THE PROCESS of redevelopment in downtown Washington is creating a one-shot opportunity for developers to make a lot of money -- assuming that everything goes well. The process is also creating a fascinating and, for Washington, new set of political choices. Who should profit? The city has some say in this because it owns much of the downtown land and is selecting which developers to sell to. So it is that selected blacks have received a piece of the action in some projects by putting up only a token amount of capital or, in some cases, none at all. This is being done to meet minority participation goals set by the two public agencies controlling the projects and to buy the blacks' political connections with the black administration in city hall.
You don't have to go all-over defensive ("everybody does it," "about time the blacks got in on the white payoff," etc.) to justify this. Blacks should get equity in the regrowth of downtown. As Mayor Marion Barry says, it is right for black people in a city with a black majority to profit from the boom. Banking policy has worked to the disadvantage of blacks and other people trying to get started. They often have no credit record on large loans and no record of success in development projects. Pulbic agencies, by asking developers to involve blacks, are taking a step forward. There is no need to be apologetic about it: it is a good policy.
All the same, there are some troublesome aspects. Which blacks should profit? The mayor's policy of settling windfalls on a few political influentials is unsatisfactory; making millionaires of a few well-connected lawyers is a perversion of minority participation. We are talking here not of those black individuals or institutions who risk their own capital -- a number of these are already in some projects -- but of blacks getting a free ride. Developers should not feel the need to offer equity to politically favored minority individuals.They should seek out any minority person or group with the money to buy in.
Why cannot ways be found to let some of those black groups and individuals in particular need profit from the development of the town in which they live? In the past, after all, some of them were hurt by the process. Community groups and non-profit organizations might be given the chance to buy pieces of the action. Devising appropriate instruments of community participation would be a challenging -- and political -- exercise, but a manageable one. Mayor Barry, in addition to offering his own ideas, might solicit suggestions from the community. The effort could satisfy his own evident intent to draw blacks more into the city's financial mainstream and to run an administration responsive to the community's desires.
There is, too, the matter of quality. In one downtown project, a proposal that ranked last on merit was approved because of the prominent blacks on the development team. That is -- unequivocally -- wrong. It is reasonable to set goals for minority equity, just as it is reasonable to require contractors to hire minorities, to lease property to minorities and to contract for services with minorities. This cannot mean, however, that minority participation and quality development are incompatible.
What has been a source of much quarreling and criticism since the equity issue was brought out can have a positive result if people will acknowledge the importance and rightness of seeking minority participation in development projects and the necessity of finding some imaginative and beneficial ways to make the profits available to more than just a few lucky lawyers.