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More than a year after the District’s historic preservation authorities rejected plans for a controversial Anacostia development that would require moving two historic houses, the Gray administration has ruled in favor of the project, citing its “special merit” to the neighborhood and the city.
The Big K site on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, nicknamed after the liquor store that once operated there, has sat vacant for years as the city mulled its development potential. Developer Tim Chapman was awarded the rights to the site, reportedly for $1, following a 2012 solicitation. Although the solicitation recommended that the site not include housing and the initial plan was for offices, Chapman later determined that the best use would be affordable housing. The current plans call for 114 income-restricted apartments, available to households making under 60 percent of area median income, and ground-floor retail.
The shift has upset many neighbors, who argue that Anacostia and Ward 8 already have too much affordable housing, and that what the amenity-starved neighborhood really needs is market-rate housing that will attract high-quality retailers. But what truly threatened the plan was the preservation element: Chapman hoped to relocate two historic, if dilapidated, houses to a different site in the neighborhood to make room for the new development. And in October 2013, the Historic Preservation Review Board voted unanimously to reject the project.
A proposal rejected by HPRB can still move forward, if the Mayor’s Agent, part of the D.C. Office of Planning, deems it to have special merit. Last week, Mayor’s Agent J. Peter Byrne made just that finding, ruling that the dearth of affordable housing in the city and quality retail in Anacostia make this a worthy project, even in the face of preservation concerns.
“Taking all the evidence together, the project is one of special merit in that it creatively meets pressing community needs for affordable housing and retail,” Byrne wrote in his ruling, obtained by Washington City Paper. “It is widely recognized that the District of Columbia faces a crisis in the availability of affordable housing due to increased demand, vast income inequality, and soaring rents. The District is projected to cope with 850 homeless families this winter.”
Byrne noted two principal objections from groups that contested the project’s special merit. The first, coming from the Concerned Citizens of Anacostia, is the argument neighbors have made before, “that building subsidized housing for lower income residents in Anacostia is not a project of special merit because the area already has too large a proportion of the District’s subsidized and public housing and of its lower income citizens, while other sections of the city have few or none.” But, Byrne counters, “the lack of affordable housing afflicts the District, and indeed, the Washington region, as a whole.”
The second objection, made by the D.C. Preservation League, is that the benefits of the project are common to many developments and proposals in Ward 8. Again, Byrne dismisses this argument, writing, “While other projects for affordable housing have been developed and are being discussed, the need for such housing is not being met and may even be increasing as rental costs in the District of Columbia continue to rise and population increases.” He adds that because the city and the developer control multiple parcels of land that comprise the Big K site, they can build affordable housing more cheaply than elsewhere in the city, requiring lower subsidies. He also notes that there is no other Class A retail space in Ward 8.
As part of the plan, the two houses will be moved to city-owned land on V Street SE, restored, and sold at market rate. The plan for offices on the main site changed after an independent market study concluded that the highest and best use for the site was affordable housing.
Despite vocal opposition from some neighbors, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission did not take a formal position on the application to the preservation authorities. Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry actively supported the project, even drafting legislation to grant special permission to allow the development in the face of HPRB’s rejection.
Chapman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Mayor’s Agent decision concludes an agonizing wait for Anacostia neighbors who were uncertain as to the status of highest-profile development in the neighborhood—-and the most visible vacant site in an area plagued by vacancy. The Mayor’s Agent held two hearings on the project in May. Now, nearly six months later, the Big K development has finally been cleared to move forward.
The Mayor’s Agent ruling is below:
Photo by Aaron Wiener