An article Monday provided incorrect information about the appointment of Robert C. Walker, chairman of the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency. Walker was appointed by former mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. (Published 09/22/1999)
Replace a barren, riot-scarred landscape with the shopping, housing and entertainment options District residents crave. Do it quickly. Guarantee the participation of minorities and local businesses. And in the process, generate as many jobs and as much tax revenue as possible.
That's what the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency board members say they tried to do recently when they awarded two developers the right to rebuild the long-barren center of the city's Columbia Heights neighborhood, rejecting applications from two other bidders.
But as protests have escalated in recent days over their picks, including a rally Saturday at the new Columbia Heights Metro station, D.C. officials now say they made at least one major mistake: They neglected to explain just how they arrived at their decision.
The result has been speculation by some residents of back-room deals, racism and political arm-twisting--allegations that the redevelopment board members reject. What did happen, board members agree, is that after a wide-ranging, closed-door debate--during which three of the five members changed their minds--the board concluded unanimously that two of the four bidders offered plans that have a better shot of achieving the city's ambitious goals in the long-awaited remaking of Columbia Heights.
"This community does not want any more promises," said Robert C. Walker, chairman of the redevelopment board and one of the members who changed his mind during the debate. "They need to see some action, and they want whatever is put in there to be sustainable. That's what we have tried to do."
On five acres west of 14th Street NW, between Park Road and Irving Street, New York-based Grid Properties Inc. plans a sprawling, $131 million entertainment and retail complex with a colorful, Times Square-like flavor, employing 1,300 people in businesses including a multi-screen movie theater, a youth entertainment center and perhaps ice rinks and stores such as Old Navy.
Across the street, the District-based Horning Bros. firm is planning a Giant Food Inc. supermarket, plus other stores that would be integrated into the space of the old Tivoli Theatre, after the historic theater's facade and lobby are restored. Twenty-nine nearby town houses would be part of that $18 million project.
A Chevy Chase-based firm's $12.5 million plan for a suburban-style shopping center received little support among Columbia Heights residents and redevelopment board members. But some residents were angered by the board's rejection of the fourth bidder, a Cleveland-based firm called Forest City Enterprises. That $135 million project--to build a shopping mall, a movie-theater complex, an office building, a performing arts theater and 30 town houses and apartments on four city-owned lots--would have created 1,820 permanent jobs.
How, the plan's supporters wondered, could the redevelopment board have rejected this plan, given its broad scope, its integrated design and backing by many residents?
Several community activists suspected that D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams--who appointed three of the redevelopment board's five members, including his own interim city administrator--had influenced the decision to appease certain community leaders who supported the Grid Properties and Horning Bros. plans.
Others speculated that the redevelopment board gave special consideration to Grid and Horning because they were the only bidders to form partnerships with a community development group led by Robert Moore, a member of former mayor Marion Barry's Cabinet. They accused Moore and his group of adding racial tension to the development decision, and turning up the heat on Williams, by portraying the Grid and Horning proposals as particularly beneficial to the black community.
"Graft and corruption still prevail in D.C. government circles," said Stephen Kline, a Kenyon Street NW resident who favored the Forest City plan. In a letter to the redevelopment board, residents John Cashman and Lisa Jennings, of Monroe Street NW, wrote: "Race clearly was an important factor. . . . If Mr. Moore must resort to racial tactics, it can only be because his proposal lacks substance."
Moore did not respond to a request for comment last week, but he has emphasized that the Grid and Horning plans would benefit the entire community, rather than just outside developers. Meanwhile, the mayor and members of the redevelopment board rejected suggestions that the mayor influenced the board's decision or that race played a role.
Redevelopment board members agreed that Forest City had a good proposal. The bid was so strong, Walker said, that in a straw poll taken before the board's Sept. 9 vote, most members preferred the Cleveland firm's plan. But after extensive debate, the panel settled on the Grid and Horning bids.
The first decision, board members said, was the easiest. Forest City had proposed a nine-story office building at 14th and Kenyon streets, but acknowledged it might be years before it was built, because it had no tenants--a risk the board did not want to take.
The redevelopment board also concluded that Forest City's plan to convert the Tivoli Theatre into a performing arts space seemed flawed, because the District already has the restored--but often dark--Lincoln Theatre on U Street NW and the blighted, city-owned Howard Theater on T Street NW, said board members Diane C. Pratt and Lawrence Parks. Horning Bros., meanwhile, had offered to restore the theater's facade and lobby and integrate a Giant supermarket and other stores into the space.
"We did not want to see the land lay undeveloped for a long time," said Parks, a Williams appointee.
The board's most intense debate was on the largest of six available city tracts, on the west side of 14th Street, where Grid Properties and Forest City both proposed retail complexes. Grid put more emphasis on entertainment, such as an ice rink, a Jeepers indoor amusement center and clothing and sporting goods stores. Forest City, meanwhile, proposed a "big box" retail space, with possible tenants such as Costco or a computer superstore and other retailers, appealing more to professionals.
Interim City Administrator Norman Dong and Walker, another Williams appointee, were among the board members who initially backed Forest City, in part because of concern that the youths the Grid Properties plan could attract might present a public safety threat, Walker said. But Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey assured board members that police could provide adequate protection, and ultimately a majority of the board decided the family-oriented entertainment model was the best fit.
The redevelopment board, recognizing the neighborhood is predominately African American and Latino, required the developers to have minority-controlled partners, holding at least a 25 percent stake. The Grid Properties alliances with Moore's Columbia Heights Economic Development Corp. and African American businessman Joseph L. Searles III appeared to represent the kind of "meaningful minority participation" that the city's bidding requirements had called for, board members said. Forest City, meanwhile, had a much less detailed minority participation plan, they said.
Debra Ratner Salzberg, a Forest City executive, said her group would have had meaningful minority participation, adding that if the office building or performing arts plans proposed by her firm would not work, there were alternatives.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents the area, said he is disappointed that the board approved bids for only two of the city-owned lots. He and Williams faulted the board for failing to explain its decision-making process. But what matters most now, Graham said, is that the community join together, avoiding lawsuits or other challenges.
"There is a possibility of slipping into gridlock," said Graham, who is trying to broker a compromise that would include a small performing arts space in the Tivoli, in addition to the supermarket. "It is not exactly the Middle East crisis. We should be able to work this out."
CAPTION: Columbia Heights (This graphic was not available)