Nine years after the District tore down Temple Courts, a low-income housing complex once located at North Capitol and K Streets NW, Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s administration this week announced that two D.C.-based developers will transform the 3.5-acre site into a major mixed-use project.
At completion, the redevelopment will be able to accommodate hundreds of residents who were displaced when the original community was razed. It will also capitalize on a valuable piece of land. The site is now a surface parking lot in NoMa, one of D.C.’s most rapidly changing neighborhoods (thanks, in part, to foreign investment).
Spearheaded by MRP Realty and CSG Urban, the project is set to include 211 replacement units for Temple Courts, or a one-for-one replacement of the units that the bygone complex used to hold. Additionally planned are 307 other affordable units, 255 market-rate units, 56,000 square feet of retail, a grocery store, and a community center.
The winning proposal boasts the largest number of family-sized apartments among those that the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development reviewed. Three- and four-bedrooms will be available at both affordable and market rates, and some apartments may be specifically designated for seniors.
Just over half of all the units will be deeply affordable, meaning they will be restricted to households earning up to 30 percent of D.C.’s area median income. That equates to about $33,000 a year for a family of four. The remaining affordable units will be restricted to families earning up to 60 percent of the area median income: about $66,000 a year for a family of four.
The property is part of the District’s long-delayed New Communities Initiative to redevelop distressed public housing into mixed-income developments. Bowser campaigned for mayor on a promise to advance the initiative, which seeks to replace more than 1,500 units across four sites. The sites are in Wards 1, 6, 7, and 8.
The economic recession, misadministration, and legal challenges have held up NCI since it was launched in 2005. Although thousands of units spanning various income levels are planned, only a few hundred replacement units have actually been built.
Meanwhile, the District has continued to gentrify as its cost of living has increased. Thousands of apartments have become unaffordable for low-income residents, studies show, and many more are at risk of becoming unaffordable.
With this week’s announcement, though, some former tenants of Temple Courts appear cautiously optimistic about the vowed redevelopment of their home. Dozens who attended a meeting with officials and developers at a church in NoMa on Monday evening were the first to learn that the District had selected MRP/CSG as the development team.
“For now, based on the numbers of affordable units for the area, I’m happy with that,” says Nathan Brown, who grew up at Temple Courts. “I want to keep pushing the fight. I don’t want to back down until I see it happen—every single step.”
Brown currently lives in a one-bedroom apartment at the adjacent Severna on K building with his son and daughter, and he adds that he’s keen to see designs for the planned units. His building is one of just a handful in the immediate area that were created after Temple Courts’ destruction and that together feature more than 100 replacement units.
While many tenants like Brown received housing vouchers for District apartments before Temple Courts came down, others scattered across the region. Some have died, or have jumped between public housing projects, or live with relatives and are at risk of becoming homeless, according to former tenants.
That situation makes the NCI principal of residents’ “right to return” to their original communities challenging to enforce at the NoMa site, which the District calls Northwest One. In a glaring exception to the initiatives’ values, D.C. cleared and toppled Temple Courts before nearby replacement housing for the tenants had been built.
Officials have not absolutely followed this “build first” model at another NCI site—Barry Farm in Southeast—but they could still succeed in doing so at two other sites in Northwest and Northeast, respectively: Park Morton/Bruce Monroe and Lincoln Heights/Richardson Dwellings. The Northwest property is on the cusp of being redeveloped, except for a pending zoning appeal by neighbors who want to preserve much of a park where a new mixed-use project would go.
“For nearly 10 years, families have been waiting to return home through economic recession and false starts,” Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, whose ward includes Northwest One, says in a statement. “[This] announcement is a major step to make good on a promise made.”
Temple Courts was demolished in late 2008 after years of neglect and public safety problems. A low point was the 2004 murder of a 14-year-old girl named Jahkema “Princess” Hansen, who was fatally shot—execution-style—at the neighboring Sursum Corda complex after she’d witnessed an earlier killing at Temple Courts. The incident put pressure on city officials to take action.
But former tenants also remember happier times at Temple Courts, including barbecues and fish fries, go-go bands playing outdoors, and teen sports. “If you had one bad moment, you had about 10 good moments,” Brown told City Paper last year.
The Washington Interfaith Network has helped the residents of the erstwhile complex to organize and push for their inclusion in the District’s planning process for the site. They also asked for as much affordable housing as possible, no barriers to previous tenants returning, such as new credit and background checks, and beginning construction promptly.
Randy Kessler, a WIN member and leader at the Holy Redeemer Catholic Church—where Monday’s meeting took place—says faith groups will continue to support the tenants. “To see the project through zoning, to see that it is fully funded, to get a shovel in the ground, and to get former Temple Courts residents back into the neighborhood as soon as possible,” he explains of WIN’s goals.
Since then, the number of affordable units in the MRP/CSG proposal has more than doubled, from 243 to 518. In a statement, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner touts the “active engagement of the community” over the last few years around Northwest One, and the benefits the redevelopment will bring.
Construction on the chosen bid is expected to advance in two phases, and the project will require zoning variances. The planning process will likely take several more months before any groundbreaking. The District still has to finalize the terms of the deal with the MRP/CSG team, after which point the D.C. Council must approve it.
Brown, the former Temple Courts resident, says he’s excited to be part of the preparations for his past—and possibly future—home. “I just don’t want to see it happen again to another group of people,” he says of tenants’ displacement. “That’s what bothers me the most. I don’t want nobody to go through what I went through, because I didn’t know the process and what it took.”