Allen Lew, a city-planning executive who built a generation of Washington landmarks with a speed that countered the District of Columbia government’s reputation for corruption and incompetence, died June 23 at a hospital in Queens, N.Y. He was 69.
The cause was complications from covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, said his wife, Suling Lew.
Lew had begun work in December as senior vice chancellor for facilities and planning for the City University of New York, but he had spent the meat of his career in Washington, where he served under three mayors.
From building D.C.’s convention center to the Nationals Park baseball stadium and a massive rehab of the city’s decrepit public schools, Lew blasted through layers of bureaucracy, ignored rules that he said slowed progress and got big projects done in record time.
He headed the city’s Sports and Entertainment Commission during Anthony Williams’s mayoralty, took charge of a $3.5 billion overhaul of public school buildings and sports facilities under Adrian Fenty and assumed day-to-day management of the government as city administrator under Vincent Gray.
When Gray selected Lew as city administrator, the mayor cited his reputation as “a visionary and a doer” and quoted Lew’s assessment of himself as someone with “a constructive level of impatience about getting things done.”
That focus on speed often made Lew a controversial figure. Paul Cohn, a prominent restaurateur who served on the convention center’s board as that project got underway, later recommended Lew to D.C. Council member Jack Evans, a Democrat, as the best man to lead the city’s sports authority.
“Jack calls and asks, ‘Who is this Allen Lew guy? He’s stepping on all these toes,’ “ Cohn once told The Washington Post. “I told Jack, ‘You didn’t tell me you wanted a politician — you told me you wanted someone to build a stadium.’ “
Evans became a fan of Lew’s, saying in 2010 that “Allen is of that ilk of, ‘Let’s get things done and worry later about the collateral damage.’ “
That damage included an admonishment in 2011 from the city auditor, who concluded that Lew had “deliberately set up [a] record keeping system to obstruct transparency of and accountability for its use of capital funds” in the D.C. schools renovation and construction effort.
The auditor, Deborah Nichols, said Lew hired a law firm to work on the project even though a partner in the firm who managed procurement programs for the school renovations was the son-in-law of an executive at a construction company Lew’s office hired to modernize the schools. The relationship “created the appearance of impropriety,” the audit said.
Lew defended his actions, calling his organization of the rehab drive “nimble” and saying he “intentionally dispensed with much of the bureaucracy and top-hamper that had traditionally impeded progress.” He may have failed to keep required records, he said, because “the very fast pace and fluid nature of the program” led to directions being “most frequently provided verbally in meetings.”
“I like lean operations,” Lew once said. “I like efficient operations. I like thin bureaucracies.”
Allen Yee Lew was born in New York City on Sept. 11, 1950, and grew up first in Manhattan and later in Queens. His Chinese-born father and Chinese-American mother owned a dry-cleaning business. He graduated from the City College of New York’s architecture school and received a master’s degree in architecture and urban design from Columbia University.
He was director of community development for Westchester County, N.Y., before he was hired in 1984 by a former professor, Thomas Galvin, who was building the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Manhattan’s West Side. He became a special assistant to Galvin on a complex civic project that involved multiple government agencies, a tangle of rail yards, and public and private landowners
In addition to serving as executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Javits Center from 1983 to 1988, Lew in 1986 became acting president and chief executive of the New York Convention Center Operating Corp.
He later became an executive at Rose Associates, one of New York’s largest development firms, and oversaw a $3.2 billion construction blitz while running capital programs for New York City Health and Hospitals , which managed the nation’s largest municipal hospital system.
In 1979, he married Suling Goon. In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Garrett Lew, both of Queens; a sister; and a grandson.
Lew came to Washington in 1996 to lead development of the $850 million Convention Center at Mount Vernon Square. As acting general manager and chief executive of the Washington Convention Center Authority, he supervised hundreds of architects and contractors on the largest public works project in the city’s history.
That job led to a broader role as chief executive of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, where his first task was to turn the decrepit RFK Stadium — largely unused since the Washington Redskins departed the city for suburban Maryland in 1997 — into a temporary home for the city’s new Major League Baseball franchise.
The renovation was finished just in time for the Washington Nationals’ inaugural season in 2005. Although the stadium lacked the amenities of modern ballparks and, some stadium officials contended, regularly hosted more rodents than fans, it quickly became beloved as a fan-friendly wreck with seats that bounced and aisles far wider than any modern designer would provide.
Lew also supervised the two-year rush to build Nationals Park, the $600 million stadium constructed in what had been a long-ignored industrial wasteland along the city’s southern riverfront.
In the middle of that project, then-Mayor Fenty lured Lew to be point man in charge of fulfilling the mayor’s promise to remake the long-neglected, low-performing D.C. public schools, many of which had leaky roofs, unusable gyms, barren fields, dysfunctional plumbing and broiling-hot classrooms.
As executive director of the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, which managed a $1 billion renovation drive, Lew eliminated a backlog of 30,000 maintenance requests, repairing bathrooms, replacing roofs, installing heating and cooling systems and completely rehabbing more than 30 schools. The program provided city high schools with new tracks, artificial turf and lighting for nighttime recreation.
Taking on the schools job was no easy decision. While working at the Nationals Park site, Lew said he had asked contractors why they wouldn’t work for the city’s school system.
The response, he told The Washington Post, was, “ ‘Well, they don’t make decisions; you can’t get an answer from them.’ I asked my architect why he hasn’t worked for the school system for 30 years, and he said, ‘How do you expect people to bid on your work when you don’t pay your bills?’ “
Lew took the job and demanded authority to hire top-shelf contractors and pay bonuses for work completed on time and on budget. “People in government aren’t used to this, but you pay for performance,” he said. “No excuses, no weather delays.”
The sports projects solidified Lew’s reputation as a can-do manager. In the lobby of his office when he was city administrator, he’d placed four framed photos — two of Nationals Park and one each of the new football fields at two high schools.
Lew served as Gray’s day-to-day manager from 2011 to 2015, running a $10 billion bureaucracy whose 35,000 employees could not be replaced by incentivized outside contractors.
Lew said he treated civil servants and contractors alike. “The only way these people can perform for me is if I’m able to trust them,” he told Washington City Paper. “It’s still a performance relationship. They still have to deliver.”