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Columbia Heights e-mail group raises eyebrows

(Published June 19, 2001)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

A member of the Redevelopment Land Agency Board, which made a still-controversial decision late last year about developing a large swatch of city-owned Columbia Heights land, was engaged in private e-mail group discussions with the selected developers before the RLA had signed the final agreements.

David McIntire, a neighborhood resident who opposed the selection of Tivoli Partners, said he found out about the private group when Development Corp. of Columbia Heights Chairman Robert Moore, who is a member, reprinted one of the private entries onto another Columbia Heights e-mail group, along with a link back to the private group.

He said he asked Sharon Robinson, a public relations consultant hired by Tivoli Partners who set up the group, to join the group and was allowed in. When he logged on, McIntire said he found an archives of previous postings that he thinks the group members were unaware existed.

"The thing that shocked me in particular was that Diane Pratt, who was an RLA board member, was a member of the e-group," he said. "Obviously she was considered a confidant. Thatís a terrible conflict of interest in my mind."

Pratt said she sees no conflict of interest because the RLA had already selected Tivoli Partners as the developer before the e-mail group was formed. However, the developers still had business before the board because, while Tivoli Partners had been selected, they were still negotiating the Exclusive Rights Agreements which were not signed until Dec. 16. Pratt contributed to the discussion in early November, giving her suggestions to them about what to include in a fact sheet they were preparing for distribution to the neighborhood and the media.

"When we selected the developers, we very strongly recommended that they get a good PR person and do community outreach," Pratt said. She said the board had always been willing to work with the developers on their community outreach.

"We (the RLA) want to work with the development teams," Pratt said. "We want to see this thing happen."

In more than 100 e-mail messages McIntire copied from the groupís archives and posted on his own Web site at www.innercity.org/tivoligroup/, the Tivoli Partners described strategies for trying to sway public opinion away from resident-supported desires to see the historic Tivoli Theater restored as performance space.

Tivoli Partners originally submitted plans that called for restoring only the façade and lobby of the theater and turning the rest into retail space and attaching a Giant Food store to it.

An April 12 posting by Robinson reads, "A strategy we are working on during this interim period is to help Tivoli Partners gain credibility with the preservation community. To this end, we're working with Joseph (Horning) on a media advisory to update the community about Horning Brothers/Tivoli Partners' efforts to include historic architects and conservators in the planning and development of the Tivoli retail center. We want to convey that Tivoli Partners is concerned about preservation in the planning of the retail center. The media advisory is designed to soften the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) and to impress upon the HPRB that highly respected preservationists agree that the Tivoli is in a decrepit state with much of its historic fabric gone and that it would need to be entirely rebuilt. We want the HPRB to understand that the plan that Tivoli Partners will unveil is the only reasonable plan."

A press release issued three weeks later trumpeted Tivoli Partnersí hiring of historic architects, conservators and art appraisers, but made no mention of their judgment that the theater needed to be entirely rebuilt.

"The big question in their mind was not whether the neighborhood cared, but rather how to push their plan to façade-omize this building," McIntire said.

Horning Brothers, Giant Food, Fort Lincoln Realty and the Development Corp. of Columbia Heights are collectively known as Tivoli Partners for this project.

In addition to Pratt, Moore and Robinson, the private e-mail group included developer Joseph Horning III, his lawyer Phil Feola, Giant Foods executive Barry Sher, Giantís Director of Real Estate Mike Bush, and Fort Lincoln President Michele Hagans.

Robinson said she has contacted a lawyer to see whether it is feasible to sue McIntire for re-posting the groupís correspondences. She said she would pursue any copyright infringements of her "intellectual property," saying he had joined the group under false pretenses.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator