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Camp Simms rights pulled

Deputy mayor wants bids to develop site

(Published October 9, 2000)


Staff Writer

City officials have halted a local minority-owned firm’s five-year exclusive right to market the former Camp Simms National Guard site for retail development in Southeast Washington’s Ward 8, saying they see insufficient progress and are being courted by several other developers with an interest in the site.

But developer Kevin Williams said a recent surge in new housing developments near the site – bounded by Alabama Avenue, Stanton Road, Mississippi Avenue and 15th Street and within walking distance of the soon-to-be-opened Congress Heights Metro station – has finally spurred serious interest by major retailers and financing companies, which he says are nearing commitments to become part of the Congress Heights New Town Centre project his Dominion Development Corp. wants to build.

And several Ward 8 activists, who have been protesting the city’s lack of progress in attracting a supermarket to replace a Safeway that closed two years ago, say they are worried that changing site developers now will only further delay efforts to bring national and regional retail stores to one of the city’s most under-served areas.

"Some city officials don’t feel the people of Ward 8 deserve what we stand for...that is the issue," Williams said in brief comments during a community meeting Oct. 2 that drew about 50 residents who all said they wanted to see retail development on the long-abandoned 25-acre site.

City officials, citing the District’s Comprehensive Plan, say they want mixed-use development of the Camp Simms site, with townhouses constructed along Mississippi Avenue. Dominion is proposing retail development only for the tiered-elevation site.

Giant Food Inc. has been in negotiations for at least several weeks with Dominion and its development partner for the past year, Manekin, a well-known and respected Maryland real estate company which has previously built Giant supermarkets. Manekin President and CEO Richard Alter told community members at the meeting that he and Williams have been "trying to get the horse back in the barn" by asking city officials to allow them to complete their deal with Giant.

A Baltimore real estate financing company that has a long relationship with Manekin last month said it is "prepared to arrange financing for the project" as soon as Dominion and Manekin can obtain a "disposition agreement with the city" for the Camp Simms site and a lease with Giant. In a Sept. 13 letter obtained by The Common Denominator, a Giant Food executive also last month said his company "look(s) forward to being part of this dynamic project."

Milton Bailey, acting director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), informed Williams in writing Sept. 27 that the city intends "in the next few days" to seek competitive bids for developing Camp Simms. The city has not yet advertised for those bids.

In an exclusive interview with The Common Denominator Oct. 5, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Eric Price acknowledged that putting the project out for bids means "a year – or maybe longer" will pass before residents would see a grocery store on the site. Price said the city has been approached by "three or four developers" he declined to identify about the Camp Simms site and has even had "separate discussions with Giant about the site," without Dominion or Manekin officials present.

"We have other developers who can put a site plan together and get it done," Price said. "This is not about Kevin Williams, Manekin or Milton (Bailey) – this is about getting the project done."

Price said the other developers already are "putting together plans. They’ve all talked to a grocery store and they’ve all talked to a housing developer. Any one of the ones I’m talking about could do it."

Ward 8 activist Linda Moody, who chairs a community group called Friends of Congress Heights New Town Centre and who conducted the Oct. 2 community meeting at which Williams and Alter spoke, and Ward 8 school board member William Lockridge, who heads the local minority contractors’ association, both alluded to more sinister motives some of the ward’s residents are attributing to the city’s decision to "pull the rug out from under" a community-based developer who appears to be on the verge of making a deal to get the Camp Simms project moving.

"The city is holding up this project – the city is playing games with this developer," Lockridge told the recent community gathering, noting that "the rules change" every time DHCD has gotten a new director – five of them in the five-year period that Dominion has been trying to market the site.

"After Hope VI came into this community, everybody all of a sudden got interested in Camp Simms," Lockridge said, noting that the $30 million Hope VI federal grant to redevelop the huge, crime-ridden but now-boarded Frederick Douglass Dwellings public housing project nearby is a pet project of the powerful nonprofit business group that calls itself the Federal City Council. The public housing project is to be replaced with mixed-income housing, similar to the redevelopment of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings on Capitol Hill.

"These people who are making these decisions have not been involved with Camp Simms – (Washington Post executive committee chairman) Katharine Graham, (Marriott CEO) Terry Golden, the Federal City Council, the National Capital Planning Commission," Lockridge said. "These individuals also want to control the commercial development now that Camp Simms is developable."

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator