A rendering of the early plans for the Big K site.
A rendering of the early plans for the Big K site.

Over the past few days, I’ve received nearly two dozen emails bearing a subject line that’s some variant of “NO to Councilman Barry’s ‘EMERGENCY’ Legislation!!!” What’s the fuss all about? It concerns legislation by Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry that the D.C. Council will consider today. The bill—-actually a set of three related bills—-would allow the biggest proposed development project in Anacostia to go forward. And clearly some neighbors are not thrilled at the prospect.

The project in question is known by the moniker “Big K,” after the defunct liquor store that’s part of the site where the new development would rise. Chapman Development proposed a six-story building with affordable apartments and retail, which neighbors criticized and the Historic Preservation Review Board unanimously rejected as out of scale with Historic Anacostia’s lower profile. (At the same meeting where community members expressed their displeasure, Barry praised developer Tim Chapman, stated his support for the project, and said it would “transform Martin Luther King [Avenue SE] into a grand boulevard, at no one’s expense.”) Chapman revised his proposal and shaved a story off the building, but the HPRB once again rejected it, maintaining that it was still “too tall.”

Chapman appealed to Mayor’s Agent J. Peter Byrne, who can decide that the project has special merit that outweighs any historic preservation concerns. But Barry is trying to circumvent that process with his legislation and approve the development directly.

On March 31, Barry sent a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson notifying him of his intent to introduce the legislation. “At the present, the project is in limbo as the Historic Preservation Review Board (‘HPRB’), which has previously allowed the relocation of contributing historic structures, has denied the relocation of two existing vacant houses,” Barry explained in the letter, referring to two historic properties that would have to be moved to make way for the development. “An appeal to the Mayor’s Agent, which is in process, along with further review by the HPRB, which has already added substantial cost to this critical city-proposed project, will take several months and by that time the rising interest rates on construction financing and increased construction costs could risk making the project economically infeasible.”

Barry continued with his rationale for the project’s merit. “The District of Columbia, and especially Ward 8, is in dire need of new work-force/affordable housing for its residents,” he wrote. “Ward 8 is also in dire need of the investment and retail development that this project provides.  Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, S.E. has not seen the new construction of residential buildings in over 40 years.  Thus, this project is critical to the redevelopment of Anacostia.”

There’s certainly logic to this argument—-Anacostia hasn’t seen the kind of development befitting a Metro-accessible, riverfront neighborhood, and a project of this sort could provide a real boost—-but it’s not logic Barry usually employs. The former mayor has consistently spoken out against the construction of any new rental and affordable housing in Ward 8, saying the area already has enough of it and should focus on market-rate and ownership housing.

Indeed, Barry’s standard line is the one a group of neighbors employed in a letter to the Council last week. “Ward 8 is an oasis of affordable housing,” wrote local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Greta Fuller and two other signatories. “We are not against affordable housing. We are against economic segregation.”

The signatories stated that they were “confused” by Barry’s position, given that he once introduced (failed) legislation that would have placed a moratorium on the construction of new apartment buildings in his ward. “This about face makes it clear Councilmember Barry does not have a clear vision for Ward 8,” they wrote. “Please do not indulge Councilmember Barry’s latest fancy by approving his emergency legislation.”

It bears noting that Chapman has made the maximum $500 donation to Barry’s re-election campaigns three times since 2008. He’s also made a number of other political donations, including the maximum $2,000 contribution to Muriel Bowser‘s 2014 mayoral campaign.

A Barry spokeswoman did not return a call for comment.

Rendering courtesy of PGN Architects