When D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty last week announced his choice to develop the sprawling, $700 million, mixed-income new community that is supposed to replace some of Washington's most troubled and dangerous housing projects, the named developers were all smiles up at the podium with the mayor.
But hanging back in the rear corner of the church basement where Fenty made his pick public was a tall, elegant fellow who is increasingly a powerful presence in the city's big development schemes. You'll search in vain for the name Victor MacFarlane in the official record of what's going to become Northwest One, the new name for the downtown area where the Sursum Corda and Temple Courts housing projects now stand, between North Capitol Street and New Jersey Avenue NW, just north of K Street.
But MacFarlane was on hand because while the respected Washington developers William C. Smith Cos. and the Jair Lynch Cos. won the sweepstakes to build more than 1,600 units of housing as well as a whole mess of retail and office space, the owner of the DC United soccer team and manager of $15 billion in assets will help finance a significant chunk of the project, according to MacFarlane and some city officials.
Every era of the city's progression has its iconic developer--think of Oliver Carr putting up office boxes in Marion Barry's new K Street of lobbyists and lawyers, or Jeff Cohen making early forays into neighborhood gentrification in deals that got the Barry administration into significant legal trouble, or Doug Jemal preserving historic buildings during the renaissance of the Williams years (Uline Arena, the Avalon Theater, the Seventh Street shops across from the Abe Pollin Arena, the Woodies building, the Sixth and I synagogue.)
Now MacFarlane is positioning himself to be a force for extending the city's development while standing up for the District's black majority. The developer, who is black, has allied himself with neighborhood residents who are wary of development that they believe is inexorably altering the city's racial composition.
Officially, D.C. development director David Jannarone says, MacFarlane is not playing any role in the years-long effort to take down the drug-ridden Sursum Corda project and replace it with a signature initiative of both the Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty administrations--an all-new neighborhood with housing split between market rate units, partly subsidized apartments for working class residents, and heavily subsidized units for the low-income families who are being displaced.
"I can tell you MacFarlane is not in the deal now," Jannarone says. "Our goal is to get as much local disadvantaged business enterprise money in this deal as possible, and he's not a disadvantaged business enterprise."
No, there's likely not a soul on the planet who would accuse MacFarlane of being disadvantaged.
But MacFarlane is nonetheless deeply involved in this project, and in a fast-increasing number of others around the city. He's in on deals near the new baseball stadium, he's lobbying the city hard to get a soccer stadium built at Poplar Point, the national parkland just across the Anacostia River from the baseball park, and now he's involved downtown too.
"Victor's group is a great source of capital for neighborhood developers," says Jair Lynch, who predicts it will take five to seven years to get the whole Northwest One project built.
The push to redevelop the Sursum Corda area gained meaningful energy after the 2004 murder of Princess Hansen, a seventh grader who was out at three in the morning doing what it took to score drugs. Then-Mayor Williams vowed to clean up the neighborhood, and he promised that Sursum Corda would be replaced not by megabucks condos, but by a mixed-income community that would be safe, modern, attractive, and--for a lucky few hundred families--affordable.
Now, after three difficult years of negotiations with current residents and possible investors, the city and the new development team found themselves agreeing to let Sursum Corda's current management company, Kettler (formerly KSI), in on the deal. Despite widespread complaints that the firm was harassing residents and barring city employees from the property, Kettler will be part of the new development team, largely to buy legal and political peace and get the new project moving.
Is this another example of Fenty's political style in action? The mayor has a knack for cobbling together companies that are otherwise wary competitors, forcing them to work in partnership on big city projects. Does MacFarlane's role in Northwest One mean he's moved on and is out of the picture at Poplar Point? It looks that way, but Fenty says that doesn't at all mean that the District is giving up on keeping the pro soccer team in town.
Despite efforts by Maryland officials to woo the United to that state, Fenty says the District will offer the team alternative spots in the city. "Absolutely there are other sites," he told me. "There may even be ones that the team prefers to Poplar Point."
The mayor wasn't naming other locations, but the prime candidate may turn out to be the place where the mayor hopes to launch his second New Community, replacing another long-troubled housing project: Barry Farms in Southeast, quite close to the Poplar Point park.
And MacFarlane, who just a few weeks ago adamantly and angrily contended that DC United had been completely boxed out of the Poplar Point area, is now humming a different tune. Might the team still end up with a stadium near Poplar Point, I asked. "Absolutely," MacFarlane replied. Stay tuned.
By Marc Fisher | December 18, 2007; 7:06 AM ET