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Posts about Vincent Gray

Politics


Vince Gray could win a seat on the DC Council if he decides to run, a poll says

If former mayor Vince Gray decides to make a political comeback, he'd be very likely to unseat either Vincent Orange for an at-large seat on the DC Council or Yvette Alexander in Ward 7, according to a new poll.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Former Gray campaign manager Chuck Thies raised money for a citywide poll. Public Policy Polling surveyed 1,569 people likely to vote in the June Democratic primary, including 407 in Ward 7, using an automated telephone system where people press buttons in response to questions.

Would Orange challengers split the vote (again)?

For the at-large seat, incumbent Vincent Orange is expected to run for re-election. Two challengers, David Garber and Robert White, have announced candidacies to beat him, and both have good ideas for the future of DC, but there's a significant danger that both could split the vote from similar constituencies.

Orange has often pursued a divisive strategy in his races of playing on fears from some "old DC" voters and communities against newcomers. This has certainly left him vulnerable: only 28% of voters citywide see him favorably.

The City Paper's Will Sommer thinks vote splitting will happen, giving Orange another term, should Gray not run in that race. It's still somewhat unclear what would happen in that situation; the poll only asked about a field that also included Busboys and Poets restaurateur and recent mayoral candidate Andy Shallal.

In that scenario, if the primary were held today, Orange would get 28% of the vote, Shallal 19%, Garber 8%, and White 7%. However, most voters don't know Garber or White, with more than three-quarters having no opinion of either.

If Gray were to run, he leads the pack with 32% of voters, versus 20% for Orange, 10% for Garber, and 6% for White. (It might just be a statistical fluke, but this suggests some Shallal voters would go to Garber.)

The clear question is how this could change over the course of a campaign. Is about a third of the vote a ceiling for Gray, who won about that percentage of the vote in the 2014 mayoral primary? And would that be enough anyway in a split field? Would Garber or White gain Gray voters, or Gray win some Orange voters, or other combinations?

For the Ward 7 seat, Gray polled 48% to Alexander's 32%. Gray had higher name recognition and favorable ratings than Alexander, though Alexander's favorables are much better than Orange's.

You can read all of the citywide and Ward 7 results here.

Were writers and prosecutors unfair to Gray?

The poll also asked if people think federal investigators or the media treated Gray fairly or unfairly. Generally, black voters were much more likely to say that Gray was treated unfairly.

Count me in the minority of white voters who think Gray was treated unfairly by prosecutors. We might still not know for certain everything that happened in the illegal 2010 "shadow campaign," but the US Attorney's office absolutely became a player in the 2014 election by announcing suspicions of Gray weeks before the primary.

I spoke to some voters outside polling places at the primary, and many knew virtually nothing about the race except that they wanted to vote for whoever would beat Gray. Unfortunately, they generally didn't know a thing about Gray's own policy positions and views.

He consistently supported efforts to give residents more transportation choices, including better bus service, a stronger Metro system, bike infrastructure, and safe places to walk. He pushed for new housing to welcome new residents and keep room for long-time ones, even suggesting targeted changes to the federal height limit to create areas like Paris' La Défense near the Anacostia River.

It's hard to say if the media really treated Gray unfairly. Some columnists and editorial writers who were fans of Adrian Fenty never forgave Gray for beating him. On the other hand, nobody could expect the press to ignore a scandal so serious as the shadow campaign. I think most media coverage did concentrate too much on personalities rather than on the issues that really affect life in DC.

Many people saw him as just being the anti-Adrian Fenty and a return to some things they didn't like about Marion Barry, but Gray continued most of Fenty's policies. He did better in some spheres and worse in others. Certainly, the streetcar project was not executed well, and past and future transportation directors like Emeka Moneme, Gabe Klein, and Leif Dormsjo were more effective than Gray's pick of Terry Bellamy.

But Gray was also an exemplary council chair, perhaps the best in some time. I'd like Muriel Bowser to have a chance to demonstrate her vision and governing ability before there's too much talk about the 2018 mayoral race; so far, her cabinet has been very high-quality (with a few exceptions). But if Vincent Gray were to return to the DC Council, residents who want to see DC move forward boldly but inclusively would have a lot to cheer.

Note: The Greater Greater Washington Editorial Board has not yet chosen to endorse any candidates for the 2016 election. This post is David Alpert's personal opinion as Greater Greater Washington's founder.

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Zoning


DC Council chairman Phil Mendelson is blocking Mayor Bowser's zoning board nominee

Mayor Muriel Bowser has nominated David Franco, a local developer, to sit on the DC Zoning Commission, but DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is blocking the nomination. I spoke with Franco about work, his vision for DC, and his views on the need to build more housing.


David Franco. Image from video by Level 2 Development.

Franco would replace Marcie Cohen, a former affordable housing and community development professional. Cohen has been a strong advocate for zoning that allows more overall housing in DC, speaking about the need for more housing many times. (Disclosure: she also lives on my block.)

It'll be important for Cohen's successor to also understand the importance of growing the District's housing supply so that new and long-time residents can all find places to live that they can afford. Does Franco? I sat down with him to find out.

Mendelson isn't happy about developer nominees

Mayor Bowser chose Franco after Cohen's term expired earlier this year. However, he first has to be confirmed by the DC Council, and the Zoning Commission falls under the purview of Chairman Phil Mendelson. After a few months passed without a hearing, Mendelson recently said he's not planning to move forward.

Mendelson told the Washington Blade that he's concerned about having developers on the commission. "David Franco is an active developer with a development company that has cases before the Zoning Commission," he told reporter Lou Chibbaro, Jr. "He or his company has appeared before the Zoning Commission several times over the last 24 months. That's the primary concern I have."

Mendelson also told Chibbaro he was unhappy Bowser didn't talk with stakeholders like citizens' groups before making her pick.

Whether developers should sit on the commission has been controversial in the past. When Adrian Fenty was mayor, he nominated two developers and the council, then chaired by Vincent Gray rejected one. When Gray went on to be mayor, he nominated Cohen and his longtime staffer Rob Miller; the commission now includes no developers.

Cohen's not a typical community member; Franco, not a typical developer

Both Cohen and Miller have been strong supporters of the overall need to build more housing. On recent cases about whether homeowners can rent out basements or garages or add units to row houses, Miller and Cohen have been the strongest votes for increasing housing supply. Chairman Anthony Hood (who Fenty wanted to replace and Gray renominated) along with Architect of the Capitol representative Michael Turnbull have been more skeptical of the need for housing, and the National Park Service's Peter May has been the swing vote on key decisions.

Unlike many developers, Franco has also been a supporter of the District's Inclusionary Zoning program which granted extra density in exchange for requiring projects to include some below-market affordable housing. He speaks very proudly of a deal he worked out to save affordable housing on 14th Street across from his View 14 development.

I recently spoke with Franco about his development work and his vision for his service on the Zoning Commission. Here are some of his answers; an upcoming post will delve into some specific issues we discussed in more detail.


Discount Mart in Anacostia. Photo by AboutMyTrip dotCom on Flickr.

Tell me a bit about your history in DC, including your business ventures, and your work in development.

My father owned a children's apparel, furniture and toy store on 12th and G Street, which was originally opened by my uncle in 1939. As a child, I grew up in my father's store and he helped launch my family's other retail venture, Discount Mart, which was a chain of discount department stores serving areas of northeast and southeast DC.

In my early 20s, I left the family business to join a partnership that acquired Tracks Nightclub and Trumpets restaurant. After a few years, I realized the nightlife business was not for me an decided to go back to my retail roots, opening up a chain of men's clothing stores catering to the gay market.

The business eventually grew to six outlets before I realized I could no longer ignore my passion for architecture and my fascination with urban planning, which led me to real estate development. I partnered with a close friend, Jeff Blum, and in 2003, we finished our first project together—a 12-unit condo development on Chapin Street called The Mercury.

We [later] acquired the Nehemiah Shopping Center, which had become run-down and crime-ridden at the time, and we redeveloped it into Capital View Apartments on 14th St. We also developed The Harper on 14th Street and the Keener-Squire and Takoma Central apartment buildings in Takoma, DC.


View 14, at the corner of 14th and Florida. Images from Level 2 Development.

What development project in DC are you most proud of and why?

Without a doubt, View 14 [at Florida Avenue and 14th Street NW] is our proudest accomplishment. Through the project's Planned Unit Development, we were able to come up with a really creative approach to save the 48-unit Crest Hill Apartments (now Milestone Apartments) from losing its low-income affordability, which would have resulted in the building being redeveloped as market-rate apartments.

During the time that we were beginning to develop View 14, Crest Hill Apartments across the street was being sold at market rate and the tenants could not afford to buy it without an additional $1 million in gap funding. The stories of families we met, some who had been there at least 25 years, resonated with us and inspired us to help our neighbors.

Our solution was to propose a $1 million contribution to the Sankofa Tenants Association as a portion of our affordability proffer along with some on-site units. The support we received for this approach was far-reaching and we received bench approval from the Zoning Commission in the second-fastest PUD of that time.

Soon after Zoning Commission approval, we funded the donation and saved the building, though our own project would soon be in peril with the financial meltdown. We funded the donation from equity, and took a huge risk. I remember a discussion with my business partner Jeff Blum during the dark days of the recession, lamenting that we may not be able finish construction and that all of the project equity was lost, and our company finished. We realized and both agreed, "If, in fact, all is lost, at least at the end of the day we did some good and saved 48 families from losing their homes."

There's often a tension between citywide priorities, like the need to create more housing, and local neighborhood interests which often manifest as opposition. How do you think the Zoning Commission should balance these pressures?
I think there are smart ways to create more housing where it is appropriate to do so. There is no catch-all solution, but rather it's a process that must include grassroots neighborhood input that is thoughtfully considered.

It's often a delicate balance of what's good for the people in the neighborhood and what's good for the larger community, but I don't think that those types of priorities and decisions need to have a winner and a loser. I think digging deep to understanding the issues and working hard to help develop and guide creative solutions will create more win-win solutions.


The Harper, at 14th and T.

How do you think the District could best approach the need for subsidized affordable housing?

There is no silver bullet. ... The District currently utilizes bonus density to subsidize affordable housing, which has been effective in generating new affordable housing and has not disrupted affordable housing production (contrary to the naysayers).

This is an effective tool and we should look at this more carefully as more affordable housing is sought, however, there will not be the same opportunities that came with the original bonus density plan. We cannot simply add bonus density ubiquitously without changing the character of our neighborhoods. We need to look at bonus density selectively and responsibly determine which areas can accommodate it and which areas cannot.

There are other [solutions], such as tax abatements, and we may also want to consider that to some degree we can't meet a zero-sum cost structure and that ultimately some land values will be reduced to enable new multi-family development opportunities. All of these solutions have their pros and cons and should be thoroughly analyzed and vetted.

Anything else you'd like people to know?
I would really like to clarify why I am interested in being a Zoning Commissioner. I will have the opportunity to utilize my passion for urban planning, my skills as a developer along with my passion for the District to positively impact this city that I've always called home.

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Roads


Mary Cheh's annual joke budget memo mocks the streetcar, endless transportation studies, and more

Each year, as the DC Council considers the District's budget, Councilmember Mary Cheh and her staff issue fake recommendations that satirize recent news. This year's poke even sharper fun than usual at a number of issues around transportation, Eleanor Holmes Norton's parking, the Vince Gray prosecution, and many others.


Bookshelf image from Shutterstock.

On the streetcar, for instance, they "suggest,"

Transfer $500,000 million from the District Department of Transportation to the Commission on Arts and Humanities. This transfer will be used for an innovative, progressive, and transformative production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.
That wasn't even the harshest cut at DDOT, though. As we prepared to talk to DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo, a lot of you suggested questions about DDOT's apparent habit of conducting a study, then conducting another one a couple of years later, and so on.

This has been a particular source of ire for Capitol Hill residents who have been waiting years for traffic calming on Maryland Avenue, or supporters of a bus lane who wonder why there has to be another study this year to implement a bus lane that was the subject of at least two earlier studies. Commenter Jimmy, for instance, wrote:

Some of us actually refer to his agency as DDOTS (District Department of Transportation Studies). While some study is necessary to avoid ready-fire-aim debacles like the streetcar, use of "further study" (on bike lanes, bus lanes, bus signal priority, and pretty much everything else that doesn't move more cars faster or provide more parking for private automobiles) has clearly become a delaying tactic. What can be done about this? How can we move forward on things that have already been studied to death?
Cheh and her staff feel your pain. Their budget "recommendation":
Transfer $1.5 million from the Department of General Services—what's another million and a half, anyway—to the District Department of Transportation to conduct a study. It has recently come to the Committee's attention that DDOT has had issues in implementing previously conducted studies. Despite extensive work being done to study traffic calming measures on Maryland Avenue, the agency is about to initiate another study. Additionally, despite conducting a study in 2013 on a 16th Street Bus Lane, DDOT will shortly begin a new study on the topic.

To assist in reducing redundant redundancies, the Committee recommends that the funds be used for DDOT to study these studies. This endeavor will help keep the agency busy because the Committee has no doubt that two years from now they will scrap the study on studies and conduct a new study that studies the study on studies in a rather studious manner.

Burn.

Eleanor Holmes Norton does not get off lightly. A video surfaced in March showing the Congresswoman trying to park between two other cars and somehow managing to end up diagonally in her space. Cheh and her staff "propose" a new Eleanor Holmes Norton Office of Parking and Driving to provide free taxi service for elected officials.

And speaking of federal activities, remember how US Attorney Ron Machen was looking into alleged campaign finance misdeeds from the 2010 Vincent Gray mayoral campaign? Machen charged a number of Gray staffers, but never seemed to find any evidence linking the mayor himself. Yet Machen, in an unusual step for a prosecutor, publicly said "there's there there," saying in essence that he was sure Gray was involved.

Gray lost the primary election, in large part because many people believed Machen, but nothing has happened since. Cheh and her staff caustically "suggest" funding a dictionary and a map for the US Attorney's Office so it can "determine where exactly is the there."

Other biting critiques in the memo include:

  • A recommendation about the DC Board of Elections printed entirely upside-down, a reference to the upside-down DC flag on the 2014 voter guide which BOE first pretended was intentional, then admitted had been a mistake.
  • That upside-down proposal suggests a primary date based on the lunar calendar to "enhance voter turnout and continue to make elections a part of the news cycle." DC had shifted its primary from September to April due to federal laws about getting absentee ballots to servicemembers overseas. But the turnout in 2014 hit record lows, so the council moved it back.
  • A budget allocation to make space for "all of Mayor Bowser's former staff and campaign aides" on the council. Bowser staffers Brandon Todd and LaRuby May won the two recent special elections, in Wards 4 and 8 respectively. Todd said he would be independent of Bowser and even, while campaigning, opposed her controversial DC Jail healthcare contract which Bowser had been pushing; days after winning, he decided he would support his former boss after all.
  • A new job training program for councilmembers forced out of office due to corruption.
  • Body cameras for councilmembers whose footage will be televised on a reality show, "Keeping Up with the Kouncilmembers."
  • A staffer to submit "all office supply orders" to Congress, given that Congress is so eager to get involved in DC's local affairs.
Cheh and her staff conclude with a suggestion that if you don't find her memo funny, you "participate in some recently-legalized activities" (i.e. smoke marijuana) and then you will "find it to be, like, totally the funniest thing ever."

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Politics


The DC council will stay somewhat colorful... literally

Views, backgrounds, and many other factors are important qualities for candidates for office. One that doesn't matter at all: Whether their names are also colors of the rainbow. But it's fun nonetheless to chart how many of DC's elected officials share surnames with parts of the palette.

Orange was the first hue to join the council, as the Ward 5 member in 1999. He left to run for mayor (and lost), but when returned to the council after winning a special election for an at-large seat in 2011. Then, the District reached an all-time high of four chromatic elected officials: Vincent Gray, mayor; Kwame Brown, chairman; and Michael Brown and Orange, at-large councilmembers.

As I noted in a similarly-frivolous post on this topic in 2011, the tally does not count foreign-language names; Carol Schwartz (who was an at-large member from 1985 to 2008) has a name that derives from "schwarz," the German word for black.

Now, with both Browns off the council (both having pled guilty to lawbreaking) and Gray having lost his seat as mayor (in large part because of a federal investigation), Orange would have been again the only official with an RGB formula... except he will have a partner: Elissa Silverman, who won the race to succeed David Catania.

There will also be a special election in 2015 for the Ward 4 member. A few people (whose last names are not colors) are already running, but most say it's far too early to speculate.

One who isn't yet running but might is Robert White, who just gained 7% of the vote in the race Silverman won. If you count first names, there's also Graylan Hagler.

The real vote should depend more on the candidates' views, and in reality will depend even more on whom Muriel Bowser endorses. But a White or Graylan victory would, as an unimportant side effect, again boost the council's chromaticity.

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Transit


No, DC is not abandoning plans for most streetcar lines

If you read the headlines in the Post and WAMU today, you might come away thinking that the DC government has decided not to try to build a streetcar line on Georgia Avenue or from Anacostia to Buzzard Point. But that would be wrong.


Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

What's going on?

What happened yesterday is the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) announced three finalists for its contract to design, build, operate, and maintain streetcar lines. Earlier this year, DDOT had planned for that contract to encompass all of the 22-mile streetcar system: an east-west line from Benning Road to Georgetown, a north-south line from Southwest to Takoma or Silver Spring, and a line from Anacostia to Southwest.

To make that possible, the mayor's office had asked the DC Council to essentially set aside all of the money for the entire system right now.

While they insisted, vehemently, that they still support the streetcar system, the Council dedided they just weren't ready to give it all of the money today. Therefore, this current bidding process can only legally encompass the lines which are in the six-year capital plan—the east-west line and the part of the Anacostia line from Bolling to the foot of the 11th Street Bridge.

The news stories have, accurately, reported that the current funding only lets the system grow to about 8.2 miles. Unfortunately, some of them also gave them impression that DC has "cut" the program. It's going to happen slower, definitely, but that might not even be all bad.

It's not really a surprise the council didn't boost streetcar funding

Let's say you want to start a company and are going to venture capital investors. You put together a rough business plan and they give you some seed money to hire some people. Then a few years go by, during which time your prototype gets delayed and you don't talk to your customers. You then come back to investors asking for much more money, but your business plan still isn't more detailed despite your promises to flesh it out. Would the investors fund you?

Even with crazy money in tech sometimes, it would be pretty tough. And it's understandable that DC councilmembers balked at the mayor's funding request. They continued authorizing about $600 million at a time when the starter line on H Street has been delayed and officials have given vague or no answers to questions. The mayor was asking for a very large amount of extra money, and politically, it just didn't fly.

Since Terry Bellamy took over at the start of the Gray Administration and Carl Jackson came from Greenville, SC to run the transit programs, DDOT went mostly silent on the streetcar. There were a few required environmental study meetings, sure, but the agency basically stopped collaborating with groups like the Sierra Club or local BIDs, which it had done under Gabe Klein and Scott Kubly.

The mayor convened a task force chaired by City Administrator Allen Lew which included many business leaders. The business community was willing to talk about special taxing districts to help pay for the streetcar, but Lew ultimately decided not to even try a "value capture" system and instead just dedicated 25% of future new tax revenue to the streetcar.

At the same time, the government basically spent all of 2013 lying to the public about how the streetcar would open that year while everyone—at lower levels, anyway—knew it wouldn't. Promises that DC would lay out detailed plans for things like where streetcar storage and maintenance yards would go went unfulfilled and questions about how it would work without overhead wires across the Mall and key viewsheds remain unanswered and unstudied (but studies are now beginning).

So, four years has gone by since the height of streetcar enthusiasm. In all that time, few detailed emerged, promises were repeatedly broken, and ties with allies atrophied.

The council said, give us a plan

Many councilmembers said, publicly and privately, that they still want to see the entire streetcar system built. The two leading mayoral candidates support the plan at least to a significant degree; both point to failures and mistakes along the way, which indeed happened.

But councilmembers, including Chairman Phil Mendelson, and also people in the budget office, say they just want more detailed plans. They want DDOT to do more legwork and answer more questions before they'll hand over a blank check. I don't entirely blame them.

Unfortunately, some in the Gray administration responded to the cuts by essentially saying, "okay, you didn't give us the money, so that's it for most of the lines." That's misleading. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the transportation committee, told the Post that the Gray team is being "childish" and not working with others. "You don't take your marbles and go home," Cheh said.

Sure, the cuts make things harder. Sometimes transportation projects can be a chicken-and-egg situation where you can't know every single thing up front. The plans for the Metrorail system shifted between when construction started and when it ended (delaying the Green Line by years), for example. "Design-build" can be a more economical and faster way to get transportation projects built, but it also involves hiring your contractor before you have every detail laid out perfectly.

People who are more skeptical of the streetcar, like Phil Mendelson, are less tolerant of gaps in the plan which can get filled in during the design-build process; they don't trust the team to fill the gaps well. Planning everything and then building it is slower and more expensive, and it becomes even more expensive when you go back and make changes along the way.

We can't know every single detail now. DDOT and its contractor partners will learn from the mistakes of H Street as well as the (hopefully smaller) ones that come in the early stages of lines still scheduled to be built. The same thing happens with the road network, Metro, bike lanes, and any other large transportation facility.

Still, there also needs to be a role for the public in correcting the course along the way. Under Terry Bellamy, DDOT did not show a willingness to meaningfully involve others in streetcar discussions, which compounded mistakes. We do need to see how H Street works and then ask questions about how to do better on the next lines. We need to get answers, too.

Make it work now

The streetcar program will be good for DC. In some corridors, it will add capacity. It will drive higher transit ridership and connect communities. In some places, it will help kick-start economic development as well. It will have some bugs and then they will get worked out.

The most important thing is to build the full east-west line, and build it to its great potential. It's already definitely going to have dedicated lanes on K Street, which will make it avoid the worst of the traffic. It also needs lanes, signal priority, and other features around Georgetown, Mount Vernon Square, and North Capitol Street to make it a speedy and attractive mode of travel. The streetcar needs to work well both operationally and for riders.

If it does, then public support for more lines will only grow, and the council will put money behind the rest of the lines. Already, Bellamy's successor Matt Brown and Sam Zimbabwe, who is handling Jackson's former duties, are steering the streetcar back toward the right track.

The lines are not "cut." They're just going to come later. It would have been a lot better if they could be built sooner, but with all of the mistakes during the Bellamy years, we lost that chance. It's not the last chance, though.

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