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“It’s a great day in Anacostia, because it’s morning again!”
The speaker was Eugene Kinlow, president of the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, but the sentiment was just about universal in the cold, vacant building on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, where a who’s-who crowd of Anacostia neighborhood leaders were huddled two weeks ago. The occasion was the announcement of a Busboys and Poets restaurant that will come to the space, likely in 2016. For residents who have craved places to eat and gather in a neighborhood that has few of them, the arrival of the coveted local chain was cause for celebration.
It also seemed to mark the long-awaited start of the neighborhood’s promised revitalization. Anacostia residents have been hearing for years that their area is on the cusp of development. “Let me put it this way,” says David White, who’s lived in Anacostia for 44 years and serves as president of the Chicago Shannon Civic Association, representing a portion of the neighborhood. “I was hearing about plans for this area when I was 15 years old. When I got out of the U.S. Army, the only thing I saw was that the few amenities we did have east of the river had disappeared.”
The seemingly eternal delay in Anacostia’s rumored development boom is both a source of frustration—when is the neighborhood finally going to get a supermarket or a CVS?—and a strategic advantage. In other neighborhoods, residents and city officials have sometimes been taken by surprise by the speed of transformation, making developments aimed at spurring growth look like ill-thought-out mistakes.
Take Columbia Heights. In the early 1990s, the neighborhood’s southern gateway on 14th Street NW near Florida Avenue was nothing but “vacant lots” and “grass and corn and stuff,” recalled the late Bob Moore, director at the time of the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights, in the 2012 book Becoming What We Can Be. So Moore, aided by public dollars, helped plan and build the Nehemiah Shopping Center. Thirteen years after it opened, the strip mall looked so anachronistic in the high-demand neighborhood that it was torn down.
Farther north on 14th Street, city officials—and the retailers they sought to lure—thought that what was needed to heal the scars left by the 1968 riots and revitalize the neighborhood was a shopping mall with a 1,000-space parking garage. After DC USA opened in 2008, it was immediately apparent that the high-density, Metro-adjacent location didn’t require nearly that much parking (or, some would argue, a mall at all), and the garage has sat half-empty ever since.
Columbia Heights went from blight to million-dollar houses faster than most people anticipated, with plenty of mistakes along the way. Anacostia, with years to prepare for its wave that never seems to come, is determined to avoid these blunders.
“I sort of feel like it’s coming, whether we like it or not,” says Ari Theresa, an Anacostia homeowner and a member of the Historic Anacostia Preservation Society. “We just have to make sure it comes in the right way, in a way that the people who live there can benefit. I really feel like being on the tail end, we’ve seen how other neighborhoods have evolved, and we want some of it but we don’t want other aspects of it.”
Historically, development-bereft neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River couldn’t afford to be picky about the types of housing and retail investments they might receive. But in Anacostia, there’s a sense of inevitability to the whole thing now, allowing residents to fight projects they think won’t be to the neighborhood’s benefit in the long term.
Neighbors have raised historic-preservation objections to the so-called Big K project on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, which would involve the relocation of two historic, if dilapidated, houses to a location several blocks away. (The city’s historic preservation board rejected the plans last year, but the mayor’s agent in the Office of Planning ruled a month ago that the project could move forward.) Neighbors also rallied this fall against a controversial public art installation—removed last month—whose symbolic debris they felt reinforced stereotypes of Anacostia as a seedy neighborhood.
The latest target is a 71-unit residential building planned for 2255 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, on what’s currently a parking lot. Neighbors, organized as Concerned Citizens of Anacostia, have criticized the project, the first phase of a massive redevelopment by Four Points LLC that will transform eight acres west of MLK into nearly 900,000 square feet of office space, 500 residences, and retail.
In a Nov. 13 letter to Four Points’ Stan Voudrie, CCA thanked the developer for modifying the plans for 2255 MLK in response to community feedback but expressed a lingering concern. “The proposed building still possesses a modern architectural style, ubiquitous throughout Washington, D.C.,” CCA wrote. “Far more is needed for the building to be truly compatible with the existing fabric of the neighborhood.”
Adherence to certain architectural styles might seem like a luxury for a neighborhood that lacks basic amenities. But with sufficient confidence that development is on the way, Anacostia residents feel they can afford to take steps to ensure their area doesn’t become a replica of 14th Street NW, where new construction is dominated by modern glassy exteriors.
“Some of the new architecture around the city is a little bit dated,” says Greta Fuller, a CCA member and the advisory neighborhood commissioner for much of Anacostia. “It’s being built with materials that really won’t stand the test of time.”
“The importance of maintaining the historical integrity of the neighborhood mostly comes with how I view Anacostia’s future,” says Theresa. “I think that it’s important to maintain its status as a historic neighborhood. It’s part of D.C., but it kind of isn’t. I think to draw people there, it needs a little something extra. It’s not a place you pass through going somewhere. History is something that can bring people there.”
The neighborhood’s message isn’t always consistent. On 2255, historic compatibility is only one argument neighbors have made. Some have criticized the proposed building as too large—the same critique big development projects attract throughout the city. Others have decried the predominance of income-restricted housing in the plans, arguing forcefully that Anacostia’s greatest problem is an overconcentration of poverty. (Voudrie says that given the low market rents in the neighborhood, using affordable-housing tax credits is the only way to finance the project.)
“Let me say this to you, because I’m a child of the civil rights movement: If I were Martin [Luther King] III and I toured this street, I’d request that the city take my name off this blight,” says White. “It is the embodiment of everything that he marched against and died for. It’s the hub of unemployment, vagrancy, no opportunity.”
Others, like Theresa, think it’s good to have a mix of incomes in new projects, including units for very low-income residents at a time when housing in D.C. is increasingly unaffordable. Some younger residents don’t share the concerns about the scale of development. “I’m in another generation,” Keyonna Jones, 26, told me at the Busboys announcement. “I’m in the millennial generation. I’m all for change.”
Voudrie believes that affordable housing is a crucial component of the project. “When someone says we’ve got too much affordable housing here, I disagree,” he says. “I think there’s not enough affordable housing.” He points to Columbia Heights, a now-prosperous neighborhood where development was recently dominated by affordable housing, to make the case that low-income housing won’t hold back neighborhood growth.
Voudrie, who’s met repeatedly with the neighbors and has a good rapport with community leaders, says he’s no less worried than Anacostia residents about what’s by far his biggest project to date. “If they’re concerned about it, take their concern and multiply their concern by a thousand, and that’s how concerned I am about it, because this is my life, my legacy, my livelihood,” he insists. But he says it’s been hard to address the disparate criticism neighbors have presented. “You could ask three different people, and you’d come up with three different opinions,” he says.
As much as Anacostia may have an advantage in getting out ahead of the coming wave of development, it’s still new territory for the neighborhood. There’s no formula for smart growth, and inevitably decisions that seem wise today will look questionable 10 years from now.
“We’re trying to approach it intelligently,” says Theresa. “But it’s our first go at it.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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