Standing on the edge of the long-awaited CityCenterDC real estate project, D.C. Council member Jack Evans joked that he had met with George Washington and Pierre L'Enfant to "talk to them about how to get this done."
An investor from the oil-rich nation of Qatar stepped in to fund the project over "skittish" American lenders two years ago to redevelop the empty lot that was once the site of the old Washington Convention Center.
So it's no wonder why Mayor Vincent C. Gray and other city officials were eager to grab the golden shovels Monday, breaking ground on the $700 million project intended to bring retail, apartments and office space that represents what the mayor called the "last big piece of the puzzle for downtown Washington."
Mr. Gray was joined by a diverse group of city officials, ambassadors and Middle Eastern investors inside a greenhouse-like shelter that housed a swanky ceremony with iced drinks, a jazz ensemble and a rousing drumline from Eastern High School in Northeast.
City officials said the Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company, tied to the sovereign wealth fund of the tiny Arab nation, supplied a sizable portion of the equity needed to fund construction on the 4.5-block parcel bounded by New York Avenue and 9th, H and 11th streets, NW.
Qatar's Barwa Bank put the funding in place. Its vice chairman and manager director, Mohammed Al Saad, said the investors were looking to enter the U.S. market and "zoomed in" on the District as a good place to start.
Qatari Diar CEO Mohammed Al Hedfa said his company is respectful of local traditions and history and considers the D.C. project as one of the most important in its $60 billion portfolio.
Real estate investment group Hines and Archstone took the lead on the project. They found the Qatari investigators because American lenders were especially reluctant to release funds two years ago, Hines and Archstone CEO Scot Sellers said.
"We were looking globally for capital," he said.
The site has been mostly vacant since the former Washington Convention Center was demolished in 2004. The 10-acre lot has served as a downtown parking area, and each year since 2008 has been home of a temporary stadium hosting the Washington Kastles of the World TeamTennis Pro League.
City officials described the project as a way to tie the downtown area together through shops, restaurants and pedestrian-friendly space in the vein of nearby Gallery Place.
After about a decade of planning, Mr. Gray said construction workers actually broke ground about 10 days ago on the project.
"I can understand the zeal to start moving the dirt," he said.
Mr. Gray has touted the project in his recent public comments, saying it is "believed to be the largest downtown development currently under way in any U.S. city."
In his State of the District address last week, he said the project will create 1,700 construction jobs and 3,700 permanent jobs. He also estimated $29.8 million in annual tax revenue, $112 million in retail annual sales and $9.4 million in retail tax revenue.
Mr. Evans said the project will generate money for the District as a living, breathing downtown in lieu of a "crystal city" of office space.
"What do we need? We need tax dollars," Mr. Evans told the audience. "We are collecting tax dollars as of today."
His comments come days after he criticized the mayor's fiscal year 2012 budget plan, which includes new taxes or tax increases on the wealthy, on parking garages, on live theater tickets and on products like alcohol and cigarettes.
"At times we're business-friendly," Mr. Evans said in an interview, "and at times we're not."
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