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Judging by all the cranes in Navy Yard, NoMa, and Southwest, there’s no doubt of the District’s construction boom. To put that proxy in context: The Washington D.C. Economic Development Partnership found that 2016 was the third consecutive year the city set a record for the number of new housing units built or significantly renovated—some 14,800 as of August. The three aforementioned neighborhoods accounted for 45 percent of that growth.
This is great news if you’re a developer, a business looking for space in a mixed-use building, or someone hoping to move to one of the District’s modernized enclaves. D.C. officials are also eager to absorb both the associated tax dollars and young strivers who can afford rent in new buildings. But many of these projects won’t open until 2018 or later, while the city’s long-term residents already feel the squeeze of an ever-rising cost of living. Plus, the Anacostia River remains a divider.
Which is all to say: The evident lack of affordable housing throughout D.C. is the flip side of the development coin. The District has made important investments this year, but more are needed. Here’s a look back at 2016’s most significant developments (sorry) and where the city is headed.
Least Expected Turn of Events
It’s fair to say folks were shocked earlier this month when the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the long-promised redevelopment of the vacant McMillan Sand Filtration Site could not proceed. In fact, the day before, Mayor Muriel Bowser had held a ground-breaking ceremony—replete with politicians in swank coats and matching hard hats—on McMillan’s fenced-in 25 acres. She touted the housing, retail, and jobs the project is supposed to deliver. (The development team features some of the District’s biggest players.) Now, the $720 million proposal goes back to zoning and planning officials for further review, with preservationists and pro-growthers taking stock. “I’m literally shaking,” Friends of McMillan Park’s Kirby Vining, a project critic, told City Paper. But the developers called the court’s order a “clear validation” of their overall plans.
The residents who emerged to trample on efforts to replace D.C. General with smaller family homeless shelters in every ward have won themselves the pitiable distinction of advocating to exclude the disadvantaged from their neighborhoods. That reaction was on full display in February when, on a cold Thursday night, the Bowser administration held community meetings across the city to explain the plan. The proposed shelters will house no more than 50 families at a time, providing them with counseling and other services. Lawsuits over process have been filed against the sites in Ward 3 and 5.
Clearest Reminder D.C.’s Homeless Need Support
The proposed shelters, expected to be complete by 2020, only serve homeless families—an estimated 4,600 people in the District. Another 3,700 are on their own, according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Advocates hosted a vigil this week for the more than 45 D.C. homeless people known to have died this year, at least 15 of whom had been matched to housing vouchers and were about to move into permanent housing. Disquietingly, during a cold snap in mid-November an older man died of apparent hypothermia in Columbia Heights. He was in a wheelchair, covered in a blanket. “It’s just a horrible way to die,” the person who discovered his body said. “No one deserves to die like that.”
Most Creative Efforts to Maintain Affordable Housing in the Face of Gentrification
Since becoming mayor, Bowser has put $100 million per year in the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund, a main source of government financing for projects that contain affordable units. Experts have praised the commitment, but even by the mayor’s own admission the move represents just a “drop in the bucket.” Another tool meant to increase affordable projects is the District’s inclusionary zoning program, which was strengthened this year to require developers to provide units for lower-income households in exchange for allowing them to construct bigger buildings than otherwise permitted. The change is expected to produce more than 2,600 affordable units over the next several years. Other prongs of attack against rising rents include the recommendations of Bowser’s “housing preservation strike force,” which released a comprehensive brief last month, and Councilmember Anita Bonds’ ongoing quest to reform rent control laws.
Most Surprisingly Controversial Project
In November, after a months-long community outreach and solicitation process, D.C. selected a development team to refurbish Ivy City’s historic Crummell School, now vacant, and to construct a mixed-use project around it. Neighbors of the site have wanted to bring the building back into use for decades. It closed as a predominately African-American school in 1972. Crummell is slated to become a community center, with the District retaining ownership. But Empower DC, a community organizing group that had applied to redevelop the site with its own partners, says the city’s plans don’t provide enough affordable housing and will exacerbate gentrification in the historically industrial neighborhood. Many longtime neighbors agree with that view. Of the 320 units included in the winning proposal, about a sixth will be affordable. Nearly 22,000 square feet of retail and 36,000 square feet for seafood wholesaler ProFish are also part of the plan.
Biggest Redevelopment Let-Down
Another D.C.-owned former school building won’t see changes anytime soon because the District and developers failed to reach a deal almost two years after the city awarded the contract. At the intersection of Vermont Avenue and U Street NW, the deteriorating Grimke School was set to become a cultural center for nonprofits, including an expanded African American Civil War Museum, with new housing on 9 ½ Street NW. But Roadside Development and Sorg Architects, whom D.C. officials approved to lead the project, could not ultimately agree on financial terms. The parties called things off in December, and the District plans to expedite a re-solicitation process.
Most-Spun Taxpayer Investment
Of all the Bowser administration’s cringe-worthy taglines, “bigger than basketball”—referring to the planned Wizards practice arena on the St. Elizabeths East Campus in Ward 8—may be its worst. But in monetary terms, some argue that the facility itself is an unambiguous foul. The expected cost for the arena, which will also host concerts, Mystics games, and community events, surged to $65 million in July, up from an initial $55 million. Wizards- and Mystics-owning Monumental Sports & Entertainment has agreed to pay less than $5 million of that figure, leaving District taxpayers on the hook for the rest. The team and officials counter that the site will create hundreds of jobs and $90 million in city revenue over 20 years while revitalizing Congress Heights. But many Ward 8 residents fear that the arena will spur their displacement.
Most Perplexing Historic Preservation Cases
This one is a close call between the proposed (now infamous) SunTrust Plaza redevelopment in Adams Morgan and the case of a landmarked gas station in Dupont Circle. Confronted by pushback from neighbors and preservationists regarding their expected heights, both mixed-use projects hit delays this year. In the SunTrust Plaza case, the loss of some public space—currently used for an occasional farmers market—caused residents consternation, leading them to organize against the development. Still, developer PN Hoffman, having tweaked its designs, won approval from historic-preservation officials in October and says it will proceed with construction in late 2017. Meanwhile, Marx Realty, the firm that wants to develop the gas station at 2200 P St. NW, has gone back to the drawing board. For a city in serious need of more housing, the projects should be matters of when, not if.
Most Scrutinized Hotel Development (Other Than Trump’s)
It came to light this year that the company building a hotel at the site of a historic church in Adams Morgan was nowhere near meeting local hiring requirements to get a $46 million tax break forged in 2010. That firm, the Sydell Group, said in September that it was “confident [it was] on track” to employ almost 350 District residents by the estimated completion of the project in early 2017. To which neighborhood activists said “no way.” Though Sydell held job fairs in the weeks after, D.C.’s Department of Employment Services found in late October that, at 29 percent compliance, it was “highly unlikely” the company would satisfy its statutory obligations. The hotel hasn’t opened, but it may yet, even without that $46 million.
Splashiest Ceremonial Demolition
In April, Mayor Bowser donned a hard hat, climbed into the back of an orange excavator marked with D.C. United’s logo, and, with the help of a construction worker, clawed into a shed on the site of the soccer team’s planned stadium in Buzzard Point. (For good measure, D.C. United mascot Talon was there, making fierce motions and wearing mustard-colored socks.) Attend enough of these events and you will soon tire of the ceremonial shovels and the carefully coordinated movements of the city officials who wield them. But the proposed $300 million, 19,000-seat stadium has raised eyebrows over its relatively inaccessible location and, until recent weeks, its inability to accommodate sufficient retail by design. Many low-income neighbors of the site worry about potential pollution on the former industrial peninsula. Stadium developers have taken steps to mitigate such issues. Zoning officials are set to green-light the plan in 2017.
Most Overdue Public Infrastructure
For this one, in true holiday spirit, we’ll simply quote a July jingle: “Streetcar, streetcar, crusin’ along. / Streetcar, streetcar, singin’a song. / Streetcar, streetcar, come join the party!”