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Native Intelligence
Look what $1 can buy in D.C.
(Published April 21, 2003)

By DIANA WINTHROP

Next month, D.C. City Council is expected to put its final stamp of approval on one of the largest financial giveaways D.C. residents have been saddled with in years, and no one is stopping the steamroller. As negotiations for lease of a portion of Reservation 13 at the eastern end of Capitol Hill have moved rapidly through the legal labyrinth, the giveaway has grown and could cost the District millions.

For over 40 years, St. Coletta's (currently housed in Alexandria) has operated what appears to be a successful educational program for children and adults who have special needs such as mental retardation or autism. I don't challenge their success story. I just want to know why a facility loaded with political and financial support from Congress needs to take D.C. residents to the cleaners.

The closed door deal, drafted 18 months ago, would lease a portion of one of the last parcels of prime D.C. land for just $1 a year for 99 years. You would think the city were rich by the way the lease is written. The lease also allows St. Coletta's officials to sublease the property at prime real estate prices to others. They can even charge the city prime rates, including for any improvements, if St. Coletta's decides to lease a portion of the property back to the city. The acreage giveaway in the lease has increased from four to a little over seven, at a major revenue loss when the city is scrambling to find money to operate.

Neither supporters nor opponents of St. Coletta's has been able to justify the city's eagerness to give away potential revenue. Why would D.C. officials want to hand away money from potentially high value, high density development around the Stadium/Armory Metro stop at 19th Street and Independence Avenue SE?

St. Coletta's Executive Director Sharon Ramos is a 30-year neighbor and friend of Ward 6 Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose, but that political connection alone doesn't seem to be enough influence to buy the institution such a deal. It is really the school's other powerful friends, including members of the elite and powerful Federal City Council, that make the deal so egregious. One source speculated that the deal is designed to position St. Coletta's for tax-exempt bond financing for building a residential facility, as well as a school.

This real estate deal smells as bad as the one that T. Conrad Monts and his Washington Development Group got for the Wilson Building a few years ago. Wasn't that giveaway enough? Residents can voice their concern to Councilman Jim Graham's property management committee, which has scheduled a hearing on this "deal of the century" for May 14.

WHY IS THIS NIGHT DIFFERENT FROM OTHER NIGHTS? Twenty years ago Jimmy Breslin wrote a hilarious book called "The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight." It chronicled the antics of a mob family in New York that screwed up a series of gangland murders. They wrapped the bodies in bubble wrap, instead of attaching them to bricks, before throwing them off the Veranzano Bridge. The bodies floated to the top and key mob family members were busted.

The Ward 6 Democratic Party organization, elected almost two years ago, could give the "gang" a run for its title. Ward 6 President Michael Patterson scheduled the first meeting in almost eight months on the first night of Passover. When the organization discovered the mistake, Patterson decided to go ahead with the meeting because the financially strapped organization had already spent $400 for the mailing and, according to Patterson, "didn't have the money to mail a correction."

An angry Vice President June Johnson blamed the scheduling mishap on the lone Jewish member of the organization for "not bringing it to our attention." That's right, June, blame the Jews.

Patterson's tenure has been marred by outbursts and screaming matches (especially with women) when his decisions have been questioned. Patterson's recent action is another embarrassing example of his lack of sensitivity and political naiveté.

Ward 2 Democrats President Budd Lane was livid about the decision to go ahead with the meeting and about the way that decision reflects on the local Democratic Party as a whole.

"I don't understand," he said. "If you didn't know, the only proper thing to do is eat your losses and cancel. You can always get back your money, but you can never regain the loss of respect."

Lane also expressed exasperation over Johnson's assertion that the Ward 6 leadership was not to blame for scheduling a meeting on a religious holiday. "Responsibility for insensitivity sits squarely on the shoulders of the head of any organization," Lane said.

Patterson said Passover was not listed on his calendar, but Good Friday and Easter were clearly marked. Patterson likely irritated as many Christians as Jews by scheduling the meeting during Holy Week.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator