D.C. Council members yesterday criticized the process by which the Barry administration chose a group headed by sports agent Richard A. Bennett Jr. to develop a downtown parcel, raising questions about procedures followed and voicing concern over the lack of community involvement.
Council member William Lightfoot (I-At Large) said after a hearing that the administration seemed to be on a "bizarre fast track" to award the parcel to Bennett's group.
This is the second time in a month that the city has selected the group for a major land deal.
After a competitive bidding process last winter, the Department of Administrative Services recently selected a team including Bennett, Washington Redskins wide receiver Art Monk and former Redskins safety Brig Owens to develop the city-owned tract at New Jersey Avenue and H Street NW.
Bennett plans to erect three office buildings, including space for the D.C. School of Law and another government agency, as well as a day-care center and nursery school, which also will be used as a tutoring facility for D.C. public school students.
During a hearing before the Government Operations Committee, agency director Raymond A. Lambert refused to say how much Bennett's group would pay for development rights.
He said that information cannot be made public until the council formally approves his agency's plans for developing the site.
Members of the committee criticized the administration for failing to solicit community input into how the project is to be developed, and warned that they would not approve the project unless the city does so.
"The community must be involved in increasing services to this impoverished part of the city," Lightfoot said. "Without that involvement, I would not be in favor of this."
Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), the committee chairman, warned that the council may order the department to rebid the project because of concerns over the procedures followed and the lack of community involvement.
Kane said the proposal to build office space at the New Jersey Avenue site also appears to conflict with the city's land-use plans for the area.
Council Chairman David A. Clarke (D), and council members Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) and Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) also raised concerns.
The furor over the 3.7-acre tract at New Jersey and H represents the second time in recent weeks that a city land deal involving Bennett, a major campaign contributor to Mayor Marion Barry, has run into trouble with council members.
Last month, council members criticized the administration for awarding a $216 million lease for a temporary city hall to a similar group including Bennett, Monk and Owens. The Bennett site, at 800 North Capitol St. NW, was the most expensive of several considered by the city, and council members expressed concern that the building would not be completed by next summer, when officials say the District Building must be evacuated for renovations.
Unlike the North Capitol Street project, the latest project requires the approval of the council under a recent law giving council members the right to review and approve the disposition of city-owned surplus property.
The law requires the Department of Administrative Services to solicit community input during the disposition process, but Lambert acknowledged in testimony that the agency has yet to seek that input.
Lambert said the agency plans to do so in the next few weeks, but council members said such input is too late to be meaningful.
Representatives of Bible Way Temple, headed by Bishop Smallwood E. Williams, and six other downtown churches near the site testified that they had repeatedly sought to play a role in the development project, including buying a small ownership interest.
The church representatives said their efforts have been rejected by both the city and Bennett.
Bennett could not be reached for comment.