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Congress Heights’ other major development project—-not the St. Elizabeths mega-development, but the rebuilding of the Metro site across the street—-took a turn for the less likely last night, as the would-be developers made their case before a skeptical Zoning Commission.
Sanford Capital owns four decrepit apartment buildings surrounding the Congress Heights Metro station that it plans to convert into a mixed-use project of 200 apartments, 230,000 square feet of office space, and 26,000 square feet of retail. There are two things standing in the company’s way. First, because the project requires a zoning change, Sanford needs to get approval from the Zoning Commission. And second, the current residents of those properties are fighting Sanford’s plans with everything they’ve got.
The second hurdle may heighten the first. Residents of the buildings at Alabama Avenue and 13th Street SE and their attorneys made the trek down to the Zoning Commission last night to share their horror stories of the conditions at their homes. They accuse Sanford of willful negligence and aggressive tactics to get them to move out.
“The basement floods every time it rains,” said resident Robert Green. “There’s a terrible odor of feces.” Because of Sanford’s track record there and at other properties it owns, Green said Sanford wasn’t “worthy of having this project approved.”
Green’s neighbor Michelle Mitchell concurred. “I don’t think they deserve to tear these buildings down and build something new because of their poor treatment of the tenants.”
The five members of the Zoning Commission were sympathetic to their appeals. “I am appalled at the testimony that I heard from the residents,” said Chairman Anthony Hood.
Commissioner Michael Turnbull said that “after hearing what we just heard, there are significant issues that need to be addressed by the applicant,” while Vice Chair Marcie Cohen told the developers, “There’s just a credibility gap that you’ve faced with these residents.”
The credibility gap concerns Sanford’s pledge to allow tenants to return once the properties have been rebuilt. Residents point to nearby Terrace Manor, where Sanford violated a memorandum of understanding that promised certain improvements and payments to tenants. The Zoning Commissioners repeatedly stated that Sanford’s commitment to relocating the Congress Heights tenants and allowing them to return had to be made firmer, and that the future affordability of the buildings should be strengthened.
Geoff Griffis of City Partners, a developer working with Sanford on the project, acknowledged that there was discord. “It’s an exciting project,” he said. “And in excitement comes dread, concern, and frankly a little bit of fear.” He maintained that the developers have made every attempt to work with residents and the community, although tenants have rebuffed his efforts to strike a deal because it would require them to give up their right to purchase the property—-themselves or with another developer—-under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act.
There’s an additional wrinkle that came into play last night, one that’s opened a schism within the community. A group of politically-connected Ward 8 organizations worked out a community benefits agreement with Sanford that gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to those organizations and office space to the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission for $1 a month.
Anthony Muhammad, the chairman of that ANC and a candidate for the Ward 8 D.C. Council seat, signed on to the agreement, and last night he aggressively cross-examined the tenants and their supporters, seeking to undermine their credibility. He challenged the witnesses on whether they knew their ANC single-member district numbers and how often they attended community meetings. He asked Will Merrifield, an attorney for the tenants, if he had any experience with TOPA cases and whether his clients had set up escrow accounts in court. Hood ruled several of his questions out of order, in what became a contentious courtroom scene of a type not often seen in the Zoning Commission chambers.
Karlene Armstead, a dissenter on Muhammad’s ANC, accused him of working behind the scenes on a deal to profit local groups without informing tenants or the community. She said “there’s got to be some kind of illegality” to the thousands of dollars those groups are receiving through the deal.
It wasn’t the only time money came up. Some of the tenants, despite their impassioned testimony, seemed resigned to the notion that the Zoning Commission would back Sanford’s application. (Indeed, Hood reminded them several times that much as he sympathized with them, he was bound by the law to consider only factors having to do with zoning and related issues.) Green, in a moment of frustration in his testimony, told the Commission, “The money that they gave you or whatever, enjoy, but God is gonna do something about it.”
Hood replied, “I’m just as broke as I was when I started here.”
Rendering courtesy of City Partners