On a recent afternoon, Brookland Manor’s spacious courtyards are mostly quiet. So are the basement community center in one of the 19 apartment buildings, where the kids have yet to arrive, and the nearby community garden teeming with brassicas but devoid of humans. Out in front of the decrepit strip mall facing Rhode Island Avenue NE, three men are hanging out, but the place is otherwise deserted, and the stores—-a pawn shop, a cleaner, a nail salon, a large vacant space—-don’t show many signs of life.
Between the shopping center and the apartment buildings, on 14th Street NE, it’s a different story. Close to 30 people, mostly men, mostly young, gather in clusters around dominoes or open liquor containers or nothing in particular. A couple of cops eye the crowds from a wary distance, making sure nothing gets out of hand. Rounding the corner onto 14th, visitors are treated to a whiff worthy of Bonnaroo. “The smell of weed is never very far,” says Michael Meers.
If Meers’ plans come to fruition, the place could look dramatically different in a few years’ time. Meers is executive vice president of the Germantown-based Mid-City Financial Corporation, which owns Brookland Manor, a Great Depression-era complex of 535 apartment units, about two-thirds of which are subsidized by the federal government through the project-based Section 8 program. (Despite its name, Brookland Manor is located in the Brentwood neighborhood and is sometimes known by its older moniker, Brentwood Village.) Mid-City also has the strip mall under contract and expects to close on it next year.
And today, Mid-City filed its first application with the city to demolish both Brookland Manor and the shopping center and rebuild them as a mix of apartments, townhouses, and retail that would essentially create an entirely new neighborhood.
Mid-City’s Section 8 contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development expires next year, according to Meers. In other increasingly wealthy parts of the District, developers with expiring Section 8 contracts have sometimes sought to replace their low-income tenants with wealthier ones who can pay higher rent. At the Museum Square Apartments in Mount Vernon Triangle, for example, the owner notified HUD of its intent to opt out of renewing its contract and told the tenants they’d have to come up with $250 million or the building would be demolished. (Amid pressure from the city and the public, the owners later relented and retracted their decision to opt out.)
Brookland Manor is likewise in a neighborhood that’s seen rising fortunes, if not quite to the extent of Mount Vernon Triangle. It’s within walking distance of the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station, recently rendered unrecognizable by the Rhode Island Row development of shops, restaurants, and apartments renting for as much as $3,000 a month for a two-bedroom. Housing prices have risen all along Rhode Island Avenue NE, from Eckington to Woodridge, as young professionals and families have fled the excessively high cost of housing in more central neighborhoods.
Yet Mid-City aims to renew its Section 8 contract with HUD for Brookland Manor, allowing the current residents to return, albeit after a period of displacement during construction and joined by a wealthier group of market-rate residents. Mid-City’s plans call for 20 percent of the approximately 2,200 units in the rebuilt project to be reserved for low-income tenants—-mostly under Section 8, which Meers says will cover the same number of units it does now, plus some additional income-restricted units.
“Mr. Ford is 85 now,” says Meers, referring to Eugene Ford, Sr., who founded Mid-City in 1965. “He’s in the legacy phase of his life. And he wants to do something substantial on the affordable housing front.”
Of course, Ford and Mid-City don’t lose out entirely by keeping the Section 8 component of the project: Brentwood is a far cry from Logan Circle, and it’s likely that Mid-City won’t forgo heaps of cash by receiving checks from the government for some of its units rather than collecting only market rent. Nor will the development process take place without a healthy dose of stress for current residents who hope to return.
In practice, Mid-City’s plans are similar to the city’s New Communities program, even if one is private and the other public. New Communities aims to replace outdated low-income housing with mixed-income communities that provide a new public housing unit for every one lost and add some additional affordable apartments—-which, in essence, is exactly what Mid-City is trying to do at Brookland Manor. The trouble is that New Communities has faced tremendous hurdles, putting its four projects well behind schedule and leaving many residents displaced longer than expected. Mid-City has yet to craft a relocation strategy for the Brookland Manor tenants, but if the city’s experience with New Communities is any indication, they could be living off-site for longer than planned.
Still, some residents and neighbors are eager to see Brookland Manor redeveloped. Even though it’s reasonably well-maintained by subsidized-housing standards, it still features poor layouts, with large enclosed spaces that feel vaguely penitentiary-like, and concentrates poverty on a few blocks of low-income housing. As a result, crime is frequent, including three murders last year “in the shadow” of Brookland Manor, according to Meers. (That was before a juvenile was shot and killed last night on the 1400 block of Downing Street NE, apparently inside a Brookland Manor apartment building.)
Minnie Elliott, president of the Brookland Manor/Brentwood Village Residents Association, has lived in the complex for more than 23 years, and she thinks it’s time for an overhaul. “I do,” she says. “I really do. You can look at the surrounding areas, and it’s changing. Everything is changing. So I do believe that’s a good idea. My biggest problem is, we don’t want them to displace the people that live here.”
But she believes Mid-City is committed to minimizing displacement, and she intends to hold the company to that commitment. And if she sees that commitment flagging? “We’re going to make noise,” she says. “We’re going to do what it takes.”
Mid-City plans to upgrade the retail in the neighborhood, with a 56,000-square-foot supermarket along the lines of a Safeway or Harris Teeter (there’s “kind of a food desert” in that part of town, Meers points out, with no real supermarkets between the Giant by the Rhode Island Avenue Metro and the Prince George’s County line) and about 150,000 square feet of additional retail along Rhode Island, Montana Avenue, and Saratoga Avenue, a street that currently has none. There will be some for-sale homes mixed in with the rentals, and townhouses on the southern part of the site. There will be a one-acre community green in the center, and a tree-lined pedestrian walk with water features connecting the green to Rhode Island Avenue.
Today’s zoning application—-a so-called stage one planned unit development application to the Zoning Commission, outlining the proposal broadly without getting into minute design details—-calls for upgrading the site from its current mix of low-density commercial and low-density residential to a combination of medium-density commercial (allowing for mixed-use buildings up to 90 feet with the approval of a planned unit development) and moderate-density residential (allowing for apartment buildings up to 60 feet as well as single-family homes). Mid-City’s proposal also involves rerouting some streets, eliminating the troubled section of 14th Street that wraps toward Montana, instead looping it around the community green, and extending 15th Street through the site to Rhode Island. (15th Street may have to be renamed, since due to the oblique angles in the area it would end up west of 14th Street.)
But the most important thing, according to Meers, is bringing in a mix of incomes. “I don’t know what the right mix is,” he says. “I just know we’re way out of kilter.”
Mid-City’s 40-year mortgage loan on Brookland Manor from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will be paid off in 2017, and Meers says construction won’t begin before then. Still, the debate over the company’s plans starts now. Some residents will surely be upset at the prospect of having to move, even temporarily. But Elliott sees no reason to grumble about the change.
“I think it’s needed, and I think that’s the future,” she says. “If you look toward the future, you can’t just say you want it to stay exactly as it is. Because they want to make money, and this is a win-win for everyone.”
Photos by Aaron Wiener; renderings from the PUD application