Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Months before former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry died in November of 2014, he testified before a panel of Historic Preservation Review Board officers to talk about the state of Ward 8.

It’s “a food desert,” he said. “A pharmaceutical desert. What we have now, up in Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, is junk. No offense to those on it, but it’s junk.” (He then criticized the overwhelming whiteness of the panel.)

Something that could help ameliorate those problems, Barry said, was the redevelopment of four parcels of land on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE that hosted two homes and the Big K liquor store. In 2010, the Department of Housing and Community Development acquired the land, bordered by Morris Road and Maple View Place SE, from a private owner. Barry argued that the project would reinvigorate the area and bring much-needed relief to a part of the city that has historically not had fresh produce or grocery options.

Residents of the neighborhood are still petitioning the city for that same vision: a significant and attractive retail space to serve as an “economic catalyst” for the community. They’ve been met, they say, with resistance.

DHCD originally planned to renovate the two houses “in a historically appropriate manner” and sell them at market rate, partially finance the rehabilitation of the Big K site, purchase another adjoining parcel, and help construct a five-story building with 114 units of affordable rental apartments (now called Maple View Flats) plus 14,500 square feet of retail space and two levels of underground parking.

Its development in the eight years since hasn’t been smooth. The project quickly ran into a series of problems, both financial and political: contentious Housing Preservation Review Board meetings and public roundtables, protests, and financial hurdles. 

Perhaps the strongest and most recent public indictment of the project came from Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, who staged a protest this spring in front of the construction site at 2300 MLK Jr. Avenue SE. He said that the developer, Tim Chapman—who reportedly was awarded the site for $1—did not hire the required number of D.C. residents to work on its construction. 

In March, White said that he requested a list of Ward 8 employees and subcontractors working on the project. Chapman gave him a list of 60 people, who White then contacted. “Only 3 of the 60 people on the list were confirmed as actual employees,” White said, while “the remaining 57 contacts on the list denied having any employment status on the project.” White said Chapman’s involvement in the project embodies “‘pay to play’ politics in D.C.” (Chapman Development did not reply to a request for comment by press time.)

Allegations of that nature go back years, and they’ve played out in both private and public discussions with members of DHCD and the Office of Planning. Residents have complained about nearly every phase of the project: who got the bid to develop and construct it, the materials Chapman will use to build the apartment’s façade, how involved residents have been in the process, and what exactly the city is putting in the retail lot.

Their frustrations stem from an issue Barry gestured to in his testimony four years ago: a fundamental mistrust of District leaders when it comes to meaningful urban planning in Ward 8, and the belief that D.C. just isn’t interested in adopting the suggestions of people who actually live in the neighborhood.

“Some people may not agree,” says LaTasha Gunnels, a four-year resident of the neighborhood, “but I think that socioeconomics plays a lot into it. We’re a working class community, the poorest ward in the city. Capitol Hill, Georgetown, all these other historic districts have a lot of retired attorneys, judges, doctors, accountants—people that can go to these [HPRB] meetings and really put pressure on the city. In Ward 8, a lot of people can’t take off of work and be on these politicians’ tails. [The city] takes advantage of that.”

In July of 2016, a group of Anacostia residents and preservationists testified before At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, chair of the Council’s housing committee, and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. They raised a series of issues about the development of Big K, arguing that DHCD had flip-flopped on nailing down a plan for the site. They’d expected a retail space—the kind of mixed-use building that would turn MLK Avenue into a “grand boulevard,” as Barry testified in 2014. 

Instead, the city planned on turning at least some of the 14,500 square feet into a child care facility. (The city has said a Starbucks will take up 3,000 square feet.) Jack Becker, then a three-year resident of W Street SE, told Bonds and Mendelson that “the project’s trajectory has been guided by ever-shifting goal posts,” arguing that the city originally described the site as a potential space for an office building before moving onto a mixed-use retail establishment, then a housing complex and childcare facility when Chapman determined retail establishments wouldn’t be profitable.

Marcia Parkes, a neighborhood resident and member of the Historic Anacostia Preservation Society, condemned the city for allowing Chapman “to commission his own market study for the highest and best use [of the building], that ironically concluded that highest and best use for site would be a tax credit apartment building. It’s ironic because that’s the type of development that Mr. Chapman specializes in.” 

She says that when she tried to raise these concerns to DHCD, she was “royally ignored.” (A spokeswoman for DHCD did not return multiple requests for comment.)

Since then, residents say, not much has changed. They allege that District leaders, including those from DHCD and OP, refuse to meet with them. (One email from OP Director Eric Shaw, obtained by City Paper, shows that he declined a resident meeting request with a polite but curt thanks “for your continued interest in this project.”) Some neighbors claim that Chapman has co-opted their own, hiring members of the community to serve as “engagement” liaisons on behalf of his development team. They say that OP declined to show members of the community the materials—brick and fiber-cement panels—that Chapman plans to use on the building. 

And they are offended, too, that the city managed to find $1.55 million to “enhance” a dog park in Columbia Heights, but haven’t yet finished restoring the historic houses adjacent to Big K.

In a series of emails that date back to September of last year, Greta Fuller, ANC06 commissioner and 18-year resident of the neighborhood, told Shaw that the “material quality and colors that are proposed do not reflect the character or the history of Anacostia’s Historic District,” and outlined neighbors’ concerns in detail. She and other residents copied this reporter on about 30 similar emails sent to Shaw, DHCD Director Polly Donaldson, Mayor Muriel Bowser, and dozens of other city officials since late April.

Chris Delfs, Chief of Staff of the Office of Planning, says the issue of architectural equality is something he “talks about with Director [Eric] Shaw often. The idea of design excellence and equity in every ward. It’s an important priority for him, and we’ve concentrated a lot on this for the last two years. We want to have high quality design in all parts of the city.” He calls the design of Maple View Flats “very similar to those in other historic districts in D.C.”