Anacostia residents gathered in front of the collapsed facade on Sunday.
Anacostia residents gathered in front of the collapsed facade on Sunday.

The structures at 1909-1913 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE were historic by any definition. Constructed beginning in 1905, the buildings may have represented the earliest commercial block in the Anacostia Historic District, according to the DC Preservation League. They saw Anacostia’s rise and fall and, recently, the beginnings of another rise.

Like many historic properties, the buildings were long in danger of being relegated to history. DCPL included them on its 2014 list of D.C.’s most endangered properties. They’re under the control of the D.C. government, which DCPL and neighbors have accused of neglecting the many vacant historic properties in Anacostia that it manages.

“The buildings have been left open to the elements and to vagrant activities; the most certain consequence of this negligence was a fire that gutted and damaged the buildings’ rear and interiors in August 2005,” DCPL wrote. “The removal of these turn of the 20th century buildings would remove what may be the earliest commercial block of the district and would cause irreparable damage to the integrity and character of this district.”

As it turns out, the city didn’t have to remove the structures—-reduced to facades after the city removed the roofs and interiors in a “capital improvement effort” in 2007 and 2008. The elements took care of it. On Sunday morning, Anacostia residents woke up to find a pile of rubble where the battered facades had stood before Saturday’s storm.

“They knew that it was decaying, and they didn’t do anything about it,” says Greta Fuller, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Anacostia and community activist. “They could have stabilized the facade. They knew that it was coming down.”

Fuller says that for the past several months, the sidewalk in front of the facades has been barricaded off due to the instability of the structures, with bricks falling occasionally. Allowing the property to remain in this condition, Fuller says, is “demolition by neglect in the highest form.”

The D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development controls the majority of Anacostia’s city-owned vacant properties, although the facades that collapsed are overseen by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. DMPED spokesman Joaquin McPeek could not confirm the cause of the collapse but says the city is working to evaluate next steps, which could include expediting the process to redevelop the property.

Anacostia has long lacked sit-down restaurants, grocery options, and other basic amenities desired by residents. But with development moving steadily eastward and Anacostia beginning to get its share, including a Busboys and Poets that will come to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, the conversation has turned to how Anacostia will develop, not whether it will. Some neighbors have pushed historic preservation as the key to retaining Anacostia’s character and differentiating it from other areas, in order to boost quality of life and attract visitors. But residents have grown frustrated with DHCD, which as of last fall controlled 36 properties in Historic Anacostia, most of them vacant or blighted.

DMPED has described the three-storefront facade at 1909-1913 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE as “a gateway into Anacostia and the community’s retail district.” In December 2013, DMPED issued a solicitation for developers interested in rebuilding the property. Only one developer submitted a proposal by the March 2014 deadline. Although DMPED intended to select a developer last summer, the office has yet to announce a selection. Now, with the facades gone, the project may need to be rethought.

Fuller says that drivers on the 11th Street Bridge can feel the disparate preservation efforts on the two sides of the Anacostia River. “On one side you go into a community, Capitol Hill, where you see historic homes,” she says. “On this side, you should be coming into the Anacostia Historic District.” But with some historic buildings in disrepair and others collapsing, that history doesn’t come through.

“Every time they let these buildings fall down, we lose a bit of the historic district,” says Fuller.

The collapse of the facades led to an outpouring of frustration on Twitter over the weekend. Below is a sampling:

This post has been updated to reflect comment from McPeek and a clarification of the construction date of the facades.

Photo courtesy of Greta Fuller