Problems Seen in the Surplussing of the Hurt Home

For the first time here at the Georgetown Metropolitan, GM is publishing a contributer’s piece. It comes from John Zirinsky, a neighbor of GM’s and someone who is concerned about the manner in which the District has gone about surplussing the Hurt Home at 3050 R St:

I live on R Street, two blocks down from the Hurt Home for the Blind.  I’m a newcomer who is not active or well-known in the neighborhood, but after attending last Wednesday’s pointless meeting on the proposed surplus designation of the Hurt Home I was steamed enough to do some more research about this issue.  I also wasn’t at the December meeting so much of this is new to me, but I’ve tried to get up to speed as quickly as possible.

To start, let me be clear: I fully agree with the consensus that we need to find a good use for the Hurt Home so it is no longer left derelict.  I also acknowledge that selling the property for residential development may in fact be the best use–indeed, it probably is.

But one thing that brought my wife and I to Georgetown was the chance to live in a historic, residential neighborhood with an ideal density due to an appealing mix of single- and multi-family housing.  I also understand that there are a wide range of opinions on the size and scope of the proposed Argos redevelopment and I believe that is an important conversation to have–but not yet.  That’s because we’ve skipped over an important public safeguard that is written into the law.

Before figuring out parking spaces and zoning variances, the first thing the District should be required to consider is whether the property deserves to be sold in the first place.  And, according to the District’s own law and process, the office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) needs to make a recommendation that the Council determine the property to be surplus (meaning it serves no public purpose), which the Council would then enact.  This provides a vital check on the executive’s ability to sell public assets.

Simple enough, right?  The problem is that we haven’t even gotten to the first step in a surplus determination and the DMPED is already zipping along with the negotiation of the sale, having awarded the exclusive rights to proceed with development to Argos Partners.

I think the Council and Mayor’s office would agree that the public is entitled to a fair, transparent process in full compliance with the new Surplus Standards Act.  I’m not a lawyer, but after doing some more research on the applicable laws, I’m concerned that is not what is happening here.  I have three major concerns, which I’ll briefly explain here.  Again, I am not a lawyer, but to read the relevant section of the DC code and my attempt at a more technical analysis of the law, please see this document.

  1. The check-the-box meeting was a farce and does not satisfy the legal requirement that the Mayor’s office seek public input on the project. The public did not receive proper notification by switching the location and failing to give residents 30 days notice–even a representative from the DMPED couldn’t find it.  And it is impossible and absurd to ask the public to comment on a finding without being given any information about how and why it was made.  But this might be expected, since no one from the Mayor’s office who was involved with the making the finding was even at the meeting.
  2. The multimillion dollar deal already in place and dangling before lawmakers will bias the Council’s decision as to whether the Hurt House is truly surplus.  The DMPED has put the horse before the cart.  They found a developer to buy the property, so now they want to go back and have the Council rubber-stamp their recommendation to make the building surplus.  It’s simple: if I offered you a million dollars for your extra pair of gloves, you’d be much more likely to decide you didn’t really need an extra pair of gloves, right?
  3. Based on their own statements at the meeting, the DMPED does not appear to understand what “public use” means. The law states that the property should be used for “municipal, community development or other public purpose.”  But DMPED official David Roberts repeatedly insisted that the building would have to be used by a DC agency, library or a school in order to be considered “public use.”  It seems Mr. Roberts believes that only a municipal use would qualify, but not another public use like, for example, a culinary arts job training center, a community health center, or something like the Jackson Art Center in a District building right next door!  Yes, money is tight, but the DMPED has not made any effort to explore these options with the community.

I’m not entirely naive, so I understand that a cozy relationship between the Mayoralty and private developers is nothing new or unusual.  However, the passage of the District Land Disposition Amendment Act of 2009 was intended to be a major step in bringing transparency and accountability into the process of disposing of surplus District buildings.  But now it appears that the disposition of the Hurt Home is not following the new procedure in it’s letter or intent.

More troubling, while the Hurt Home is nearest and dearest to us Georgetowners, this exact same process is now unfolding at seven other properties across the District.  I’d imagine the issues here would apply equally to the other surplusing processes.

Of course, this deal needs to be understood in the context of our current fiscal and political situation.  We clearly have a severe, unsustainable budget deficit, where we are unable to afford our current level of spending on services in the District.  I don’t think I’m being overly cynical when I observe that this year the Mayor will be most concerned about his re-election and will not be advocating major service cuts or tax increases.  But instead of selling off more historic public property in an awful commercial real estate market, why haven’t we curtailed the corrupt and undemocratic practice of affording massive tax subsidies to private developers?   Not only is a fire sale of District property contra to the public interest, it is the worst kind of short-term, stop-gap thinking by politicians who are unwilling to risk their careers by making difficult choices about the size and funding of government.

I think we deserve better.  We should demand that our government abide by the rules they’ve made for themselves and follow a fair, transparent process.  If the Hurt Home is to be sold to developers, it should be done right and the public’s interest protected at every step along the way.

My opinion is that, ideally, the District should start from scratch by walking away from their deal with Argos and making sure this is handled fairly throughout the process.  If there is a public interest in continuing with the current process, at the very least we need a more thorough examination of public use alternatives and a real public hearing about the determination before going forward.

So what can we do?

  1. This Wednesday, the Council is holding a public round-table to gather comments at 2:00 in Room 412 of the Wilson Building at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave.  I plan to attend and would encourage other residents who wish to make themselves heard on this issue be there as well.
  2. I would also like to make the strongest possible case to the Mayor’s office, Jack Evans, Mary Cheh (as Ronda Bernstein helpfully recommended) and our ANC commissioners that this sale be done the right way.  Like I said, I’m not a lawyer or an expert, so I’d really appreciate anyone else sharing their thoughts on the law or our approach with our elected officials.  If you have any ideas or comments, please send me an email.
  3. I’d also like to hold an informal meeting early this week to discuss items 1 and 2 or anything else you might want to share on this issue.  Weather permitting (and the forecast is favorable), let’s meet Tuesday (June 15) on the front steps of the Hurt Home at 6:30 PM.  Dogs are welcome and I will bring some light refreshments.  (If you think you might attend, I’d also appreciate an email but no need to respond.)
Of course, all this would be a lot easier if we had access to the surplus recommendation document.  I’m going to keep trying to get a copy of the document from the DMPED’s office and will share it here and on the Georgetown Forum if I do.
John Zirinsky is a Georgetown resident

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Problems Seen in the Surplussing of the Hurt Home

  1. John Zirinsky’s article is well thought out, and should be part of the record at City Hall. The Hurt Home being peddled as surplus property is just the latest example of Mayor Fenty’s non-transparency, especially with regards to cherished real estate. Who is the Argos group? Are they in any way connected to the mayor? Ex-fraternity brothers for instance. Was there no other bid on this property? Hard to believe. Jack Evans ought to be front and center on this, finding out what the community wants, and fighting for it. Where is he on this issue?

    People want to know….

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