D.C. Revitalization Agencies Dealt Difficult Hands
Washington, D.C., is an uneven city. Some neighborhoods get the Best Buys, Starbucks and Rock Creek Parks; others are left with the polluted rivers, seedy bars and high crime rates.
And every few decades, the city or the federal government tries to revitalize those forgotten neighborhoods. Some are successful: In the 1980s, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., a federal agency, transformed the once-blighted avenue into a destination for shops and restaurants.
Now efforts are focused on neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights, Anacostia and the up-and-coming Southeast ballpark district. But how to build up these areas is a subject of dispute, and the two quasi-public agencies originally given the task are now in danger of being eliminated just a few years after they were created.
For the agencies in question — the Anacostia Waterfront Corp. and the National Capital Revitalization Corp. — it’s been a tenuous few months: Agency presidents spontaneously resigned, council members criticized budgets and the transparency of both organizations was called into question. In the next few weeks, the D.C. City Council will vote on legislation to fold the AWC and the NCRC into the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.
But are both organizations as ineffective as some critics claim?
Those who support eliminating the NCRC and the AWC inevitably point to the Southwest Waterfront deal as evidence of the organizations’ ineffectiveness. But the deal also sheds light on how the agencies work and what actions are in their grasp.
When the City Council created the AWC in 2004, it planned to give it properties along the Anacostia River, including a 47-acre piece of the Southwest Waterfront that was under the control of the NCRC. Negotiations to transfer the property took years, with NCRC and AWC officials trudging though vague legal lingo, changing administrations and several new presidents at both agencies. The D.C. Council eventually intervened, and earlier this year, Deputy Mayor Neil Albert sped up negotiations and hammered out a deal. (After AWC President Adrian Washington abruptly resigned in February, oversight of the AWC was transferred to Albert.)
But some say the agencies weren’t at fault for the slow negotiations. After all, the council passed the legislation that proved vague enough to create confusion, and each new deal meant coordination with several government entities.
The agencies simply could not negotiate the deal alone, said NCRC President Therman Baker Jr.
“The reasons for it lingering — big picture — is continuous changes of leadership both with the District government and the AWC,” he said, adding that every time a new face came on board, institutional knowledge was lost. “Bottom line: We really did not have focused attention outside of NCRC and AWC.”
When the deal closed this year, the NCRC was given the 25-acre McMillan Reservoir site, along with some other city-owned properties, in return for handing over the Southwest Waterfront to the AWC.
How They Work
Although the NCRC and the AWC are development companies, created to spur livable neighborhoods and attractive street malls, they also are part of the government. The city gave them the properties they control, and every deal not only is between the agency and a developer, but also between the agency and the executive and legislative branches. Their pace is the pace of the government — a point made by Albert, the deputy mayor and current AWC president, at a recent hearing on the bill to eliminate both organizations.
“Regardless of where the AWC turns,” he said, “they are going to be in bed with the District government.”
But some argue that the organizations still fill an important spot by keeping the District focused on projects in previously undesirable areas. The AWC must keep interest going for a 20-year effort that will span neighborhoods up and down the Anacostia River. And NCRC has spurred development on properties that were left undeveloped for years by the city, said Baker, the NCRC’s president.
“NCRC has really applied an aggressive track to negotiate deals, close deals and get projects going up,” he said.
Some council members argue that the structure needs to be changed, as evidenced by high budgets and slow projects. AWC’s fiscal 2007 budget is about $7.8 million, $4.3 million of which is salaries and benefits. Although NCRC declined to provide a line-item budget, public relations strategist Crystal Wright reported that the organization budgeted about $4.9 million for annual salaries and benefits. The NCRC makes its money through partnerships with development companies that build on city property, while the AWC still gets direct allocations from the city’s budget.
At a recent hearing on the progress of the groups, At-Large Councilman Kwame Brown lamented that the AWC payroll salary was too high. But AWC officials argued at the time that when a quasi-public agency takes on difficult development projects with private companies, the best consultants and staff are needed.
“You better have the best in the world if you want output,” AWC Executive Vice President Skip McKoy said at the hearing. “We need to get people who are committed to public service but who are skilled. It costs some money, no doubt.”
The solution, Brown said in a recent interview, may be to keep one entity for large-scale projects, while giving smaller land parcels back to the deputy mayor for planning and economic development.
Ed Johnson has a unique perspective on the flap involving the two agencies. As a resident of a marina in the once-disputed Southwest Waterfront property, he’s had both the NCRC and the AWC as landlords (NCRC handed over the swath of land to the AWC this year).
And as a former advisory neighborhood commissioner, Johnson fought to get records from the NCRC on developments in his Southwest neighborhood — a task he says was fraught with difficulties.
“NCRC was just awful. They would say ‘I’ll look into getting you something’ and wouldn’t do it,” he said. “Developers would be more open than the quasi-government agency about stuff. It was incredibly frustrating.”
To solve the problem, he went to the council with an idea: Make the NCRC and AWC follow the Freedom of Information Act.
A bill doing just that passed the council last week. Brown, who is chairman of the council’s Committee on Economic Development, said he realized the legislation was needed after NCRC initially refused to hand over some documents to the council. Although the agency eventually did give up the requested information, Brown said that the legislation ensures that these quasi-public agencies follow the law. And that in the face of being eliminated, some paper-shredding doesn’t occur.
“This is public land, public property,” he said. “It would be like no other entity if they didn’t follow [FOIA].”
But now that Johnson deals with the AWC, he said he has no problems getting information about development. Brown also said that the AWC has never refused to give information to the council.
“I probably wouldn’t have pursued this bill if I had worked with AWC from the beginning because the culture and attitude is night and day,” Johnson said. “AWC actually has reached out to us and other groups on an active basis.”
It’s one of the precarious balances of a quasi-public development agency: taking community input while also closing land deals as quickly as possible. NCRC prides itself on closing about 20 deals since it began operating in 2001; AWC, on the other hand, stresses its community-friendly programs and says that in its two-and-a-half years of operation it has laid the groundwork for a 20-year revitalization plan.
NCRC’s projects focus more on closing land deals, which range from a single store, such as the completed Duron Paints and Wallcoverings in Columbia Heights, to multi-use developments, such as the same neighborhood’s Tivoli Square. Fifteen of 20 closed deals are either completed or under construction, and a few were simply sold to developers that kept the existing building. The average time to close deals was about two years.
However, most of NCRC’s critics focus on the organization’s perceived lack of transparency. Tony Norman, chairman of the McMillan Park Committee, said he remembers showing up to a meeting where the NCRC board met in private for two hours and then held a public meeting for the less than 30 minutes it took to vote on the agenda items.
“They pretty much make decisions and then come to the community with the decision they’ve made,” he said, later adding, “They view themselves as a private organization, and that’s been our difficulty in dealing with them.”
Baker said his policy is to voluntarily follow FOIA, even before the council’s legislation made it mandatory. But he also said that FOIA includes some exceptions.
Carrie Thornhill, president of the Washington East Foundation, said she’s never had problems getting information from the NCRC. Her organization is a community partner in the development of Anacostia’s Skyland Mall, which has been criticized by Brown for its drawn-out timeline.
Every week, the NCRC gives an update on the project’s progress to the Hillcrest Civic Association, she said. And the community has been intricately involved in the development since the beginning, she said — in fact, residents were the driving force behind reworking the existing Skyland Mall, which they complained was unfriendly and inadequate.
“NCRC and the city have been very responsive to the community,” she said. “The community has really been a partner in this. … There have also been monthly meetings with NCRC, so we’re at the table with the consultants and with NCRC on a regular basis having input.”
Many residents said the same of the AWC, which holds a steady flow of community meetings on dozens of projects. Johnson points to their use of community liaisons as an example of their open policy, while NCRC only has a communications director. To him, community involvement is a integral part of revitalization.
“I see successful projects when government, private developers and the community get together and work together,” he said.
But Norman said no matter what, both agencies have outlived their use.
“Now you have a much more efficient operation” in the District government, he said. “The properties are much more valuable. You don’t have to go out and give properties away for a dollar anymore.”