West End sale now doubtful

D.C. City Council members are reconsidering emergency legislation passed this summer to sell public land near the West End Library after community groups raised concerns about the expedited process.

A bill passed this summer would sell Square 37 – located just two blocks from campus near Washington Circle – to a private developer. The public concern arose because the city allowed Eastbanc, a District developer, to have no-bid access to the land.

The Foggy Bottom Association, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and six other groups demanded that the council reverse their 12-1 decision from earlier this summer that allowed the legislation to have “emergency status.”

“Don’t try to pull the wool over the community’s eyes,” said Elizabeth Elliot, a member of the Foggy Bottom Association, a community group. She added that the bill undermined several safeguards to prevent the sale of public land. The Foggy Bottom ANC unanimously passed a resolution last day that requested the council withdraw their support for the land deal and similar sales of public property.

Since their initial decision in favor of selling the land to Eastbanc, councilmembers Kwame Brown and Jack Evans have reversed their positions. Brown called a public hearing Monday, where representatives from local advocacy groups explained their resistance to the city’s plan.

Ann Hughes Hargrove, a representative from the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a land preservation group, gave testimony that the Square 37 deal is part of a larger problem of selling public land within the District.

“The West End library situation was handled badly, and many in the city are shocked about it, as you are hearing today,” Hargrove said. “But however you look at it, this episode is evidence not of a broken system that is adequate, but rather of the absence of an adequate system.”

Anthony Lanier, president of Eastbanc, said he was surprised to hear the objections to his plan to rebuild the area.

“By and large we did not expect this resistance since we have spent some time in the neighborhood,” Lanier said. “The travesty would be if (a building) wasn’t built.”

Eastbanc has been responsible for some of the largest developments in Georgetown, as well as the 1.2 million square-foot Ritz-Carlton in the West End.

He said he has no intentions of overdeveloping the Square 37 lot.

“I don’t think that there is anybody in this neighborhood who has a bigger interest in sustainable development than I do,” Lanier said.

Sean Madigan, communications director for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, said his office is concerned with the interests of the residents.

“We’re going to respect the will of the council and initiate a competitive process,” Madigan said.

Initially, some council members said the “emergency” nature of the legislation intended to allow nearby residents to buy their property before their rights expire. The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act gives tenants in the District the opportunity to buy their property if it is put up for sale.

This would have affected residents of The Tiverton, a building next to Square 37.

“We were used as a political football,” said Mike Malloy, president of the Tiverton Tenants’ Association. “To the Tiverton, Square 37 was a sideshow. We were more concerned about getting ourselves a good deal.”

Rather than sell to Eastbanc, the Tiverton tenants signed a deal with another group of developers: Michael Sussman, Jefferson Builders and Keener-Squire.

Former presidential candidate Ralph Nader held a protest of the deal in July, questioning the legality of the entire sale of land to Eastbanc. Nader runs an organization called the D.C. Library Renaissance Project, which supports local libraries.

Anne Menzies, the associate director for Neighborhood Libraries in the District, said she wants what’s best for the library.

“(T)hat means a good library that has the amount and the kind of spaces that will provide good services for the community,” Menzies said.

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