Wednesday, May 31, 2017

WaPo article on local activist and development opponent Chris Otten

The Washington Post recently had an interesting article on Chris Otten -- you may recognize the name from various mailing lists or press releases, or seen (or heard) him at community meetings.

Otten is an activist against many local development projects, often calling for more affordable housing or for the development to be stopped altogether. Sometimes he succeeds, with community groups getting settlements or concessions, or delaying the project, such as with the McMillan Sand Filtration Site redevelopment, where he got a court to delay the project. He's also opposed to development at Union Market, homeless shelters in Ward 3 and 5 and the new soccer stadium in Buzzard Point, for example.

Various neighbors, developers, local officials and planners are opposed to him though, as the Post cites. In one example, his opposition to the Adams Morgan Line hotel project, the developers offered his group $2 million to drop their challenge. They accepted, and the money went into a group he set up to manage it.

Some of that money went to him, some of it to a group on whose board he sits, and he refused to tell the Post more details about where it goes. The Post also claims he built anti-hotel websites and offered to take them down if the developer paid him $20,000, which Otten denies. I remember seeing the websites too, it was unclear who actually ran them. One of his tactics is to make a name of a group that seems like a citizens organization, but it's never clear who (if anyone) is in the group. (This was also a common tactic among neighbors in Foggy Bottom who opposed George Washington University, to form organizations that seemed to be representative but may have only been a couple of people.)

Some of Otten's points are good -- the city could certainly use more affordable housing, but he seems to argue that any proposed affordable units are not the right kind or are too expensive and rather than advocating for a change to rules about affordable housing in the city. He seems to oppose any projects that includes affordable housing (in my opinion.)

On the other hand, he also opposed to project to remove the plaza at 18th and Columbia Road, which I agree with him on.

In my opinion, he opposes everything, and is a perfect-is-the-enemy-of-the-good type -- rather than letting a pretty good project happen, he fights it because it's not perfect. What usually happens is the project gets held up in court or other red tape (like McMillan), or as in the case of the Adams Morgan hotel, the developers make a settlement with his group and it gets built anyway.

He also seems to be opposed to things that nobody else is opposed to, like WAMU's Martin Austermuhle says: he was opposed to small homeless shelters in Wards 3 and 5, which homeless advocates want, and thinks DC General should be fixed up into a huge city shelter, which very few if any homeless advocates want. It almost seems like he's a NIMBY, but sort of an activist NIMBY who wants nothing to happen rather than the usual kind. The Post quotes former city planning director Harriet Tregoning as saying “I know what he’s against. What’s he for?"

He also seems to constantly change his story for why he's opposed to various projects. His McMillan group has gone through any number of reasons, and once one gets shot down they bring up something else. I had a run-in with him at a while ago at a Ward 1 event: I met him and was friendly and polite, saying I agreed with him on the Adams Morgan plaza and appreciated his work, but I disagreed with him on his opposition to the McMillan project, the large area between North Capitol and First Street NW south of Washington Hospital Center. I probably should have not talked to him, in hindsight.

For one thing, his group always calls it "McMillan Park," a sort of propaganda argument implying it's always been a park and thus should be returned to one. However, the site was never a park and it's been off-limits to the public since World War II. I think the project provides much-needed housing to the city, some of which is affordable, and will bring in some retail, some office space, some jobs, and be generally beneficial.

The current plan would have 1 million feet of healthcare space (I think doctors offices and other medical offices), 655 housing units (20% of which is affordable or affordable for seniors), 80,000 square feet of retail space with a Harris Teeter, a 17,000 square foot community center with a pool, and an eight acre park for 10 acres of total open space, or about 41% of the site. So where there has been zero usable land for anything for decades, there's parks, market-rate housing, affordable housing, offices, health facilities, community centers and retail. It's also preserving all of the (abandoned) historic brick towers there. Sounds good to me.

He didn't like this at all and got very angry. He raised his voice and said I'd never been inside the site so I didn't know how nice it was (I walk and ride by it a lot, you can see through the fences) and that the housing was not the right type and that it would generate more traffic and that traffic would cause kids to die of air pollution. He was basically yelling at this point so I turned around and left. In my opinion, he will find any cockamamie reason to oppose something. Rather than get more affordable housing at McMillan, for example, he prefers none because he says it's not the right type or price, even though those requirements are set by DC law.

And it sounds like that's part of his strategy, to be obnoxious: the Post reports other incidents where he made a ruckus at local meetings, including calling Concilmember Phil Mendelson a racist for not allowing testimony at a hearing from people who hadn't signed up ahead of time, which is how the city does its testimony.

Should activists be friendly and nice all the time? No, of course not. It's important to make a stink about big issues. But opposing everything all the time no matter what and saying that supporting a development project that seems to benefit lots of people means you want kids to die is pretty bonkers. I'm probably inviting upon myself a rain of comments by writing this, but it's frustrating to always see this opposition. And I think the Post covered him well.

1 comment:

  1. This is far too generous a treatment of Otten. The guy is a Nader mouthpiece and nothing more. Its unfortunate you're not astute enough to distinguish real contributions to the neighborhood and a food stamp, attention hungry, empty suit.

    And on what grounds do you oppose the development at 18 and Columbia?


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