Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Notes From Closed Meeting RE: New Town

These are my condensed very unofficial personal notes from the meeting. I just tried to capture the highlights and overall tone. I also have included my comments in italics. Nothing is verbatim unless it says otherwise. This was a closed meeting for the developers, landowners, and merchants, but commissioners from ANC 5B were also invited. As you can see the topic was the Capital City Market/Florida Market and the New Town proposal. You can find lots of other info on this by searching this blog for the words NEW TOWN. You can also check out the link just above to the Capital City Market blog to read articles from elsewhere. Here's an old Post piece from late 2006 that offers a bit of history.

Harry Thomas Jr. [Ward 5 Councilmember]- Expressed his dislike for eminent domain.

Paul Pascal [represents the Florida Avenue Market Merchants and Property Owners Association]- What about the Washington Business Journal article that is currently online and comes out in Friday's print edition? Why does it mention eminent domain [Thomas was interviewed for the article]?

Thomas- We [the Council] never tried to institute eminent domain and have never tried to force anyone into agreement by clamping down on zoning or other violations in the Market. [The legislation did include eminent domain language and the District has ramped up various enforcement efforts in the Market. I attended a 5-D CAC, 5th District Citizens Advisory Council, meeting where a rep from the Mayor's office discussed such ramped up enforcement and showed pictures of dumpsters and trash in drainage grates and advised people not to shop in or go to the Market because it was dirty and unsafe. She was unable to identify the locations where the photos were taken and when challenged that many merchants were not in violation, there are hundreds of merchants, conceded that one or two might be in compliance.]

Thomas' comments also seemed to indicate that rather than resume the Office of Planning's Small Area Plan, which is a great tool for community input and information sharing, this new plan, which differs in a very significant way from the old legislation, would simply go to the Council for approval. This differs notably from what ANC 5B's counsel had previously been told by both a representative from the Office of the Deputy Mayor and a representative from the Office of Planning. These two representatives indicated that the Small Area Plan would resume, be completed [perhaps in September], and then that could be used as a guidepost for the development legislation.

Pascal- I've been kept out of many discussions. Merchants and landowners haven't been included. Is District owned land part of the 50 percent required for approval [DC is a large landowner in the 24 acre Market]?

Thomas- Yes, District owned land will be included in the 50 percent. Pascal has been included in all government sponsored meetings [Pascal had previously indicated that he received no notice of this government sponsored meeting]. We must act now because funds are limited. We must look at DC's bond rating because that will limit how long funds are available. All ANCs in Ward 5 are on record as supporting New Town [actually ANC 5B is on record, per a letter sent to all Councilmembers, and to which Councilmember Thomas responded, as opposing New Town. It's just that this was a change in the ANC's position]. The New Town legislation is not expired because there is a difference between the temporary legislation and the permanent legislation [both contained David Catania's 180 day language so the latest possible expiration was in October of 2007. Plus, removing the land owned by Gallaudet and J Street materially changes the legislation, so this would be new legislation. It's either expired or not, you can't just change it and say it's the old legislation, but certain provisions now don't apply. Plus, should we really spend limited District funds on a developer with no previous development experience].

Landowner- I haven't heard anything for over a year, and that's a long time. Pascal who reps the landowners and merchants association didn't get notice of this meeting. How many land owners here feel they haven't been informed or included in the process? [Many hands are raised].

Thomas makes a frustrated reference to a slowdown due to a group that got ANC 6C involved.

Merchant or Landowner- Will you be using eminent domain?

Thomas- I haven't sought it, but it can't be ruled out. It might come from the executive branch.

Landowner- I'm concerned about eminent domain and not being included in discussions [not contacted by the city/New Town developer].

Jim Simmons [Apollo Development, a NY based firm that is partnering with Choi, the new town developer and its rep John Ray- There are many different owners in the Market. The time frame made it impossible to talk to them all. We talked to the largest owners first. We tried to include landowners. We will eventually talk to them all. The creature itself is a creation of the Act. It has been discussed with the Office of Planning, the Executive branch, and the Developer. We have met with 15 landowners [there are around 70].

Landowner- This violates due process, and is therefore Unconstitutional.

Simmons- This is a public/private partnership and the process has therefore been bifurcated with the developer just promising to develop, and the legislative branch drawing up the plan.

Landowner- This shows disdain for landowners and merchants. You are treating us like children.

Thomas- This is the legislative process. We passed the legislation.

Landowner- The Market isn't blighted. We're at 100 percent occupancy with others waiting to get in. It isn't hard to rent out space in the Market. It's a thriving business community.

Thomas- the Market is full of violations of all sorts. Everyday the District protects and helps the Market by not going in there to inspect. This legislation could be our last chance to save the Market. Look at Eastern Market. The District didn't maintain it and look what happened to it [Part of Eastern Market burned down. It has since been replaced with a bustling temporary building and the District is renovating the original building. Interestingly Eastern Market was almost torn down in the 1960s to become a parking lot, but this was averted due to community pressure].

Landowner [Ms. Pascal]- The Market is safer and cleaner than it was in 1955 when I brought my husband into the Market [Ms. Pascal is a second generation landowner in the Market]. At that point we actually had livestock, like living chickens and such, in the Market. I didn't see a copy of the plan until it was in its second iteration. This is railroading. Apollo should apologize to the merchants and landowners.

Thomas- There is always disagreement. We need to look at large landowners first for feasibility reasons. I'd be willing to have weekly meetings out of my office.

Fred Weiner [Special Asst to the President for Planning for Gallaudet University]- I see frustration because people don't see a way to get involved. Would you accept alternative ideas if stakeholders submitted them?

Thomas- Fred, I've met with you I don't know how many times. We don't have time to wait for Gallaudet because of the economy. We could accept submissions of alternative ideas.

Simmons- There is some misunderstanding here. There was a plan in place when Apollo came to the table. The plan came from the legislation. We merely inherited it. [Everything in the findings section of the legislation is non-binding and it clearly states it merely provides ideas for negotiation].

Pascal- This is the first time post-legislation that the plans have been laid out. The original New Town developer, Choi, and John Ray basically drafted the legislation. The Association is merely a conduit for distributing information. I don't represent any of the merchants or landowners personally.

Landowner- asks Simmons how much support among landowners they have for the project.

Simmons- Around 40 percent of the landowners if you exclude the land owned by Gallaudet and J Street, but include the land owned by the District. We can't say which landowners without their permission because we had them all sign confidentiality agreements by which both sides are bound.

Pascal- This is not the same legislation as the passed New Town Act because it doesn't include Gallaudet's land, or that owned by J Street, and that materially changes the legislation.

Thomas- J Street came to the table late. Gallaudet and J Street can still participate, or not participate. Their land just won't be part of the 50 percent necessary for approval.

Brady Pate [Representative of development team J Street and EHA]- We've been told that the Act is expired.

Thomas- My office never told you the act was expired. The government never told you the act was expired [I'm currently looking at a July 2007 letter from the then Attorney General for DC stating that the temporary legislation, which I believe was passed at the same time as the permanent legislation, would expire in October of 2007. This would be the same for the permanent legislation because the expiration was dictated by an internal 180 day clause].

Landowner- Would it be possible for a coalition of landowners, if the land was large enough, to be excluded from the Act like you've excluded J Street and Gallaudet if we didn't want to do anything with our land?

Thomas- So what does that mean when you say you don't want to do anything with your land? So you are saying you just want to leave it...

Landowner- No, I meant not be part of this plan. Do our own thing.

Thomas- No, not feasible.

Landowner- This is discrimination. This is a sham.

John Ray [agent for New Town developer Choi who is partnered with Apollo]- Apollo did not create this plan. DC wants housing. It wants 20 percent affordable housing here [Harry Thomas' website says the development will include between 20 and 40 percent affordable house. I think the original Act called for a minimum of percent affordable housing, and a goal of 40 percent]. DC wants a YMCA [a potential inclusion in New Town]. The City came up with the plan. We need a zoning change. Your taxes just came in higher, and J Street got involved, out of anticipation of this plan. Pascal met with me early on and he told me he would organize the merchants and landowners. We thought he was your agent. You could have come to the Small Area Plan meetings at Gallaudet earlier [Choi/Ray/Apollo successfully requested that the Small Area Plan be paused, thus rendering it totally ineffective if it is never completed. Even if the Small Area Plan is completed it only becomes binding if approved by the Council]. The 180 days clause was always meaningless because there is no penalty specified for violating the expiration time limit. This Act always had to come back to the Council for approval. [Actually the Act created a grant of administrative power that lapsed when the 180 days ended]. The Council has the power to change all of it at any time. The Council laid out the plans. You will benefit when your property values rise, but your property has to be changed from a warehouse.

Thomas- Look at other developments and TIF [Tax Increment Financing] funds. Look at 14th Street. You aren't seeing the opportunity. [Another good, but unmentioned, option would be to utilize Community Development Block Grants for existing merchants to fix up their own places, while also allowing new development in the Market].

Weiner- We've been in conversations with a lot of people. We intend to work with everyone, the city, the other developers, the landowners, the merchants, the Office of Planning, and the residents with, or without, the legislation. The New Town legislation shouldn't exclude land owned by Gallaudet and J Street.

Alexander Chae [represents an Asian merchants association]- I sampled merchants just before this meeting, and that's why I came in late. The legislation should include J Street and Gallaudet. 30 percent were very interested in the New Town idea. 70 percent would look at other considerations such as the economy, nearby construction, and taxes. 20 percent of the 70 percent would support the idea of New Town if their concerns were adequately addressed.

Thomas- The exclusive development rights proposed under New Town would include a provision stabilizing merchant rents for 2 years. We need a continuing flow of revenue for these businesses to survive and that is only possible with large scale development by 1, or a few parties because of the number of violations in the Market. We go in there and we'll have to start shutting people down until they comply. We talking about people not conducting business for at least a year if things are done right and these places would go out of business.

Landowner [Ms. Pascal]- We're not like 14th Street. 14th Street was destroyed and mostly burned to the ground in the 1968 riots. We're not looking at a place where you can just come in and rebuild from vacant lots. We are talking about thriving businesses here.

Thomas- We don't want this to be about national chains. This is about local merchants. Read the legislation.

Simmons- It is very difficult, at least I'm told, to stage a PUD [Planned Unit Development] process. You've got to do it all at once, not piecemeal. Any rezoning can only increase your land value. We've already been told that the buildings are historic, so we'll have to preserve them [although the Office of Planning did refer to many Market structures as historic, none have been officially designated as such, and they are thus not protected. The language in the New Town Act acknowledges that the structures are historic, but only requires them to be preserved if the developer and the Office of Planning find it to be impractical. That's not a high bar, and I'd say the commitment from Apollo/Choi/Ray is dubious considering that the partnered on the adjacent Gateway Market Residences and they demolished an identical historic building in the process].

Some other comments did follow, but they basically repeated what is related above.

I have made some changes to the post above. Most were typos, or adding links to explain certain terms. A few added context or clarified, but a couple were substantive. I went back and verified the original language about affordable housing [20 percent minimum with a goal of 40 percent], and the language regarding the historic preservation was IMPRACTICAL, not INFEASIBLE. Otherwise things are pretty much the same. Also, Harry Thomas' YES was in answer to the question of whether DC owned land would be included in the 50 percent required for approval.

I've just been told the Small Area Plan is going to be restarted, which is great news. I guess I misinterpreted Councilmember Thomas' comments on that issue. The Small Area Plan is very important, and it's a great way to keep everyone involved and informed. The Small Area Plan is not about New Town, but is rather a parallel feasibility study of the Market and its various potential uses. Once completed, aspects of the Small Area Plan can be used to guide the development process.


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