As one of Washington’s star chefs, Erik Bruner-Yang is known for hipster havens such as Toki Underground and Maketto on H Street NE, where he serves his renditions of Asian-fusion delights.
What Bruner-Yang is not known for is wearing a hard hat and pounding nails.
Yet the chef twice nominated for James Beard awards is on a list of 471 construction workers that a boutique Adams Morgan hotel touts as evidence that it hired enough D.C. residents to qualify for a $46 million tax abatement.
The list — including designers, architects, preservationists, sales people and even a development executive — is fueling questions over whether the Line hotel has fulfilled the necessary requirements for the 20-year subsidy.
As the District has grown more prosperous in recent years, lawmakers and civic leaders have expressed skepticism that the city needs to give generous tax breaks to spur development.
Yet when the D.C. Council enacted the abatement for the $145 million Line hotel nearly a decade ago, lawmakers and civic leaders applauded the benefits that the subsidy was intended to yield for the city.
In exchange for the tax relief, the legislation required the developer to hire more than 300 D.C. residents for construction jobs to transform a former church into a 220-room hotel with three restaurants, a gym and a rooftop terrace. Adams Morgan community leaders and the developer hoped those jobs would be filled by low-income residents from the neighborhood and across the city.
“It was considered a model for responsible economic development,” said Ed Lazere, director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
But a District review this year found that the hotel fell short of its obligation, and now lawmakers and civic leaders question whether the Line is seeking to inflate its hiring numbers by including workers not typically identified as hard hats.
“This wasn’t for someone who spent four years getting a college degree and then did graduate work in art history,” said Bryan Weaver, an activist who helped draft the abatement legislation. “It was to help people who were the least, the lost and the left behind.”
While Line executives contend that they exceeded their obligation, the council last week deferred the implementation of the abatement for at least a year while the D.C. government completes an audit.
The earlier District review found that the developer, the Sydell Group, failed to meet two hiring requirements, one of which was the total number of D.C. residents hired to build the hotel.
In recent days, as it mounted a lobbying campaign to retain the abatement, Sydell created a website to press its case and released a list of “construction employees” whom the developer asserts resided in the District.
The list includes dozens of plumbers, window installers, general contractors and excavation workers, as well as 186 laborers sent to the project by a referral agency that specializes in temporary construction workers.
The list also included Bruner-Yang and 15 of his hospitality company’s workers, 40 employees of the hotel, four historic-preservation experts, one of the hotel’s owners and a designer who chose and installed the 3,000 pieces of art for its 225 rooms and hallways.
“I definitely thought of myself as an integral part of the construction process,” said Svetlana Legetic, the founder of Brightest Young Things, an online magazine and event production and marketing agency, when asked if she saw herself as a construction worker. “You’re wearing sturdy shoes and a construction hat and a neon-yellow vest.”
But Allison Kuntz, who also appears on the list, said she never thought of herself as part of the construction team. “I was on the pre-opening team,” she said, describing her duties as “booking events — corporate events and weddings.”
“I am not a construction worker,” Kuntz said.
Bruner-Yang said in a text message that in preparing to open his Brothers and Sisters restaurant at the Line, he “installed fixtures, painted walls, installed wallpaper, plumbing behind bars, built base boards, built equipment, did light electrical work, etc.”
“Pretty typical stuff that happens when people are trying to get a restaurant opened,” he wrote.
Sydell executives said they defined construction workers “in accordance with the standards established by” the District’s Department of Employment Services, the agency charged with monitoring whether the developer complied with the tax abatement’s requirements.
Crawford Sherman, the Line’s managing director, said in an emailed statement that the hotel included any employee who “worked in connection with design, entitlement, building and oversight.”
“This includes, but is not limited to, general contractors, sub-
contractors, trade laborers, project managers, design/technical services, consultants and accountants, or anyone whose primary workload supported the construction of the project,” he wrote.
But Tiffany Browne, a spokeswoman for the District, said the city “uses various forms of data” to determine “the definition of a construction worker, including but not limited to the [U.S.] Department of Labor classification and labor market data.”
Last year, in response to a D.C. Council questionnaire, the Department of Employment Services said “construction worker” is defined by criteria set by the Labor Department and listed 49 job titles, including apprentice, carpenter, crane operator, pipe fitter and roofer. Architect, designer, salesperson and restaurateur were not among them.
In April, the city agency informed the D.C. Council that the Line’s developer had failed to meet two of seven criteria for the subsidy. It said that the developer hired only 273 of the required 342 District residents and that city residents did not complete the required 51 percent of the project’s total construction hours, according to council members Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1).
What’s more, the developer had not reserved all of its apprenticeships for District residents.
The Department of Employment Services proposed to fine the developer $600,000 but still grant it the tax abatement because the hotel had “made a good faith effort toward compliance.” But D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine determined that the legislation authorizing the abatement did not allow the developer to deviate from the requirements.
The city is “continuing its review of additional information as it is submitted by the Line hotel,” according to an agency spokesman.
Sydell has offered differing accounts of how it counted construction workers on the project.
An independent audit prepared for the hotel in December identified 230 workers from the Adams Morgan Youth Leadership Academy, or AMYLA, a nonprofit organization that provides “mentoring, life skills, service learning, expeditionary programs and job opportunities for our youth & families,” according to its website.
According to a report from the auditor, the Pantera Managem ent Group, the laborers from the academy worked a total of 45,000 hours. The workers include Nigel Okunubi, AMYLA’s managing director. Okunubi has not responded to requests for comment.
When the developers proposed the hotel more than a decade ago, Adams Morgan community leaders expressed concern that the project would raise costs in a neighborhood already too expensive for independent merchants and low- and middle-income families.
Weaver, then on Adams Morgan’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission, held meetings with then-council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Brian Friedman, then the project’s main developer, to figure out ways to enlist community support.
They talked of hosting job fairs and fanning out to low-income housing developments to recruit young men to work construction and learn skills.
“Everything we talked about was how do you create a system where the hotel ends up getting people into career path training,” Weaver said. “If this was going to be a symbol of gentrification in the neighborhood, let’s find a way for people to feel pride in that.”
Friedman, in an emotional phone interview, said he also embraced the concept, envisioning a “60 Minutes” story about how the hotel created possibilities for young men who often felt hopeless.
But Friedman said that too often their best intentions were foiled by workers who quit or didn’t show up. “We were begging for people,” he said. “Whenever a kid called me, I got them a job. The problem I had was that kids didn’t want to work.”
Soon after construction began in 2013, Weaver said, he became concerned that the developers weren’t recruiting enough D.C. residents to work on the project. He said the development team seemed to intensify its effort only after a 2016 Washington Post article reported that the hotel was in danger of not meeting the hiring requirements.
Jose Sueiro, managing director of the Metro DC Hispanic Contractors Association, said he appealed without success to the developers to hire his members beginning in 2014. At one point, he said, a development executive referred him to Walsh Construction, which managed the project.
After an initial phone call, Sueiro said, there was no follow-up.
A Walsh executive in the company’s D.C. regional office did not return phone calls seeking comment.
“They didn’t bother locally at all,” Sueiro said. “They absolutely ignored us.”
Friedman said that he had hoped to recruit more construction workers from Adams Morgan and nearby neighborhoods and that he received little assistance from community leaders.
“Ask them how many kids they got placed,” he said. “I wanted there to be a lot more — not just kids but people who were unemployed and homeless. Everyone came to be idealistic and didn’t do anything.”
Friedman, a developer for over 15 years, was among those whom Sydell recently listed as a “construction employee” on the project.
“I do drywall,” he said.