Case 91

Techworld Development Corporation v. District of Columbia Preservation League, 648 F. Supp. 106 (D.D.C. 1986).

Plaintiffs sought injunctive and declaratory relief in this consolidated action resulting from the proposed construction of the International Trade Center, known as "Techworld," to house technology and information industries in downtown Washington, D.C. As an integral part of the plan, developers sought to have a street that was a component of the historic L'Enfant Plan, closed and its title transferred. Several city agencies reviewed the application to close the street and recommended that the District of Columbia City Council grant the application, although the local historic preservation review board opposed the proposal. The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), a Federal agency, also made a non-binding recommendation in favor of the street closing.

The City Council approved the street closing and title transfer after holding hearings and deciding to include several covenants as conditions to the street closing. In accordance with the District of Columbia Self-Government and Governmental Reorganization Act (the Home Rule Act), the City Council forwarded its decision to Congress for a 30-day review period. Congress did not exercise its right to veto the decision.

The developer also sought status for Techworld as a Planned Unit Development (P.U.D.) from the local zoning commission, which would allow its structures to vary from zoning regulations. The zoning commission granted that status, but imposed so many conditions that the developer withdrew the application and decided to proceed within the existing zoning regulations.

In challenging the city's decision to close the street and transfer title, plaintiffs made several arguments. First, they alleged that the City Council had exceeded its authority under the Home Rule Act by violating a provision that prevents the city from making laws with regard to property of the United States. 648 F. Supp. at 111. In reviewing the legislative history of the Home Rule Act and its predecessor statutes, in addition to the history of street closings, the court determined that the city acted within its authority. The district court reasoned that authority over city streets is a "paradigmatic municipal function." Id. The legislative history revealed that Congress did not deem it appropriate for a national assembly to invest time in such matters, and Congress had never vetoed a street closing.

Plaintiffs' second argument was that the City Council's action violated the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution because the city exercised significant Federal authority when closing the street. The court rejected this argument, stating that the Federal concerns contemplated by the case law interpreting the Appointments Clause were absent from the present case. Id. at 115. United States Supreme Court precedent interpreting the Appointments Clause supported the view that Congress may delegate its authority to aid in the functioning of Congress. Id. at 116 (citing Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1,139 (1976)). Congress has a dual function with regard to the District of Columbia, the court noted. It can act as a Federal or State body as circumstances dictate. In delegating street closing authority to the City Council, the court determined that Congress was acting in its capacity as a State body over the District of Columbia and was granting municipal responsibilities, not any significant Federal authority.

Third, plaintiffs alleged that the developer had made an implied covenant with the City Council to proceed with the development as a P.U.D. and that it was therefore improper for the developer to withdraw the application. The court rejected this argument outright, pointing out that the City Council and the Mayor, the parties with whom the alleged implied covenant was made, represented that there was no such covenant. The court also noted that the existence of the five express covenants imposed by the City Council made it highly unlikely that a sixth implied covenant existed. Indeed, the court found that the City Council considered the substance of the implied covenant at the same time the other covenants were adopted and, thus, it was likely that the idea was deliberately rejected because it was not included as an express covenant.

Plaintiffs' claim under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) alleged that NCPC involvement in the project triggered the requirements of Section 106. Specifically, plaintiffs argued that the recommendation made by NCPC to the City Council regarding the street closing constituted an undertaking and, thus, that the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation should have been provided an opportunity to comment prior to the closing. The court concluded that Section 106 did not apply because the project did not involve the approval of the expenditure of Federal funds or the issuance of a Federal license; the Federal involvement in the case was limited to NCPC's non binding recommendation that the street closing proceed.

The court found that the definition of undertaking in the statute was dispositive, particularly in light of Congress' 1980 amendments to NHPA which define undertaking according to the terms of Section 106, and rejected plaintiffs' argument that the Council's regulatory definition of undertaking encompassed the type of Federal action engaged in by NCPC. Id. at 119. According to the court, the Council's regulation "requires the federal agency be substantially involved in the local project, either with its initiation, its funding, or its authorization, before a local project is transformed into a federal undertaking." Id. at 120. The "minimal participation" of NCPC did not fall within the definition of an undertaking. Id. The court also noted that NCPC itself did not find that its purely advisory role constituted an undertaking. Id.

Plaintiffs also alleged under the Height of Buildings Act of 1910 (HBA) that developer's plans to build Techworld to a height of 130 feet violated the HBA provision that limits building height to 110 feet. As a preliminary matter, the court found the claim to be ripe even though the District of Columbia had not yet issued a construction permit for the proposed building. The court reasoned that substantial controversy existed because the developer made clear his intention to construct the building to 130 feet and plaintiffs made clear their opposition to the height. In another preliminary matter, the court addressed the issue of plaintiffs' right to bring the action under the HBA. The court ruled that preservationists did not have a private right of action under the HBA, but the Federal Government, as a neighboring property owner, did. On the merits of the HBA claim, the court acknowledged that opinions of the District of Columbia Corporation Counsel with regard to the HBA were entitled to substantial deference and, after examining the Corporation Counsel's decision, deferred to its judgment.

As a final claim, plaintiffs argued that the District of Columbia Historic Landmark and Historic District Protection Act applied to the Techworld plans. This statute requires the Historic Preservation Review Board to review permit applications that involve destruction or alteration of a historic landmark. Although the "Eighth Street Vista from Mt. Vernon Square to National Archives" was listed in the District's inventory of historic sites, the court found the listing inaccurate because the view between Mt. Vernon Square and the National Archives was obstructed by the National Portrait Gallery. The "inscrutable" and "flawed" listing led the court to determine that the landmark statute did not apply to Techworld. Id. at 124.

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