OPPONENTS OF the Redevelopment Land Agency's plans to develop blighted parcels near the new Columbia Heights Metro station in Northwest Washington were handed a major victory by the D.C. Council this week. The RLA, an independent city agency, is charged with negotiating the use of city land with developers. Under a newly passed council bill, the RLA will have to share decision-making on development in Columbia Heights, with the mayor and council having the last word.
The RLA is scheduled to vote on Dec. 16 to issue exclusive rights agreements to Horning Bros. and Grid Properties, the two developers chosen to build retail stores, an entertainment complex and a major supermarket (in the gutted space of the historic Tivoli Theater) in Columbia Heights. The emergency bill gives elected leaders a chance to change or overturn the decisions. If it is signed into law, for example, all RLA-issued agreements will have to be submitted to the mayor within 30 days for his review. He can then pass the agreements to the council either untouched, modified or in renegotiated form. The council, in turn, has another 30 days to approve or reject.
The new review process delights Columbia Heights critics, who charge that the RLA-chosen developers ignored the interests of historic preservationists and two years worth of work on community guidelines. They also favored the plans of a losing developer. The winners are now crying foul, however. And they aren't alone.
Developers who played by the RLA rules--and who now find their projects being second-guessed by politicians--are understandably worried about doing business in the District. So are bystanders. In a letter to the council before the vote, the D.C. Building Industry Association--which took no sides in the RLA competition--warned that subjecting a development project "to post-decision re-negotiations and conditions will send a negative and damaging message to the investment and development communities."
That argument was not enough to sway a council majority, which felt that the presence of a dissatisfied, articulate and vocal segment in a neighborhood is just cause for making both branches of city government the final arbiters of development in Columbia Heights. That doesn't much encourage outsiders looking at the District's development potential. It also puts off upper 14th Street's rebirth.