When community meetings go sour

Southwest D.C. — ever heard of it? It isn’t a much-visited part of the city because, well, there’re not many places to visit.

Southwest D.C. — ever heard of it? It isn’t a much-visited part of the city because, well, there’re not many places to visit.

The Waterside Mall should be an attraction, but it’s mostly vacant right now. All it has is a few essentials — a Safeway, a CVS, a Bank of America and a dry cleaner. Everything else is boarded up, and there’s a big chain-link fence around the building. The developers in charge — Waterfront Associates — have sort of let the mall rot in anticipation of turning it into mixed-use high-rises. At an Oct. 11 community meeting at the public school across the street, they made PowerPoint presentations about their latest plans.

The architect, Shalom Baranes, went on and on about open space, decorative paving, the transparency of glass-and-steel designs, and the “richness” and “depth” of it all. “Terracotta comes in 35, 40 different colors,” he gushed. The community was patient.

A representative of the developers mentioned plans for possibly relocating the Safeway and the CVS. The community began to grumble.

Then it was Jennifer Budoff, development manager from the National Capital Revitalization Corporation (NCRC), the quasi-public entity that owns the land beneath the buildings. She mentioned what a great deal they’d get in retaining less than two acres of the site and letting the developers take the rest. This would happen after extinguishing the NCRC’s decades-old lease, which mandates the land be used for public good but undervalues it significantly.

Budoff says the less-than-two-acres are worth between $22 million and $30 million based on comparative sales near the baseball stadium — my God! What’s the rest of it worth? Why are the developers getting all that? Before these doozeys could sink in, Budoff threatened that the developers can do whatever they want and are under no contractual obligation to build anything at all, as if to remind everyone this whole “town meeting” thing was a charade.

After Budoff, a public relations man from Safeway, distributed photocopies of a trade magazine and gave an utterly bewildering and irrelevant presentation about how other Safeway sites have wood floors and bake their bread from scratch.

Then it was time for the community to talk. I might paraphrase a large part of the discussion like this: “Who do you think you are and what the hell are you going to do to our goddamn supermarket?”

There were a few supporters, but for the most part neighbors gave the developers an earful about traffic, the length of the construction project, the size of the buildings, and the potential loss of amenities. The Safeway is the only grocery store in the quadrant.

One woman said, “Have you even thought about this?”

On Oct. 16, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) voted unanimously to oppose the deal.

“I’m wary that such significant district assets are being transferred to big-board corporate entities for very little in return,” says ANC chairman Andy Litsky.

Overcoming Capitol Hill’s Iron Curtain

There are two fronts in the yuppie assault on the Ward 6 part of Southeast Washington. This west-of-the-river area has traditionally been a nice neighborhood fortified by grim, frightening blight. If recent developments continue as planned, though, it will turn into — one big nice neighborhood! 

The major front, as everybody knows, is the new baseball stadium at M Street and South Capitol Street S.E.  The crane-filled construction pit at the stadium site has spawned many lesser construction projects throughout the waterfront area. Abandoned buildings are turning into empty lots, which in turn are becoming monstrous yuppie towers. The sickening dust of progress fills the air!

The lesser-known front is the Southeast freeway, Interstate 695. This elevated thoroughfare has long been the barrier between historic Capitol Hill and not-so-historic, not-so-well-off part of Southeast D.C. On one side you have shiny, well-kept townhouses. On the other you have grit. The freeway is a case study in horrible urban planning.

Up on 8th Street, the Capitol Hill Historic District has a two-block foothold on the rough side of the freeway, and 8th Street itself is one of the city’s major revitalization successes. It used to be that you could only call it a “corridor.” These days it’s safe for restaurants and pet stores. But the yuppies coming to the new bars like Finn MacCool’s and the Ugly Mug generally don’t want to walk under the overpass to see what’s happening on the waterfront end. It smells like pee under there.

“There’s always trouble under the freeway,” says Bill McLeod, executive director of Barracks Row Main Street, the organization charged with transforming the corridor into a strip. “There’s a homeless guy living under there right now. About a year ago, somebody set a car on fire.”

So Barracks Row Main Street applied for a $260,000 grant to build a mural at the base of the freeway and got it. The mural is going to be a kind of “tromp l’oeil” nature scene that will blend in with nearby green space.

Painting a mural under the overpass is a proven method for improving things on the bad end. There’s a mural in the abstract style of Piet Mondrian under the freeway on 6th Street, and some nice-looking townhouse facades have indeed popped up just on the other side on a long-desolate lot.

Murals are good for now; ultimately, though, the stinking freeway will have to come down.

Pandering to the electorate

An Oklahoma judge last week issued a preliminary injunction against a law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors.

At the end of August, a federal judge in Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction against a similar law — this just after the state of Illinois was ordered to pay over $500,000 in attorney fees to the video-game industry after having its own restriction on video games ruled to be unconstitutional. Judges have shot down these laws nine times in the last five years, finding that video games are protected by the First Amendment.

That hasn’t stopped the D.C. Council from plodding ahead with its own attempt to restrict video-game sales with its “Youth Protection from Obscene Video Games Act.” The bill is pending before the committee on the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

The measure, sponsored principally by Councilmember and likely mayor Adrian Fenty, gives the weight of law to video-game ratings by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which suggests which games are appropriate for which age groups. If the legislation passes, a business could be fined up to $10,000 for selling games with mature content to people under 17. And a parent who buys his or her 16-year-old child any game in the “Grand Theft Auto” series, for example, could be fined $1,000.

At a hearing last year, Fenty pooh-poohed a letter from the Attorney General’s office warning that this kind of legislation gets knocked down for being unconstitutional all the time. Fenty insisted that his bill is narrower than others.

“I’m ready, willing, and able to pass this legislation and let the courts decide whether or not the video-game industry should be held to the same standard they’ve already agreed to,” Fenty said at the hearing. His legislation has the support of several community groups.

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) is the video-game industry’s powerhouse lobbying group responsible for beating back these laws across the country. They’ve had people at D.C. Council hearings on the bill, most recently in September, but declined to comment for this story (as did Fenty). If the ESA decides to sue, it could be that Fenty is ready, willing, and able to cost D.C. taxpayers a fortune in attorney fees.