[from September 1999 issue]


We were appalled by the decision announced on September 9, 1999 by the Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) to grant development rights to two, separate groups for RLA's Columbia Heights parcels at 14th Street and Park Road rather than to Forest City Enterprises which had put forth a proposal to develop the RLA's four major parcels on both sides of 14th Street between Monroe and Irving Streets.

As we reported last spring, there appeared to be a consensus throughout the Columbia Heights neighborhood that the Forest City proposal would be of greatest benefit to the community for a number of reasons. (See, "Final Decision on Tivoli Close; Also for Other Nearby Parcels," InTowner, April 1999, page 1.)

One of the community's greatest concerns was that a developer should be found who would commit to restoring the historic Tivoli Theater for use a functioning performing arts center, along with rehabilitating the original retail spaces along the 14th Street side. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham echoed that sentiment; in fact, it was the main reason that he had made clear his opposition to a proposal by Safeway to acquire the Tivoli building for conversion into a supermarket.

But Graham was not simply advocating preserving and restoring the Tivoli for the sake of historic preservation and to have a performing arts center at the expense of a needed supermarket. What Graham and others recognized as so exciting about the Forest City plan was that they would, to use an old saying, "let us have our cake and eat it too." That's because their plan also provided for a large supermarket across from the Tivoli on one of the other RLA parcels included in the bid package.

The cultural use plan for the Tivoli was well along, Forest City having early this year obtained commitments from several of the city's leading performing arts organizations (including the Washington Performing Arts Society, Gala Hispanic Theatre, Gay Men's Chorus, the DC Youth Orchestra) to participate in the newly formed Tivoli Arts Consortium and to utilize a marvelously reconfigured and imaginatively designed interior as a neighborhood and city cultural resource.

As we reported in our April report, use of the theater for the performing arts was the clearly stated preference that emerged from the community-wide charrette undertaking conducted by the Washington Architectural Foundation over two years ago. This was an exercise that involved large numbers of committed residents from all sectors of the neighborhood. Architect W. Kent Cooper, who had been the design team leader for the charrette project, more recently stated, among other things, that of the two proposals for "the Tivoli block, the Forest City proposal comes closer to matching the community-based plan in that it keeps the Tivoli intact and in use as a cultural institution."

Based on the already developing protests--within hours of the announcement by the RLA--we are confident that our understanding (and that of architect Cooper) about where the majority in that neighborhood comes out on the issue is right on target. The will of the community seems clearly to have been ignored.

Another downside to the RLA's rejection of Forest City is that while they would have developed all four of the major parcels in a coordinated fashion, now two prominent parcels, including the one fronting the entire length of the east side of 14th between Irving and Kenyon Streets, will continue to be vacant lots.

So now, the most sensible development proposal has been rejected. And instead of getting a developer with a proven track record in many cities, we will have one small developer doing the Tivoli with an adjoining Giant food store but with no commitment for performing arts use; a developer locally known for one luxury apartment building on Connecticut Avenue and a small strip-like shopping complex of no particular distinction on 14th Street.

Even worse, because RLA has awarded the major parcel on the west side of 14th Street to something called Grid Properties which includes celebrity sports investors and will feature mostly an entertainment complex with an ice-skating rink, large chain stores, food court, and the like, what the RLA has done is to ensure that Columbia Heights be turned into a regional mall that will attract crowds which are sure to make Adams Morgan or Dupont's 17th Street look like a tea party by comparison--hardly what we would call a neighborhood-oriented project.

As architect Geoff Griffis stated to The InTowner last spring, "It appears that Forest City is the only group that listened to the community." What a shame that the RLA board members failed to listen to the community but chose to listen to their politically connected Barry-era buddies instead. We had hoped that the new mayor would have appointed persons to the RLA who would have not been from the old mold. Looks like business as usual, after all.