The incident occurred almost three years ago, but Ann Satterthwaite, environmental planner by profession and citizen gadfly by avocation, remembers it as if it were last week.
Western Development Corp. wanted to sell its new garden condominiums atop the Georgetown Park shopping mall and posted a large advertising sign in a courtyard overlooking the C&O Canal, which is part of the national park system.
Several Georgetown groups vehemently protested to the National Park Service that Western was violating its agreement that there would be no advertising. The Park Service agreed and tried to get the sign removed, but it was several months before it came down.
"They just don't keep their promises," Satterthwaite said.
In the grand scheme of battles between developers and residents, the incident may seem minor. But in Georgetown, it is just one more chapter in the unending saga of why Western is the developer the activists love to fight. Western Development may be a Georgetown neighbor, with its headquarters in the heart of the community at Wisconsin and M streets NW, but many of the residents believe it is no friend.
Over the past five years, the ambitious developer has expanded into a nationwide company with $600 million worth of construction projects. It is currently developing a large-scale factory outlet shopping center near Dale City in Prince William County and is one of two firms in contention to develop the coveted Market Square site along Pennsylvania Avenue NW between Seventh and Ninth streets.
But its fiercest battles have been across M Street from its offices and down the sloped Georgetown streets to the Potomac River shoreline.
"We're leery of Western Development," said Juan Cameron, a free-lance writer who serves as the president of the 1,500-member Citizens Association of Georgetown. While he and others remain skeptical of Western's promises and intentions, there has been somewhat of a recent thaw in their icy relationship, although hardly a reconciliation.
"Until I was elected" in May 1983, Cameron said, "no one even talked to them. It was the evil empire, the devil. The feeling was that you shouldn't converse with them, only litigate."
Herbert S. Miller, the boyish-looking 41-year-old president of Western Development, also seems more inclined to talk than fight these days. "The last several years' confrontation hasn't solved any problems," he said. "I think this is the time we should work together."
At this point, the contest might be called somewhat of a draw, with the developer and the residents each winning and losing a host of battles, major and small, over the shape, size and texture of Georgetown development. It is a battle between residents who are seeing their historic community inundated with large-scale commercial ventures and a developer that sees opportunities to make money while providing top-of-the-market housing and shopping for the Washington area's affluent people.
For three years, activists in the association fought Western's proposal to construct Washington Harbour, a luxury, $200 million residential, office and commercial complex on the Georgetown waterfront.
The activists lost their bid to turn the once-shabby riverfront between Rock Creek and Key Bridge into a total park, but not before Western was forced to scrap one development plan and scale down the current project.
Now, the mammoth Washington Harbour complex is well along toward completion. Its 38 condominiums, 28 of them sold, are perched high above the river to afford spectacular vistas for those who can buy units that start at $1 million and spiral to $4 million.
An expensive hotel is planned next door. But Satterthwaite said a coalition of environmental and citizen groups is planning a suit to try to block the Park Service's agreement to lift a 20-foot height restriction so that the hotel and an adjoining office building can be built.
Still, if all goes as planned, nearly 13 of the 19 acres on the waterfront will be turned into a park or public walkways, a compromise that Mayor Marion Barry describes as "balanced development." Some of the activists remain unconvinced of the project's worth and contend that the end result will be more congestion for the already overtaxed Georgetown streets.
A short distance away, on M Street, Western Development leases the Georgetown Market House from the D.C. government. The rambling 19th century structure often has served as a farmers' market, for a while was one of the South's busiest slave marts, and now is empty. Western rented the space in the long, rectangular building to various food enterprises but closed the operation in June in the wake of a protracted legal dispute with the citizens association.
The group had sued Western, contending that the development firm was ignoring the facility's historic use as a market for farmers' fresh produce and instead had opened it to the fast food offerings of the packaged society of the 1980s. The case never went to trial; the residents' suit was dismissed. Cameron now admits that "we had a lousy legal case."
While the suit wound on for two years, Western watched the market wane. "We had greengrocers, a butcher, a baker," Miller said. "But no one came. Right now, it's sort of a no-man's land."
Even though tenants were closing their stalls at the market, Miller said the District government refused to let Western sign up new tenants while the suit was pending. But after the suit was dismissed, Western offered to settle the dispute and turn the market into the fresh produce shop and gourmet food store that the residents wanted.
"We have already lost $3 million on it and not made a dime," Miller said. "And now we're going to spend another $2.5 million to improve it." In addition, he said, the firm is renegotiating its 102-year lease on the Market House with the District government, a pact that Cameron described as "a sweetheart deal."
"They talk about sweetheart deals," Miller said in an agitated voice, throwing up his arms in disgust. "We sat there for two years without getting any tenants."
D.C. Auditor Otis H. Troupe recently criticized the Market House lease, noting that the District government has yet to earn a penny from the contract.
While negotiations are yet to be completed, Miller said Western will boost its annual rent from $29,000 to $44,000, increase the city's share of any net revenue from the market's operations and give up $791,649 in rent credits already approved by the District government.
Western's capitulation on the Market House deal is not altruistic. The firm is nearly ready to start construction on the second phase of the Georgetown Park mall, which would be built between the existing shopping center and the market.
"We want something next to us to be successful," Miller said.
Satterthwaite, vice president of the citizens association, and Donald H. Shannon, a former president of the association, contend that any Western Development promise ought to be taken with a large grain of salt.
She is particularly angry that a 1979 agreement between Western Development, the Interior Department, the city and the National Capital Planning Commission on the scope of the waterfront development was abrogated. It had called for a 160-foot easement between the Potomac River and the development.
But the Commission of Fine Arts, which acts as the arbiter of design for Georgetown and the federal areas of Washington, effectively killed the agreement by rejecting Western's first development proposal for the waterfront.
The current Washington Harbour project does not extend as far west along the waterfront as the earlier proposal, but part of the development now comes within 60 feet of the river, narrowing the public access along the shoreline. Western says the average distance between the river and complex is 109 feet.
While Western has promised to hand over shoreline easements along the river since 1979 and to provide $1 million for the park's development, no public agency saw fit until recently to get the pledges in formal legal deeds.
Shannon, a reporter here for the Los Angeles Times, said that Georgetown groups considered the Potomac shoreline easements as Western's bargaining chip for winning approval for the first phase of the Washington Harbour project.
Yet, with no agreement on the easement in writing, the National Park Service recently gave the company credit for the value of the land in deciding to lift the height easement on the land between 30th Street and Rock Creek so that the hotel and office building can be built.
"I have to admire Miller," Shannon said sarcastically. "Miller has given you the promises and now he tells you if he actually does it, he ought to have the height easement, too."
Miller said such a view is nonsense. "It was always one project," he said of the waterfront development. "I don't think it's fair to look at pieces" of the overall development.
Miller, as he walked through Washington Harbour last week, admired the site, stopping in one would-be living room of a condominium to exclaim, "This is really world class.
"They spent three years fighting us and lost," he said. "Hopefully we can prove to them it makes sense. It's going to be an attribute to Georgetown. We have as much concern for Georgetown as anyone. Hopefully we've demonstrated that sensitivity.
"We're residents here, too," he said. "We care about this place."