A New York congressman has an influential city lawyer and a lobbyist trying to persuade members of the D.C. City Council to allow him to convert an apartment building that he owns in Southwest Washington into a building for transient renters only.
Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.), who built the 402-unit Capitol Park apartment building at 800 Fourth St. SW and since put it in trust for his children, has been prohibited from converting the apartments to a transient unit -- basically a hotel without a dining room -- since the council imposed a moratorium on such conversions.
In his efforts, Scheuer has enlisted some powerful and presitgious aid. His lawyer is J. Kirkwood White, a lawyer in the Linowes and Blocher real estate law firm. His lobbyist is James Christian, the city's former general counsel and a law partner with Democratic State Committee chairman Robert Washington in the firm of Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Heine and Underberg.
Both Christian and Washington have been personally talking to council members about allowing an exemption for Scheuer's building, sources said.
Scheuer also has the support of former City Council chairman Sterling Tucker, now a private consultant, who said he mentioned the case once informally at a luncheon with council member John Wilson (D-Ward 2), the council's staunch supporter of the prohibition against hotel conversions. Tucker said he is not being paid by Scheuer.
Scheuer was unavailable for comment yesterday.
Staff aides to several council members said yesterday that Scheuer's lobbyist and supporters have been pressing for some type of an amendment to allow him to proceed with the conversion. Some said that they were unwilling to anger a congressman, especially with much vital city legislation now pending on Capitol Hill.
"Any owner is going to put pressure on," said council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4). "Any congressman with a vested interest in an action of the council has a way to get back at the city."
The conversion to a transient unit will be prohibited for the next five years once the city's new rent-control law takes effect Saturday, unless that law is amended. Scheuer is contending that his building should be exempt since his conversion was already under way when the moratorium was imposed.
Some tenants of the Capitol Park apartments and community residents who do not want a large building for temporary renters in their neighborhood are fiercely contesting any change in the law that would allow Scheuer to convert the building. And the citywide coalition of tenants groups has made the fight a cause celebre, saying that if the council makes an exception for Scheuer, it could open up the entire prohibition and prompt conversions all across the city.
Scheuer, who built the apartment house in 1958 as one of the original developers of the Southwest urban renewal area, decided in 1979 to covert the building to primarily transient use in order to increase the profits, White said.
By May of last year, when the council slapped on its moratorium, Scheuer had fewer than half the units in the building converted for transient use, so he therefore did not qualify for an exemption from the strict freeze on conversions.
Jarvis, chairwoman of the council's Housing and Economic Development Committee, is an absolute prohibiton what we do is we catch people who are in transition relying on the old law," she said.
Last fall, Jarvis introduced a bill that would have essentially scrapped the prohibition on coversions such as Scheuer's, but she later withdrew that measure under pressure from tenants who opposed it and opposition from Wilson.
Tenants advocates said yesterday they were afraid Jarvis would try to reintroduce the same bill next week. Jarvis said yesterday she did not want to give an opinion on whether she would try again to exempt Scheuer's building, although she did add, "I have been very much persuaded by arguments which tenants and people in the neighborhood make."
White said the congressman would eventually like to turn the building into a hotel, which under city laws must have a dining room that seats at least 30.
"We've been fighting this for over a year now," said Margaret Rozelle, president of the Capitol Park Tenants Association. She accused Scheuer of already running the apartment building as if it were a hotel, advertising it with a sign out front that reads: "The Capitol Park International."
White said the conversion was being done slowly as tenants move out of the building, and that no tenant was being evicted. Rozelle said, "It is being done through attrition, but they're still displacing people."