The Park Morton public housing complex has languished as New Communities struggles to get off the ground.
The Park Morton public housing complex has languished as New Communities struggles to get off the ground.

Last summer, the developers interested in rebuilding the public housing complex at Barry Farm came to the community near Anacostia to present their ideas. They didn’t get far. As the first would-be developer of the troubled project got up to speak, protesters shouted him down. Physical confrontations nearly broke out between attendees who wanted to hear the developers’ plans and the demonstrators, some of whom weren’t Barry Farm residents, organized by the activist group Empower D.C. The police had to intervene. The meeting was called off.

Barry Farm is one of four redevelopment projects under the struggling New Communities program, which aims to transform aging public housing complexes into mixed-income communities. Park Morton is another. Last night, four development teams came to Bruce Monroe Elementary School in Park View, a few blocks from Park Morton, to introduce themselves to Park Morton residents. The developers and city officials braced for another fight.

It didn’t happen. Turnout was low—-the developers and officials with the two agencies leading the redevelopment process, the D.C. Housing Authority and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, appeared to outnumber Park Morton residents—-and the meeting verged on sleepy.

Partly, it was a matter of lessons learned. After the Barry Farm debacle, city officials laid out clear ground rules for this meeting. It was purely a matter of meeting the developers and learning their qualifications. The developers weren’t allowed to reveal any details of their proposals. The residents were to limit their questions to the developers’ backgrounds and philosophies. Anything contentious was out of bounds.

Partly, it was the lack of an organized protest. In the absence of Empower D.C., the Barry Farm meeting might have gone smoothly. Last night, there were no signs or chants—-just a small group of residents, mostly middle aged or older.

And partly, it may be a matter of impatience. New Communities launched in 2005, yet none of its four projects is close to completion. The Park Morton overhaul was underway with a development team, but progress was so slow that DMPED canceled its agreement in February with the development team it had selected five years earlier.

A new solicitation went out in April, and four interested development teams responded. But with so few signs of momentum—-and more tangible signs of decay, as the Housing Authority has declined to back-fill vacated apartments there, leaving them boarded up—-there’s mounting frustration among some residents.

“Historically, do you usually have to do the process twice to get it right?” a resident asked one of the development teams, sarcastically, to laughs from his neighbors.

When Andre Johnson took the stage representing the Warrenton Group, part of the development team that was kicked to the curb in February, a woman in the audience directed her question at him: “Warrenton Group: No lessons learned?” Johnson was left to pass the blame to Warrenton’s development partner in the failed effort, Landex Corp. “The developer we started with wasn’t as committed as we were,” he said.

It wasn’t easy for residents to distinguish among the four teams that submitted proposals to the city this summer, given their nearly identical names. There’s Park View Partners, consisting of Mission First, Neighborhood Development Company, The Henson Development Company, and Urban Matters. There’s Park View Community Partners, comprising The Community Builders and Dantes Partners. There’s Park View Commons, led by Atlantic Pacific Communities and Non-Profit Community Development Corporation. And finally, Park Morton Partners, with Pennrose Properties and Warrenton.

Each did its best to persuade residents of its local credibility, after the fiasco with Linthicum, Md.-based Landex. Michelle Owens of Non-Profit Community Development Corporation boasted that she went to elementary school in the building where the crowd was assembled. Adrian Washington of the Neighborhood Development Company highlighted his company’s work along Georgia Avenue and the nearby property it owns, facilitating the off-site development that’s proven a hurdle in the Park Morton process. An official with Pennrose, based in Philadelphia, claimed, implausibly, that her company has done work in “12 different states in the mid-Atlantic region.”

But ultimately, there was little for the teams and residents to discuss, given that no details are public yet. The city isn’t planning to release the teams’ proposals, or to hold any more community meetings, before a five-person panel—-consisting of two DMPED officials, two Housing Authority officials, and one Park Morton resident—-selects a team by the end of the year. Even then, officials have stressed, the selection won’t represent an endorsement of the proposal so much as a vote of confidence in the team. Only after selection will the details be hammered out, amid further collaboration with residents.

The Housing Authority expects the Park Morton redevelopment to cost more than $40 million. The 174 two-bedroom apartments at the site’s 12 buildings will become around 500 units with a mix of incomes. The city and Housing Authority hope for as speedy a process as possible, with displaced residents returning to revamped Park Morton housing within a matter of years. The reality so far has been less expedient.

But at least the kind of animosity on display at Barry Farm hasn’t erupted yet at Park Morton. Perhaps residents really are more eager to get this long-delayed process moving. Or perhaps, when there are actual plans to discuss rather than just developers’ local bona fides, more criticism will begin to emerge.

Correction: This post initially stated that Owens went to school at Bruce Monroe. In fact, she would have attended Park View Elementary, which occupied that building before Bruce Monroe moved there several years ago. The post also stated that the Housing Authority selected Landex and later terminated the agreement. In fact, it was DMPED that did so, although the Housing Authority issued the subsequent solicitation for a new developer.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery