D.C. Council members questioned yesterday a Barry administration decision to enter into a 20-year lease, worth $216 million, to obtain temporary offices for the mayor and council while the District Building is under renovation between 1991 and 1994.
The lease for a yet-to-be-constructed 10-story building at 800 North Capitol St. NW was the most expensive proposal considered by the city government and costs $33.50 a square foot. By comparison, the least expensive of the five proposals was $26.25 a square foot for property at 820 First St. NE.
Council members said they were troubled that the administration rushed to sign a lease for a 290,000-square-foot building without competitive bidding; that it entered into a long-term lease when a short-term lease was warranted, and that there is no guarantee the building will be ready when it will be needed next summer.
"I've been told by others in the construction industry there's no way that building will be ready in a year and I don't want my colleagues on the council sitting out in the parking lot," said Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), chairman of the Government Operations Committee.
"By the time you lease one building and renovate the District Building, the two costs would be enough to build a new building," said John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2). "I think it would be a lot cheaper and a lot more practical" to build a replacement for the District Building.
Wilson and council member John Ray (D-At Large) introduced a bill last week to authorize the District to build a new city hall on the site of the current D.C. Department of Employment Services at 500 C St. NW.
The lease was awarded by the D.C. Department of Administrative Services to a limited partnership including Richard A. Bennett Jr., a sports agent and lawyer, Washington Redskins wide receiver Art Monk and former Redskins safety Brig Owens.
Partnerships controlled by Bennett contributed $9,000 to Mayor Marion Barry's reelection campaign late last year, according to D.C. records.
The contributions were made by five real estate partnerships in which Bennett is the general partner. When taken together, the funds constitute one of the largest contributions to Barry's campaign, which had raised $246,000 before the mayor's arrest on drug charges in January.
Bennett could not be reached for comment yesterday. In an interview this month with The Washington Post, Bennett said he did not have a "working relationship" with Barry and declined to discuss any political contributions he had made.
"I'm not going to get into politics," said Bennett, whose clients include members of the Redskins and other professional sports figures.
According to D.C. campaign finance records, five real estate partnerships each contributed $1,800 to Barry's campaign on Oct. 30. They are 19 H St., Ltd. Partnership; Penn/24 Assoc.; 17th and H St. Ltd. Partnership; 1010 Vermont Ltd. Partnership; and 1411 K St. Assoc.
Bennett is listed as the general partner of each of these entities, meaning he has authority to run their day-to-day affairs, according to records of the partnerships at the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Lurma Rackley, the mayor's press secretary, said the selection of Bennett's group to house the interim District Building had nothing to do with the campaign contributions. She said the mayor stayed out of the selection process, except to approve a recommendation to use the Bennett group made by Administrative Services Director Raymond A. Lambert.
"We had an exhaustive list of criteria," Rackley said. "Ray Lambert was the one who weeded out the choices."
Lambert told a council committee Tuesday that while the city approved the most expensive proposal, it outranked the others because of the proposed building's superior quality, its location near Union Station, its partial minority ownership and the role it is expected to play in spurring economic development in the H Street corridor.
Robert C. King, another Administrative Services official, said the agency did not normally seek competitive bidding for its leases and was in a hurry to find a location because of the necessity of vacating the District Building in a year. As for the decision to enter into a 20-year lease, King said that developers generally refuse to lease such large buildings on a short-term basis.
Bennett's team is planning to begin excavation at the North Capitol Street site this week, according to King. The developers are responsible for relocation costs and penalties if the building does not open on time.
Lambert said that Barry approved the agency's recommendation to accept Bennett's proposal on May 16, and the lease was signed last Friday.
Maudine Cooper, Barry's chief of staff, said the mayor met with Bennett and Owens on April 24 to discuss their proposal to sponsor a class of 60 students at Terrell Junior High School in the "I Have a Dream" program, in which they would pay for four years of college tuition for the sponsored students.
Cooper, who attended the meeting, said Barry "made it real clear that we were not to discuss the lease or any part of the lease." She added, "We're concerned about conflicts of interest or even the appearance of a conflict."
The executive branch has the authority to execute leases without the council's approval, although the council could refuse to appropriate the money needed for lease payments when it considers the city's fiscal 1992 budget.
Staff writers Jenice Armstrong, Bill Dedman and Nathan McCall contributed to this report.