Councilmember Thomas responds to RIA redevelopment concerns

Below is Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr’s response to our concerns of Rhode Island Ave redevelopment efforts (note – the responses to the questions were posted in the past on this blog and repeated by the Councilmember in his response below):

When I took office, our ward did not have any Great Streets or Green Teams, and attention to streetscapes was sorely lacking. During my first four years as the Ward 5 councilmember, I worked diligently to correct this injustice, and that effort is now paying off. Rhode Island Avenue and North Capitol Street are now designated as Great Streets, which has enabled us to initiate Green Teams on each corridor to work on basic issues like cleanliness and maintenance. Collectively, my efforts to coordinate development projects, create business opportunities, ensure project funding, enact small area plans, and introduce comprehensive plan amendments provide our ward with a robust a blue print with which to improve every major corridor and business district.
My objective for our ward and this great city, and its important corridors like Rhode Island Avenue (which is Route 1, the oldest highway in the nation and an important forgotten gateway to the nation’s capital), will be to focus on the critical issues that transform economic development into community development. To me, economic development is more than bricks and mortar; it’s about people.
As we move forward, some of my basic goals, which may be expanded and or modified, are as follows:
·         Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: Connecting residents to CAREER opportunities (clearly this involves a multi-agency/multi-Council oversight “interdisciplinary” approach that increases access to job training and employment opportunities, as well as improved utilization of human capital)
·         Strengthening our small local retail businesses and revitalizing our neighborhood business corridors so that they remain viable and can compete against large national chains and franchises, which clearly want to expand their retail presence in the District (examples include Walmart, Target, Costco, Best Buy, Lowes, Panda Express, etc.)
·         Ensuring CBE and First Source agreements are met—whether these agreements need to be strengthened is on the table, for example, perhaps requiring First Source percentages to be applied at the business code level.
·         Attracting new and a diverse range of businesses to the District as we strengthen existing small businesses so that we reduce retail leakage.
·         Implementing a cutting edge strategy, such as creating technology and small business incubators, to position the District as a creative, innovative, and international city.
I also plan to introduce several new initiatives. (These include: 1) holding monthly economic development roundtables with members of the development community to identify chokepoints in the development pipeline and how they can best be addressed; 2) creating opportunities for small businesses to connect to larger institutions in the District, using my Ward 5 small business speed networking initiative as a model for a citywide endeavor; and 3) and holding roundtables on various economic issues in our ward to improve residents’ opportunities to participate and provide input.
Some of the specific tasks my staff and I will be undertaking in the short-term include: 1) reviewing a number of dispositions transmitted from executive that are pending from previous the Council period, 2) assessing the status of the work of agencies under purview of the economic development committee, particularly DMPED projects and DSLBD’s effectiveness in monitoring CBE and First Source agreements (the DC Auditor’s reports have been fairly critical), and 3) assessing whether resources are available for existing initiatives. 4. Identified and Worked with the Hispanic chamber of commerce to ensure funding and programs are place to support local bussiness develop wards first ward business directory both print and on line which can be veiwed on my website and hard copies are availible through my office and the chamber.
Below are the responses to your specific questions about Rhode Island Avenue. and I stand ready to continue the work to move forward.
1.      Where is the Rhode Island Ave Great Streets program? If it is not moving or stagnant, why?
The land use study for Rhode Island Avenue as part of the Great Streets program has been completed by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. The study was submitted as a Small Area Plan to the Council (PR19-0019) for approval on December 3, 2010 and circulated on January 6, 2011. PR 19-0019 has been referred to the Council’s Committee of the Whole, which has purview over land use matters. I will work with Chairman Brown, who chairs the Committee of the Whole, to promptly schedule a hearing on PR19-0019.
2.      What is the plan to redevelop RIA when there are so many store-front churches and liquor stores taking up valuable commercial space?
The land use study includes strategies for developing various segments of Rhode Island Avenue, including upzoning the area around the Metro station and creating greater density along the corridor. In addition, some churches on Rhode Island Avenue look forward to participating in the revitalization of Rhode Island Avenue.
3.      Why isn’t there a Neighborhood Commercial Overlay district being considered for the parts of RIA from 18th-24th Streets, which claim to be the “Main Street” part of the Great Streets program, to encourage the type of neighborhood-friendly retail/restaurants?
I am happy to work with residents and Office of Planning staff to investigate whether a commercial overlay district would be beneficial for Rhode Island Avenue between 18th and 24th Streets. If such a district would help advance redevelopment of the corridor, I will of course support it. 
4.      Are you associated in any way with the owners of DC Star, Lace, or any other late night club or establishment in the area? There are stories being circulated by residents that you are.
I am not associated with the owners of DC Star, Lace, or any other clubs other than in my professional capacity as the Ward 5 representative on the Council. The sources of these slanderous comments are less than credible, and the false statements should be questioned by residents.
5.      How and why are there so many nightclubs in this quadrant given that these are neighborhood areas next to them?
This is a licensing matter and best addressed by working with the Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration to determine resolution. Further, as your council member, I effectively created legislation to create limits on the number of nude dancing establishments allowed in our ward and other wards.
6.      How will you usher in the redevelopment along Rhode Island Ave NE as Chair of the Committee on Economic Development?
The redevelopment of Rhode Island Avenue is already underway. The Rhode Island Station project, for which I introduced legislation to ensure the project had financing, has broken ground and will be completed in the next 18 months. This project combined with changes in land use called for in the Small Area Plan, will create the momentum for redevelopment of the corridor. As this occurs, I am most mindful to work to connect residents to the jobs these redevelopment projects will create, and to ensure our existing small business community remains viable and competitive as national chains seek to expand their presence in Ward 5.
7.      I have personally spoken to two restaurant entrepreneurs that have respectable establishments in other prominent areas of the City who have interest in Rhode Island Ave NE (between 18th and 24th) but have not seen the activity or motivation from City leaders to move forward to redevelopment along RIA. What do you say to them?
Direct evidence of my motivation to bring redevelopment to Rhode Island Avenue is the fact that it was one of my main goals during my first term in office. Another is the Rhode Island Avenue Green Team, for which funding is provided via Council additions to the Budget Support Act. And as s mentioned above, I expect the momentum for redevelopment of Rhode Island Avenue to pick up following Council approval of the Small Area Plan, and the development of Rhode Island Station and other projects planned around the metro station will spur development eastward on the corridor.

10 thoughts on “Councilmember Thomas responds to RIA redevelopment concerns

  1. The reference to RI ave as a highway is telling. A highway and a vibrant mainstreet are not compatible. We need to stop thinkinng of RI ave as a means for getting MD commuters quickly in and out of the city and more as an urban, walkable main street, break down the superblocks around RI metro and stop promoting big box suburban retail with huge parking lots. And probably most important of all – Harry Thomas needs to either give a viable defense of the corruption accusations facing him or step down. Agreeing to repay the funds (using donor money) and giving no defense of his actions doesn’t exactly scream “I am innocent.” This is a distraction and an embarassment that will hold Ward 5 back as long as he is in office.

    1. +1 on not treating RIA as a highway but rather a vibrant mainstreet. I cannot agree more with what RI Ave Resident has said. I think not treating RIA as an easy way into the city for MD residents is huge. Grow the community not the commuters.

      1. That is my impression of what an Arts District is supposed to do. Mr. Thomas can you place some banners on Rhode Island Avenue stating it is an “Arts District”? This should at least let everyone know what this area is supposed to be becoming and discourage undesirable businesses.

  2. Much of this information is outdated and very little of his “promises” regarding Rhode Island Avenue have been accomplished. There have been no monthly economic development roundtables held by Thomas. If so, when and where? Thomas is no longer even Council chair on Economic Development.

    If Thomas can do anything to help, please stop having Commissioner Griffin and real estate investors/speculators recruit storefront churches to the Rhode Island Avenue corridor. Nobody wants this Storefront Church Ghetto. It does not help spur small business growth. On this blog we have had two businesses owners talk about their concerns for developing on Rhode Island Avenue. Why isn’t Mr. Griffin engaging in programs similar to H Street ( to boost economic development. Not even H Street has stooped to the level of recruiting storefront churches to occupy vacant buildings. Neither should Rhode Island Avenue.

  3. Woodie and others:

    Sara and I will gather at San Antonio Grill on Sunday evening, August 21, at 7pm. We will brainstorm plans for a formal RIA organizational meeting to be held later this summer. Next week we will post our proposed meeting plan here and on the RIA Facebook page. If you are interested in helping us organize, we welcome you to join us on Sunday (in which case, please RSVP via Facebook message so that we can give San Antonio Grill a heads up that a group is coming). Otherwise, stay tuned for updates on a meeting later this summer!

    1. Had planned to attend meeting at San Antonio, but was delayed because of the storm. Please update for the Sept. mtg. plans. Thanks

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