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Graham becomes target of Columbia Hts. discontents

(Published December 13, 1999)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham is becoming the target of disgruntled Columbia Heights residents on both sides of the fight over who should win development rights to long-vacant city-owned parcels along the 14th Street NW corridor.

While Graham maintains he has been acting to avert "gridlock and paralysis" in the community’s development, neighborhood residents have expressed dissatisfaction over what many have seen as their councilman’s initial timidity to take a stand and subsequent waffling on the issue.

Now, one advisory neighborhood commissioner is vowing to lead a recall campaign against Graham for proposing emergency legislation – passed Dec. 7 by city council – that could overturn the independent Redevelopment Land Agency’s Sept. 9 development decision that Graham defended. The legislation hands ultimate authority over the development decision to Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who was expected to veto the bill, and the D.C. City Council.

"This is a violation of his role as a public servant," Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Valerie Sigwalt said at a gathering at the Tivoli Theatre Dec. 9. She vowed to immediately start a recall campaign against Graham, who represents Columbia Heights.

Sigwalt’s efforts to start recall proceedings against Graham would not be able to start until after the first of the year. By law, recall proceedings cannot be started during the first or last year of a councilman’s term.

Sigwalt called the emergency bill "an outrage" and accused Graham of acting "in a serpentine manner" by sponsoring the legislation.

Since the RLA’s September decision, there has been discontent concerning Graham’s handling of the situation expressed from both sides of the debate.

The RLA voted to grant development rights to Grid Properties and Horning Brothers to build on two parcels in the neighborhood. A competing proposal by Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises would have built on four of the six available sites.

The decision touched off angry protests by Forest City proponents who felt the decision was a product of political cronyism. The dispute has polarized the neighborhood and activists throughout the city into two camps — the pro-Forest City camp and the pro-Grid/Horning camp.

Graham said he has struggled within the framework of the RLA’s decision to try to find compromises that would allow the development to go forward.

"I’m much more an ally of theirs than they realize," Graham said of the Grid/Horning supporters.

Graham and the mayor’s office put together an assessment process in November to try to figure out if there was any way to resolve the community differences. The two mediators, who together were paid $25,000, held two meetings with a select group of people involved in the project and some residents but failed to find any room for resolution.

"The assessment basically told us that there was no common ground" between the two factions, Graham said.

Meanwhile, development of the Tivoli site was struck a blow when an official for Giant Foods, which is slated to build a supermarket on the Tivoli site with Horning Brothers, said the supermarket chain would have to re-examine whether to continue with the project in light of the council’s legislation.

"We are definitely going to take a long and hard look at the project," Giant spokesman Barry Scher said. "This legislation sends a very negative message to companies like Giant who want to develop in the city."

Without Giant’s financial backing, the entire Tivoli project could be put in jeopardy. Giant was to have put up most of the money for Horning Brothers to develop the site, which also would include retail space and a townhouse development.

Councilman David Catania, R-At large, authored the bill that would give the mayor the authority to review, change or re-award any development rights granted by the RLA. The mayor would forward any rights agreements to the city council, which would have the power to vote yes or no on the deals.

Mayor Williams urged the council not to act on the bill saying, "we have a process of assessment in place. I believe that changing the process mid-stream does not send a good message to the community."

A mayoral spokesman said Williams will veto the bill when it crosses his desk.

"The message I think he sends by vetoing is, ‘Look I don’t care about Columbia Heights, I don’t think I am very well suited to crafting development plans for the city,’" Catania said.

He said he introduced the bill as a way of opening up the RLA selection process to public scrutiny and to give the public a chance to comment on proposed developments. He called the current process "flawed."

"It is supportable to change the system if it changes it for the better," Catania said. "Good, honest developers want to know that the process is fair and open."

Some supporters of the failed Forest City proposal viewed the council vote with cautious optimism.

"That fact that so many (council) members voted for the legislation shows that it’s not just a Ward 1 issue -- it’s a citywide issue," Columbia Heights activist Dorothy Brizill said. "Hopefully now the mayor will realize that he has to negotiate a deal that’s good for Columbia Heights."

But those who thought the RLA’s decision was one of the final steps in the almost two-year development process felt the council as a whole, and Graham in particular, had hijacked the process for their own agendas.

"We’re not sure why the council member is moving against the community," Sharon Robinson, a public relations person hired by Tivoli Partners, said after the vote. "Graham thinks they won and Catania thinks they won, but they’ve made all of us lose."

The council declared an emergency by an 11-2 vote, paving the way for the emergency legislation to be introduced. The bill passed by an 8-4 vote, with Councilwoman Carol Schwartz, R-At large, voting simply "present." Her vote is most likely the crucial swing vote that will be needed if the bill is vetoed as expected. The council would need a two-thirds majority, or nine votes, to override a mayoral veto.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator