The D.C. City Council took the first step yesterday forward building a proposed multimillion-dollar convention center in downtown Washington by approving expenditure of $27.7 million for design and land acquisition costs.
Despitean impassioned warning by Council member Douglas E. Moore (D-at large), who labeled the $110 million project "a huge public works welfare give-away for the business community," the Council voted 9 to 4 to ask Congress for approval to borrow the money to get the project going.
In addition to paying for design of the proposed 896,500-square-foot complex, the start-up money also would be used to purchase the 9.7 acres of land in the Mount Vernon Square area of the city on which the project would be built.
for city leaders who have championed the project as a potential boon to the downtown economy, yesterday's action continued the momentum that began building in January. At that time, Rep. William Natcher (D-Ky.), influential chairman of the House District Appropriations Subcommittee and a one-time foe of the convention center, announced that he had dropped his opposition.
In late March, at the same time that competing plans for a rival $35 million Convention center in prince George's County faltered in the Maryland legislature, the District unveiled its plan for the $110 million Mount Vernon Square project.
The vote yesterday sent the first phase of the civic center plan on its way to Mayor Walter E. Washington, who is expected to approve it, before sending it on to Congress as part of the city's proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning in October.
"The Council has confirmed the mayor's judgement that this is a good investment for the District of Columbia. We're going to go ahead and build it," said an optimistic Ben W. Gilbert, director of the city's planning office.
Council Chairman Sterling Tucker said the 2 1/2 hours of debate on the center had clearly shown the risks of the proposal and underscored that it could not become "a runaway project."
"It's clear," Tucker said nevertheless, "that the Council believes it's good for the city."
Approval of the convention center start-up costs came during a Council legislative session at which a mayoral proposal to spend $17 million to renovate one building at Glenn Dale Hospital, the city's home for the chronically ill, was rejected on a unamimous voice vote.
The Department of Human Resources had asked for the money to bring the 350-patient facility in rural Prince George's County up to accreditation standards. However, Polly Shackleton (D-three), chairman of the Council's committee on human resources and aging, urged rejection of the request on grounds that the city needed intermediate care facilities, rather than the long-term hospital-like facilities proposed by DHR.
Three amendments were added to the convention center package that its supporters felt would improve the original proposal made by the mayor. At the urging of Marion Barry (D-at large), the Council decided that a majority of the construction and management contracts for the center had to be let go to "minority and Washington-based" corporations.
Barry said this provision would insure that about 25 per cent of the contract dollars spent on the project would go to minorities and a significent amount to firms in the city. In this way, he argued, the building and operation of the center would have a maximum impact on the city's economy.
The Council also approved a proposal by Barry that would prohibit expenditure of any money on the project unless the Council approves by Oct. 1 tax package designed to subsidize early financial deficit associated with the project. The city plan proposes some form of an increase in business taxes during the first three years of the project while the complex is being constructed.
Barry's plan also requires that no money be spent on the project unless the Council has approved by Oct. 1 a plan specifying who will operate the center and how it will be run.
The Council also approved a provision proposed by William R. Spaulding (D-five) that the roof space of the complex to built so as to maximize its potential use as a further source of revenue. Original plans for the center had called for nothing to be built on the roof.
Spaulding proposed that the roof space be used for tennis courts. He said 12 courts could be built for $1.5 million and 22 courts for $2.7 million. However, other members of the Council expressed greater interest in other commercial projects, so Spaulding's proposal was modified to exclude any mention of how roof space should be used.
Moore's spirited opposition to the center project began almost immediately after the proposal came to the floor. He rejected Spaulding's amendment as a "twig on the tree," and opposed Barry's minority contracting plank as a "sweetener on a sour thing" and "a quiet maneuver to pick up some brownie points, some black and white points."
When all else failed, Moore proposed that no money be spent on the project unless it were approved by city voters in an advisory referendum. Staring across the council dais at Barry, his sometime foe on the Council, Moore spoke for nearly 10 minutes, often addressing Barry by name.
"We talk about democracy a great deal, but when the talk comes around to letting the people speak, we forget about it. Mr. Barry, this is the people's money," Moore said. "If we really are convinced the people in the city want this convention center, then put it to the test."
"If we're going to start taking our capital projects to the people, we ought to take them all," Barry said. "I suspect that with these high taxes . . . we wouldn't have any building going on."
Moore's referendum proposal failed on a 10-to-2 vote with one abstention.
Moore was joined in his opposition of final center approval by Shackleton, Spaulding and Hilda Mason (Statehood-at-large).