Pressure on Mayor Adrian Fenty heated up today as questions increased about the Mayor's developer selection process amid news that WMATA may be backing away from Banneker Ventures as a development partner. Banneker has been awarded numerous projects worth tens of millions of dollars by the Mayor's office despite its perceived lack of development experience.
Today, the WMATA board removed the Banneker project "The Jazz @ Florida Avenue" at 8th and Florida Avenue from the agenda for the real estate committee next Thursday, at which time it would have taken-up a joint development agreement for the WMATA-owned property. Today's move comes after WMATA issued a 120-day extension on the agreement in September 2009. Banneker was chosen for the project in June of 2008, but has not yet started work on the site. More than a year later it announced it would partner with Bank of America and had petitioned for government funds, advances that were to have moved the project forward. The developer had already been pledged a $7m TIF grant from the District.
The move by WMATA likely comes in response to questions raised first by this publication about justification for awarding so many projects to a team with so little apparent experience, then by the CityPaper and Washington Post about the how the relationship between Banneker's founder and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty may have affected the selection process. The two men attended Howard University and were in the same fraternity.
In addition to the WMATA site on Florida Avenue, the virtually unknown Banneker has been selected by the District on numerous multi-million dollar projects throughout the city, despite a large roster of construction and development firms available for such projects as private financing for construction was drying up. Banneker's luck began in late 2007 when it was selected by the District to be part of the $700 million Northwest One project. Around the same time, Banneker was named as a master planner on the monstrous Park Morton project (see DC's summary). Despite lack of movement in those two projects, or on its private projects (see more below) it was then selected for a string of projects such as the WMATA site in June of 2008, and by DC for the iconic Strand Theater in July of that year, then in October to head the $33m Deanwood Community Center project. In October of last year the District named Landex Corp, Spectrum Management and the Warrenton Group as developers of Park Morton. The Warrenton Group is run by a former Banneker member that has also had a contentious relationship with the city.
Park Morton raised eyebrows at the Mayor's development process for yet another reason; the District announced just last October that the Mayor had selected its team members for Park Morton in part because that development team said it controlled and would bring the Central Union Mission site into the development plan, increasing its scope. DCMud learned a few days later that the Missions' owners had never agreed to transfer their property to the development team, calling into question the District's selection process and the claims made by the development team to secure the project. Banneker is also being considered for its development offer at Hill East, a massive 50-acre parcel on the Anacostia River. Banneker's publicly-funded projects at the WMATA site, the Strand, Park Morton have yet to break ground.
In a contentious radio interview on the Kojo Nnamdi show following the announcement, Omar Karim, founder and principal at Banneker Ventures, called out the WMATA board for further delaying review of the agreement on the RFP awarded in 2008. In the interview, Karim, who dismissed suggestions that the board had legitimate concerns, argued that WMATA continued to "move the bar" on his project for "political" reasons. The Jazz @ Florida Avenue would theoretically bring 124 apartment units above 20,000 s.f. of ground floor retail and a 61-space parking garage to 3 flea market-sporting lots.
Tom Sherwood, resident analyst at NPR, asked Karim how many contracts he had received prior to Fenty taking office, to which Sherwood ultimately answered his own question with "none." Asked specifically about his experience, Karim answered that he had solid development experience at a large firm prior to starting Banneker, but would not name the firm or elaborate on the experience. As for Banneker's experience, Karim could only cite that his firm held an office building in Silver Spring and an unspecified site in which he "has been in conversations with Safeway about developing." At the time of publication, Safeway was unable to confirm or deny these conversations.
So what about that Silver Spring office building? That would presumably be 814 Thayer Avenue. Banneker purchased the site in May of 2006, submitted plans later in the year, and in July 2007 obtained Montgomery County Planning Board approval of a preliminary plan for a 52-unit residential building, a plan that was reviewed in November of 2007. The next step would be site plan approval, but, to date, the team has not even submitted a site plan to the planning staff for certification. Banneker will need a certified plan before the group can file for any construction permits for the property, making the September 2010 ground breaking date seem, at best, optimistic.
The 5-story Thayer project, designed by Sorg & Associates, would entail construction of a 53-unit condominium, in place of National Association of the Deaf office building. Joshua Sloan, a staff reviewer at the MNCPPC, provided an update on the project, "my understanding is that they want to amend their proposal, but I have not seen anything. I suppose it is "officially still pending." Sloan and his comments are the last stop before Banneker can proceed, a process which "can take a week or a year...depending on the Applicant’s response time to comments."
Banneker's website also boasts the Pattern Shop Lofts on the Waterfront, a project led by Forest City Washington that has not yet broken ground. Banneker registered with the District government as a small, minority-owned business in 2005.
Washington, DC real estate development news