Wednesday, December 2, 2009

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray voted in July to award an $86 million mixed-use development project to a company owned by a longtime friend who at the time was helping to arrange a renovation of Mr. Gray’s house and was overseeing repairs there.

The vote is at odds with Mr. Gray’s recent statement that he could “not recall” voting on matters related to William C. Smith & Co., the lead developer of the $700 million New Communities Northwest One project.

The Washington Times first reported on Nov. 18 that a construction firm owned by politically connected developer W. Christopher Smith Jr. oversaw $5,000 in repairs to Mr. Gray’s Southeast home in connection with a planned renovation that did not materialize.

Mr. Gray has vehemently defended the use of his friend’s firm this summer as appropriate. He has produced invoices dated July and August for the $5,000 in repair work and another $5,000 for architectural services to show he paid as a regular customer.

Asked about Mr. Gray’s comments about his votes on projects involving William C. Smith & Co., a spokeswoman on Tuesday reiterated that the council chairman “does not recall any” such votes.

Informed of the council record relating to the Northwest One project, the spokeswoman denied any wrongdoing but did not elaborate.

“As we have stated repeatedly, the chairman has received absolutely no favors and has done nothing improper in connection with work on his home,” Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy told The Times in an e-mail Tuesday night.

The July 31 vote, which passed in the council unanimously, was one of several votes Mr. Gray has made in connection with a development project that has a contentious history and is now headed by a developer with whom Mr. Gray has long-standing ties.

Mr. Gray has maintained a close relationship with Mr. Smith for 15 years. From 2005 to 2006, he served on the board of a nonprofit subsidiary of William C. Smith & Co., which built the arts and education complex in Southeast Washington that houses Covenant House, where Mr. Gray served as executive director from 1995 until he was elected to the council from Ward 7 in 2004.

Mr. Smith, his companies and his employees also contributed to Mr. Gray’s 2006 campaign for council chairman.

Mr. Gray’s input on Northwest One, which will replace the Northwest communities of Sursum Corda and Temple Courts with retail, community services and 1,600 units of new housing, dates to 2005, before he was elected council chairman and before William C. Smith & Co. became the lead developer.

In November 2005, Mr. Gray served on the council’s economic development committee when, according to a former lawmaker, the committee disapproved of efforts by developer KSI Services Inc. to strike a deal with Sursum Corda residents to replace their housing complex with high-rise apartments.

KSI’s agreement with the Sursum Corda residents was scuttled in July 2006 when the council, including Mr. Gray, approved the Northwest One Redevelopment Plan, which required low- to moderate-density housing instead of planned high-rise units. The council also authorized Mayor Anthony A. Williams to exercise eminent domain over private property that the city deemed essential to the project.

Later that year, Mr. Gray voted to approve the establishment of a D.C. Housing Authority subsidiary, to allow the city to transfer additional property to the eventual developer in compliance with Housing and Urban Development requirements.

William C. Smith & Co. emerged from a bidding process and was selected in December 2007 as the leader of a development team known as One Vision Development Partners.

Former council member Sharon Ambrose, chairman of the council’s economic development committee during the project’s early phases, said the company was a wise choice because Mr. Smith, the chief executive officer of William C. Smith & Co., is committed to building communities - a passion Mr. Gray shares.

“Vince knew Chris from all the work Chris had done in Wards 7 and 8, where Vince had worked as well,” Ms. Ambrose told The Times. “They definitely share a common understanding of community issues.”

As chairman of the council, Mr. Gray communicated directly with the city’s chief financial officer regarding the fiscal impact of the project. Before his July vote to approve the development deal, which included the transfer of valuable public property, Mr. Gray voted last year to approve tax relief for a health care provider as a community services component of the Northwest One project. That vote was taken after William C. Smith & Co. emerged as the winning bidder.

According to invoices released by Mr. Gray, Mr. Smith’s construction company, WCS Construction, had subcontractors beginning on July 13 develop plans to renovate Mr. Gray’s Hillcrest home and perform services including electrical wiring, painting and power washing his driveway.

The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has said that WCS and two of its subcontractors were not licensed to perform home improvements. The agency said it is “looking into” whether permits were required, and confirms that Mr. Gray has never received a permit at the house, which he has owned since 1984.

Photographs obtained by The Times show Mr. Gray’s house before it featured a large iron fence and a new garage door. He has declined to say who installed the improvements.

Ms. Ambrose said that while “it doesn’t look good,” she doubts Mr. Smith has been awarded city development deals because of his relationship with Mr. Gray. But, she added, Mr. Gray should disclose the name of the company or companies responsible for his other home improvements.

“To stonewall is just foolish,” she said. “It makes the public more suspicious.”

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