Each year, Housing Complex awards prizes for the best, worst, and weirdest in D.C. development in the past year. Between the mayoral race, the mega-stadium deal, and the 50-plus cranes dotting the skyline, there was enough action in 2014 to yield a whole lot of contenders for the awards. But here are the best of the best—the fourth annual Plexies.
The “Told You So” Award: Doug Jemal
Jemal won the 2011 Plexy for Ballsiest Move after dropping $20 million on the former Hecht Company Warehouse on New York Avenue NE. I was more than a little skeptical when he told me last year that the property would soon be worth $200 million and that the area would be D.C.’s Meatpacking District and “the coolest part of town.” How could Jemal attract top retailers to a long-vacant warehouse in a poor neighborhood with poor transit access? Fast forward to today. An organic grocery store has opened at Hecht’s. A gym is on the way, as are three restaurants from the owner of Logan Circle’s Ghibellina. Busboys and Poets is in negotiations to join the party. Maybe Jemal’s latest ballsy move—buying another long-vacant site just a little farther up New York Avenue—will look equally prescient in a few years.
Most Successful Neighborhood Activism: Anacostia
It’s rare for a big development proposal to go through without some degree of neighborhood opposition, but residents of Anacostia have been more successful than most in getting their way. Their first big boost came in late 2013, when historic preservation authorities agreed with them and rejected plans for a major redevelopment on the site known as Big K. (The Vince Gray administration later gave special approval to the project.) But their biggest triumph came over an unlikely foe: a public art installation. A seemingly random assortment of detritus in vacant storefront windows on Good Hope Road SE, part of the citywide 5×5 Project, stirred outrage among neighbors who thought the trash-like display would hinder community efforts to improve Anacostia’s reputation. Citing “the community reaction…that the work is not suited to the location,” the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities decided to remove it in September, then reversed course, before the fire department deemed it a hazard in October—possibly under political pressure—and ordered it dismantled. Now Anacostia residents, organized as the Concerned Citizens of Anacostia, have chosen their latest target: a big mixed-use development planned for Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE that they consider architecturally unsuited to its surroundings. We’ll see if 2015 brings them as much success.
Best International Moneylender: China
If 2010 belonged to Qatar (whose sovereign wealth fund invested more than $600 million in CityCenterDC) and last year to South Korea (where a team of investors bought Georgetown’s Washington Harbour), then 2014 was China’s year. The Marriott Marquis next to the convention center and the Cambria Suites in Shaw both opened on May 1—financed in large part through the EB-5 program. The federal program grants green cards to foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in American projects. The overwhelming majority of EB-5 participants, nationally and in D.C., come from China. And they’re funding projects under construction all across the city. There’s $65 million for the Hyatt Place in Southwest, $55 million for Skyland Town Center, and $39 million for a Hilton on New York Avenue NE, among other developments. Chinese investors don’t get a great return on investment, but they do get the truly coveted prize: permanent U.S. residency.
Best Homeless Advocate: Melvern Reid
There were many protagonists in the struggle for better shelter conditions last winter, when the city was flooded with an unanticipated surge in homeless families, but none won public sympathy like Melvern Reid. The 59-year-old grandmother tried staying in the recreation centers that the city provided as shelter, but her 10-year-old grandson was scared by the lack of privacy and unable to sleep. Her backup options were to crash in an all-night Maryland laundromat, send her grandson to his troubled mother and her drug-dealing boyfriend, or give him up to the Child and Family Services Agency. She preferred the laundromat. In March, Reid was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the city, alleging that the use of rec centers violated the District’s legal obligation to provide homeless residents with private rooms during freezing conditions. The judge sided with Reid and other homeless families, and the District had to move them to more suitable shelter. Through her homeless winter, Reid managed to get her grandson to school on time every day, even when it took more than two hours, keeping his perfect attendance record intact.
Sneakiest Branding: JBG
The boxes are all around the 14th and U Street corridors. “D/City,” they say, “Washington DC’s Free Neighborhood Report.” Inside the paper is all kinds of not-very-newsy news, spotlighting new restaurants and shops, accompanied by lots of colorful photos of hip-looking 20-somethings. Not mentioned anywhere in D/City is the name of its publisher: the JBG Companies, the developer that built many of the new buildings that house those restaurants and shops. It’s not a bad advertising strategy for the company that stands to profit most from the neighborhood’s rising reputation. Less awesome is the lack of disclosure.
Best Negotiator: Southwest Neighborhood Assembly and Buzzard Point Landowners (tie)
Southwest residents had a variety of objections to the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s planned new headquarters in their neighborhood, but loyalty to the old Hawthorne School building it would replace was not foremost among them. Nonetheless, the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly filed a historic landmark application for the building to prevent its demolition. Then, in September, it withdrew the application. What changed members’ minds? Shakespeare and its development partner offered them a deal that, among other provisions, gave SWNA $60,000 and promised advertising in its neighborhood newspaper. SWNA plans to use some of the funds for general organizational purposes, like designing a new website.
At Buzzard Point, where the District is assembling land to build a new D.C. United stadium, Matt Klein, president of the development firm Akridge, expressed outrage after Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser announced last month that she would remove the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U streets NW from the complex land swaps that comprised the stadium deal. (Akridge had done a good job of negotiating up to that point, getting Reeves for $11 million less than it was worth, according to a Council-commissioned report.) Klein told me he was “very disappointed—that might be the kind way to put it.” But really, it only strengthened Akridge’s bargaining position. Bowser promised to get a deal passed by year’s end, meaning she needed Akridge’s land, and fast. Either the city will have to agree to favorable terms to Akridge, or it’ll seize the land by eminent domain, a process Klein thinks could double the payment his company gets. Meanwhile, according to that Council-commissoned study, the city was paying twice the value of Buzzard Point parcels controlled by Washington Kastles owner Mark Ein and the scrap yard Super Salvage in order to complete the deal. Buzzard Point landowners 1, city negotiators 0.
Tortoise Award: Silver Line
OK, so the streetcar, which was initially supposed to start running in 2009, hasn’t exactly established a reputation as a speedy hare. But it was still the favorite to win the epically slow race against the Silver Line as 2014 began. After all, Gray promised it’d be operational by “January, not later than early February” (2014, that is), and the Silver Line stumbled when Metro announced in February that it hadn’t met the requirements to be deemed “substantially complete.” Nonetheless, like a good hare, the streetcar seemed to take a nap as the year progressed, and the Silver Line crept across the finish line, opening in July. The Gray administration has continued to promise streetcar service by year’s end, but there’s not a whole lot of year left.
Least Enthusiastic Tax Collectors: D.C. Council
In 2012, the Council awarded an $11 million tax abatement to the Howard Town Center development on Georgia Avenue NW, even though D.C. CFO Natwar Gandhi told lawmakers the tax break was unnecessary. But the effort to shed cash was thwarted when Howard canceled its agreement with the project’s developer last year and the plans fell apart. So this year, they tried again. The deal to build a D.C. United soccer stadium at Buzzard Point included tax breaks for the team expected to cost $75 million over 30 years. Again, the CFO (now Jeff DeWitt) found the breaks were unnecessary, given the team owners’ wealth and the track record of other stadium projects. No matter: The Council’s finance committee voted to approve the tax abatements last month, without any debate or dissent. But maybe there was some buyer’s remorse; before approving the deal, the Council dropped a few of the tax breaks.
Most Exorbitant Price Tag: Museum Square
Typically when a building goes up for sale, tenants have the right to buy it for the price set by the market. But when the owner plans to demolish it, there is no market price; the law says only that the owner must make a “bona fide offer of sale” to the tenants. The Williamsburg, Va.-based Bush Companies decided that $250 million would be a fair price to charge for the Museum Square Apartments near Chinatown. That amounts to $828,000 per apartment, all occupied by tenants receiving Section 8 housing assistance. The Gray administration found the price excessive and requested a justification from Bush, while the Council passed legislation to cap the price owners can charge in these circumstances. At least for the time being, it looks like Museum Square’s 302 low-income households won’t be forced out.