Credit: Courtesy of Empower DC

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In 1911, more than 25 years before the glassy Hecht Company Warehouse was built on New York Avenue NE, and exactly 100 years before Douglas Development purchased it to turn into chic apartments and yuppie-serving retail, the Alexander Crummell School opened its doors to the District’s African-American students.

Named for an abolitionist and Episcopal priest who founded St. Luke’s Church in Dupont Circle, the school served D.C.’s black children for over half a century. But enrollment plummeted in the 1960s as its home neighborhood, Ivy City, bled industrial and railroad jobs. Crummell eventually closed in 1972. A nonprofit ran community services in the building through the rest of that decade.

The property has remained vacant ever since. Meanwhile, development has crept farther east of Florida Avenue, transforming the area around Union Market. As one example, Hecht now houses upwards of 300 apartments and a 900-spot parking garage. It has a MOM’s Organic Market, a Nike, a Petco, and more.

Yet Crummell’s dead-zone status is set to change in the coming years, bolstering the revitalization of Ivy City. In April, the District released a solicitation for teams to redesign the 108,000-square-foot site, including the sizable lot that surrounds the empty school. Three responded, offering a range of mixed-income housing, commercial activity, and amenities.

Their submissions followed a year-long community engagement process organized by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, headed by Brian Kenner. Residents have expressed support for a new Crummell that would feature recreational uses, job training, and—per the solicitation—“cultural or historical reference” to the school and its neighborhood. 

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration says it will rely on this framework as it evaluates the pitches, with the goal of greenlighting one by year’s end. Although it’s unclear when a chosen proposal would be finished—in part because any of the trio would have to undergo zoning review—a DMPED spokesman says the office is looking for a “balance between preserving some of the site and the growing needs of residents.”

With the weight of D.C.’s black history and the community’s eyes on the long-derelict property, it won’t be an easy decision. The initial plans have significant differences, and a medley of groups behind them. 

Because the Crummell School was designated a landmark in 2002, any redevelopment would have to go before the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board. The property would transfer to the winning team “as-is,” requiring several million dollars in restoration.

Despite these constraints, the site—and the cash flow that would result from transforming it—remains an attractive prospect. On Sept. 22, the three teams presented their proposals to residents. Adam Roberts, chair of ANC 5D, which covers Crummell, attended the session and recalls that the teams seemed interested in creating spaces for community services. They’re  scheduled to discuss their plans at the ANC’s meeting next Tuesday.

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“Most of our commission is especially concerned about affordable housing,” he says. “It’s not just about the number of units at 80 percent or 50 percent of [area median income]. It’s also about rising property values, taxes going up, people getting pushed out of their homes. Ivy City and Carver Langston are at the helm of that because of the rapid change in property costs.”

Parisa Norouzi, executive director of advocacy group Empower DC, believes Crummell could become Ivy City’s “heart” again. In an admittedly atypical move, her organization has teamed with W.C. Smith and City First Enterprises, among others, to redevelop it into a community center whose programs a shared land trust would direct. “It’s a mechanism for protecting the school and the outdoor space for public use in perpetuity,” she explains. Ivy City residents would sit on the trust’s board, while the community center, which Empower DC has secured a $10 million grant to refurbish, would furnish “multigenerational, multiuse space.”

A new building owned by W.C. Smith would host a health clinic run by Community of Hope, a discount home goods store by Habitat for Humanity, a public gym, and a childcare facility. There would be three stories of apartments above this building’s ground floor—ranging from studios to three-bedrooms—with none renting for more than 60 percent of the area median income. A fifth would be reserved for families making under 30 percent of AMI and a tenth would be permanent supportive housing. Open space would contain a playground, a garden, and art.

“The stakes are high because we’re eager to demonstrate what real community development looks like,” says Norouzi, who’s worked with Ivy City residents since 2001. “This is part of a community that has had this vision for it for a long time.”

The Trammell Crow Company, a Dallas-based real-estate firm that’s leading a second proposal, plans a 20,000-square-foot YMCA facility in the school, wrapped by green space, a 230-unit apartment building with 14,000 square feet of retail, and a new 12,000-square-foot Mary’s Center facility, with 88 affordable units for seniors. The western half of the site would be temporarily converted into recreational space during the first development phase. Trammell Crow has also committed $250,000 to improve a small, nearby park before constructing the mixed-use building.

Lastly, the Jarvis Company, StonebridgeCarras, and Ivy City-based wholesaler Profish have a third proposal to restore the school for an estimated $14 million, and retain its ownership with the District. Their concept calls for a garden and “working farm” around the school and apartments that have townhouse-style components. On the Okie Street NE side of the residences would be a lobby, storefront space, and restaurant, each about 5,000 square feet. 

The apartments would rent for market rate, but several dozen would be affordable, and they wouldn’t rise taller than the school. Profish would operate underground to minimize its impact to residents. In conjunction with programs at the school, it could provide workforce training.

“We were concerned that if you turned [the school itself] over to anyone but the city, you could go a few years down the road and it would be vacant again,” says N. William Jarvis, managing principal of the firm. “We’re trying to blend as many worlds as we can.”

The African-American students Crummell once served have departed from its hallways. But after years of decay, the school could finally have a purpose again. For now, DMPED is mum about how it’s leaning as officials weigh the proposals. And even after a development team has been selected, their plans could change during zoning and preservation reviews. Ultimately, the decision may come down to the most sustainable proposal.

Or politics. Norouzi says she hopes the community’s involvement will serve as a check on other outside considerations. “[Having] input is great, but if it doesn’t influence the outcome—or isn’t directly tied to the outcome—that’s where the disappointment comes in.”