular Sparks is a devoted music fan. The "Washington Song," which he composed, is posted on the council's Web site. "We call him Mr. Music," Miller said. "Ken Sparks, he writes music, he sings music, it's his soul."
Sparks was taken by the idea of a music museum and persuaded the council's board to make the museum its next undertaking. Federal City hired consultants who quickly raised concerns about Miller's plan. His task force had suggested housing the operation inside the old Carnegie Library on Mount Vernon Square. The consultants said that was impractical. The site was too small and faced considerable historic preservation requirements. (The building was turned into a museum of D.C. history instead.) The consultants suggested the old convention center site, which they said could contain a 3,200-seat performance hall for concerts and Broadway plays and two smaller theaters.
On the other side of the country, Nancy Sinatra, daughter of the late Frank Sinatra, was trying to figure out what to do with the piles of her father's old tapes, sheet music and more stacking up in her living room. She talked to the Smithsonian Institution about donating the collection. Jim Weaver, who headed musical displays at the Smithsonian, said the Smithsonian was interested, but did not have room in its Museum of American History. Much of jazz giant Duke Ellington's collection was gathering dust in a Smithsonian storage room.
An acquaintance told Weaver he should meet with Sparks. Weaver had worked in Washington for 30 years, but had never heard of the Federal City Council and was skeptical.
"Everyone thinks it's easy to set up a museum," he said. "I figured these were just some guys with an idea but no understanding of what it would take to execute." That notion was quickly dispelled when he got to the meeting and heard about their track record. "I was amazed that they had been behind some of these projects I had followed closely, but I'd never heard of them."
Officials of the Smithsonian and later the Library of Congress, where George Gershwin's manuscript for "Rhapsody in Blue" and other classics of American music sit on shelves, agreed to team up with the Federal City Council to push for a music museum. The museum was envisioned as an interactive experience, through which visitors could learn about all manner of American tunes -- folk and bluegrass, gospel and jazz, rock and roll and Broadway.
Nancy Sinatra joined the board of directors of the music center. Weaver became its staff director. And Sparks and the Federal City Council set about using their connections to build support.
Joseph E. Robert Jr., a real estate executive and Federal City Council member, recruited his friend, music impresario Quincy Jones to the project. Ken Rietz, chief operating officer of communications firm Burson-Marsteller in Washington and a former television producer, took the job of chairman. Paul Martin Wolff, a partner of law firm Williams & Connolly and a Federal City Council member who is now on the music center board, arranged a meeting with then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, via a friendship with her chief of staff. Sparks and other music museum advocates presented their proposal to her in her White House office; when the president's budget for the next year came out, $3 million was earmarked for the music center, although the money did not end up in the budget Congress ultimately approved. Clinton showed up at the group's 1998 press conference launching the museum.
Filling a Power Vacuum
The District's capacity to plan future developments, however, was withering during those years. By 1998, Mayor Barry was in his waning days in office. A financial control board was running much of the District's operations. The planning staff had dwindled to only a handful of people.
The Federal City Council stepped into the power vacuum to come up with a plan for the site -- the last available land of its size in the core of downtown. Sparks called together interested parties to sort through the possibilities. The 10.5-acre site of the old convention center, which by one estimate is now worth $300 million, is nestled on four downtown blocks bounded by New York Avenue NW, H Street, Ninth Street and 11th Street.
Golden showed up to advocate for underground exhibition space for the new convention center and a new hotel above ground. Representatives of Metro pushed for an underground turnaround station for their trains. Sparks and consultants for the music center advocated their project for the site. Developers like Robert M. Gladstone of Quadrangle Development Corp. and architects from Leo A. Daly Co. helped assess how the pieces could fit together.
Over the course of months, the business group mapped out a broad plan for the site, complete with a central square called Duke Ellington Place. By the time they were done, Williams had been elected mayor. His new key staffers included Deputy Mayor Eric W. Price and Andrew Altman, the District's planning director, who were in charge of the city's economic development effort. Sources close to them say they were taken aback when, shortly after taking office, they learned how far the Federal City Council had proceeded without government input. The sources said that Williams personally gave Altman permission to confront Sparks, despite the group's clout.
One morning in early 2000, Altman sat down with Sparks in the council's 15th Street offices. It was a cordial meeting, attendees said, but Altman delivered an unmistakable message: Slow down. The District owns this land, and the D.C. government will decide what to do with it.
Williams created a task force headed by Charlene Drew Jarvis, then a D.C. Council member, to evaluate uses. It was comprised of developers and community groups, neighborhood activists and Sparks. The task force decided that the highest priority should be given to retail and housing. But it said the music museum was an interesting idea and if a plan could be developed to accommodate all three uses, the District should consider it.
The mayor's office then told the Federal City Council to come up with such a plan. The Federal City Council and its consultants proposed a plan under which the District would pay $30 million to support the music museum. But they were told by D.C. Council Chairwoman Linda W. Cropp (D) and Finance Committee Chairman Evans that would not happen, Evans recalled recently.
The music center board next proposed using $100 million in private donations and $122 million in debt to fund the effort. A few months ago, Sparks and music center consultants thought they were close to reaching an agreement with the D.C. government.
Then in April, architect Theodore F. Mariani presented to D.C. Council members a very different plan for the old convention center site. He proposed using the site to expand the new Washington Convention Center and for a massive new hotel. It wasn't clear whether a music museum could be squished into that site.
Ultimately, if the Federal City Council wants a music museum it may have to look elsewhere, according to a source in the Williams administration.
Back to the Drawing Board
Now the Federal City Council is scrambling to preserve its idea of a music center on the old convention center land. According to the Federal City Council's latest plan, which it is preparing to present to the D.C. Council, the group would put most of the music museum facilities underground. It would raise $50 million from private donations. Another $50 million would come from selling rights for office or hotel towers above the museum. The center would issue about $122 million in debt to be paid with income from renting the performance halls, $12 admission fees to the museum, revenue from the gift shop and an on-site restaurant, and from renting out the museum for private events in the evenings.
Sparks said that the handful of public officials who have seen the revised plan give it positive reviews.
Under the group's projections, the music center would generate $20 million per year more than it needs to support itself, money that would be funneled to other arts groups in Washington. To get to those numbers, the group assumes that the museum would attract almost 1.5 million visitors per year. That would make it twice as popular as the recently completed International Spy Museum, but less popular than the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which had 2 million visitors in 2002. The Experience Music Project, a similar museum in Seattle, had only 433,000 visitors last year.
Sparks, who was paid more than $252,000 for his efforts in a fiscal year ended in 2002, according to the Federal City Council's tax return, said he does not take the setbacks as a sign that the group is losing its influence. He jokes that every project he has undertaken in his time at the Federal City Council has taken 13 years to complete; the original Washington Convention center, first envisioned in 1970, opened in 1983.
"That's the big advantage of working for the real business elite," he said. "We can take the long view."
Evans said the Federal City Council is facing a different environment, but it is adjusting its operating style accordingly. "Maybe sometimes in the past when they were much more of an all-powerful group, they did what they wanted to do. Now they seem very willing to listen and adopt changes. They're a little more flexible, able to read the political landscape and adjust accordingly, where it seems like 30 years ago they would just do what they wanted to do without talking to anybody," Evans said.