Development plans for Columbia Heights were thrown into doubt yesterday after the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation allowing elected officials to second-guess the proposals.
The measure would give Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) power he does not have--and does not want --to review the work of the Redevelopment Land Agency to develop blighted parcels near the new Columbia Heights Metro station on the Green Line in Northwest Washington.
The RLA, an independent city agency, is negotiating a deal with a developer who has proposed to gut most of the historic Tivoli Theatre for a Giant supermarket and other stores. Another developer would put a retail and entertainment complex across 14th Street NW from the theater. The RLA rejected proposals from two other developers.
Before the vote yesterday evening, a spokesman for Giant said that if the legislation passed, the company "will be taking a hard look at the situation and making a decision whether to move forward or not."
Joseph Horning, the developer who plans on Giant as an anchor tenant for a cluster of stores in and adjacent to the theater, said that if Giant pulls out, the project "is history."
However, supporters of the legislation drafted by council member David Catania (R-At Large) said that the RLA's work is flawed and that the review will help produce a better project for the economically struggling neighborhood.
"I've been trying to forge a compromise within this framework, and I'm going to continue to do that," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), a co-sponsor of the legislation. "If Giant says they don't want to be part of it anymore, then it gives a fresh opportunity."
Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) attacked the measure as an illegitimate means for those not selected to appeal in the political arena. "You didn't like who won," she nearly shouted during debate. "You want to see the other team win!"
The measure complicates a delicate political equation for Williams. He appointed a majority of the five-member RLA board, and he has stoutly defended the board's work in Columbia Heights. But he has attempted to remain above the fray.
A vocal segment of the neighborhood has blasted the RLA's preferred developers, saying their plans would destroy the landmark Tivoli and leave key parcels undeveloped. The critics supported another developer, which they said had promised to follow community guidelines drafted over a two-year planning process.
Williams has tried to defuse the situation by inviting outside mediators to assess whether there was room for compromise. There wasn't.
At a news conference on a range of issues yesterday, Williams asked the council not to pass the law enhancing his role, saying that was never envisioned. "I believe changing the process now in midstream does not send the kind of signal we want to send to the business community," Williams said.
Several hours later, during debate on the legislation, Catania and Graham called on the reluctant mayor to step in front of the RLA and assume leadership on the issue.
That appeared to begin a drumbeat to push Williams into amending or even reversing the RLA's work. But Williams can still choose to defer to the RLA.
"The mayor has said before he's not going to overturn the RLA," Norman Dong, one of Williams's deputy mayors and a member of the RLA board, said last night after the legislation passed.
The RLA is scheduled to vote Dec. 16 on agreements to grant Horning Bros. and Grid Properties exclusive rights to negotiate a final deal.
The new legislation calls for the mayor to review the Dec. 16 agreements, which he can transmit either untouched or with attached conditions. He could also negotiate his own agreements before transmitting them to the council, which, in any case, can only vote up or down.
Eight council members voted in favor of the legislation: Catania, Graham, Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), Harold Brazil (D-At Large), Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3).
Four voted against: Jarvis, Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8), council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5).
Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) voted "present."