There are hundreds of congressional hearing in Washington each year. Administration officials and others sit before House or Senate inquisitors answering each as fully and dutifully as they can. These hearings usually occur on Capitol Hill and make for some drama or political theater.
On June 19, a congressional hearing was in Washington but held in Georgetown. Not only was it in Georgetown, but it was in a place which evoked the opposite of what most think about when considering Georgetown real estate: an empty, broken-down heating plant, now for sale by the federal government.
The hearing in the West Heating Plant on 29th Street was a bit of political theater, staged by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) , chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), chairman of the Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee. Its title was “Sitting on Our Assets: The Georgetown Heating Plant.” Reviews have been generally favorable.
The representatives — including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) — set up tables and chairs within the massive plant and grilled one witness: Flavio Peres, the deputy assistant commissioner for Real Property Utilization and Disposal at the General Services Administration.
Their questions hit on why it has taken so long to put up that for-sale sign for this highly valuable property, just south of the C&O Canal and the Four Seasons Hotel. (The sign went up the day before the hearing.) The 1940s-era structure once generated energy for federal buildings and then stood as a back-up. It has been totally shut down since 2000 and has cost the government $3.5 million in maintenance fees.
Denhan and Mica want other unused federal property to get on a faster track to be sold by the GSA, as urged by the Obama Administration. They aptly used their site-of-the-day to make that point to GSA and to the public. They have held hearings off Capitol Hill before and threaten to hold more around the country, if necessary.
Peres took his hits from Mica, who said of his testimony, “We don’t know if it [the plant] was turned on. We don’t know if it has an operating license. We had other places to store what was stored here. . . . It just doesn’t seem like anyone is minding the store or taking care of the assets. This is a pretty valuable piece of property.”
Denham asked, “How is GSA going to ensure that this time we are going to get the highest value on this property that is the biggest piece of acreage in downtown Georgetown?” Peres said that the market was strong and developers and planners knew of the impending sale. He said that the on-line sales auction for the heating plant property would likely be in late September.
As for the GSA, it holds 142 properties, compared to other agencies that hold 14,000. And, yes, a GSA official spoke to Georgetown’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission about the impending sale last year. There are plans, set by financiers and architects and ready to roll, as evidenced by the Levy Group’s designs. Neighborhood groups want to make sure that some land within the mixed-use site can be used for public parkland, connecting Rock Creek to the riverfront. The huge building itself must be gutted and restructured for condos and the like.
After the hearing, Mica, Denham, congressional aides and media went to the plant’s rooftop with its commanding views of Georgetown, Cathedral Heights, West End, Rosslyn and the Potomac River. Dramatic? Yes, political theater plays well in this town.