- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 1999

We have entered the dark world of doublespeak and disinformation. Since passage of emergency legislation giving District elected officials the opportunity to officially step into the fight over economic development in Columbia Heights, Mayor Anthony Williams, the daily newspapers and some civic leaders have performed amazing verbal acrobatics.

To recap: Earlier this year, the Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) voted to enter into exclusive-rights agreements with Grid/USA and Horning Bros./Giant to develop two out of four available parcels in Columbia Heights. The selection infuriated residents, many of whom for two years had engaged in a planning process that advocated upscale retail stores and the full restoration of the Tivoli Theater a federal historic site. A battle ensued between developers, residents and preservationists.

Shortly after the selection, Mr. Williams called the process “seriously flawed.” He and Ward 1 D.C. Council member Jim Graham tried to negotiate a compromise that would save the Tivoli, while permitting the two development projects to move forward. Those efforts initially failed.

Enter the council last week with its legislation that gives the mayor the legal authority to renegotiate the two Columbia Heights development deals, to strike a compromise with the warring factions while ensuring the city gets top-quality projects for a neighborhood ravaged by a 1968 riot, commercial disinvestment, drugs and crime. The agreement he makes must be approved or rejected within 30 days by the council.

But, the mayor the man who first acknowledged the deficiency in the process blasted the council for trying to fix what was broken. The Washington Post editorial page, as recently as Nov. 25, applauded the mayor and Mr. Graham for their efforts to seek common ground, saying, “For the sake of urban renewal in Columbia Heights, we hope they succeed.” But last week it chided the council for its actions.

The Washington Times, on Oct. 25 stated: “… even though the RLA has already had its say on the matter, the mayor, the D.C. Council and the control board can still assert themselves. The District’s leaders should consider anew the RLA’s decision and reconsider the wishes of Columbia Heights’ taxpaying residents.” Last Sunday, the paper hopped to the other side of the fence, suggesting that a performing arts center could be built on another parcel of land, rather than in the Tivoli.

“It’s just incredible,” says council member David Catania about the position switches. Mr. Catania and Mr. Graham together introduced the legislation, which was supported by six other members.

The somersaults may have been the result of heavy lobbying by developers, particularly Giant and Horning Brothers. The groups hired public relations consultants. Government sources say that members of the powerful Federal City Council (FCC) also made its views known. The FCC is like E.F. Hutton; when it speaks everyone listens.

The media and the mayor’s unofficial conspiracy to confuse citizens was awful. But the RLA’s Lawrence H. Parks took the cake. Hoping to gain greater credibility, he presented himself as a bona fide resident of the neighborhood, although he lives at 2440 16th Street NW on the west side of 16th Street which has never been called Columbia Heights. Interestingly, Mr. Parks only became a District registered voter this June actually one day before his mayoral nomination to the RLA. He has yet to vote in a city election, says an official with the D.C. Board of Elections.

According to the emergency legislation, yesterday’s RLA vote on Columbia Heights must still pass the council unless the mayor vetoes the bill. It would be unfortunate if he does. There is still a great need for the Catania/Graham legislation.

What $5 billion corporation would consider selling off its land without the involvement and approval of its CEO? But that’s what happens each year in this city. While the members of the RLA’s board are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, they operate independent of him and the legislature in deciding how publicly owned land is used. Moreover, the RLA is free to enter into exclusive rights agreement with developers, often tying up land for years at bargain-basement prices. For example, to hold onto the two valuable Columbia Heights parcels for up to three years without turning a spade of dirt, developers deposited a mere $25,000. Only when a developer needs public financing or an alley must be closed does the legislative branch and the mayor weigh in.

This current RLA process is ludicrous. It strips away responsibility and accountability from elected leaders, placing in the hands of appointed officials, with questionable credentials, important long-term financial decisions that often shape the character of a neighborhood for years. The Catania/Graham bill should be seen as only the first step toward righting an antiquated system that has no place in the 21st century. The council should proceed ahead with its reform, approving permanent legislation that doesn’t merely transfer RLA authority to another entity like the National Capital Revitalization Corporation, but places ultimate responsibility with elected officials where it belongs. This should be done regardless of the outcome in Columbia Heights and with or without the support of a reluctant mayor and the manipulated media.

Jonetta Rose Barras’ column for The Washington Times appears on Friday.

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