The mayor called for a countdown, but Mary Dews-Hall couldn’t wait. “Five!” the assembled crowd shouted as Vince Gray held up five fingers with one hand and an oversize pair of scissors etched with the word “mayor” in the other. “Four!”—-and then the red ribbon snapped as Dews-Hall, standing next to Gray, closed her own giant blades.
Dews-Hall has been waiting a while to cut the ceremonial ribbon on the new 2M apartment building in NoMa that finally opened today. The grandmother of 14 and great-grandmother of 29 lived at nearby Temple Courts before it was demolished six years ago as part of the New Communities Initiative, a program aimed at replacing troubled low-income housing with new mixed-income communities. That replacement took longer than anticipated, as the recession slowed development across the city and New Communities proved harder to pull off than city officials had expected. Now, with the opening of 2M at North Capitol and M streets NE, Dews-Hall has been able to return to her old neighborhood from a temporary home across the Anacostia River. It would be an understatement to describe her as happy with her long-awaited homecoming.
“I am proud to say, America is beautiful today!” she gushed at the ribbon-cutting, thanking President Barack Obama, Congress, Gray, developer WC Smith, and God, though not in that order.
In a sense, 2M is everything a New Communities project should be. Of the 314 units, 59 are replacement apartments for people displaced from Temple Courts, and an additional 34 are for residents earning less than 60 percent of area median income. Market-rate apartments start at $1,790 a month for studios and go as high as $2,995 for two-bedrooms, and the building has a swimming pool and private dog park, but nearly a third of the units are set aside for low-income tenants.
But viewed another way, 2M is the exception that proves the rule of New Communities’ shortcomings. As a city-commissioned report highlighted this month, the program—-a brainchild of the Anthony Williams administration—-has been beset by unrealistic expectations and poor execution. While 1,542 housing units have been or will be demolished under New Communities, only 355 replacement units have been built or are in the construction or financing stage. (Even with 2M opening, many former Temple Courts residents are still waiting for replacement housing.) The report suggested that the city rethink some of New Communities’ core principles, like building replacement housing before demolishing existing units and creating a mix of incomes. (On the latter, it’s proven hard to build market-rate apartments in poorer New Communities areas like Lincoln Heights.)
Today’s ribbon-cutting does give a mild symbolic boost to the Northwest One project, of which 2M is a part. Northwest One was the original New Communities project, before three other sites were added at Park Morton, Lincoln Heights, and Barry Farm, and it’s struggled to meet its development targets, even as the surrounding NoMa neighborhood experiences one of the city’s fastest development booms. With today’s addition of 2M’s 59 replacement units to the 30 units completed at the nearby SeVerna development, Northwest One now officially has more replacement units than any of the other New Communities projects. It may be a milestone based on mediocrity and missed opportunities, but it’s a milestone nonetheless.
Photo by Aaron Wiener