On Sept. 9, when the District's Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) announced its decision on the disposition of D.C. land and development in Columbia Heights, bewilderment turned to anger in the community. Sadly, to some observers of D.C. politics, the decision didn't come as that much of a surprise. What was a surprise was how Mayor Anthony Williams and his administration responded to the loud criticism of the RLA decision.
In making its decision, the RLA rejected a vastly superior proposal from Forest City Enterprises that would have brought major economic development to Columbia Heights, once a retail shopping area second only to downtown. The rejected proposal followed closely the recommendations developed through two years of intensive planning involving more than 400 members of the affected community.
The rejected proposal would have developed four parcels offered by the RLA by constructing a 70,000-square-foot supermarket (the largest in the city), other major retail stores, a multiscreen movie theater and an office building. It also would have restored the historic Tivoli Theater, the architectural gem of Ward 1, as a performing arts center and as home to the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Gala Hispanic Theater, the Gay Men's Chorus, the D.C. Youth Orchestra and other groups.
The two proposals the RLA selected -- one submitted by Horning Brothers-Giant Foods and the other by Grid Properties -- plan buildings on only two of the four parcels, leaving vacant two lots atop the new subway entrances. Horning-Giant proposed to demolish more than 90 percent of the Tivoli Theater for a 40,000-square-foot Giant grocery store. However, the Tivoli is protected by being on the National Register of Historic Sites, so that plan is unlikely to be realized.
Grid, the other developer, proposed an "entertainment complex" with an indoor ice rink, an indoor amusement park, a multiscreen movie theater and specialty shops, but the developer's contracts with all the major tenants fell through.
Two months after the RLA's vote, residents of Columbia Heights still are waiting for an explanation for this baffling decision. The Williams administration, which claims that it respects neighborhood input and says that it wants the best economic development possible for Columbia Heights, has not articulated why it continues to support the RLA decision. Instead, it has initiated an "assessment process" to determine whether to begin a "mediation."
Many people are left to wonder why the mayor would claim for his own an RLA decision that seems to betray the community planning that he advocates. One explanation appears to be the poisonous effectiveness of racial politics in the District.
Some advocates of the winning developers have portrayed the situation as a dispute between black and white residents of Columbia Heights. They falsely maintained that the rejected proposal had no minority participation, when in fact it had. They have said that only whites would be interested in the arts activities that would take place in the Tivoli Theater under the rejected proposal -- also false. And they have represented those who object to the RLA decision as the "new," "white," "upscale" residents of Columbia Heights -- another pernicious falsehood.
The reality of Washington today is that racial politics remain as effective as they have been for decades. Racial politics stymie and prevent political reform and economic development, and maneuver politicians into defending what they know to be wrong, even when it is counter to their constituents' and their own best interests.
The administration of Anthony Williams will find its own way out of the mire of the RLA decision and regain the confidence of the citizens of Columbia Heights only if it gathers its courage and puts the interest of the people of this community ahead of racial politics.
-- Dorothy A. Brizill
heads the Columbia Heights Neighborhood Coalition, which has petitioned the D.C. Court of Appeals to overturn the city's choice of developers for the Columbia Heights project.