Swap and Go
A first-time visitor to Allen Lew’s office would be forgiven for thinking he was a sportswriter. Four framed photos hang in his lobby. Two are of Nationals Park; the others are of local high school football fields, Coolidge and Roosevelt.
As D.C.’s city administrator, Lew is responsible for overseeing District agencies and ensuring that the city’s plumbing works and the lights stay on. But it’s understandable why his office is adorned with photos of ballfields he’s helped create rather than sewer pipes and power lines. These are the projects that make news, that require Lew’s hardball negotiation tactics, and that would inspire love and hate for decades to come.
Now Lew is at work on a very big stadium deal, arguably his most complex project to date.
At its heart, the deal Lew’s been negotiating on the city’s behalf will bring a D.C. United soccer stadium to Buzzard Point, the strip of Southwest that currently hosts such scenic properties as a junkyard and Pepco electrical facilities. But there are many other moving parts: the swap that’s supposed to give developer Akridge the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U streets NW to turn into a mixed-use development; the construction of a new Reeves Center, bearing the same name, in Anacostia; and more potential land deals involving Pepco and the other property owners at Buzzard Point.
Lew, who launches into a passionate half-hour monologue about the deal before I can ask my first question during a recent interview, says negotiating all the requisite components is “like moving pieces on a chessboard.” But the better analogy might be, fittingly, to a multiteam sports trade. Each team—in this case, the city and the Buzzard Point property owners—must receive an equal dollar value to what it gives (chipping in extra cash if necessary), and must ensure that it comes out ahead in terms of suiting its needs at each position. The city is playing both league commissioner and team general manager.
Akridge, to belabor the metaphor, needs players with long-term development potential. Pepco needs utility players who can keep things running in the short term. And the District—or rather, D.C. United, on whose behalf the city is doing the swaps—needs, well, a stadium.
But from the city’s perspective, there’s more to the negotiations than shuffling properties, building the right portfolio, and amping up tax revenues. The deal represents the most powerful recent articulation of the cascading effects of development, sending a message—whether intentional on the city’s part or not—that “hot” neighborhoods are no place for government agencies, struggling neighborhoods are where they belong, and undesirable facilities get dumped on areas with no immediate prospects at all.
Before settling on Anacostia for the new Reeves Center, Lew says, the city considered several other sites, including Ward 8’s St. Elizabeths campus, where a big mixed-use development is planned, and United Medical Center, which has relied heavily on city subsidies to remain operational as a hospital.
Anacostia fits the “struggling neighborhood” bill: Much like U Street before the Reeves Center opened there in 1985, Anacostia has tremendous potential as a historic, walkable neighborhood but suffers from high unemployment and a scarcity of retail and daytime population. (And unlike U Street, where the Metro didn’t open until 1991, Anacostia already has subway service.) Lew hopes the new Reeves Center will inject the needed jobs and dollars into the neighborhood, with not only the city employees housed in the existing Reeves Center moving there, but also from some other agencies.
“The property we’re currently looking at is owned by the city, right next door to DHCD,” Lew says, referring to the Department of Housing and Community Development, which moved to Anacostia in 2009. “People have said, ‘Well gosh, DHCD hasn’t done much.’ Well, there’s a concept called critical mass. Before you can get all the food guys and the restaurants and the retail and the concessions to show up, they have to know that it’s more than just five customers.”
Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who as mayor helped bring the Reeves Center to its 14th and U location, was initially furious when Lew called and said the stadium deal would mean its demise.
“He said, ‘We’re going to tear down the Reeves Center,’” Barry recalls. “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.”
“Once I said the Reeves Center was coming down, he didn’t want to hear anything after that,” says Lew. “And I said, ’You have to give me a chance to explain to you where we’re moving the Reeves Center.’ You know, we’re creating a new Reeves Center in Ward 8, in his freakin’ ward! I mean, that is as good as it gets.”
Charles Wilson, a neighborhood leader-cum-haberdasher—among the many hats he wears are the presidency of the Historic Anacostia Block Association, seats on the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and the Historic Preservation Review Board, and a day job as chief of staff to At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds—believes the new Reeves Center “sends a message that economic development is finally coming east of the [Anacostia] River.” But he says it’s also important to recognize that U Street is not Anacostia; while the former had a tradition of music and entertainment, the latter needs to build around historic landmarks like the Frederick Douglass House. If done right, he says, the Reeves Center could help “make downtown Anacostia like Old Town Alexandria.”
Now that Barry’s seen the full plans, he’s enthusiastically behind them. “I’m thoroughly, 100 percent, 1,000 percent supportive of it,” he says. “The Reeves Center has served its purpose.”
There’s some question as to exactly the purpose it’s served. The Reeves Center may have helped bring about the neighborhood’s recent boom, but so did the Metro opening, the attractive housing stock, and the creeping spread of nightlife from nearby Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan.
“It was the first big public investment for that corridor,” says Skip McKoy, who led the Office of Planning under Mayor Barry. “When it went in, a lot of people thought, ‘What public employee’s going to want to come out of there at six o’clock at night?’ The Metro station on U Street was planned, but it was years away.”
Asked whether the neighborhood turnaround would have happened without the Reeves Center, McKoy replies, “Who knows?”
Whatever boost the Reeves Center gave the 14th and U area—Barry says “it did a hell of a job—Lew thinks it’s no longer needed.
“If anything, you might say the Reeves Center is dragging it down,” says Lew. “We think the best thing to do now is take that great site, turn it over to the private sector, and let it become a great addition to anchor that intersection. And then put it on the tax books.”
The massive building at 14th and U isn’t likely to be alone in moving to the private sector—and the tax books—as part of the stadium deal.
“The Reeves Center isn’t going to be enough for us to amass the funds to acquire that site,” says Lew of the District’s need to assemble all the land for the stadium. “We have to do two times that. So we’re looking at other properties, too. There’s a list of properties that we’ve been looking at.”
What properties are on the list? The D.C. government building at One Judiciary Square was on it, but Mayor Vince Gray doesn’t want to give it up, says Lew. Brian Hanlon, director of the Department of General Services, says the Henry J. Daly Building at 300 Indiana Ave. NW, which serves as the Metropolitan Police Department headquarters, is “on the block.” (It’s been expendable for a while; MPD Chief Cathy Lanier said recently that the building is in such bad shape that it can’t be renovated without first moving out every officer.) So is a property at 1325 S St. NW, which consists of a parking lot and a storage warehouse used by the Department of Parks and Recreation. Both areas have considerable foot traffic and don’t need the jolt provided by government agencies, making them appealing trading chips for conversion to revenue-producing private developments.
Also on the list is city-owned property at 1001 and 1101 Half St. SW, just north of M Street, though Hanlon says a deal involving that land could be a bit more complex. The property is located between the burgeoning Southwest Waterfront and Capitol Riverfront neighborhoods, making it much more valuable than would have been thinkable in the recent past.
“This isn’t M Street, you know, 10 years ago or 20 years ago,” says Lew. “This is M Street where the community would love to have more retail on M Street, facing both sides of the street.”
But converting that property to retail and other uses would probably mean moving the city-owned functions that are there now, like repair facilities for fire trucks, ambulances, and other vehicles. These operations, which don’t do much for neighborhood development, are likely bound for areas with no immediate prospects for economic growth.
“We’ve been working with the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety about creating a public safety campus out in Blue Plains,” says Lew, referring to the southern tip of Ward 8 that’s home to a wastewater treatment plant. “Some of these things, from training academies to equipment repair, a lot of this stuff doesn’t have to be right in the middle of downtown. It certainly could be in areas that are a bit remote.”
In 25 years, will we be saying the same thing about Anacostia that we’re now saying about U Street—that the Reeves Center is dragging it down? Will Blue Plains be ready for the economic boost a new new Reeves Center can bring? Will it be time to replace an aging Verizon Center or the fully city-funded Nationals Park as part of a deal involving a host of new swaps? In McKoy’s words: Who knows? But for now, all the relevant players keep dancing the development shuffle, with Lew leading the band.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery