Mayor Marion Barry said yesterday that blacks should be equity partners in major downtown Washington commercial developments even if they achieve that equity without putting up any money -- as some black lawyers have been doing to the chagrin of some white developers.
"What people may be reacting to is that black people are now playing the same game that other people have been playing for the past 100 years," Barry said during an informal meeting with reporters in his office at the District Building.
Barry's remarks followed publication of a story in The Washington Post Wednesday reporting that some politically connected black lawyers have been given multimillion-dollar shares in major downtown projects by white developers seeking to meet affirmative action requirements imposed by the District's Redevelopment Land Agency and the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.
Barry, as mayor of the District, is a member of PADC and appoints members of the RLA.
"It would be tragic," Barry said yesterday, "if Pennsylvania Avenue were rebuilt and you didn't have any black economic participation. It would just be a travesty of justice."
Barry said that when Southwest Washington was being redeveloped during the 1950s and 1960s, more than 4,000 persons were displaced -- many of them black -- and few blacks now share in the ownership of major developments in that area. "And it won't happen in this administration, as it did before," he said.
Barry said that his remarks were not intended to respond directly to the report in The Post. But he said he did support the principle of economic equity for blacks.
The mayor said efforts by blacks to gain ownership were a natural outgrowth of affirmative action, minority contracting and political empowerment of the city's black residents, who make up more than 70 percent of Washington's population.
"In the black community, we own very little of anything, produce very little of anything and are therefore at the mercy of everyone," Barry said.
The mayor said he believes in the dictum of Kwame Nkrumah, the late president of Ghana. "Seek ye first the political kingdom and the economic one will follow," Barry quoted Nkrumah as saying.
Two of the partnerships mentioned in The Post's article involved lawyers James L. Hudson, Willie Leftwich and Chester Davenport -- principals in the politically well-connected law firm of Hudson, Leftwich and Davenport.
The three have a 15 percent ownership in a $41 million office building project at 600 Maryland Ave. SW, for which they put up only $600 cash, and a 15 percent interest in a proposed $25 million Metro Center project, for which they put up no cash.
In a similar partnership, a white Georgetown developer gave a 30 percent interest in his proposed $80 million Gallery Place Metro stop development to three politically influential black lawyers -- Zoning Adjustments Chairman Leonard McCants, Zoning Commission Chairman Ruby B. McZier, and Larry, C. Williams, a member of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board and a strong supporter of Barry.
Citizens groups and City Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3) have questioned the propriety of those officials being involved in the redevelopment proposal.
Barry said yesterday, however, that he did not believe the proposal with which the three appointees are involved would be given favorable consideration. w"At this point, I don't see how the names will influence anybody," Barry said.
Barry noted that David M. Childs, an architect who is chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission and a nonvoting member of the PADC, had made a design presentation to the PADC on behalf of a private project at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, sponsored by a Boston firm that hired Childs as the architect. No one raised questions of propriety in that instance, Barry said.
Childs, who is white, said last night that he is not an equity partner in the project, and that rights to develop on the site are not awarded by PADC, a government agency, as is the case with the project in which the three city appointees are involved.
Barry said he saw no reason to exempt city appointees from participation in such projects because Washington has a reputation for clean local government. "So far, we've not had any corruption in this government," Barry said.
Barry said the Corporation Counsel's Office agreed with his assessment. But the mayor said he might reexamine the situation if the proposal in which the three officials are involved is adopted by the RLA.
A number of white Washington-area developers have said they feel under pressure to give away shares to blacks so that government agencies will look with favor on their projects. Some have sought out politically influential blacks in particular as partners in the hope that their participation will help win government approval for their projects.
Blacks have contended that their attractiveness as partners is primarily political, not racial, and that blacks should have an avenue through which to gain a share in the developments.
Barry said yesterday that he considered the partnership arrangements to be primarily economic and political. "It's as American as apple pie and hot dogs and Chevrolets," he said. "Those who have don't want to give up to those who don't have."