Plans to add at least 2,500 houses to National Harbor, the hotel, office and retail center under construction on the Potomac waterfront in Prince George's County, have been held up in part to try to give local black entrepreneurs equity in the $2 billion project, according to three sources familiar with the discussions.
Developer Milton Peterson told the council this year that high-end housing was crucial to the project's success. The County Council was scheduled to vote on the measure July 12, but Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) abruptly pulled it from consideration, for reasons that at the time remained unclear.
Three sources, two in county government and one in state government, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid compromising their relationship with Dean, said he withdrew the housing measure to force further discussion with Peterson about minority ownership at National Harbor. The sources said that while council members have concerns about how housing will change the character of the project, and how it will affect traffic and schools in surrounding communities, those are not the main sticking points.
The core issue, they said, is the extent to which African Americans will benefit from the rising economic fortunes of the majority-black county. While many have done well, few have had the opportunity to amass the kind of wealth that could come from equity interest in a project the size of National Harbor.
Dean said African Americans' involvement in National Harbor was not the "driving force" behind his decision to hold the measure.
"There are a lot of issues that need to be resolved," he said. "For whomever to say this is the only thing that is delaying the approval of this project, they have misspoken."
At least one name has surfaced in recent weeks in connection with possible ownership in National Harbor -- Ronald Lipscomb, a Bowie resident who owns Baltimore-based Doracon Contracting Inc.
Dean said that Lipscomb was at one time in line for equity interest, but that the agreement fell through. Peterson officials declined to comment on Lipscomb.
Dean said he has never advocated for Lipscomb to be a partner in the project. "I never told anyone that they had to use anybody," said Dean, who lived in the same neighborhood as Lipscomb for more than a dozen years.
Last summer the county signed agreements with Peterson and Gaylord Entertainment, owner of the planned hotel and convention center, establishing requirements for 30 percent minority business participation. Part of the accord also requires developers to spend $3.5 million over 10 years on community initiatives.
Attorney Andre Gingles, who represents the Peterson Cos. in dealings with the council, said the firm has been successful in making local and minority businesspeople a part of National Harbor. Businessman Carl Jones is an investor in the project, he said. McDaniels Homes, a black-owned company, has been tapped to build homes.
"Since its inception, the Peterson Cos. has made great strides to include opportunities to local and minority businesses, and we exceeded our goals with the first report given to the county," said Gingles.
Other council members said they were pleased with the diversity of participation in the project.
"As far as I know there is more minority participation in this project than in any project anywhere," said council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton). "I'm not aware of anyone who wanted to be an equity partner who has been foreclosed from doing so.
"I don't believe it is the proper role of the council or anyone else to say you have to give away a share if people are not bringing money to the table."
Several homeowners near the project site said at a public hearing last week that they support Peterson's housing plan because it will likely attract desirable high-end retail and entertainment businesses.
Others said the legislation allows Peterson to take abutting property to build some of the additional units. The bill describes it as "up to 5 percent of the acreage in the conceptual site plan," which is about 20 acres. Gingles has offered an amendment making it clear that no home in an abutting subdivision would be affected.
Donna Edwards, a staunch opponent of the project until last year when her group, the Campaign to Reinvest in the Heart of Oxon Hill, reached a settlement with Peterson to end litigation, said plans to place housing in National Harbor bring the project back in line with the original zoning for the land. In 1997, the county approved a zoning text amendment allowing an entertainment complex on land that was zoned for retail, residential and office space.
"There is no solid explanation on why this is held up," Edwards said. "Everyone else is on board. The County Council needs to be on the same page, too."