Thompson’s Dairy was once one of Washington’s great urban dairies. At its peak, the dairy turned deliveries from Virginia farms into 35,000 gallons of pasteurized milk per day. A fleet of 200 trucks ferried the bottles from 11th and U Streets NW to 50,000 D.C. homes, including the White House.
As modern marketing and suburban demographics altered the ways Americans shop for food, the dairy’s market dried up. By 1971, the days of the milkman were through, and so were Thompson’s. These days, the blocklong site is overrun with trash, and the discarded milk crates that serve as perches for neighborhood drunks bear the names of dairies in places like Cumberland and Frederick.
But while the milk may be long gone, neighbors say something still stinks on the abandoned Thompson’s site. In 1995, the District governmentunder a program that allows developers to acquire derelict spaces in exchange for promises of developmentgave rights over the property to a local developer who planned to erect a massive set of condominium towers. Two years later, there are no towers in sight, and the vacant lot bounded by U, V, 11th, and 12th Streets remains desolate and spooky.
Yet D.C. is about to reward the same developer with another two-year shot at the property. On the grounds that the developer, AMB Enterprises Inc., had “identified a possible funding source,” Mayor Marion Barry requested the extension on May 28. Under the ass-covering legislative procedures that govern the process, the D.C. Council must act to reject the potential handover within 90 days of the request. If the council does nothing, it’s a done deal.
With a track record that seems to make the Yugo look like a roaring success, you’d think the developers of the proposed Lincoln condominiums would be just the kind of operation that the newly image-conscious District would want to shun.
The red flags started popping up even before the first contract was inked. District officials apparently didn’t heed the slew of newspaper articles in 1995 about the deal, the ones that noted that even though the Thompson’s site had been assessed at $6.6 million, the developer would have the chance to buy it for $650,000 minus the costs of environmental cleanup. Since the lot included some underground tanks, the price could wind up as low as one measly dollar.
And city officials apparently weren’t put off by a Washington Post report that U Street landowner Delores Johnson, who along with her husband and son formed the partnership to develop the Lincoln condominiums, had faced two dozen lawsuits and almost $100,000 in government liens during her real estate career. And they didn’t seem concerned that the District hadn’t issued a formal request for proposals on the project.
Alas, none of these pesky instances of apparent ineptitude stopped the deal. City officials were too busy gushing over the firm’s promises to turn the Thompson’s site into Lincoln Towers, a 369-unit condominium development featuring four 10-story towers, a jazz club, restaurants, a pool, an underground parking lotand $1.2 million in new annual taxes.
When At-Large Councilmember Linda Cropp introduced legislation in 1995 to slow down the Johnson juggernaut, her measure won a paltry four votes on the council. The proposal sailed through, and the council signed off on declaring the property disposable. Community leaders and U Street businesspeople came out to fete the developers at a gala groundbreaking.
But the ground hasn’t broken very far. In their first two years on the property, the developers apparently haven’t managed to come up with the required financial backing to start the job. The only things on the site are a billboard featuring an architectural drawing of the as yet unbuilt project (now shrunken to a smaller, 150-unit structure), and a mobile home that serves as the nonexistent development’s “sales pavilion.”
And this land office is hardly doing land-office business: Neighbors say the pavilion has been locked for the entire time it has been on the site. Dialing the Lincoln billboard’s phone number lands callers a chance to be added to the development’s “priority preview list.”
Yet despite the delays and the continuing questions about her partnership, developer Johnson maintains that there is no problem at the Thompson’s site. She says the family firm has put $700,000 into the site during its two years on the property, including security, a variety of building permits, and an architect’s designs. Antonio Barros, Johnson’s son and the president of AMB Enterprises, explained that the outlay breaks down to at least $400,000 in hard cash and the rest in “sweat equity.”
The interior of the sales pavilion certainly looks like a serious investment: There is an elaborate architectural model of the site, a loan office, and nice sit-down-and-sign-a-check real estate agency furniture. Both the architect for the project and the marketing firm are reputable companies. Johnson shows a list of over 200 people who she says have called with an interest in buying into the Lincoln.
Johnson blames the financing delay on banks’ wariness about investing in U Street. “They were redlining,” she says. She says that after some initial hinkiness, the banks have come around. “In the last seven or eight months, a lot of banks have come in and offered to do financing.” The developer, says Johnson, recently reached agreement with the Bank of America to finance the project. “They have had continuing discussions with lenders,” assures Luci Blackburn, a project manager at the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development. “We are confident they will find it.”
Johnson expects to begin taking condominium deposits in September and to begin construction shortly thereafter. “It’s not that we don’t have financing, it’s not that we don’t have anything. It just took us a while,” she says.
But neighbors say they’ve heard all this before. “There’ve been a lot of promises,” says Cardozo Shaw Neighborhood Association president Francis M. Clarke III, “but no one’s seen anything. No letters of intent, financially, no community action plans.. ‘We’re gonna start in 45 days’she’s told us that three times.”
“It didn’t take us long to figure out she was blowing nothing but hot air,” says Clarke. Even before the initial agreement was struck between the city and AMB, Clarke had fired off enough furious letters to blanket the site’s 1.3 acres several times over. Community activist Dorothy Brizill is also on the developer’s case. “They were given two years to develop it and they essentially have done nothing,” she says.
Johnson says naysayers like Clarke and Brizill have “no idea about development.” “If it was easy, you wouldn’t have the vacant buildings up and down the street,” she says. Adds Barros: “To say nothing’s happened in two years is to be not abreast of what it takes to build a building. We’ve been moving every single week on this project.”
In the meantime, though, the developers appear to have neglected some other projects. Other U Street properties listed as being owned by Johnson face foreclosure for back taxes totaling over $80,000, according to tax attorney Donald R. Dinan. “We’re moving to take the property from them,” says Dinan, who represents a firm that bought the developer’s tax liens from the city. Johnson flatly denies the tax-delinquency charges. “There is a dispute in one building, but I do not owe any back taxes,” she says.
Citing Johnson’s record and the heap of blight at the Thompson’s site, Brizill and Clarke are now preparing to lobby the council to start over. “We believe the fair and reasonable answer is for the city to open up development of the site,” says Brizill. “If [Johnson] thinks she has a good project, then in an open solicitation she can compete.” If the council fails to act, says Brizill, she will appeal to the control board.
After decades of watching government agencies botch development projects, both urban liberals and tightfisted conservatives jumped at the idea of having a sliver of the District rebuilt by people with an eye on the bottom linealbeit their own bottom line. AMB’s promises to launch a youth training program and to help restore U Street’s jazz tradition only sweetened the deal.
Yet the Thompson’s story is also a case study in the pitfalls of flipping public lands to private developers for very little money. Although Johnson and AMB have taken some steps toward developing the site, the project could just as easily end the way previous land-grant disasters have. Sketchy local developers have earned a reputation for sitting on city-donated land and then selling it at a great profit. Community watchdogs are worried that a similar scenario could play itself out at the Thompson’s site.
Development in a neighborhood like U Street is an achingly slow process no matter who is doing the developing. Banks do redline. Costs pile up. Investors are skeptical. Johnson might be up against those very real problems, but in 1995 her team won a deal that raised a lot of questions. In the two years since, she has managed to raise even more.
Whatever the cause, D.C. is left for now with another vacant lot and more unfulfilled potential. And the former home to Washington’s biggest dairy still doesn’t have the volume of housing to support the kinds of stores that serve regular non-nightclubbing folks. To Brizill, the irony is manifest: “No one’s serving the community [so that] if you need a container of milk you can go out and get it.” CP