D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) has surprised some LGBT activists by placing an indefinite hold on Mayor Muriel Bowser’s nomination of gay businessman David Franco for a seat on the D.C. Zoning Commission.
Mendelson told the Washington Blade on Wednesday he’s concerned that Franco’s role as principal owner of a real estate development firm raises the perception that he would have a pro-development bias rather than neutral stance on development related issues before the commission.
“David Franco is an active developer with a development company that has cases before the Zoning Commission,” Mendelson said. “He or his company has appeared before the Zoning Commission several times over the last 24 months. That’s the primary concern I have.”
He said he’s also concerned that Bowser didn’t follow a longstanding tradition of past mayors who have routinely consulted with stakeholders in zoning matters, including citizens groups, before selecting a nominee for the Zoning Commission.
“That didn’t happen with this or the last two appointments,” he said.
Bowser submitted Franco’s nomination to the Council on May 20. The nomination is pending before the Council’s Committee of the Whole, which is chaired by Mendelson. All 13 Council members sit on that committee.
“We just want to say on the record that Mr. Franco is a pillar of the community and he deserves a hearing and a swift vote so he can get to work on behalf of the residents of D.C.,” said mayoral spokesperson Christina Harper.
“The mayor has confidence in him,” Harper said. “She has confidence that if he is granted a hearing it will be a quick vote.”
But Mendelson made it clear that neither a hearing nor a vote is likely to happen. Asked if he plans to keep the nomination on hold indefinitely, he said, “There’s no hearing scheduled.”
When asked if that means the nomination is dead, he replied, “There’s no hearing scheduled.”
Rick Rosendall, president of the D.C. Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, and gay Democratic activist Peter Rosenstein said they were troubled by Mendelson’s decision not to hold a hearing on the nomination.
“If he has concerns, that’s a reason why he should hold a hearing,” Rosendall said. “Isn’t that a reason to hold a hearing and air these things? Why keep it in his pocket?”
Added Rosendall, “Phil is a very good friend of our community. He has done a long, long list of things for us. But I just don’t understand why he’s holding this up.”
Rosenstein said Franco is a respected gay businessman and native D.C. resident whose views on zoning related issues deserve to be heard. He said the full committee and Council should have the opportunity to vote up or down on Franco’s nomination.
“Mendelson’s refusal to hold a hearing can be equated to Republicans in Congress not holding hearings on President Obama’s nominations,” said Rosenstein. “Hearings are open and transparent ways to get community input. Mendelson is turning into Boss Mendelson and isn’t the same person I have always supported for office in the past.”
Mendelson called that comparison “a bit of a stretch,” adding, “That’s also the go-to argument when what one really wants is a person to be confirmed.”
Franco is co-founder and principal owner of Level 2 Development, a real estate development firm specializing in mixed use projects in Washington, D.C., according to a write-up on the firm’s website.
Biographical information about Franco that the mayor’s office submitted to the Council in May says he co-founded a number of other successful businesses in D.C. between 1985 and 1993, including the gay nightclub Tracks in Southeast D.C. and the gay restaurant and bar Trumpets on 17th Street, N.W. near Dupont Circle.
In 1993, Franco founded Universal Gear, a men’s retail clothing store chain headquartered in D.C.
Franco emerged last year as an outspoken supporter of the Obamacare health insurance exchange program for employees of small businesses. He was the recipient of the 2012 Excellence in Business Award by the Capital Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
In an action that Mendelson might consider a potential conflict, the Zoning Commission voted in July to approve final plans by Level 2 Development to build an apartment building in the Union Market area at 320 Florida Ave., N.E., near Gallaudet University.
Franco said he has partnered with the charitable housing organization Habitat for Humanity D.C. to provide nearby affordable housing units linked to the project.
He said he would recuse himself from voting on any Zoning Commission matter involving his company or which might benefit his company.
“As for the chairman’s unwillingness to schedule a hearing, I am not sure what his issue is,” Franco told the Blade on Tuesday. “It has not been communicated to me. But in terms of my qualifications, there have been other developers on the Commission, and I bring a set of skills that can be utilized for the best interests of the city,” he said.
“I’m not saying it’s a conflict of interest in the meaning of the law because that’s easily enough remedied by recusal,” Mendelson said. “But it doesn’t change the fact that it creates an awkward situation as well as a perception that there is bias. A member of the Zoning Commission should be seen as neutral on the issue of developers wanting change to the zoning regulations or exception to the zoning regulations.”
Franco noted that in his Florida Avenue development project his company’s arrangement with Habitat for Humanity D.C. will provide more affordable housing units than what is required under the city’s Inclusionary Zoning regulations program, which requires residential developments to include a certain amount of units for middle and low income residents and families.
Among other things, Franco said he fully supports efforts to structure residential development projects to include a percentage of units at below market pricing to enable low and modest income residents to afford them.
“In my little world, in my little company, and my little development, we rolled up our sleeves and we found a solution that was a win-win solution for everyone,” he said of the Florida Avenue project. “And I think I can utilize those capabilities and those talents on a much broader scale on the Zoning Commission.”