Two D.C. City Council members yesterday criticized a plan by the city's urban renewal agency to not request a final staff recommendation when the agency next month awards development rights to the coveted District-owned Portal Site in Southwest Washington.
John Ray (D-At-Large) and Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) said they felt that the agency's staff would be less susceptible to political pressure than the five-member urban renewal board, which is appointed by Mayor Marion Barry and confirmed by the council. One of its members is city housing director Robert L. Moore.
Ray and Jarvis, who say they are running for mayor in next September's Democratic primary election, made their comments after reading newspaper reports last week about remarks of the Redevelopment Land Agency's chairman, Nira Long.
Long had said, "It's my feeling that the board will stop short of asking the staff for a final recommendation. The board seems inclined to go with absorbing and mastering this on their own." Other board members confirmed that there will be no staff recommendations on the selection.
The board two years ago broke with its long-held tradition of asking its staff to recommend which developer to select when it sold another lucrative downtown site, Gallery Place, at Seventh and G streets NW. That site was awarded to a team in which one of the principal partners is William B. Fitzgerald, president of Independence Federal Savings & Loan Association. Barry's wife Effi is an Independence board member.
"It is politics as usual," said Jarvis, chairman of the council's committee on housing and economic development, which has oversight responsibilities for the RLA. In a letter yesterday, Jarvis asked Long to explain why no staff recommendation would be requested on the Portal Site.
Ray said that "given the fact that there is so much money involved in this project, the mayor's office, RLA, everybody should want to make sure the procedure is followed to the letter because there will be speculation there was a political deal made no matter who gets it." Ray has asked that the board reconsider its action.
Long said the board will receive staff evaluations of each proposal, but will stop short of asking for a final recommendation. "We are taking into account what the staff has to say," said Long. "All we are saying is you don't have to tell us how to vote."
Five development teams, whose members include well-known city businessmen and supporters of Barry, are competing for the right to build a huge office building, shopping and hotel complex that will cost between $265 million and $335 million on the 10-acre Portal tract at the foot of the 14th Street Bridge. It is the last, the largest and most desirable city-owned property to be sold for development.
Ray and Jarvis also questioned RLA's decisions to delay choosing a developer until February. "There is a strong belief among developers that the mayor has been holding off on this until his finance committee is ready and he has milked the support," said Ray.
Barry, who is expected to announce his official bid for reelection soon, has not established a finance committee, which is required before he can accept political contributions. Some of the development group members, who declined to be identified, have said that the mayor has already talked to them about endorsements and financial support.
Long said the delay in the selection of the Portal developer is simply to give board members more time to read all the information and try to ensure all the members would be present for the final decision.