Housing Complex

The Five-Year Itch

It’s 9 a.m., and you’re running late. You check your email on your phone, which is connected to D.C.’s citywide WiFi. Nothing but spam from the city government, including a photo of President Marco Rubio at Ben’s Out Back—really, this campaign to publicize celebrity visits to D.C. haunts has gone too far. You wish the shuttle would ease up on the brakes, but hey, it’s the fastest way to get from downtown to the big St. Elizabeths tech campus, part of the growing IT sector that’s made D.C. the largest technology center on the east coast.

You pass the bustling Anacostia Arts District and glance at the skyscrapers sprouting up along the Anacostia River’s east bank, towering over the congressionally mandated 160-foot limit in the city’s core. Young entrepreneurs backed by a city-sponsored venture capital program are trickling into their startup incubator earlier than usual, as a yellow D.C. Public Schools bus brings a group of high-schoolers to their tech traineeships.

You enter the St. Elizabeths East Campus and look out at the academic village in the distance, where groggy students from three universities emerge from their dorm rooms to attend morning lectures. But your attention snaps back to your immediate surroundings as the smell of fresh bread hits you—you must be passing by the new city-backed culinary incubator. No time to dwell on olfactory pleasures, though; you’ve arrived at the Microsoft Innovation Center. Time for work.

Welcome to the District of Columbia in 2017. Or at least the mayor’s vision of the District of Columbia in 2017.

The five-year economic development strategy unveiled by Mayor Vince Gray last week foresees rapid growth in the District, with 100,000 new jobs and $1 billion in additional tax revenue. It also targets certain sectors with superlatives and high hopes that might not be within reach in the next half-decade.

Will D.C. really have “the largest technology center on the East Coast?” An anchor tenant like Microsoft or one of the two other leading candidates at St. Elizabeths could bring substantial daytime activity to Ward 8 and help the city overcome its historical struggles attracting and retaining tech firms.

But so far, Gray has struggled to get his tech agenda passed in its entirety: The D.C. Council stripped a tech incentives bill of the capital gains tax reduction for angel investors sought by the administration. The city’s chief tech accomplishment, trumpeted again and again by District officials, is the retention of LivingSocial’s headquarters through generous tax incentives. There’s no question that D.C.’s come up in the tech world—it’s now fifth in the nation in investments in tech companies—but whether it can “surpass Boston and New York to become the East Coast’s technology leader” remains to be seen.

City-wide WiFi also may prove elusive. The quest for public WiFi in other American cities has been a struggle: Slate called it “telecom’s Bay of Pigs—a project the government wanted to happen but left to underqualified private parties to deliver.” It’s generally too expensive for a government to provide as a public good, and the companies that are capable of delivering it have no interest in undermining their existing business. Plus there are legal issues, given D.C.’s noncompete agreements with telecom companies that prevent the city from becoming an Internet provider in its own right. “I would love to see a city where there’s affordable, if not free, Internet access for all of our city,” says Jessie Posilkin, of Bread for the City, who’s worked to bring Web access to the city’s poorest. “Based on the projects I’ve seen, I’m not optimistic at this point that they’re going to pull it off.”

Other projects also smack of wishful thinking. An “academic village” would require collaboration between multiple universities and a developer; it’s largely out of the city’s control. A city-sponsored venture capital program is of questionable legality, and would probably require action from a council that’s proven skeptical of plans to shower more money on the tech sector. A relaxation of building-height restrictions in some areas of the District would require a hand from Congress, which, though seemingly more amenable than usual, is a fickle ally at best.

Some proposals seem viable. Neighbor opposition and flooding issues notwithstanding, it’s not unreasonable that the McMillan Sand Filtration site could be a “medical office hub.” “Fifty percent of the hospital beds in the city right now are in that area where McMillan is going,” says Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning. “There’s a real strength to build on.” Likewise, says David Zipper, director of business development at the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and a co-author of the strategy, a culinary incubator could come from a partnership with entrepreneurs already doing similar projects, and shuttles to the Pentagon, St. Elizabeths, and Bolling Air Force Base would be “private sector-led.” (The Department of Homeland Security has demonstrated a desire to shuttle employees, with plans for shuttles from the Anacostia and Congress Heights Metro stations to its coming complex on the St. Elizabeths West Campus.) A “campaign showcasing well-known officials and celebrities patronizing their favorite D.C. places” is hokey but achievable.

Even if the strategy works, there’s the question of who will actually get the promised 100,000 jobs. The strategy doesn’t do much to address the issue of job allocation other than a pledge that participants in the One City One Hire program will “receive mayoral recognition in the media” and a rehash of the mayor’s promise to better enforce the troubled Certified Business Enterprise program. Zipper says it’s not really the plan’s job to address workforce development, given that there’s a separate Strategic Workforce Investment Plan. He also notes that the plan’s new construction and retail jobs will benefit residents without a college degree. Tregoning adds, “It’s not like white-collar jobs occur without the full spectrum of support jobs that come with them.”

And then there’s the broad question of whether this can all happen within five years.

“I’d like to think so,” Gray tells me. “I’d like to think that all the initiatives will at least be underway.” He says he’s planning to increase DMPED’s staff by 20 to 30 people from its current size of 62.

Zipper emphasizes that the program’s success is largely dependent on the cooperation of parties outside government. “Will all the initiatives happen within five years? We’d like them to,” he says. “Do we have total control over it? No. A lot of them require the private sector to provide resources or to take the lead.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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