Deputy Mayor’s Office Cited Misleading Data Justifying Award to Hine Developer – FOIA Permits Closer Look at Manufactured Consensus for Stanton’s Hine Development
by Larry Janezich
In a June 2010 email, Corey Lee, Deputy Mayor’s Office of Economic Development (DMPED) Project Manager for the Hine Jr. High development, listed community support as one of the five reasons the contract was awarded to Stanton-Eastbanc, i.e., “(v) the large amount of community support (none of the ten (10) teams documented more community support for its project than S-E).”
A Freedom of Information Act request reveals that, indeed, the Stanton/Eastbanc team garnered 119 emails of support during the public comment period, which ran from June through August of 2009, while its closest competitor, the Menkiti/Streetsense/DSF team, had only 34.
Yet a closer look at those emails supporting Stanton shows some startling results. Of the 119 letters, 74 were form letters. More troubling, research demonstrates that most emails, whether form letters or not, were written by someone who had a conflict of interest – realtors who work alongside one of the principals of Stanton Development, business associates, tenants, family members, or friends of the family. But the Deputy Mayor’s Office solicitation of public comments required no disclosure of such conflicts, and in all cases but five no disclosure was given. Nor was a supporter required to give an address; several letters supporting Stanton were written from outside Capitol Hill, or even outside the District of Columbia. While the Deputy Mayor’s Office cited “documented” community support as one of the reasons it selected Stanton/Eastbanc, the office had no resident or conflict of interest screening mechanism by which to judge the letters of support that it received.
If the pool of emails – both form letters and original letters – in support of Stanton is narrowed to those without a known business or personal connection to the developer and to those sent by Capitol Hill residents, then the support for Stanton is reduced to 28 letters, compared to 34 for Streetsense, all of which came from Capitol Hill residents, and none with obvious conflicts of interest. To tally these results, each person whose name appeared on a letter in support of a developer was counted as one vote, regardless of the number of emails sent.
As many readers will remember, the process of selecting a developer for the Hine project became controversial on June 17, 2010, with the endorsement of Stanton-Eastbanc by the CHRS on a perfunctory and nearly unanimous voice vote (there was one abstention) of the CHRS Board, without questions or debate, and based on the recommendation ad hoc committee comprised of a few board members. (Then-Councilmember Kwame Brown subsequently said publicly that it was the CHRS decision which was the deciding factor in his vote for awarding the contract to Stanton.) The first form letter supporting Stanton was sent to the Deputy Mayor’s office earlier that same day, originating with a Stanton business neighbor. This first wave of support for Stanton was seemingly aimed at influencing the upcoming June 30 ANC6B vote on recommending a developer, since the letters in this first wave – both form letters and unique letters of support – copied ANC6B Commissioner Mary Wright (in whose Single Member District the project lies), and ANC6B Chair Dave Garrison.
When the ANC met on June 30 in a small, overcrowded room in the Old Naval Hospital, it heard from the community members. By the end of the meeting, it was clear that a strong majority of those present favored the StreetSense proposal. The Commission avoided making a recommendation, and instead voted for a series of criteria which should be met by whichever developer was awarded the project.
Following this public show of support in favor of Streetsense, between July 4 and July 10, a blizzard of form letters in support of Stanton arrived at the Deputy Mayor’s office inbox, no longer copied to ANC Commissioners. The first of this second wave of form letters starts on July 4, from family friends of the developer. Another set of form letters begins on July 6 from a realtor associated with the one of the principals of Stanton Development; this set is copied to the entire city council.
Developers often have ties and relations to certain commercial or community interests, and it may well be that enumerating these connections provides a useful indicator or measure of something. Whatever that something is, it is not community support. Community members unfettered by conflict of interest issues have a role in naming their preferences among the finalists, whether as individuals or local groups. This role extends to noting components of a design that spell trouble, and asking for benefits in return for the negatives the project brings to the community, including more crowded neighborhoods and streets.
Almost a year ago, Capitol Hill resident Kathleen Frydl requested a meeting with the Deputy Mayor’s Office to discuss how it assesses community support since the selection of Stanton, but to date, the Office has not scheduled the meeting.
“I think a distinction needs to be drawn between documenting community connections,” Frydl says, “versus documenting community support.” The former might be impressive, she notes, but compromised by sufficient conflict of interest questions so as to reduce the value of the input given. “While it may be insightful and it may be heartfelt, input from people with a financial or personal relationship to the developer is just not the same as input spontaneously given by a neighbor who reviews the plans,” she said. Frydl also believes that an open-ended and unscreened process might be the District’s preference, but, if so, she thinks that the Deputy Mayor’s Office should not rely upon it as a mechanism to help select a winning bid.
On November 23, Stanton-Eastbanc filed an application for a Hine Planned Unit Development with the city’s Office of Planning. That initiates a process under which a final design for the development will be agreed upon and amenities granted to the community to compensate it for the increased density the project will bring to the community. The Office of Planning is organized under and reports to the DMPED, but as a practical matter it operates as a separate agency.
DMPED tracks the project for the Mayor and, as the facilitator for the original Land Disposition and Development Agreement (LDDA), interprets the terms of the agreement on behalf of the Mayor. In this sense, DMPED will likely continue to be a key stakeholder in the process, especially regarding definition of terms.
In this PUD process, the community will be represented to the Office of Planning and the Zoning Commission by a Subcommittee of ANC6B’s Planning and Zoning Committee. The Subcommittee includes resident members representing CHRS, EMCAC, CHAMPS, EMMCA, Eyes on Hine, and the Eastern Market North Neighbors Association. CHRS is participating with the understanding it will seek separate party status in the final hearing before the Zoning Commission, which will give it special status, time for a lengthier presentation, and the ability to call expert witnesses in support of its position. In the last PUD process CHRS participated in, the group negotiated an $83,000 mitigation for the demolition of twelve historic buildings in the way of the new Dreyfuss development on H Street, NE. CHRS then used those funds to conduct a survey for its “Beyond the Boundaries Project,” for the purpose of facilitating the expansion of the Historic District.
Subcommittee Chairman Ivan Frishberg has stated that it is not the Subcommittee’s intent to preclude any organization from seeking party status, but rather to strengthen the ANC position in negotiations with Stanton-Eastbanc and the Office of Planning.
CHRS will host a meeting for Stanton-Eastbanc to present its latest plans to the public on December 12. The next meeting of the Subcommittee will be on December 14.