Free speech advocates are suing the District government and federal agencies over what they say is a “stonewalling” of efforts to determine what access the public will have to the sidewalk, plaza and street outside the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue once Donald Trump opens a $200 million luxury hotel there next month.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney and co-founder of the nonprofit Partnership for Civil Justice Fund says she is concerned that the hotel will illegally interfere with the rights of Americans to assemble or protest on a stretch of what is often referred to as America’s Main Street.
In the spring, organizers of a Japanese culture street festival moved their event to another location after being told by the District that one lane on the 1100 block of Pennsylvania Avenue could not be used once the Trump hotel opened because drivers would need access to the hotel.
After learning of the festival change, Verheyden-Hilliard sought more information. But she said government agencies with oversight of the area, including the D.C. government, the National Park Service, the General Services Administration and the Metropolitan Police Department, would not adequately respond to her requests for information.
“We’ve been trying for more than five months through Freedom of Information Act requests to get the information from the District…as well as the GSA and the Park Service, all of which are stonewalling our requests,” Verheyden-Hilliard said.
On Wednesday afternoon the group brought suits against the agencies seeking information on agreements “that appear to take public space on ‘America’s Main Street’ traditionally open for First Amendment-protected free speech and dissent, and create a ‘buffer zone’ around the Trump Hotel restricting access to exclusive or priority use of the Trump Organization.”
One suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia; the other was filed in D.C. Superior Court.
Spokespersons for the GSA and the D.C. Attorney General’s office said they do not comment on pending litigation. A Park Service spokeswoman said the agency had a record of a documents request submitted by the group from Feb. 29.
“That request is in process,” she said.
Officials at the Trump Organization say they are five weeks away from opening the $212 million luxury hotel in the Old Post Office, which it is leasing from the GSA for 60 years.
Under agreements between the developer and the government, the National Park Service would continue operating tours of the historic clock tower and the Bells of Congress after the hotel opens. The Park Service currently says on its web site that the tower is expected to re-open in “late 2016.”
D.C. controls the street itself and in February a spokesman for D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) told the Post that under previous mayor Vincent C. Gray the District agreed to keep open a 20-foot lane in front of the hotel during festivals to allow for the flow of traffic into the property. A barricade would separate festival-goers from cars entering the hotel property.
One exception is during presidential inaugural parades, when all lanes would likely be closed to traffic. A mayoral spokesman declined to immediately comment further.
After the Japanese cultural festival was moved, the Trump Organization issued a statement saying, “The District has specific safety requirements for events and they have devised a plan with our input that is intended to keep event goers safe and allow the hotel to operate in a first class manner for our guests.” A company official declined to comment further.
A leading reason for redeveloping the property — an effort led by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) — was to revitalize that stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, which suffered following a failed retail annex added to the Old Post Office in the 1980s.
Part of the idea was to make the building more accessible. According to a 2013 report on the Trump project GSA submitted to Congress, under the Trump lease “all four entrances to the main [Old Post Office] Building would be opened or reopened to the public where currently closed, in the case of the east entrance.”
The Trump Organization was also granted permission to open “outdoor dining space available to hotel guests and the general public” in the outdoor space along Pennsylvania Ave. and along C Street on the south side of the building.
What further access the public would have to the sidewalk and grounds around the building once the hotel opens is less clear. Verheyden-Hilliard said she was concerned that agreements may illegally bar the public from space that — given the polarizing nature of Donald Trump’s campaign — may become a valued site for protests.
“This is the public space. Donald Trump cannot own the sidewalks, he cannot own the street,” she said. She said her efforts to get answers from the government has so far proven unsuccessful as agencies repeatedly failed to meet mandated deadlines for producing documents. “The timing is critical. People are entitled to know where they can stand. And the public is entitled to know if the ground under their feet is being privatized.”
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund has brought a series of other legal actions against the District government and federal agencies in defense of protesters and the right to free speech. In 2008, the group intervened against the police department’s checkpoints in the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast D.C. and in 2010 a federal judge awarded $13.7 million to protesters arrested in 2000 outside the World Bank and International Monetary Fund after a suit brought by the group.
In all, Verheyden-Hilliard said that the group has helped deliver more than $25 million in payments to protesters and others who have had their rights violated. She is currently representing members of the Occupy Wall Street protest who were arrested for blockading the Brookyln Bridge in 2011.
She said her legal action on the Old Post Office had little to do with Trump’s candidacy.
“We would be pursuing this no matter what,” she said. “Any circumstances where you have the US government taking public space, particularly space that is historically used for free speech, for freedom of assembly and seeks to privatize it.”
Staff reporter Perry Stein contributed.
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz