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LBJ’s ‘Great Society’ spawned Fort Lincoln development plan

(Published May 6, 2002)

According to city and federal documents, the origins of Fort Lincoln New Town lie in the Great Society dreams of President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was during the Johnson years in the late 1960s that the 199-acre site lying east of the juncture of Bladensburg Road and South Dakota Avenue NE (near the Prince George's County line) was first spotlighted as a site for an innovative experiment in urban renewal and participatory democracy.

The land, controlled then by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was made available to the District of Columbia only on the condition that the residents of any new development would have a substantial say in their community's development and receive substantial direct benefits.

In 1972, the National Capital Planning Commission approved a Fort Lincoln Urban Renewal Plan, which was ratified by the fledgling D.C. City Council, based on the idea of a three-way partnership among residents, the government and a private developer.

But since there were no residents – and no Fort Lincoln New Town – at the time that the D.C. government's Redevelopment Land Agency began a search for a private developer, the RLA was mandated to negotiate a plan that made residents a full party to the deal. Over the course of two and a half years, the RLA hammered out a highly detailed agreement with the chosen developer and a minority partner, self-made local millionaire Theodore Hagans.

But after the negotiations were concluded, the designated developer, Texas-based BSI, decided that it would lack the on-site presence to make the project work, and withdrew. The RLA then re-opened the project to new bids, with the new developer's willingness to abide by the original negotiated agreement stated as a prime criterion for the award. Hagans won the new bid to be the sole developer of Fort Lincoln New Town. The agreement he signed on May 13, 1975, is now being cited by Fort Lincoln residents as the basis for their complaints against the developer.

The deal had obvious and lucrative benefits to Hagans' company. First, he received the exclusive right to sell and manage most Fort Lincoln property. Further, Hagans was not required to buy the Fort Lincoln land outright. The government would hold and maintain the land for him; he would pay for each parcel only as he was prepared to develop it, thus avoiding the need to come up with the entire purchase price, as well as avoiding taxes and other carrying costs. Finally, the city and federal government committed to spending tens of millions of dollars on streets, schools, a large park and other major public improvements.

In exchange, Hagans was required to ensure the success of the government's intention to create a community that was largely resident-managed by setting up a nonprofit resident corporation, funding it with $250,000, and giving it 25 percent ownership and profits of Hagans' management company.

The agreement also mandated that Hagans:

--reserve a further 24 percent of the management company's profits, for a total of 49 percent, for black and other minority group members from either Fort Lincoln or the general community. The contract expressly limited the developer's profits from the real estate company to no more than 51 percent.

--make available 15 percent of the management company's common stock to D.C. residents, especially those who were members of minority groups.

--submit quarterly reports to RLA, demonstrating "the extent to which the (developer) has achieved the goals and requirements" of the mandates "with quantification of results."

According to the current Fort Lincoln Civic Association, neither Theodore Hagans nor his successor as president of Fort Lincoln New Town Corp., Michele Hagans, has ever met any of these obligations to residents and the RLA, or even informed residents of the existence of them – though the Hagans' companies have received all of the agreement's benefits.

Nor have they developed Fort Lincoln New Town in the form originally agreed to, and touted to the original residents: as a full "town-within-a-town," with its own schools, full-service town center and a man-made lake. (Longtime resident Nora Faison said she well remembers Theodore Hagans promising a soon-to-appear lake; that feature disappeared from the developer's plans some years ago.)

Today, even the residential portion of Fort Lincoln stands only about half built. And civic association president Reginald Lyons said last week that for much of the past decade, residents – without the organizational and financial resources promised them in the development's charter agreement – have repeatedly had to fight off attempts to build unwanted projects on the land where residents were originally promised a thriving town center. These projects have included a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility and a plan by the D.C. Department of Public Works to dump a by-product of waste-processing. –John DeVault

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator