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RLA’s Columbia Hts. decision on hold as officials, developers negotiate;

new planning director decries city’s process for causing ‘train wrecks’

(Published November 1, 1999)


Staff Writer

Stung by increasing neighborhood complaints, city officials are moving to try to rectify what some city hall insiders privately acknowledge may have been a serious blunder on the part of the administration.

The Redevelopment Land Agency’s Sept. 9 decision on development rights in Columbia Heights has prompted a flood of criticism from throughout the city about the administration’s perceived lack of regard for the wishes of community residents. In the wake of the neighborhood anger and his own admitted frustration with the planning process, Mayor Anthony A. Williams is preparing to change aspects of the neighborhood planning process.

For now, the RLA has put off for at least a month signing contracts with the developers it selected and is taking a closer look at that decision.

"We tried to make a decision in an expedited manner without fully understanding the divisions in the fabric of the neighborhood," a source familiar with the RLA process said. "Now the mayor is saying ‘Put the pencils down and regroup.’"

Activists complained that in awarding the city-owned tracts to Grid/USA and Horning Brothers, the RLA disregarded a two-year planning process in which members of the community participated.

Even though the RLA is an autonomous board, three of the five members were appointed by Mayor Williams this summer, and one — Interim City Administrator Norman Dong — is a cabinet member. As a result, the decision of the board is widely viewed as a reflection of the administration’s wishes.

Since the September decision, administration officials and Councilman Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, have been working behind-the-scenes to get the two developers to agree to changes that might quell some of the tensions in the community.

"The mayor’s hope is they will try to find some middle

(See MAYOR, page 5)

ground," the source said. "What’s happening there is not pretty. The mayor is concerned that either side could tie it up in court and nothing will get built in Columbia Heights."

Graham said his is hoping to get some form of performance space at the Tivoli Theater site, which was one of the major points put forth in the neighborhood plan developed by the planning charrette.

Horning Brothers and Giant Food, however, have repeatedly stated their opposition to any performance or arts space on the site, arguing the site cannot hold both the planned supermarket and a theater.

"What we’re working to do is to try to find a way to forge a new consensus on this development to get it off the ground," Graham said.

But residents say they are being left out of the loop and criticized both Graham and the mayor for dealing only with the developers.

"You can’t forge a compromise if you refuse to talk to the community," Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Gary Imhoff said.

Imhoff and his wife, Dorothy Brizill, recently filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court asking the court to review and overturn the RLA’s decision. Brizill and Imhoff are vocal proponents of the plan put forth by Forest City Enterprises, which closely followed the outline of the community charrette.

"I’ve never lost a project and received so much positive publicity," said Mount Pleasant resident Debra Ratner-Salzberg, the Forest City executive who spearheaded the Cleveland-based company’s effort here. She said if the sites somehow became available for development again, Forest City could possibly be interested in the opportunity "if the timing were right." She said the company, which spent two years developing its proposal, has no projects in the works in the District.

Graham, however, said he is committed to working on solutions with the winning bidders and that Forest City is not part of those discussions.

"The mayor is not ignoring the neighborhoods," mayoral spokeswoman Peggy Armstrong said. "He is committed to talking to both sides on any issue and to having his staff go out and talk to the neighborhoods."

But residents of the mayor’s own neighborhood, Foggy Bottom, say he ignored their concerns when he recently urged the city council to approve $105.5 million in tax-free bonds for the American Red Cross to build a 10-story building at 2025 E St. NW. Residents around the site have been fighting the plan for years, saying the building is too big for the neighborhood, that it would block the sunlight and the views for nearby apartments and that the increased traffic would create parking nightmares. Members of the city council have been trying to work with the Red Cross and neighbors to resolve some of the issues.

"Has the mayor lost his mind? We are furious at the mayor," said Olga Corey of the Foggy Bottom Association. "There’s nobody we can talk to in that administration. The neighborhood feels betrayed. He lives down the street."

Imhoff noted Williams’ position on the bond issue as another example of the mayor’s disregard of neighborhood planning efforts.

"It’s hard to say you’re an advocate of community planning if in two communities you’re saying, ‘Stuff community planning,’" Imhoff said.

Planning Director Andrew Altman acknowledged the city is struggling with a credibility problem when it comes to neighborhood planning.

"I feel that we need to do a better job on neighborhood input in the planning process," Altman said. "We just can’t keep having these train wrecks. They’re not helping anyone."

He said the mayor has charged him with developing a stronger process for gathering and incorporating neighborhood input in the planning process.

One of the first steps in that direction is the upcoming "citizen summit" Nov. 18 and 20. The mayor’s office is inviting residents to talk with members of his administration and council members to try to work out community planning issues. He will also be announcing several new goals for his administration. Some people remain unconvinced of the mayor’s dedication, however.

"The mayor has not shown by his actions that he takes community planning very seriously," Imhoff said. "It’s going to take more than rhetoric to convince the citizens that the mayor is serious about neighborhood planning."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator