With the primaries less than six weeks off and more newcomers running than in any local election in recent memory, neighborhood groups around the city are seizing the moment to force development issues into the campaign arena.
Candidates for mayor and D.C. Council are responding with sweeping promises, some to fight specific proposals, others to curtail commercial development, and still others to stop granting developers exceptions from zoning laws in exchange for housing or other benefits -- trade-offs that have been the hallmark of the city's revitalization for more than two decades.
Political observers say candidates learned from the election four years ago that pleasing anti-development activists can be key to votes in the more affluent parts of the city.
In the 1986 primary, Mayor Marion Barry received only 15 percent of the vote in Ward 3 after he supported a massive Wisconsin Avenue NW office building. That same year, the anti-development movement in Ward 3 helped abort the promising political career of council candidate Ruth Dixon. And it won the Ward 3 seat for Jim Nathanson (D), who saw that voters would punish candidates who supported "downtown office buildings uptown."
Every candidate this year is trying to win votes with "anti-development rhetoric," said Joel Odum, a Ward 3 activist. "Politicians got their noses rubbed in the development battle in 1986, and they don't want their noses rubbed in it anymore."
At a rally in Dupont Circle last week, two mayoral and four D.C. Council candidates spoke out against a plan by Riggs National Bank to raze a block of historic buildings to build a seven-story office complex at the circle.
Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), a candidate for mayor, said she would help neighborhoods "take control of the character of their neighborhoods."
"I am with you," she told a crowd of about 100 people. "I'm not afraid to take developers on."
Mayoral candidate Sharon Pratt Dixon also was there, as were council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), who is running for council chairman; activist Terry Lynch, running for an at-large council seat; and neighborhood leader Jack Evans, who is eyeing the Ward 2 council seat if Wilson wins the chairmanship.
All four called for a moratorium on buildings that are allowed to be larger and taller than laws permit because the developer has offered a special service or benefit to gain an exception. In some parts of the city, a willingness to build at all is considered a benefit that merits exceptions.
"These developments are destroying the residential character of Washington," Dixon said.
Candidates didn't always talk like this in Ward 2, which stretches from Foggy Bottom to the downtown area and parts of Shaw.
This year, observers say, the biggest battles between developers and residents have shifted from Ward 3 to Ward 2 -- where more than 20 large projects have been proposed outside the downtown area in the past year.
Jim Zais, Ward 2 coordinator for the mayor's office, who also is planning to run for Wilson's council seat, said development is happening so quickly that some residents have yet to take advantage of the election year.
He said the most aggressive neighborhood so far has been Dupont Circle, which has been asking all the candidates to speak at neighborhood meetings and address development issues.
David Fitch, of IBG-Citystate, which is proposing a large apartment building at 22nd and N streets NW, said Dupont Circle community groups are pressuring candidates to oppose specific developments.
Candidate Evans agreed, saying the pressure has become so great that the developers behind the Riggs Bank project and five others in the neighborhood have retreated for now. Before Barry decided not to run, even he came out to Dupont Circle and promised to use his influence to limit Fitch's project.
George Colyer, a civic activist, said voters and candidates are giving development more attention this year because the next D.C. Council and mayor will make decisions that will shape much of the city.
In the next few months, the D.C. Zoning Commission must decide how much housing will be part of the downtown development district. And five wards are still drafting plans that will set local objectives in keeping with citywide plans.