Barnett's Food Fight

On her first day as the city's chief management officer, Camille Cates Barnett rose before dawn during foul winter weather to patrol city streets with Department of Public Works (DPW) crews. Although her critics claimed that Barnett was too white, too female, and too Southern to take command of the District government, her low-to-the-ground management style quickly muted the skeptics.

Borrowing a ploy mastered by hailed Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams, Barnett even offered to quit after a year if she failed to meet certain performance goals.

Soon after her outing with DPW, though, Barnett tinkered with her job description, adding economic development czar to her management duties. In that capacity, Barnett last month sent a letter to Fresh Fields corporate headquarters in Austin, Texas, urging CEO John Mackey to remain part of a project planned for the vacant-for-decades site of the old Children's Hospital at 13th and V Streets NW.

On its face, the letter sounds like good-faith boosterism on the part of a hard-working public servant. Not really.

Instead, she's a bureaucratic bigfoot messing around in a struggle between two neighborhoods to attract the supermarket. Activists near the 13th and V site have been campaigning—via e-mail, petitions, and lobbying—since last summer to persuade Fresh Fields that they represent an ideal demographic for the upscale grocer. Residents of the 1400 block of Q Street NW, who learned about the V Street project from Internet postings, have responded by touting an underdeveloped parcel near 15th and P Streets NW, in the heart of one of the city's hottest real estate markets.

The suits from Austin apparently felt more comfortable around Dupont Circle than in Shaw and recently signed a letter of intent with property owner Jon Gerstenfeld to build a store at the 15th and P location. According to a D.C. Council staffer, Mackey chose the site after conferring with a group of African-American women, who told him they wouldn't feel safe shopping at 13th and V. Neither would D.C. financial control board vice chairman Stephen Harlan, whose car was broken into when he parked near the V Street site while attending a U Street community event.

City officials and community activists say Barnett's letter reinforced threats conveyed by D.C. officials to Fresh Fields regional president Chris Hitt. According to these sources, city regulators warned the company it would have a tough time getting the necessary permits and approvals to open a store at 15th and P. But Fresh Fields has been assured that the permit process would go much more smoothly if the store opens at 13th and V. Even though the city owns the 13th and V site and is eager to put it back on the tax rolls after a 30-year absence, District officials deny employing heavy-handed tactics to influence the chain.

Since Barnett served as city manager of Austin during the late 1980s and was familiar to Fresh Fields execs in the Texas capital, her letter was expected to tip the scales in favor of the V Street site. No such luck—the letter irked the Fresh Fields higher-ups, who have dug in their heels and opened lease negotiations with Gerstenfeld.

"As far as being forced to go somewhere, I don't have to build a store, period," says Hitt. After exploring the V Street site for nearly a year, company officials say they'll build at the P Street site or bag the project altogether.

"It is completely inappropriate for her to get between two neighborhoods," says Wayne Dickson, leader of the effort pushing the P Street site. "It's just wrong, all good intentions aside."

When asked how steering Fresh Fields to 13th and V relates to her management reform mandate, Barnett responded, "It has to do with serving customers, because one of the things that is important to our customers is economic development. We want businesses to be sure that citizens will patronize them."

Dickson retorts that businesses will make those decisions without letters from high-ranking officials, thank you very much. "Our goal is for the Fresh Fields organization to make a business decision, not a political decision," he says.

To help the popular, pricey, healthy-food store reach its business decision, Dickson, a real estate and marketing consultant, and his neighbors prepared their own economic analysis. They studied commuter and pedestrian traffic, crime stats, neighborhood income, and housing trends along the 14th Street corridor.

Their cause has been aided by soaring condo sales in the community. Church Place Condos at 16th and Church Streets NW sold out the first weekend the units were placed on the market, and nearly all of the 31 condos at the Spencer, at 15th and O Street, were snatched up during their first two weeks on sale. Those units started at $170,000 apiece.

The same trend held for the more moderately priced condos in the Zenith, in the 1400 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW.

"People are tired of dealing with traffic and are feeling more confident about the city," says Eric Colbert, architect of the Spencer and Church Street Condos.

The $5,000 income-tax break for first-time D.C. home-buyers also helps.

The P Street group sent its study, along with a group photo of 150 potential shoppers and a video of the neighborhood, to Fresh Fields' Rockville office earlier this year, says Dickson.

"We started churning the numbers, and it came down that this location is far superior," he says. "Our concern is that if Fresh Fields goes up to 13th and V, they're going to fail, and then they'll give up on this area."

Barnett says she was asked to send the letter by officials of the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), which owns the V Street site. "I was asked to send them a letter encouraging them to locate in the District, and hopefully at the 13th and V site," said the CMO at a March 5 community meeting.

"The information I got was that they were concerned that patrons wouldn't come to the store because of the neighborhood," added Barnett. "And we just wanted to assure them that the neighborhood was on the rise." Fresh Fields no doubt had little trouble reading between the lines: At 13th and V, they would be a force for urban renewal; at 15th and P, they would provide an amenity to an already thriving neighborhood.

While Dupont Circle residents may be irritated by Barnett's intervention, backers of the V Street site feel betrayed by Fresh Fields' recent decision to break off talks with the development company Donatelli and Klein. "The community is hurt," says a staffer to Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith. "They mounted a substantial campaign to lock down Fresh Fields, just to have the rug snatched out from under their feet. They feel they were robbed."

Longtime city observers question whether Barnett may have been set up by officials of DHCD, which owns the site and was seeking to aid Frank Donatelli, the latest developer chosen by the city to try to bring development to the parcel. Donatelli has undertaken a search to find a big-name anchor store for his planned development.

The V Street site carries decades of political hazardous waste that may now infect Barnett. During the early 1980s, the Barry administration awarded developer Jeffrey Cohen exclusive rights and favorable financing to develop the property. Cohen, however, went bankrupt, defaulting on $11 million in city-backed loans.

But he didn't default on his duties as godfather to Barry's son, Christopher.

The V Street parcel is adjacent to the old Thompson Dairy site, which the city has handed over to Delores Johnson, another politically well-connected developer. So far, the only signs of progress are a fence and construction trailers on the coveted site. But a Fresh Fields store next door could get her stalled project out of the ditch.

Smith, a Johnson ally, has been working for much of the past year to convince Fresh Fields to move onto V Street. He had hoped to announce the deal during his upcoming re-election campaign. Now he may have to use Barnett as a political shield, reminding voters that even the powerful CMO couldn't override the free market.

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous isn't about to change his work habits just because he's running for mayor. Chavous, who boasts a council attendance record that would make a D.C. ghost employee blush, was the only councilmember who skipped last Sunday's five-hour 1999 budget work session.

Chavous, chair of the council's education committee, also didn't bother to send a staffer to Monday's hard-hitting Senate hearing on the D.C. public schools' roof repair fiasco. Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, Ward 2 Councilmember and mayoral hopeful Jack Evans, and At-Large Republican Councilmember Carol Schwartz, another mayoral contender, each sent a staffer to witness the grilling of school officials and auditors by Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, chair of the Senate's D.C. oversight subcommittee.

Chavous, a second-term councilmember, has been striving to boost his attendance record over the past year but still seems to prefer his law office to his council office.

Control board member Joyce Ladner must have been mentored in public service by Chavous. She was the only control board member who ducked out on the Sunday-afternoon budget session presided over by the District's glimmer twins, Barnett and Williams.

Ladner would have been wise to skip Brownback's hearing the next day as well. Although she has served as the control board's point person on education reform since the board seized power over D.C. public schools in November 1996, Ladner seemed unprepared for Brownback's quiz on roof repair costs and poor student performance. She flunked, exhibiting a poor handle on current school issues. At one point, she credited public schools academic officer Arlene Ackerman with implementing the Stanford 9 achievement test.

The Stanford test was already in use before Ladner and the control board hired Ackerman last September.

"She did not have a clue. It was embarrassing," notes a council staffer who witnessed Ladner's performance in the hot seat.

Ladner plans to step down when her current control board term ends in June and is hoping to land a position somewhere within President Bill Clinton's administration. Given her dismal record with the District's troubled public school system, Ladner should remove Secretary of Education from her job search.

Councilmembers are not the only ones getting prepped on next year's D.C. budget. Barnett has been putting agency heads through rehearsals of their upcoming appearances before the council to justify their budget needs for fiscal year 1999. She wants all the agency directors under her command to have their budget documents in order, be prepared for whatever questions they might get, and to act and sound professional for a change.

Barnett apparently has added speech coach to her long list of duties.

If he doesn't get reappointed as control board chairman, Andrew Brimmer may have a new career in teaching government officials the art of no-fault dismissals.

After Brimmer & Co. last month ordered public schools chief Gen. Julius Becton to fire fellow Army Gen. Charles Williams for mishandling last year's roof replacements and building repairs, the control board rushed out a disingenuous letter lamenting Williams' departure.

"When I heard of your decision to resign from the position of Chief Operating Officer of the District of Columbia Public Schools, I immediately felt poorer," Brimmer claimed in his sappy Feb. 24 eulogy to the departing school official.

Brimmer would have been downright sick to his stomach if Becton had defied the control board's order in early February to give Williams the boot, and quickly. Becton at first balked, and then waited two weeks before announcing Williams' resignation.

"Your departure means the loss of exactly the kind of talent that is found so rarely in the District government," Brimmer wrote Williams, continuing his state of denial.

Actually, Williams typified the kind of official too plentiful in District government: one who arrives amid high expectations but quickly stumbles because of arrogance and disdain for the opinions of others.

Becton, cut from the same mold, is expected to follow Williams, but not until after the current school year ends. CP

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