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Mayor Bowser: Anti-Development Views ‘Strange,' Communities Should Work With Builders

As critical D.C. development projects continue to receive pushback from local opposition groups, Mayor Muriel Bowser says developers and the community need to come together to improve relations and make the District an easier place to do business. 

Speaking last week at Bisnow’s D.C. State of the Market event, Bowser encouraged real estate firms to do more outreach with neighbors and local organizations, including Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, to lessen blowback as they plan their projects. She also questioned the way that some in the community view the development industry.

Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks during Bisnow's D.C. State of the Market event on May 11, 2022.

"It's been strange to me over the years that there's this kind of negative view of developers, not a negative view of the grocery stores, not a negative view of the retail centers or the beautiful affordable housing projects," Bowser said. "So I think there just has to be more discussion with communities about how we work together to deliver what they want."

As interest rates and construction costs raise the price tag on big projects, Bowser said the District can do more to retain businesses that may be mulling a move to Northern Virginia or Maryland. Virginia has long been viewed as a more pro-business jurisdiction, with lower taxes and an easier development process than the District, and with November’s election of former Carlyle Group executive Glenn Youngkin as governor, many in commercial real estate expected that trend to continue. But Bowser said D.C. can become more competitive with its neighbor across the river. 

"There are some things that [Virginia is] going to be good at in a business's eyes that we're not trying to follow," Bowser said. "But there are other things, like having a fair and predictable business environment, that we have to do better at in D.C."

Bowser's comments came after developers of some of the District's largest mixed-use projects offered praise for the tools they were given to make their projects work, while warning that shifting winds in the region's political environment may push their next project into the suburbs.

"I think that the District and the success of the District in the real estate world is very fragile," said Shawn Seaman, president of The Wharf co-developer Hoffman & Associates. "People will vote with their feet. They'll go to Virginia."

Seaman praised D.C. for providing Hoffman and Madison Marquette with nearly $200M in financing through a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes bond deal and tax increment financing to develop The Wharf. He said those kinds of agreements are key if the District wants to continue to see top-line projects.

Seaman said The Wharf is now paying the District back $60M a year in tax revenue and said the revenues are a sign that, if the government partners with the developers, they can deliver "transformational" projects.

"I am very appreciative of the support of the District government," Seaman said. "But it's also getting more challenging in the environment that we're in."

EYA's Bob Youngentob, Hoffman & Associates' Shawn Seaman, MRP's John Begert, Frontier Development's Evens Charles and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman's Jessica Lee on a panel at Bisnow's D.C. State of the Market event May 11.

Seaman and others said that upcoming elections could make a big difference in the business environment of the city. Competitive races in Wards 3 and 5 to replace longtime Council Members Mary Cheh and Kenyan McDuffie have seen establishment and more left-leaning candidates go toe-to-toe.

Meanwhile, Bowser is running in her first competitive re-election campaign after taking office in 2015, taking on Council Members Robert White and Trayon White on her leftward flank.

John Begert, principal of MRP Realty, offered praise for Bowser while warning issues like crime and the District's post-coronavirus recovery could force residents elsewhere.

"Obviously, the city has done a great job. We're big fans of Mayor Bowser. It's also a bit of an inflection point," Begert said. "We just have to stay focused because a lot of us can remember ... [when] the city wasn't thriving like it has the last 10, 12, 15 years."

Despite rumblings about whether D.C. was sufficiently pro-business, developers did offer praise of Bowser's administration's work spurring major redevelopment projects. The District in November selected a Frontier Development-led team to build a mixed-use project with over 1,200 residential units, a hotel and retail space in Hill East near RFK Stadium. Frontier CEO Evens Charles praised the redevelopment plan for the Hill East area through a map amendment, allowing him to avoid a time-intensive planned-unit development approval process.

"We've done well with our relationship-building there, from the ANC to the council member," Charles said. "We think we just have a great foundation for a great partnership."

Bowser also highlighted the work she had done to advance the redevelopment of the Walter Reed campus in Northwest D.C., first as a council member and then as mayor. She also pointed to Skyland Town Center, a project she helped push through with new incentives offered to food and grocery retailers, as well as tax increment financing, as a sign of progress that she has been able to make as mayor.

"Five mayors have worked on it,” Bowser said of Skyland. “I’ll be the last.”