Speaking Up Pays Off on Capitol Hill

Posted August 10, 2007 at 3:56pm

By reconsidering the move of several police branches to a large Southeast building, D.C. officials seem to have taken the advice of the planners, lawyers and government employees that make up the Capitol Hill community.

It’s not the first time. With billions of dollars of development planned for the Capitol Hill area, city officials often hold widely attended meetings to vet their plans with the public. And in the past few months — either by chance or by design — many ideas from residents made it into city projects. Plans for the Old Naval Hospital, the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium and the Metropolitan Police Department all changed after a large outcry from the community.

“Well-considered comments from community individuals and organizations I think have a lot of weight,” said Richard Wolf, president of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, “and that’s in my opinion a very good manifestation of grass-roots activity and involvement.”

On July 18, dozens of residents attended a meeting on a plan to move seven Metropolitan Police Department branches into an old Washington Post printing plant at 225 Virginia Ave. SE. Most criticized the move, arguing that parking and traffic problems would make it impossible. It was the first time the Office of Property Management had presented the plan to the community, and many questioned whether the MPD move was already a done deal. But at the time, OPM Director Lars Etzkorn admitted that he hadn’t even considered some of the problems and concerns residents cited.

“On any number of counts, this deal had been done in a very slipshod manner,” said local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Andy Litsky, who went to the meeting.

That’s because the city has no overarching plan for when and where government agencies can build and expand, Wolf said. Often, city officials fail to see the big picture and end up learning about the problems at community meetings.

“I think OPM needed to go back and be more thoughtful about this,” he said, later adding: “This is probably a good building for various needs, but they’re stuffing it with everything and that is something in my opinion that is unplanned.”

OPM seems ready to drop the plan and reconsider uses for the Post plant, after releasing a press release on Wednesday that called the MPD move too expensive. And although the office of Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) claims that nothing has been decided, Litsky said he’s glad the community’s ideas were taken into consideration.

“The mayor and his people have really more than stepped up to the plate in recognizing what needs to be done in the city,” he said.

Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells (D) also is pleased. He organized the July meeting on the MPD move and met with City Administrator Dan Tangherlini soon after. At that point, he said, Tangherlini reported that OPM was “reconsidering” its plans for the Post plant. A couple of weeks later, he heard they had trashed the plan altogether.

“I thought the community brought up a lot of very good concerns,” Wells said, adding that officials didn’t think to resolve some important issues. “They did not have a plan to be able to deal with vehicles, and this is one of those government functions that really depends on vehicles.”

OPM also backtracked after releasing a proposal to develop the Old Naval Hospital, a historic and dilapidated building on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast that the city has been trying to renovate for years. After dozens of residents showed up at an ANC meeting to protest the plans, Etzkorn immediately extended the comment period until the end of August. And recently, city officials halted plans to rezone the upcoming Canal Park in Southeast for parking after residents’ complained. Officials claimed they didn’t realize the park was included in their parking plans.

“We certainly pay close attention to any comments we receive,” OPM spokesman Bill Rice said. “We try very hard not to dismiss anything out of hand and think of everything.”

But Wolf said the problem is that the city doesn’t think through many of its plans before it comes to the community. In the case of the MPD move, the D.C. Council approved the lease for the Post plant in December, and now the city’s on the hook for $6 million a year. Although many agree that such a big building is a good acquisition for the government, it is unclear how it will be used if it doesn’t house MPD.

“It takes planning,” Wolf said. “You have to think through things in a fairly studied manner. You can’t make a decision off the top of your head.”