Shades of urban renewal?

Mayor Anthony Williams came to the Waterside Mall last week to make a big announcement: Development is finally going to happen. The run-down, desolate buildings that should be the heart of the city’s southwestern quadrant can finally be turned into apartments and offices, with a sprinkling of ground-level retail. Always a lively showman, the mayor started things off with some “A” material.


Mayor Anthony Williams came to the Waterside Mall last week to make a big announcement: Development is finally going to happen. The run-down, desolate buildings that should be the heart of the city’s southwestern quadrant can finally be turned into apartments and offices, with a sprinkling of ground-level retail. Always a lively showman, the mayor started things off with some “A” material:

“People worried whether there would be any damage to this architectural masterpiece,” he said. The small army of reporters, developers, and local politicos chuckled obligingly.

The mall is hideous. It’s been decomposing for years under the stewardship of the National Capital Revitalization Corporation (NCRC) and Waterfront Associates. The NCRC, a kind of public corporation, owns the land, and the private Waterfront Associates own the buildings. But under the current lease, the land isn’t worth what it should be compared with other real estate in the area, particularly by the baseball stadium. So they’re ditching the lease to make a handoff.

Under the new city-approved land transfer agreement, the NCRC gets to keep a slightly-less-than-two-acre parcel worth between $22 million and $30 million. The private Waterfront Associates get all the rest, but must meet a number of terms for development set by the NCRC.

The mayor is right that people have been worried. What are the developers going to do with this big gift — will enough retail come to the neighborhood? Will Southwest’s lone supermarket stay? Residents have also wondered why the developers are being given such a valuable tract of land.

“We decided that we wanted to help the residents of the neighborhood by developing the site,” says mayoral spokesman Vince Morris in an e-mail. “We are asking the developers to shoulder a lot of the effort to revitalize this area.”

The mayor doesn’t want just to help the residents, but to attract new ones as part of his legacy project to boost the city’s population. A 2001 Brookings Institute report, which has been a blueprint for the city’s gentrification, features the NCRC in the set of policies conducive to bringing high-earning childless adults to the city. The report recommends using the corporation “to assist developers in assembling packages of land for the development of multi-unit housing” — condos.

Southwest has a wretched history of government-led “revitalization.” In the 1960s properties were seized by eminent domain, razed, and replaced with god-awful slabs of concrete. And the revitalization never happened; today there is almost no reason at all to visit the neighborhood, unless you know somebody who lives there. And if you live there, there’s almost nothing to do. A few nightclubs, the Arena Stage, and that’s it. For retail and restaurants, you’ve got to cross town. So maybe letting the developers shoulder the effort for once is a good idea.

“The whole situation is so screwed up, and it’s been screwed up from the beginning,” says Charlotte Allen, a Southwest resident for the past five years. Last year, Allen wrote a lengthy article in The Washington Post decrying the plight of the quadrant, which she mostly blames on inept governmental efforts to turn things around. She believes the handoff to private developers is probably a step in the right direction. “The alternative is that the NCRC will sit on that land forever,” she says.


Leaving us more unrepresented

By becoming mayor and council chairman, D.C. Councilmembers Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray are leaving their old constituencies behind — big time. Until special elections can be held in the spring, residents of wards 4 and 7 will not only have nobody to stick up for them in Congress, as usual, but nobody to stick up for them on the D.C. Council, either: A double-dis.

The lapse is due to a flub in the D.C. Home Rule Charter, which sadly provides no way to prevent a four-month lack of representation when a ward seat is vacated. According to Nelson Rimensnyder, who worked as a researcher for the Library of Congress and for the since-disbanded Committee on the District of Columbia, the flub is due to the inability of the House and Senate to reconcile their versions of the charter before it passed in 1973. Congress left this goof in the document figuring D.C.’s local leaders might sort it out for themselves.

Oops! Apparently 30 years wasn’t enough time for the D.C. Council to address the problem.

“The D.C. Council has not held any oversight hearings on the charter itself, and this is something the Congress really anticipated [it] would do,” Rimensnyder says. Possible solutions might have involved having the party appoint an interim representative or having the outgoing councilmember leave staff in place for constituent services.

“I plan on ensuring that all of the agencies under my control are responsive, accountable, transparent and efficient to the residents of Ward 4 and Ward 7 ... and that constituents in all 8 wards see the same high-level of ‘constituent service’ I have demanded as a Ward Councilmember,” says Fenty in a statement released from his office. The statement gives no indication that any extra measures will be taken before the special election.

In the meantime, the anarchic double-disenfranchisement has had the curious side effect of creating an opportunity for D.C. Republicans. There will be no primaries; that means D.C.’s all-powerful Democrats won’t automatically unite behind a single candidate.

“That is a reason to be more optimistic,” says Bob Kabel, chairman of the D.C. Republican Party. No announcement has been made, but Kabel says Marcus Skelton will be the GOP’s man in Ward 7. Skelton ran as a Republican candidate for an at-large seat in the November election and lost. But even though Republican support is generally very low for ward races, if there are enough other candidates and no dominant Dem, it’s conceivable that Skelton could win with as little as 15 percent.

Maybe another Republican on the Council is just the jolt the members need to fix this ridiculous problem.


New place to put bikes!

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has announced plans to build a state-of-the-art bike station on the west end of Union Station in 2008.

“It’s an idea I had when I first started working here five years ago,” says DDOT’s Jim Sebastian. Inspired by similar facilities in Europe and a handful of sites elsewhere in the U.S., the bike station will be an enclosed structure where people can lock up, rent and repair bikes.

This is good news, especially because this little spot has long been one of the worst places to lock up a bike in the entire city. Half of the spaces are taken up with the rusted parts of bikes cannibalized by thieves. And baby strollers.

“It’s a disaster. It’s a complete mess,” says Neil Glick, executive director of the nearby Shaw Eco Village bike shop. Glick plans to apply to manage the bike center as soon as DDOT puts out a request for contractors’ bids, which should happen in February.

Eric Gilliland, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, confirms that there is “probably not” a worse place to lock up a bike than the racks on the west side of Union Station. “People will lock a kitchen sink to there if they wanna get rid of it,” he says.

 

 

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