A new year, a new mayor, a fresh start. At least that’s the sense Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser tries to convey with the #freshstart hashtag she appends to nearly every tweet. But really, Bowser is inheriting a large number of ongoing development projects, some of which she’s promised to tweak, but none of which she’s likely to upend altogether. As chair of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Economic Development, Bowser has drawn criticism for the paucity of housing and development legislation she’s introduced. With her thin track record and the momentum of initiatives that are already underway, most of what we can predict about the projects Bowser will pursue in 2015 comes from the groundwork laid by her predecessors. Here’s what we can expect.
Last year, Mayor Vince Gray adopted the first comprehensive overhaul of the city’s school-assignment policies in 40 years. Then Bowser got elected. She’s said she wants to change the redrawing of the school boundaries to ensure greater school-access equity across the city, but she hasn’t said how. “I am willing to have a team of experts taking a fresh look at it on Jan. 2 and coming back to me with some recommendations, and they will know what my priorities are,” she told me this fall. “I don’t know that I have anything else to say about it.”
Her team will have to move quickly on those recommendations. The lottery for out-of-boundary placements opened in December, meaning that parents have already begun requesting access to schools whose boundaries could very well shift after Bowser puts her stamp on the plan. She’s unlikely to draw entirely new boundaries; instead, if she tinkers with Gray’s lines, it’ll likely be to appease residents of the neighborhoods that lost the right to attend well-regarded schools, like Crestwood (which got zoned out of Wilson High School) and parts of Ward 7 (which lost access to Eastern High School). Or, if it proves too difficult to amend the plan without upsetting groups of her constituents, we may have to wait another few decades before we get meaningful school reform.
This one was in my 2014 forecast, when I cast doubt on Gray’s promise that the streetcar would be running “not later than early February.” Instead, I wrote it would “more realistically” be operational by spring. Yes, I’m eating my words, if not quite as voraciously as Gray. But it would take a true calamity to keep the streetcar from opening its doors in 2015 (which would still be six years later than the initial forecast).
Still, passenger service is just the first step. Two big questions will follow. First: Was it all worth it? After all the delays and hiccups, does the streetcar bring something valuable—speedier access, or new development, or tourists—to H Street NE? All eyes will be on the streetcar’s inaugural line, operating in tight quarters and mixed traffic, to judge whether future lines can be justified.
And second: What kind of money are we going to put toward those future lines? Last spring, the Council stripped much of the streetcar’s funding; as a result, the Gray administration scaled back its ambitions, selecting a shortlist of teams to operate just an 8.2-mile network, rather than the planned 22-mile priority system and 37-mile final one. Bowser has promised to “lead a comprehensive assessment” of the streetcar project, but again, she’s given few hints as to what will result. On the one hand, the challenges of the H Street line have dulled the city’s enthusiasm for a big expansion; on the other, the city should be able to learn from its mistakes, and a single line won’t do much good for D.C.’s transportation network.
The city’s signature program to revitalize its deteriorating low-income-housing stock has been a disaster. Mayor Anthony Williams launched the New Communities Initiative a decade ago to replace troubled, mostly public housing with mixed-income communities. Since then, little has gone right. A city-commissioned report found in September that only 355 affordable units had been built or were under construction to replace the 1,542 units that had been or soon would be demolished under New Communities. The report suggested revisiting some of New Communities’ key principles, such as the requirements to build new housing before displacing current residents and to create a mix of income levels at each of the four sites.
In a parting move, Gray introduced a resolution that would scrap New Communities’ timeline and require the city to select master developers for the four component sites within a year, although the Council never voted on it. Bowser has called New Communities “a series of broken promises” and pledged to “recommit” to the program, although she hasn’t specified how she’ll change its structure. The success or failure of New Communities doesn’t substantially change the number of affordable-housing units in the city, given the commitment to one-to-one replacement, but it has an enormous impact on residents’ quality of life, for better or worse, and on the future of the neighborhoods in which the communities are located.
Elsewhere on the housing front, Bowser’s committee held a hearing in October on a package of bills to strengthen the city’s rent-control laws, which have helped keep housing affordable but contain built-in exceptions that have allowed landlords to raise rents, sometimes by huge amounts. Ultimately, Bowser opted not to bring the bills to a vote in 2014, instead holding them for further consideration. She plans to introduce some version of them in 2015.
The D.C. law that’s supposed to create new affordable housing has been very slow to get off the ground. Inclusionary zoning, which requires developers of residential buildings to set a portion of the units aside for low and moderate earners, took effect in 2009 but produced just 30 units through the end of 2013. Only two of those units were for households making less than half of area median income. The city has tried to shore up the program, and it foresees significant growth in the coming years: 95 IZ units began above-grade construction in 2013, and the pre-development pipeline should produce 1,124 IZ units. In other words, 2015 might be the year we finally start to see IZ making a substantial contribution to the city’s affordable-housing stock.
Bowser is inheriting a homelessness crisis that exploded last winter and continues to overwhelm the city’s ability to accommodate every homeless family in need of shelter. The city expects 16 percent more homeless families this winter than the last one and is already putting some up in motels due to lack of space at the D.C. General shelter. During the mayoral campaign, Bowser set a goal of ending homelessness by 2025—likely long after her mayoralty (she’d be midway through her third term by then), in a move typical of goal-setting politicians—partly by boosting funding to affordable-housing programs intended to keep people from needing shelter.
Meanwhile, the Gray administration announced a plan in October to close D.C. General, which came under increased scrutiny after an 8-year-old resident disappeared in March, and replace it with a series of smaller shelters. The trouble is finding sites for those shelters. The District’s aiming for a combination of leased private spaces and city-owned properties spread throughout the city—not an easy proposition given the dearth of suitable city buildings, the likely lack of interest among property owners in central neighborhoods, and inevitable opposition from neighbors. This year is likely to show us whether the goal is achievable, or if D.C.’s homeless families will be at D.C. General for years to come.
The biggest developments underway in the District won’t be completed in 2015, but we’ll have a better sense of their direction. Even if the D.C. United stadium at Buzzard Point won’t see any soccer until 2017 at the earliest, the coming year will determine how the project will proceed. The Council has approved the plan to fund a portion of the project, but the city still has to negotiate a deal to acquire some land from developer Akridge. Meanwhile, with the swap of the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U streets NW removed from the deal, Bowser and the Council need to decide if and how to dispose of that property and build a replacement government building in Anacostia.
Also on the stadium front, the U.S. Olympic Committee is expected to select a city soon as its candidate to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. If it’s the D.C. region, expect an anxious wait until the International Olympic Committee makes its final pick in 2017—and a delay in development at the sites, particularly around Hill East, that could host venues.
Finally, the biggest planned mixed-use developments will continue to move toward commencement, even if completion is years off. In one of his final moves as mayor, Gray selected a development team this week to undertake the first phase of the St. Elizabeths project near Congress Heights, a long-stalled but potentially transformational endeavor in one of the city’s poorest corners that could finally see some actual construction in 2015.
The formal process of transferring federal land to the District at Walter Reed (along northern Georgia Avenue NW) should continue in 2015, allowing a transformative development project there to move forward, although after some confusion about State Department needs this fall, it’s still not entirely clear how much land the city will get. And with the controversial McMillan Sand Filtration Site redevelopment along North Capitol Street having gotten green lights from the Zoning Commission and a Council committee this fall, 2015 could be the year it finally clears its last hurdles after decades of vacancy.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery