Why Did the Ward 6 Walmart Site Languish So Long?
Jeffrey Anderson of the Washington Times has a deep dive this week on 801 New Jersey Avenue NW, otherwise known as the future site of a Walmart in Ward 6. The headline suggests that D.C. superlobbyist David Wilmot, who's been paid $290,000 since 2006 to represent Walmart, also has a financial stake in the site's development. Anderson never actually pins that down, though. To save you from parsing the whole thing, here's what he's got:
- Wilmot was a law partner of developer LuAnne Bennett's late husband Richard Bennett Jr.
- Wilmot was named to the board of an educational foundation that was to be formed after the commencement of the ground lease in 1990.
- If the terms of the original ground lease were honored, the Bennett Group would have paid $41 million to the District since gaining control of the property. But after a series of lease amendments, they have only paid $5.5 million.
- The Bennett Group has collected $5 million in rent from the Government Printing Office for its use of the site as a parking lot.
In the end, it's unclear whether Wilmot is actually getting a piece of revenues collected by the Bennett Group, although he may very well have been the one representing the Bennett Group in their very advantageous lease re-negotiations, and also brought together Bennett, JBG, and Walmart for the deal—which is something that happens in this business.
What Anderson doesn't talk much about is that for that whole time LuAnne Bennett was married to Virginia's Rep. Jim Moran. That tends to be a huge asset when trying to get things from the District government, which really needs to take friends in Congress where it can get them.
Also, I've heard from two people who served in the administration of former Mayor Adrian Fenty that in 2007, former Rep. Tom Davis, another Virginian who at the time chaired the House Committee that oversees District affairs, made a call to someone in the executive office on Bennett's behalf (one other Fenty official declined to comment, and another said he couldn't recall). I called Davis to ask about this, and he said he doesn't remember contacting Fenty's staff on the issue, so I can't be more certain on this than Anderson is about Wilmot's involvement.
Still, I suspect that the site was able to sit vacant for so long, with no financial consequences—and while the rest of NoMa blossomed around it—as much because of Bennett's Congressional connections than the typical Wilmot finagling. And ultimately, if the District had been more forceful and negotiated to get some of the land back, it wouldn't necessarily have achieved a better result than what's planned for the site now. So even if the process smells bad, and should service as further evidence of the need for full disclosure of all parties to deals involving elected officials, I think it's probably safe to consider it water under the bridge.