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RLA’s Columbia Hts. decision angers many

(Published September 20, 1999)


Staff Writer

The D.C. government finally made a decision on development around the new Columbia Heights Metro station Sept. 9, but community reaction to the decision was swift and forceful.

"We did not take a step forward in Columbia Heights, we took a step backward," said an angry Dorothy Brizill, who is a community activist.

Of the six parcels the Redevelopment Land Agency offered up for development, the board voted unanimously to award development rights for only two of them.

The RLA awarded the largest site, which lies on the west side of 14th Street NW between Irving Street and Park Road, to New York-based Grid Properties Inc., which proposed a shopping and entertainment complex on the site.

The RLA awarded the Tivoli theater site at 14th and Monroe Streets to Horning Brothers to build a Giant supermarket, shops and townhouses on the site.

The Development Corporation of Columbia Heights is partnered with both Grid and Horning on their projects.

Only one company, Cleveland-based Forest City, submitted proposals for any of the other parcels. Forest City proposed a large-scale development that would have built shopping, offices and a community center on four of the six city-owned sites.

The fact that the RLA chose to develop only the two largest parcels was a source of great concern to some neighborhood residents.

"You know those other parcels are like the black jelly beans in the bag," Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Lenwood Johnson said. "Nobody’s going to want them."

Many in the neighborhood considered the board’s decisions as almost a referendum on Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his administration because Williams appointed the majority of the members of the board.

ANC commissioner Lawrence Guyot, a longtime supporter of former Mayor Marion Barry, chose to support Republican candidate Carol Schwartz instead of Williams during the election, citing his distrust of the city’s former chief financial officer. But after the RLA’s decision, Guyot praised Williams and the RLA for doing "the right thing for Columbia Heights."

About 60 residents took another view of the board’s decision Sept. 11 when they picketed the mayor’s appearance at a Ward 1 picnic and a week later when many more of them protested at the opening of the Columbia Heights and Petworth Metro stations.

"The RLA has not done well by my community in the past," protest organizer Brizill said. "They had an opportunity to do something right and they screwed it up royally. The big losers are the people in my community, but the bigger losers are the Williams administration."

In 1997, the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development sponsored a community planning charrette to come up with a vision for future development in Columbia Heights. More than 300 neighborhood residents participated in developing the plans, which called for civic and community uses for the former Tivoli Theater and commercial and shopping on the south end of the area.

Because Forest City’s proposal was the only one that incorporated the ideas developed in the charrette, many observers felt that Forest City was the favorite to win the rights to the land.

"This decision sends the message that this planning process is a charade," said Gary Imhoff, Brizill’s husband.

"The RLA ignored everything that was said in the charrettes and stiffed the developer that did listen to the community," he said.

"I’m going to call the people who are organizing the charrette at McMillan Reservoir and tell them not to waste their time," Brizill said. "They’re not going to listen to you."


Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator