This Wednesday, 26 individuals joined together at the Wilson Building to air their concerns before Councilmember Carol Schwartz in a Public Oversight Roundtable discussing the process of declaring public land as "surplus." The normally arcane process of land disposition has been under scrutiny of late, due largely to recent attempts to develop city land by legislation without a public bidding process - processes which were nixed at both the Janney School / Tenley Library (pictured, being demolished), and in the West End. Under the current regime, land is declared as surplus within the same legislation proposing its sale; Ms. Schwartz was of the clear impression that the process needs to be bifurcated to include more public input. The resulting discussion, which included much disparaging of public-private partnerships, unearthed some interesting points regarding the current process.
Ms. Schwartz, the only Councilmember present at the meeting, held the open-forum, during which many of the attendees shared their grievances regarding public-private partnerships; on more than one occasion it appeared that Ms. Schwartz was of the same mind. "I don't like unsolicited proposals," she stated. According to the Councilmember, an ideal property disposition would involve approaching each proposal as a public surplus issue first and foremost - if the government receives an unsolicited proposal, the Council should first determine whether the city needs the land in a separate finding, and if so, initiate a competitive RFP process.
Charles Barber, President of the DC Building Industry Association, offered one of the few counterpoints to forbidding unsolicited proposals, citing locations where buildable land sits in dormancy because private companies are unwilling to develop due to the risk associated with building in less-than-appealing neighborhoods. The benefits of pioneering, he added, catalyze further developmental growth and can offer drastic gains for residents of the area. Mr. Barber pointed to a prime example: the Verizon Center and its enriching effects on Chinatown.
Barber pointed out another example where the land disposition process should be more accommodating: scenarios involving property that may only have real value to an adjacent land owner because of its inadequacy to house a standalone project. He illustrated the circumstances of George Washington University's acquisition of an 8,500-s.f. parking lot from DC Public Schools. The sliver of parking lot was purchased for $12 million to be merged into a larger project: a new GWU dormitory. Other developers would have been hard pressed to make good use of such a small slice of land, and DCPS had little need for the tiny back portion of their parking lot; in fact, DCPS and School's Without Walls had much more use for the $12 million it received for the site, which will be used to renovate an adjacent school building and build a new addition. "It was a win-win situation," said Barber. "The District should have the flexibility in certain situations to accept unsolicited proposals."
But many at the hearing disagreed. Nicole Armbruster, a DC resident, declared "there is no such thing as surplus public property," citing the example of abundant civic needs that exist and could be filled by public projects on the so-called "surplus" land. Chris Otten, a member of Community Empowerment Operations, suggested that public land never be sold, but rather the government re-purpose it for new uses. He used the example of a dilapidated school being turned into affordable housing, a library, or a dental clinic.
Testimony was clearly not favorable toward private development, even Ms. Schwartz criticized developers who offer unsolicited proposals or respond to RFPs, only to request relief from real estate taxes and other forms of reprieve. "That's bothersome to me," she said, referring especially to developers of projects in developed areas of town, who "know that [they] are going to get a nice profit...This is not a charity case."