Mayor Marion Barry said yesterday that the District's Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) has been a flop in its efforts to spur major commercial development on urban renewal land, adding that he favors changing the way the semi-independent board operates.
The mayor criticized the city's urban renewal agency at his monthly news conference, a day after the RLA firmly rejected an agreement providing favorable terms to the developers of the proposed Portal site in Southwest Washington that Barry's administration helped to renegotiate.
"The RLA board has not been successful since 1974 in making sure any major development happens in this city," said Barry, who has begun discussing possible changes in the RLA with senior aides.
"You can look at the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation which came into existence long after the RLA board, you see things happening on Pennsylvania Avenue," he said. "And I think the majority of RLA board members share my view that the process that we now use needs to be reevaluated . . . to see if there is a better way to do business."
Asked whether he was contemplating trying to dissolve the RLA and assume some of its powers, Barry responded: "I haven't heard that advocated yet . . . I'm not advocating it."
Nira H. Long, chairwoman of the RLA board, defended the board's record, saying that many of the difficulties in arranging major commercial deals were due to economic forces, such as high interest rates and a glut of office space, beyond the board's control.
"If you are going to look at the major commercial developments, there are a lot of reasons now why developers don't want to get into the market, and there is nothing the city can do about that," she said.
Long said that Barry had never indicated to her that he favored changing either the structure or the basic functions of the five-member board. However, Long said that she and the mayor did discuss new ways of promoting development, including leasing rather than selling city-owned property to developers.
That approach became possible last month, after the District paid off the last of its urban renewal loans to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD previously had required the RLA to dispose of urban renewal property by selling it, to insure that the District would have adequate funds to repay its federal loans.
"I think he Barry means there are less restraints now on the way we can do things, and I'm in agreement with him," Long said.
The Portal agreement rejected by the RLA would have reduced the sale price of the 10-acre parcel at the foot of the 14th Street Bridge by $7 million and would have granted more favorable payment terms to the developer, Banneker Associates.
Yesterday, the mayor said he hasn't given up hope that the renegotiated contract, which he termed fair, would eventually be approved.
"I think it's a proposal the city can live with, even if the majority of the board doesn't at this point," Barry said. "I'm going to do all I can to try to make sure we find out what their the board members' problems are and try to see if the developers can meet them."
In another matter, the mayor announced yesterday that a second major reduction in the rates charged D.C. employers to fund a worker's compensation fund went into effect this month. Barry said the reduction, mandated by a new law regulating benefits provided to injured or disabled workers, would save local businesses about $10 million a year. The rate reduction will average 12 percent this year, according to Barry, compared to an initial reduction of 29 percent a year ago.
"The importance of this decrease is that it will keep existing businesses in the District and will help to attract additional businesses to the city," Barry said. "The result will be more jobs for our residents, a top priority of mine."