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Columbia Hts. residents fight to overturn RLA vote

(Published October 18, 1999)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

The years-long effort to bring development to the riot-scarred neighborhood around the new Metro station in Columbia Heights seems far from over. Community activists are already preparing to fight the Redevelopment Land Agency’s Sept. 9 decision to award development rights to Grid Properties and Horning Brothers.

The Columbia Heights Neighborhood Coalition, headed by longtime activist Dorothy Brizill, filed a petition with the D.C. Court of Appeals Oct. 12 seeking a review of the RLA’s decision. The petition asserts that the RLA ignored the neighborhood plan developed in 1997 and 1998 during a charrette process and that the board also ignored public testimony which "overwhelmingly favored" a competing bid submitted by Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises.

Gary Imhoff, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the area, said the coalition is not an advocacy group for Forest City.

"The coalition advocates the principals of the charrette and the kind of development that is required by the charrette," Imhoff said. "If Grid and Horning had come in and said, ‘That’s what we want to do,’ we’d be for them."

Because of the RLA’s unique status in the D.C. government, neither the mayor nor the city council has review powers over the agency’s decisions. Only the control board, which has oversight on all city contracts, can review decisions made by the board. Chairman Alice Rivlin told The Common Denominator the control board is planning to review the RLA’s decision.

Another neighborhood group is also gearing up to battle the development.

Save the Tivoli is readying to fight for the preservation of the theater, which has long been the focus of the development planning process. The group previously battled millionaire businessman Herbert Haft’s attempt to demolish the Tivoli when his company held the development rights to the tract.

Eric Graye, president of the theater preservation group, said the D.C.-based Horning Brothers’ plan to turn the Tivoli into retail space and a Giant supermarket would require demolishing many aspects of the theater that have historic designation.

"We’re almost virtually put back in the same position we were back then and I think that’s quite frankly appalling," Graye said.

Graye said he met with representatives from Giant Sept. 29 and was told that there was no way a performance space in the Tivoli could be built while retaining the supermarket and retail shops plan.

"In terms of fighting this, we clearly have the moral high ground," Graye said. "This development plan, in many ways, runs counter to what the neighborhood wants."

One of the major provisions of the comprehensive neighborhood plan developed during the 1997-98 charrette is that the Tivoli be restored and turned into a performance space and community theater.

Graye said because the Tivoli has both local and national historic status, the project would have to go through two different levels of historic review. He said his group is planning to oppose Horning Bothers’ plans at both the local and national level.

"With this plan they have us as a very strong opponent," Graye said, "and that’s going to slow things down a lot."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator