The development project on 14th Street in Columbia Heights may be dead. The promise of some 13 acres of revitalization that would have ended more than 30 years of blight is likely to be lost, and a two-year community effort may have been for naught.
I had hoped that Columbia Heights would combine a high-quality commercial center with an appreciation for one of the city's most diverse and historic neighborhoods. With redevelopment, the Tivoli Theater, a protected landmark that once barred African Americans from passing through its doors, would be able to shed its disgraceful history and be invigorated for the cultural benefit of all.
This $140 million project faces difficult hurdles: the possibility of an eminent-domain proceeding to obtain a privately owned parcel of land; two alley closings requiring D.C. Council action; historic preservation issues; and a complicated tax-increment financing proposal that requires all manner of approvals. Add to that unknowns relating to a new agency, the National Capitol Revitalization Corp., which will have the economic development responsibilities.
So under the best of circumstances, we have a complex, multiyear process with many possibilities for controversy and delay. To get the job done, we will need a high level MCI-type public and private member task force. We also need a better community consensus. But what we have instead is widespread public anger that the Sept. 9 decision by the Redevelopment Land Agency Board did not incorporate the recommendations of many members of the community, one of which concerned the Tivoli Theater. The board approved a plan that would save only the facade and lobby of the old theater. The inside would be gutted to make way for a Giant supermarket.
Since the decision was announced, I have been working with the various principals to find a middle ground. Earlier this year, I opposed Safeway's idea to demolish the Tivoli for a parking lot. We should preserve the Tivoli's interior, at least as a 300-500 seat auditorium. Finding the money for this project will be a challenge and will require public help. The developers, however, are unwilling to redesign their plans, and Giant said no to the idea, citing its concern that theatergoers would tie up its elevated parking. Yet if we can't remake this decision, the project will be tied up in litigation and protest, and the benefits of our strong economy will pass without advantage to Columbia Heights.
This result still can be avoided. The Redevelopment Land Agency Board is scheduled to issue exclusive-right agreements to the developers on Oct. 21. That decision should be delayed. In the interim I call upon the mayor to join with me in attempting to forge a compromise. Too much is at stake to do otherwise.
-- Jim Graham
represents Ward 1 on the D.C. Council.