Recent revelations from a federal probe into the successful 2010 campaign of DC Mayor Vincent M. Gray (D) have dogged the veteran community organizer-turned-politician. Kwame Brown (D) is also under scrutiny for leasing two costly SUVs in the days before he became chairman of the DC Council.
While these stories may dominate the attention of mainstream media outlets, District business leaders have another focus: development.
According to the Gray administration, there is currently more than $60 billion in the District’s development pipeline for residential, commercial, retail and institutional projects. This development is on pace with the trend over the past decade to ensure that development dollars are spread beyond the District’s downtown commercial hub into all sectors of D.C., in line with Gray’s “One City” theme.
Scores of new developments have cropped up from new businesses near the New York Avenue Metro Station (the North of Massachusetts Avenue (NOMA) district) to 14th Street/Columbia Heights project, and even the National’s Ballpark/Riverfront community. With this development has come an infusion of more than 50,000 new District taxpayers.
Andy Shallal, a political activist, developer and owner of the popular Busboys and Poets restaurant chain and a Ward 1 resident, said he believes the local political scandals “are a mere distraction to issues that face Washingtonians; good schools, jobs, development…issues that pertain to improving the quality of life for all district residents.”
Shallal isn’t dismissive of the pending investigations, noting “such publicity cannot be good for the city.” Nonetheless, he said, the extended media preoccupation of local scandals amounts to “silly sensationalism” and could “set back any kind of further autonomy” that he and other activists and business leaders alike say is essential for the District to truly prosper.
Darrin Davis, a young real estate professional and broker-owner of Anacostia River Realty, based “east of the river” said claims surrounding Gray and Brown at worst are “minor errors in judgment and shouldn’t be distracting from the city’s goals.”
For Davis, the real news is what’s in store for the District’s east of the Anacostia River neighborhoods, which he describes as “hidden jewels.” Davis has seen new interest, particularly in Ward 7, by entrepreneurs and investors seeking to get ahead of the curve. The fact that Ward 7 is home to three of the District’s top political leaders, Mayor Gray, Council Chair Brown, and incumbent Councilmember Yvette Alexander (D) is only a plus, Davis said.
The chance to spur development recently took a delegation of District leaders to the International Council of Shopping Center (ICSC) convention in Las Vegas, considered by many as the world’s largest annual development industry networking and deal-making event. Each year, the retail conference brings together more than 30,000 government officials, retailers, developers and other professionals from around the world.
At the ICSC conference, Brown, outside the microscope of DC mainstream news outlets, met with a variety of “retailers and developers to discuss various projects” in all eight of the District’s wards. Now that he’s back, Brown said he hopes to take advantage of contacts that he and other local leaders made at ICSC to lure “retailers and developers who seriously intend to invest in the District.”
Brown is particularly bullish about development in his home Ward, noting several economic development priorities in Ward 7, such as the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, the 4800 Nannie Helen Burroughs project, and the long-anticipated redevelopment of the Penn-Branch Shopping Center.
According to Brown, Ward 7 and other underserved neighborhoods are perfect opportunities for developers. The ward includes more than 75,000 residents who all require basic services and amenities that currently are not offered, including grocery stores, restaurants, and entertainment options. “In my view, smart investors will realize these gaps in the market and deliver these services to Ward 7 residents,” Brown said.
There is a balancing act in promoting new business in the District, while making sure that development does not come as a detriment to local, home-grown enterprises.
Victor Hoskins, the Gray administration’s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development leads a staff charged with ensuring a level playing field. Hoskins and his team are supported by District laws that require at least 51 percent of jobs created by new development projects to be given to D.C. residents.
Hoskins’ team has also built a webportal for developers that “allows anyone interested in doing business in the District to determine what incentives they would be eligible for depending on their location within the District.”
In sum, the word on D.C.’s main street is development, not scandal.
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