More than six years after the deal was first proposed, a project that will replace the West End public library branch and fire station with new facilities topped with luxury apartments should get underway within a few months.
A D.C. Court of Appeals panel on Thursday declined to intervene in an appeal filed last year by activists who questioned the city’s deal with a development team led by Georgetown-based EastBanc, saying the brand-new library and fire station the city would reap from the deal did not constitute sufficient compensation for the valuable public land the developers would receive.
The court refused to overturn the D.C. Zoning Commission’s order approving the project, saying it properly acted within an “interconnected regulatory framework” by waiving an affordable housing requirement and not second-guessing the mayoral and D.C. Council decision to sell off the land. Determining whether the mayor and council entered into a bad deal with EastBanc, the court said, “does not fall within the core of the Commission‘s expertise in land-use matters.”
Washington Business Journal first reported the court’s opinion Thursday. The decision brings to an end a contentious process that included the derailing of a 2006 no-bid deal granting the land to EastBanc; under political pressure from Ralph Nader and others, the city conducted a competitive bidding process, which EastBanc won.
Oliver B. Hall, attorney for the plaintiffs, who included a Nader-affiliated activist group, said the lawsuit had a high bar to clear, considering that courts typically give government agencies great deference in making their decisions. “We had a very difficult task ahead of us,” he said, explaining the court needed to find the Zoning Commission had been “arbitrary and capricious.”
But Hall said the court challenge, which delayed the project for months, was worth it for highlighting the potential inequities in the city’s land dealings. “These public-private partnerships really boil down to giveaways of public assets,” he said. “Somebody’s going to have to start paying attention to these issues, because if they don’t, our children will ask, what happened to all of the public property in this town?”
Hall is also now representing a group of residents that is before the same court challenging another public-private development deal involving EastBanc — the redevelopment of the Hine Junior High School site, across Pennsylvania Avenue SE from the Eastern Market Metro station. And city land transactions are likely to remain a matter of public concern for some time, with Mayor Vincent C. Gray proposing to enter into land swaps with developers to build a soccer stadium in Southwest.
EastBanc President Anthony Lanier said Thursday that he expects to put shovel in ground before year’s end, estimating it will take 60 to 90 days to finalize his construction financing. “We’ve put things in motion to start construction as soon as we can,” he said. Besides the new library and fire station, the project includes 160 luxury apartments and retail.
Lanier expressed hope that the court’s decision on West End will mean a swift decision allowing the Hine project to move ahead. “The decisions can’t come out fast enough,” he said, “as long as they’re good.”
Hall admitted his Hine lawsuit raises similar issues to the unsuccessful West End appeal, but said he plans to press ahead. Oral arguments in the case are set for Sept. 26.
“They’re tough cases, but they’re important cases,” he said, “and the issues we’re raising need further public scrutiny.”