When Marion Barry learned last year of the city's plan to trade the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center to a private developer as part of the deal to build a new soccer stadium, he was furious.
City Administrator Allen Lew, who negotiated the deal, tried to explain the benefits of the arrangement to Barry. But the Ward 8 councilmember, who helped build the center as mayor in 1986 and whose name is still engraved on its facade nearly two decades later, was having none of it.
"He said, 'We’re going to tear down the Reeves Center,'" Barry told me at the time. "I went off on that, because I put it there to stimulate growth and development in that area. I was raising hell with him on the phone."
In a sense, the Reeves building seemed to represent Barry's role in the city. When it opened, it was a hugely significant city investment in the troubled U Street NW and 14th Street NW corridors, decimated by the 1968 riots. It helped spur the development of that area into one of the city's most flourishing today. And yet, as time passed and luxury apartments sprang up around it, the building came to seem obsolete, as if the city's tremendous growth had left it behind.
The same was sometimes said of Barry, who died early this morning at 78. In D.C.'s early Home Rule years, Barry was a titan, both in politics and in development. In his four terms as mayor—at the end of which he'd been mayor for the majority of the Home Rule era—he cut deals with developers, planned big public investments, and helped reshape a struggling city where real estate was the biggest business game in town. As his days in charge receded behind him, however, and the city continued to grow and prosper well beyond anything over which he'd presided, Barry looked at times like a relic of the past.
But Barry pivoted on the Reeves Center, and on his role in the District. When he learned that Reeves would be replaced by a modern government center in Anacostia, he saw it as a great opportunity for his impoverished home ward. "I’m thoroughly, 100 percent, 1,000 percent supportive of it," he said. "The Reeves Center has served its purpose."