The U.S. government has recently sent a chilling message to the District of Columbia. In blunt terms it says: Do what we want you to do, in the way we want you to do it, or else!
In more subtle terms, it is saying that home rule may not be worth the paper it was written on.
In a lawsuit filed on March 28, the Justice Department tried to block construction of Techworld, a $300 million mixed-use project located just east of the Convenion Center. Techworld is being developed under matter-of-right zoning rules consistent with District law.
To facilitate this substantial undertaking, the D.C. Council approved closing a portion of Eighth Street between I and K streets NW, in accordance with the Street and Alley Closing and Acquisition Procedures Act of 1982. The National Capital Planning Commission, a federal entity, approved the street closing.
The government's lawsuit challenges the council's authority to close federal streets -- that is, those falling within the original L'Enfant City, which includes all of downtown Washington. The D.C. Council, and previously the commissioners, have had this express authority for more than half a century.
In fact, since 1975, the council under home rule has closed more than a dozen streets and an untold number of alleys. The Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation and the U.S. General Services Administration, among others, have been applicants to the city council for these closings. The Justice Department's lawsuit ignores this lengthy track record.
In addition, the Justice Department also challenges the lawful height of buildings fronting on public reservations as set forth in the 1910 Building Height Act. This law has been continuously and consistently applied, without compromise, for the past 75 years.
Incredibly, Justice has taken a single, albeit significant, project out of the routine local development process. And they have done so without any apparent precedent other than the distaste of some officials of the U.S. Department of Interior for imaginative development in the vicinity of the Convention Center.
Beyond the drastic implications for an innovative project in a still risky part of town, the lawsuit is saying to the development community: Don't depend on Washington, D.C. Just as regrettable is the lawsuit's implication that home rule is fine -- so long as it has the national government's seal of approval.
This litigation tells Techworld's developers -- actually, all of Washington's developers -- that the District of Columbia doesn't control its own development. Techworld played by the only rules known to exist -- and received its approvals according to those rules. Now the federal government is challenging not only those rules but also the authority of our municipal government to apply them.
If the federal government succeeds in undermining home-rule authority simply because it doesn't happen to like a specific decision rendered under that authority, a significant number of past, present and future downtown projects could be jeopardized. And the general outlook for development in the District of Columbia could become rather grim.
Good development is a thoughtful and deliberate enterprise, requiring a delicate balance of public and private interests and efforts, even under the best of conditions. For Techworld -- or any other project -- being challenged by the citizens of the District of Columbia is one thing. To be challenged by the federal government is quite another.
If the local franchise can be so easily mooted by the heavier hand of Uncle Sam, we might as well swap concrete for cotton to correspond with a return to plantation-style governance.