Housing Complex

Advise and Dissent: Whatever Happened to ANCs’ “Great Weight”?

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Last week, Jeff Miller and Cory Lee ventured into the lion’s den. Miller, the District government’s director of real estate, and Lee, the project manager for a controversial development, stopped by the monthly meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B to discuss that project, a planned mixed-use complex on valuable city-owned land. Miller, Lee, and their colleagues at the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development had surprised just about everyone this summer by awarding the development rights to the parcel at 965 Florida Ave. NW to a team led by MRP Realty, after the ANC had voted to support the JBG Companies and their plan to bring a Harris Teeter supermarket to the site.

In late October, Miller had made a similar presentation on the project, and it had not gone well. That meeting, in the back room of Duffy’s Irish Pub on Vermont Avenue NW, devolved into a shouting match between Miller and ANC 1B chair Tony Norman over whether city officials were required to explain to the ANC why they’d gone against its recommendations. As Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who called the meeting, tried to keep the peace, Norman insisted that DMPED was obligated to come before the ANC to explain its unpopular decision; Miller disagreed and said he was “not going to bullied by Tony Norman.”

Now, slightly more than a month later, there Miller and Lee were, in front of Norman and the ANC. This time, the tone was much more polite. But their presentation was more of a status update than an explanation, and the commissioners’ dissatisfaction was apparent when it came time to ask questions.

“How did your office decide to go against the ANC vote?” commissioner Zahra Jilani asked to open the questioning.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as going against the ANC vote,” Lee responded, to indignant laughter from the commissioners.

“Is your office considering any measures to make the bids more transparent?” commissioner Emily Washington followed up.

“Absolutely,” replied Lee.

So far, the process hasn’t been nearly as transparent as the commissioners would like. Here’s what the public knows about the two bids for the contested parcel. JBG highlighted its ownership of an adjacent parcel of land and its resulting ability to extend W Street through the site—two priorities the city listed in its solicitation for bids. The combined lots also had enough space for a full-service grocery store, which neighbors had been clamoring for. The MRP proposal included none of those things.

There were three factors DMPED cited in choosing MRP. First, the MRP proposal offered more affordable housing, if you don’t count the “micro-units” offered by JBG. Second, MRP planned to go through a planned unit development process, which involves more opportunities for community input, although it now appears that MRP might bypass the PUD if it can work with JBG to shift the property line and bring in a grocer. And finally, MRP offered more money to the city for the land.

How much more money? “Millions more,” wrote Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Victor Hoskins in a strongly worded August statement defending his office’s decision. Beyond that, the public doesn’t know, and won’t know for some time, how much either team offered. That information, says Miller, is confidential. The developers presented their proposals to the community without a dollar figure attached.

The city assessed the parcel at $17 million this year. It’s possible that JBG offered $17 million for it and MRP bid $19 million—a negligible difference in the context of the long-term taxes the development will generate and the effect it’ll have on the neighborhood. Or it could be that JBG wanted the property nearly for free, while MRP was willing to put up $10 million or $20 million more, big bucks that could buy major improvements in the city’s schools or affordable housing stock. We don’t know, because the city won’t tell us. (Nor—no surprise—will the developers.)

And therein lies the paradox of the ANC system. The city is required by law to give “great weight” to ANCs’ recommendations on public issues like zoning changes and public land dispositions, but the commissions are forced to operate without a key piece of information—in this case, information that may have been the deciding factor in a controversial city action whose rationale remains murky. And so their input becomes necessarily less informed and relevant than it could be. Which may be why, on these public land deals, the weight the city is giving to the ANCs’ preferences appears to be less than great.

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None of this is to say that ANCs necessarily deserve more power. Yes, they’re the established means for a neighborhood to convey its priorities to the city authorities, and they thereby serve a valuable function. But because they represent the neighborhood and not the city as a whole, those priorities are often shortsighted and narrow-minded, overly concerned with parking, and pervaded with a sense that their neighborhood’s needs trump those of any other. (At a Tenleytown ANC meeting I attended last year, a visiting police officer had to explain patiently that while the prevalence of people driving the wrong way down a particular one-way alley was surely very troubling, there might be better uses of police resources in the city than round-the-clock patrolling of that passage.)

Nonetheless, D.C. has a system in place to ensure that ANCs have a say. The D.C. Code stipulates that “the issues and concerns raised in the recommendations of the Commission shall be given great weight during the deliberations by the [relevant] government entity,” and that the entity is required to respond in writing to each of the ANC’s recommendations and explain, if applicable, why it didn’t agree with them.

According to several ANC commissioners, this requirement is increasingly ignored. Norman says DMPED still hasn’t provided a written response to the concerns of his ANC. In April, DMPED selected a developer for valuable city-owned Parcel 42, right by the Shaw Metro, who was neither the local ANC’s top choice nor its second choice. According to ANC 6E member Alex Padro, who chaired the body when it gave its input, DMPED never provided the ANC with an explanation of why it went against the commission’s recommendation.

“In the past, it was much more the case that if the ANC supported a particular bidder, that bidder ended up getting the deal,” says Padro, who says that other city agencies like the Board of Zoning Adjustment and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board nearly always side with the ANC. “And it wasn’t until Parcel 42 that I’d come to realize that at least in this particular administration and this particular deputy mayor, asking for the ANC’s opinion just seems to be lip service.”

Padro says the Parcel 42 decision didn’t upset him much because there was a “pretty wide field” of interested developers and the ANC chose an unconventional proposal that included a hotel. “But when there was almost universal support for the 965 Florida Ave. project that had a Harris Teeter incorporated, to have that basically ignored, that was really a shock,” he says. “And that was when I started thinking, what the heck are those folks doing down there?”

When Norman requested once again last week that DMPED provide a written response to his ANC’s concerns, Lee replied, “Directing you to the Office of the Attorney General would be helpful.” Miller says that office has informed him that he’s not bound by great weight in this case, though he’s unable to share that opinion.

But attorney general spokesman Ted Gest, who declined to comment on the record about this case because his office may be asked to issue a legal opinion on it, says it doesn’t appear that the Office of the Attorney General has ever weighed in on the question of whether DMPED is bound by great weight. He pointed me to two relevant legal documents, neither of which indicates that DMPED would be exempt in the case of 965 Florida.

Indeed, the law governing great weight states that government entities are required to coordinate with the local ANC on matters relating to “the intent to change the use of property owned or leased by or on behalf of the government,” and that government actions covered by the ANC requirements include actions of the executive branch, of which DMPED is part.

That leaves people like Padro scratching their heads over why the city would feel it doesn’t need to give great weight to public land disposition recommendations.

“I can’t come up with a logical reason,” he says. “The whole point is that ANCs are the vehicle for providing the District government with the sense of the community that’s affected. What bigger decision can the government make than selections of how a neighborhood’s composition is going to be changed by the redevelopment of public land?”

Again, the city wouldn’t be unjustified in arguing that ANCs don’t have the entire city’s interests at heart and shouldn’t be permitted to throw a wrench in important development projects out of local concerns. But if that’s the case, it should change or clarify the law governing ANCs. If not, it ought to be as communicative with the ANCs, and as sensitive to their concerns, as the law appears to require. And the ANCs can’t be expected to provide fully informed input—nor can the city be expected to take their suggestions entirely seriously—if they’re denied a key piece of information in each development project, the amount of money that’s on the line.

The issue is particularly pressing now, with so many valuable parcels of public land on the table. Last week, the city short-listed four teams to develop a vacant lot in Mount Vernon Triangle, near downtown; the interested teams will soon present their proposals to the public. Soon, the city will open up chunks of the sprawling St. Elizabeths campus near Congress Heights to bids. If the local ANCs want their recommendations to be as weighty as possible, they’d do well to paraphrase a certain fictional sports agent and tell the city to show them the money.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Due to a reporting error, the article originally referred to Alex Padro as the chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6E. While he held that position previously, he is not currently the chairman.

  • tntdc

    Years ago most ANC seats were contested. Even then the quality of candidates was often lacking. Now very few seats are ever contested- anyone who gets 25 signatures is an ANC. The quality of ANC commissioners is awful and only the weird zealots become ANC's. Abolish them and save DC millions and millions.

  • DC Guy

    Yes, pretty much this. The theory behind the creation of ANCs was a good one, but the practice is not so much. They don't have broader interests at heart and thus have become a den of group-think obstructionists to change (there are exceptions). Not that all change is good, but no change at all is bad for the economic growth of the city.

  • urbanette

    I used to think the ANC system should be abolished, but I now think that we need something with a smaller focus than councilmember. Another problem with the ANCs is that they have no responsibility to get anything done, just to say no to things, so they tend to attract people who are against everything. I agree with the other commenters, that so few of the races are contested, we are undoubtedly not getting the best candidates. I think that the Single Member Districts needs to be greatly enlarged, and that the ANCs need to have responsibility for actually accomplishing something.

  • Anonymous

    The answer I think is more council members serving smaller wards. In this hybrid city-state, we need more voices that actually have more than the power to say no. Which is really all the ANC's can do.

    Looking at states with a smaller population than the District, wyoming has 60 in the lower house and 30 in the upper. Vermont has 150 in the lower house and 30 in the upper. We in the district have a unicameral system with 12 members.

  • dougie

    "That leaves people like Padro scratching their heads over why the city would feel it doesn’t need to give great weight to public land disposition recommendations."

    Perhaps because the ANCs are largely made up of high school educated folk who have not the faintest idea what is the best deal for the neighborhood or city.

    While technically they represent 2,000 people, they tend to talk to a very small # of friends who usually support whatever they say anyway. ANC 3D is a classic example.

  • http://www.twitter.com/AdamLDC Adam Lewis

    Regardless of whether ANCs are good or not, there is a legal requirement for the government to respond to them, in writing. If that requirement is being ignored, then the DMPED is breaking the law. Sue them.

  • dan maceda

    There may be a justification for keeping the financial information confidential until a bidder is selected but once selected what is the justification. The idea that the financial side is to be secret leaves me wondering if there is illegal or unethical finagling going on here. Once the information is public and provided to an ANC it will be more widely available to people who have the knowledge and expertise to judge the value even if not necessarily members of the ANC.

  • julie

    if the city gets more money for a particular site, OUR TAXES SHOULD GO DOWN.
    --Tired of hearing about big deals that "benefit the city" which they just spend on more "programs."

  • Alf

    Today, it is Harriet Tregoning and her cash-laden developer friends who are accorded great weight by city agencies and commissions.

  • Fearing Dystopia

    There are two separate issues that need to be sorted out here.

    THE FIRST is the degree to which city agencies are accountable to the citizenry. DMPED, in particular, makes decisions that profoundly affect the contextual coherence of our built environment as well as the near- and long-term streams of municipal revenues. Why on earth would they be reluctant to share with us the logic that leads them to these enormous decisions?

    Yet DMPED has proven to be super-resistant to transparency. In the case of the Hine Jr. High School site, on Capitol Hill, apparent anomalies in DMPED's decision making led local neighbors to seek additional information. They ended up having to pool their money to hire a lawyer to wage a protracted quest for information under FOIA. In the face of DMPED's brazen stonewalling, that lawyer finally had to get an opinion from the Office of DC General Council ordering DMPED to release documents on the Hine decisions. [http://capitolhillcorner.org/2013/11/14/%EF%BB%BFoffice-of-dc-general-council-orders-dmped-to-release-hine-documents/] *

    THE SECOND issue is the degree to which the ANC's represent the will of the people. This is much trickier because some ANC are diligent and scrupulous in representing their communities, whereas others are simply elaborate Kabuki theater productions that act out the topical idiosyncrasies of and disagreements among their respective members ad nauseum.

    The solution to the theatrically dysfunctional ANC's is more community interest – more candidates running, more substantive dialogue before the election, and greater turn-out.

    ---

    * Opaque decision making leading to legal action is also a problem for the Development Review Division of the Office of Planning. This office prepares the “analyses” and recommendations that weigh heavily in Zoning Board decisions on the Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) that are a major element in implementing smart growth for DC.

    According to the OP web site, “While development is viewed as the economic engine of the District, protecting the integrity of neighborhoods is equally important. The Development Review Division encourages growth in a way that is sensitive to the needs and values of neighborhoods.” In its reasoning, however, the Development Review Division gets very fuzzy in balancing neighborhood conservation – as ostensibly protected by Small Area Plans or historic preservation regulations – against the express demand of developers to build the largest edifice they can on any lot. The OP-recommended options always end up a bit too large and architecturally anomalous for their sites.

    In the case of 901 Monroe, in Brookland, lawyers hired by private citizens ended up challenging the propriety and the process of the Zoning Board decision in court. Without actually overturning the decision, the courts required the relevant government agencies to explain their decision making and defend their decisions.

    Of interest to the citizenry and private developers alike – as well, presumably, to the government agencies involved – is that successful legal challenges have delayed both the Hine Jr. High site development and 901 Monroe for many months. This is not good for the developers and not good for the city. It could have been avoided with PUD plans that addressed “smart growth” objectives with somewhat more sensitivity to the surrounding communities.

    My own suspicion is that our municipal planners make decisions knowing that developers are going to come to the table with teams of seasoned real estate lawyers, whereas the ANC's and other manifestations of “the community” are not. Erring on the side of developers is just the course of least resistance.

    And what can we do about that?

  • drez

    I think Padro (who is accomplished and knows his way around both development and dc government) raises a very good point.
    DMPED is arrogant.

  • Daniel Wolkoff

    The question we need to pursue is how to increase democratic participation and popular enfranchisement. Put your thinking caps on kiddies. I know it's scary to become more responsible for your own lives and clinging to Daddy's pant leg has a kinda warm fuzzy feeling.
    Jeff Miller is a former employee of Trammel Crow, he should not be assigning multi-million dollar development deals with our money and our land.
    Whether the ANC become a paid Assembly Neighborhood Congress with real voting power over the city government or any other process for greater enfranchisement, we need to do it RIGHT NOW!The hacks in the Mayors Deputy Office or the hacks on the City Council,,,the system is structurally corrupt. Corrupt for money and corrupt for dictatorial decisions like in this article controlling the future of our city. Free yourself from the corrupt process, clique govt. and the Jeff Millers!
    STOP THE MAYORS SURPLUSSING OF MCMILLAN, it's our Park, a Glen Echo style Eco-City Campus for the benefit of our families and young people. Come on kiddies don't let the hacks control your mind and the whole process, those Dep. Mayor's replies were as arrogant as one can stand, it is your city, not the developers, or Jeff Miller and Mayor(unindicted)Gray.

  • Drez

    ^ 5th column?

  • Mary Melchior

    It is clear that the reason ANCs are supposed to be given great weight is because local communities know more about their needs than and deputy mayor. Given that everyone on the council and the mayor are beholden to developers and there is a revolving door between the agencies that do this work and developers the ANCs are very important.

    The other thing is agencies can design the bid criteria to favor certain vendors. If bids are developed without local community input, which they almost always are, decisions are basically made before the community is talked to. I have yet to interact with agencies in DC that seem to actually respect community concerns, but I have been to a lot of events that amounted to community engagement theatre where the agency has to check a box that they listened to they engaged the community and then turned around and ignored them.

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  • Charles Evans

    I can't speak for other ANCs, but ours is always hotly contested by candidates with very different perspectives--the last election was decided by one vote, IIRC.

    The ANCs are community-based, and as such, are influenced by the participation of the people in them--or not, as the case may be. Democracy is messy and boring sometimes. Participate or not, as you like, but don't sit out and then [complain] that your POV wasn't heard.

  • Greg Melcher

    I can't agree more on DPMED. I am an ANC 2F Commissioner and we recently voted on the Franklin School proposals of which there were 4. I spent several hours reading every page of the information provided by DPMED and the 4 proposals, and could not deduce the evaluation criteria by which the decision is to be made. In questioning the DPMED representatives I again could only get them to establish some generalized areas of importance and no idea as to which was most important or the priority. Not knowing that I could we make a recommendation?
    From my government procurement days I had to issue the contractors a document that clearly established the evaluation criteria and often the specific weighting so that it was clear to all how the decision would be made. Only the final evaluation itself and scoring for each proposal was kept private (in a formal document known as the Source Selection Plan) although with that it was quite easy to explain why one proposal succeeded and why others did not (and then we were well positioned to defend against protests). As far as I can tell, as long as the 4 Franklin School proposals meet the vague generalized requests by DPMED (all 4 do) the city is free to pick anyone they want and will never be able to explain who they picked or why. So is it politics and donations that make decisions? In the 965 Florida or Parcel 42 cases, I would hope a FOIA would force release of the piece of paper documenting the decision and its criteria but often such things are so heavily redacted by the government that its useless.

    Another pending case is the Historic Review for the next phase of the Marriot Hotels on the north side of the 900 Block of L Street. Its a monolith to maximize keys for Marriot so all of L Street is demolished and we get the 9th Street buildings saved but they are cutesy little retail spaces right in line with the retail disaster of the Convention Center. The city did not require the Convention Center retails so the community forced it in at the last minute and since it has been completely unsuccessful except for the Dominion Brew Pub. So we support the City/Marriot/Events DC objective of adding 500 keys north of L street but fundamentally reject the current design. We'll see if the ANC has any great weight here or if we will be blown off in the name of economic development.

    As to ANCs, it is true with the notable exception of a very few (who do come and participate but I could count them on one or at most two hands), no one participates or gets involved in the ANC unless it is something in their back yard. I was elected with 99% + of the vote. It is true that I had some credibility from running a neighborhood association but I doubt anymore than 10-20% of the voters had actually met me. For the most part, when issues come before the ANC, most folks showing up are NIMBY and want to say no, especially in a downtown area that went from being dead to burning hot the last few year. I think our ANC makes a real effort to consider the big picture and tries to reach a balance in making recommendations that reflect the best needs of the immediately adjacent residents and the broader needs of the ANC, Ward and City.

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