The Capitol Riverfront neighborhood has been revitalized with new housing, parks, and restaurants.

The Washington Post‘s Robert Samuels has a great in-depth story today on the years-long screw-up that’s turned a low-income housing complex into a semi-permanent parking lot. In 2008, Temple Courts, on North Capitol Street between K and L streets NW, was demolished to make way for a planned mixed-use, mixed-income development on the increasingly valuable site, replacing a squalid hotbed of crime that culminated in the 2004 execution-style murder of a 14-year-old girl. Since then, a whole bunch of things have gone wrong and left the site flattened, raising the questions of 1) what went wrong, 2) what happens now, 3) who exactly is in charge, and 4) how we prevent this from happening again.

Samuels’ Post colleague (and my Housing Complex predecessor) Lydia DePillis blogs that the moral of the story is that “big, complicated public land deals involving private investment, churches and mixed-up property records are really hard to pull off.” That’s certainly true. I’d add one other takeaway: It’s all about the medium term.

In the short term, every project sucks, no matter the eventual benefits. Few people would argue now that the city shouldn’t have built a Metro system, but boy were they hollering when the construction was waking them up in the morning and hurting business on their torn-up streets and complicating their commutes. Likewise with the redevelopment of public housing, through programs like Hope VI and New Communities and Choice Neighborhoods. The first step is usually some form of displacement, and nobody likes to be displaced from his or her home, no matter how rough it might be.

In the long term, these projects are probably for the best. If you take an area of concentrated poverty, with a few hundred crime-ridden public housing units and nothing else, and turn it into a higher-density, greener, mixed-income community with the same number of low-income housing units but also a few hundred middle-class households and amenities like restaurants and shops, that’s likely to look like a wise move 50 years from now.

But it’s in the medium term that a project is made or broken. Is the necessary displacement during construction as quick and painless as it could be? Do all the residents who were promised the ability to return to the improved buildings on the land where they once lived actually get to move back? This is where good planning and administration come in. At Temple Courts, the city dropped the ball. At the Capper/Carrollsburg redevelopment in what’s now the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood, it’s done a better job so far, though the recession and other factors have meant much longer displacement than the city initially promised.

DePillis pines for a Robert Moses-like despot who can brush away the red tape and see projects through from start to finish. That probably isn’t possible, or even desirable, given that Moses’ accumulating power helped transform him from parks champion to disastrously single-minded highway builder. But what we can realistically hope for is a mayor’s office and Housing Authority that are sensitive to the pain of displacement and don’t whip out the wrecking ball until they’re certain there aren’t any hurdles to completing a project in a reasonable time frame.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery