Greater Greater Washington

Will Thomas push for local business and good urban design?

Harry Thomas, Jr. will lead the DC Council's Committee on Economic Development next year. In a press release, Thomas notes his plans to continue "building on what he has accomplished in this area for Ward 5." The trouble is, Thomas' development record in Ward 5 is spotty, at best.


Councilmember Thomas. Photo by mediaslave on Flickr.

Suburban-style, big box-anchored retail development is scattered throughout Ward 5, such as Rhode Island Place, Rhode Island Avenue Center, and Hechinger Mall.

With part of Thomas' new duties including oversight of the Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD), one might expect him to focus on revitalizing the city's struggling commercial corridors. Instead, we have a Councilmember who has often championed more of the status quo.

In his November 15 testimony before the DC Zoning Commission on proposed car and bike parking regulations in the zoning code, Thomas said,

"I have recently spoken with representatives of several retailers who are interested in developing large, multi-tenant shopping centers in the District.... There are ... a number of locations in Ward 5 and other outlying Wards with blocks of land large enough to accommodate these developments, but without convenient access to Metrorail. Placing a cap on parking citywide, in a one-size-fits-all approach, would limit the desirability of these locations and have an adverse economic impact on the District."
We now know that Thomas was alluding to Dakota Crossing, with a planned 3,000 surface parking spaces, as well as the still developing plans for four Walmarts.

At the same time, Thomas knows very well what progressive urban infill looks like, and has helped usher it in during his tenure in Ward 5. Rhode Island Station, The Flats at Atlas District, and developments near Catholic University build on a multi- and mixed-use platform with retail space for small, local businesses.

While we continue to hear Thomas' lip service about the jobs and tax revenues that will be brought by new big boxes, our main streets continue to flounder. The Rhode Island Avenue Great Streets Initiative, for example, seems to have fallen off of DMPED's radar.

Can Thomas, who will have oversight of DMPED as Chair of the Committee on Economic Development, push for movement on a plan that could link the District's side of this important gateway with the revitalization that is happening just across the border in Mt. Rainier and Hyattsville?

While Brookland's 12th Street NE commercial strip received streetscape improvements, it still struggles to attract new businesses. North Capitol Main Street, Inc. continues to make strides in promoting local businesses, but will it find itself competing against a suffocating surge in big box, large-scale infill?

Will economic development East of the River under Thomas be focused on a blend of large- and small-scale development, or will bigger continue to be touted as better?

Thomas has proven an ability to work with developers and corporations on large projects. He knows the language of urban design and of Main Street commercial revitalization.

Unfortunately, a disconnect appears to exist between Thomas' advocacy for the bigger players and the smaller operators necessary to foster vital, dense cores in our neighborhoods. As he leads the Committee on Economic Development for the next four years, his actions will speak louder than words, particularly as we work our way out of the current recession.

Without a balance of both local and national retail outlets, small- and large-scale development, we will continue to see big box nodes favored to the detriment of our underutilized retail corridors, and we simply cannot afford that.

Jaime Fearer worked in the book industry for over 10 years before pursuing a graduate planning degree, and she is a community planner in Greenbelt, MD. When she first moved to NE DC, she ran stop, blog, and roll. Jaime now lives in Trinidad DC, where she serves on the neighborhood associationís board. 

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Anyone who saw Thomas oversee the confirmation hearing of Ximena Hartstock should be terrified that he is now chairing this committee.

Thomas seems uninformed, inarticulate, and more interested in rhetoric that getting the job done.

It's too bad - Kwame messed up big time right out of the box.

by Acer on Dec 28, 2010 1:22 pm • linkreport

This is disturbing, indeed. Thomas doesn't seem to fathom how the changing market is intentionally disfavoring suburban landscapes - a trend that started, believe it or not, in the late eighties, and has since accelerated to the point that its blatantness today essentially verifies this conjecture - in favor of the relatively less volatile 'fabric' of the urban marketplace: teeming with vibrant activity at the streetscape level, shoppes and local retailers abound, and accessible via multiple modes.

Thomas' mindset appears to be: "what worked in the past is what got us here today" and since that means "the Suburban Project", he seemingly knows no better. To his defense (although ignorance is not a credible defense, mind you) Thomas may well not have known about how effective cities were at attracting all sorts and manner of stores, making them conform to the urban mindset, and not vice versa. (It's not like the R-B Corridor or Bethesda are in the outlying vicinity or anything, the world class examples which others could emulate...)

With comments like, "Placing a cap on parking citywide, in a one-size-fits-all approach, would limit the desirability of these locations and have an adverse economic impact on the District.", I sense dark days ahead for the very economic viability of D.C.

by C. R. on Dec 28, 2010 2:22 pm • linkreport

It should be clear by now -- after all the "Team Thomas" questions -- that Thomas' role model for development issues is former PG County executive Jack Johnson....

by Bob on Dec 28, 2010 2:22 pm • linkreport

Clarendon Blvd. in Arlington should be the model for much of DC redevelopment. The mix of new highrise housing and new retail along travel corridors is the way to go, whether it is along Georgia Ave. or Rhode Island Ave. or Pennsylvania Ave.

Walmart is not the way to revitalize the city. The city should aim at "small-box."

by Steve on Dec 28, 2010 3:37 pm • linkreport

@ Steve:

Exactly spot-on. I especially like the idea of major arterials providing an alternative means of transportation (I would include the Rockville Pike in there, too).

Speaking of which, a trolley or streetcar line from the Courthouse in Upper Marlboro down Penn. Ave doesn't actually sound like too bad of an idea.... And, as wide as Rockville Pike is, there's no reason some kind of surface transportation can't co-exist peacefully on the street.

Except of course, unwarranted fears, that is.

However, wouldn't some sort of effective public education forum or seminar help alleviate concerns? I'd think so.

I've gone horribly off-topic, but I like the idea of surface transportation co-existing on major arterial roads.

by C. R. on Dec 28, 2010 3:51 pm • linkreport

@Steve--

The other admirable part of Clarendon Blvd is how well the existing residential neighborhoods were preserved while the high-density mixed use corridor went up. My favorite illustration of this is to go to Clarendon Market Common and to stand in front of the Barnes and Noble, facing it. Walk to the left and along the small path that cuts through the development, past a dentist's office, then cross the alley in back of the Barnes and Noble and soon you will emerge in a park in a residential neighborhood, where the presence of the high-density modern yuppieville is almost impossible to discern.

by thm on Dec 28, 2010 4:48 pm • linkreport

Tommy "Tommy" Thomas is a buffoon.

His arrogance and astounding ego are setting him up for a downfall. His legislative accomplishments are limited to ensuring that by the end of his tenure, every resident of Ward 5 will have received a ceremonial resolution honoring them.

His intellect is at the low end of the spectrum, and he has ambitions of running for mayor (although first he wants to run for Kwame's at-large seat in the spring).

His none-too-subtle class- and race-baiting make him a disastrous choice for this committee. But I imagine Kwame did it purposefully, knowing that Thomas won't be able to accomplish anything legislatively and thereby threaten Kwame's own planned run for mayor in 4 years.

I expect Thomas to focus extensive energy on why minority front companies (who give him donations on and off the books) aren't being hired by the big developers, rather than on development issues in general. His faux populism (the "man of the people" rides in a $56k Audi that was bought by his "charity") is his ticket to higher office.

by Fritz on Dec 28, 2010 5:22 pm • linkreport

the headline (hopefully) was meant to be ironic. He's a hack who will have ample opportunity to prove easy to defat in the next mayoral election.

by Rich on Dec 28, 2010 5:29 pm • linkreport

Thomas does strike me as a buffoon. I'm guess I'm not clear how much the chair of the DC Council on Economic Development really matters. Atleast in comparison to the Deputy Mayor of Economic Development... if that post is assigned an ignorant leader then we are certainly doomed.

There were a couple of DMPED projects near where I live. I followed them closely and Kwame seemed to have little part in them other than showing up at ribbon cuttings. Clint Jackson and Neil Albert seemed to be in the driver's seat. So I'm not clear how much the CM chair of the committee really matters. This article certainly highlights Thomas lackluster track record in matters of urbanism but doesn't really illuminate for me how much influence he'll really have...

Lastly, some of the Ward 5 sites Thomas allowed shopping centers to be built on are not very urban sites. Dakota Crossing was never going to be the next Logan Circle. It's an area of the city that shares more characteristics with PG County than the center city.

by Jason on Dec 28, 2010 6:16 pm • linkreport

@ C. R.

A streetcar line from from Capitol Hill to Court House in Upper Marlboro would be too long. Light rail might work but then you'd have to worry about overhead wires actually in view of the Capitol building. NIMBY-ism will kill that fast.

by Shadow Inc. on Dec 28, 2010 6:26 pm • linkreport

Thomas is fighting to bring people together on the issues with the Bloomingdale Farmers' Market.

It is small, independent, and locally owned...

He works hard to support the business. And he works hard to respect the people at odds.

by Stu on Dec 28, 2010 9:34 pm • linkreport

I would be more worried about dmped. Under Fenty, it became a joke, and anyone w/ the clout got their blessing. Anyone who thinks the team thomas investigation isn't politically motivated hasn't lived in this town long enough.

As Jason said, there's probably very little that position can actually do.

The few times I've interacted with Thomas, I've found him to be respectful and responsive to my concerns (and no @Fritz, I'm not black nor monied). While it may not sit well with this group, he does give a large voice to civic associations and local ANC's.

by m on Dec 28, 2010 11:05 pm • linkreport

I weep for the white men and women of DC.

by Packer on Dec 29, 2010 12:48 am • linkreport

I hate that Clarendon is a suggested model for retail/economic development in DC. Frankly, we could do without more chain restaurants and cookie-cutter architecture.

by Snowpeas on Dec 29, 2010 9:30 am • linkreport

Clarendon disgusts me. The architecture and streetscapes are soulless with too-wide roads and too-long wait times between pedestrian crossings.

by m on Dec 29, 2010 10:24 am • linkreport

One nitpick, Hechinger Mall is not in Ward 5. It's in Ward 6. It's also in an area that is under served by transit so I don't think comparisons to anything by the Rhode Island Avenue Metro.

by Kate on Dec 29, 2010 10:42 am • linkreport

Hit post too soon. That should say "comparison to anything by the Rhode Island Ave Metro are apt."

by Kate on Dec 29, 2010 10:44 am • linkreport

@Kate

Hechinger Mall is indeed in Ward 5. The dividing line between Wards 5 and 6 is Florida Ave/Benning Road:

http://www.dcboee.org/popup.asp?url=/pdf_files/Ward5_Map.pdf

by Alex B. on Dec 29, 2010 10:48 am • linkreport

@Kate:

While the area around Hechinger Mall isn't close to a Metro station, it is by no means under served by transit. In addition to the streetcar line being built now (which should be factored into current and future land use planning), 8 bus routes come within a 1/4 mile of the mall, and 5 of those actually cross the Starburst intersection.

by Jaime Fearer on Dec 30, 2010 11:31 pm • linkreport

@Jaime -- you mean the street cars that are several years away and weren't even in the planning stage when Hechinger Mall was built? Have you ever actually ridden those bus lines? Getting on the generally crowded X2 with bags of groceries or one of those small carts will not endear you to your fellow riders?

Hechinger Mall is old. It opened in 1986. This was part of DC was very different then. It had a lumber yard in it, there were no Zip Cars.

So while it is not what I would build now, comparing it to big box retail with massive parking lots built right on top of a metro, is not an apt comparison.

by Kate on Dec 31, 2010 12:00 am • linkreport

@Kate:

Yes, I mean the streetcars that are a couple of years to completion. I'm not indicting Thomas on the design of the mall, I'm saying it shouldn't stand as the model for the way in which we design in that area now. As I said, The Flats at Atlas District are a huge step in the right direction, but the design of the Aldi across the street is not.

And yes, I have ridden some of the buses, but not all of them since I live within walking distance of the mall. We can certainly push to improve service to the increasing density of people utilizing it every day.

To me, this is an apt comparison as a transit node, it's just not necessarily TOD as traditionally thought of because it's not on top of a Metro station.

by Jaime Fearer on Dec 31, 2010 7:19 am • linkreport

Great comments. They helped in my original position and questioning of Chairman Brown's Committee Chair decision.

by dbrighthaupt on Jan 4, 2011 12:50 am • linkreport

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