2012’s been a big year for Anacostia, but a rough one for the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation. The biggest hit came with AEDC President Butch Hopkins‘ passing in June, but the neighborhood nonprofit has broader institutional problems. Anacostia residents have frequently criticized AEDC for not getting much done, despite generous public and private funding; its most visible accomplishment in Anacostia by far is the building on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in which it’s housed. When I spoke with the new owner of the now-closed Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket property last month, he described the AEDC staff he met with as “a bunch of thugs” who were “just interested in filling their pockets,” and he nearly walked away from the project as a result.
Earlier this week, I sat down with AEDC’s new president, Stan Jackson, now finishing up his second week on the job. Jackson certainly brings a decorated resume in city government: He’s served as chief of staff to the chief financial officer, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, and most recently acting president of the University of the District of Columbia. Jackson says he needed a lot of persuading before he stepped out of semi-retirement to take over AEDC. In our conversation, he discussed the need to bring changes to the troubled organization, as well as some hopes and dreams for the neighborhood, from international retail to a hydroponic garden. Here’s a lightly edited transcript:
What’s Anacostia’s most pressing need when it comes to development?
There are a number of needs. One is obviously for infrastructure. I think there’s also a need to integrate human capital development with the transition. I think retail and commerce as well as housing. I think clearly there needs to be some combination of more for-sale experiences in not just Anacostia but Ward 8. What excites me about Anacostia and east of the river, in particular Ward 8, is that you only have three major commercial corridors here, and they’re all connected by the same “spine,” which is what I call Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, which connects Anacostia, Congress Heights, and Bellevue. So we have an unprecedented opportunity to do something that could be so iconic, such a “wow” factor, that it transforms this side of the city.
Anacostia seems to be stuck in vicious cycle, where developers are scared off by the lack of neighborhood amenities, but those amenities won’t come until development brings a broader customer base. How do you break that?
I think it’s beginning to break now. Part of that is the fact that the city is sort of built out, so development has to move east of the river. East of the river has some of the best land locations in the city, it has some of the best land costs. And it’s also sprinkled with amenities that make it a wonderful development opportunity for those who are pioneering and understand that it takes it takes a transitional moment to create the kind of vibrancy that we see in other neighborhoods. Let’s think back just 10 years ago. We would not have thought that H Street would be as vibrant as it is.
Speaking of H Street, the H Street Playhouse is coming to Anacostia—-
That’s gonna be great.
Duane Gautier of ARCH Development has been hammering home the idea that Anacostia will become an arts district, and then retail and other amenities will follow. Is that the right approach?
I don’t want to necessarily limit it to art. I think the beauty of what we can do differently here is not be limited in terms of what are the attractions that draw the kind of people that we want to see.
I’m a believer that we have to put all the options on the table and work them in conjunction, and maybe one leads to the other but they’re all equally important. Because remember, one of the things that we’re talking about doing straight up this spine of MLK on the St. Elizabeths campus is to create sort of an incubator concept around the whole issue of technology.
Speaking of this spine, it’s always struck me that the Anacostia Metro is in wrong place. [laughs and claps in agreement] As St. Elizabeths gets developed and Anacostia and Congress Heights get more integrated and MLK starts to fill in, do you see the center of gravity in Anacostia shifting more toward the Metro?
Absolutely. I believe that, because logic will tell you that if you look at all the sequences of opportunity around the Anacostia Station, you’ve got a major thoroughfare that we call South Capitol Street, you’ve got a major intersection called the Frederick Douglass Bridge, you’ve got Poplar Point. All of that is integrated, so to me it’s an opportunity to use that node of development opportunity to create what I call the cascading impact of development.
Let’s talk about this corner here, at MLK and Good Hope, the heart of Anacostia. AEDC owns some property near this corner. What do you plan to do with it?
Well, what you’ve got here is strategic, and I think that’s the thing you’ve got to look at to let you know that investment and opportunity and development’s coming. You’ve got major developers now who have strategically purchased property all around what I call critical development opportunities. Right at that corner you’ve got property owned by Doug Jemal, owned by Four Points, owned by the city, and owned by AEDC. So it creates a fabulous opportunity to collaborate.
But what do you think that corner needs most?
I think the corner needs retail.
I think you need both entertainment and shopping options. You need some office space above, because I think this corner becomes a wonderful gateway for office as well as street-level retail. Because what excites me: Block and a half, and you’re at the park. So if you do it right, you can create such an experience, that you integrate the park right into this whole avenue.
I’ve been talking to folks, and this is just a wild idea, about a creative concept here where we’ll have a beautiful cafe that has its own hydroponic garden, where we can see in the cafe the produce that’s being grown, and then you see the presentation of it in the meal. And then we can lease out space to people who are in the culinary craft, who might be bakers who bake croissants and bread. And we connect it with our educational system so we now create a culinary pathway.
Let me just say how crazy I am. I think that if we do this right and we set up a large enough garden, why can’t we connect it with Walmart to sell them fresh produce that’s grown right here in Anacostia?
That’s a big dream, but doesn’t it seem a little premature to be talking about hydroponic gardens when there’s not even a supermarket in Anacostia?
But see I think there are opportunities. And one of the things we’ve got to do is be strategic about having access to these amenities, because what you don’t want to do is create the kind of competition that adversely impacts these facilities. So I think you can strategically deal with the hydroponic garden, because you can deal with this whole issue of healthy living.
But healthy living’s tough when the neighborhood’s got a fish fry and a bunch of carryouts and no supermarket, with the Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket gone.
I’m meeting with the purchaser of that. As a matter of fact, I was invited out to his house tonight, and I can’t do that. And what I’m humbled by is that I’ve gone from the organization and the people that he referred to as “thugs” to the opportunity that he would now like to meet with me and sit down and talk about how we can collaborate.
Sometimes it’s about how you present a plan and a strategy. It doesn’t have to be a win-lose experience. My goal is always a double bottom line: What can I do to help the community? And if I do that then we benefit ourselves.
So what I said to the gentleman was—-and he was very receptive—-“I don’t know what your experience was with your predecessors. That’s not important to me. What’s important to me is that we have a community that needs services. You’re in the restaurant business: You’ve got an active, well-performing restaurant in Virginia. We need to figure out, how do we bring the kind of quality services in a facility that is respectful of the community that is also state-of-the-art?” So he was open to that.
He’s about had conversations about bringing a dialysis center to the site. Some neighbors hate this idea; there’s already a methadone clinic here, a rehab center, things that aren’t serving most people in community. Do you think it’s time to put the kibosh on things like that?
Yeah, but I want him to come up with that, because what he has to understand is that it’s easier when you’ve got community support than when you’ve got community angst. And if you want to be a good what I call corporate citizen, then sometimes it’s important to not always look at how do you maximize return on square footage as opposed to creating the kind of residual value that has long-term implications.
Because what I’d like to do is—-you know the gentleman’s Pakistani. And he has access to resources. And I believe in this whole issue of a global marketplace. Can you just envision Anacostia being a center where you have this kind of diversity and international flavors?
If we are men of good will, I think we can find a win-win solution. He can do well, but not only can he do well there, there can be other opportunities. Because part of what I want to do is illustrate how one city can be one globally. It doesn’t have to be just one city here, but how do we now integrate? Because we have an EB5 program that I would like to see take off in eastern Washington.
I’m glad you brought up the “thug” comment so I didn’t have to. Some people in the neighborhood think AEDC has a big name, a big budget, a big presence, but hasn’t done very much they can see. There’s this building here, but outside of this, people ask, “What have they actually done—-“
And Good Hope Marketplace in Ward 7. But to your point, you’re absolutely right, because we have not been defined as an organization, we’ve been defined as people. And some people—- I love my predecessor. He and I were great colleagues. But some of the criticism was valid. And some of it I think was extreme or exaggerated. But it’s clear to me that we have not been all that we could be as an organization. The exciting thing for me is that we’ve been here for four decades, which means we have staying power. We’ve seen the transition where a lot of organizations have not been able to survive. And we’re surviving. That says to me that we have to learn from those experiences. One of the things that I have learned in my career is the importance of collaboration and transparency. I need to have the community know exactly where I’m going. There’s nothing up my sleeve but my arm.
The first thing I did in my first week here was, I sat down and personally called every ANC and introduced myself. And told them, “Yes, we have not been all that we should be, but we want to be better. And how can we work together? So I need your input and your ideas.”
I even went to the nemesis. I’ve heard about this gentleman Cardell Shelton. I went to his house. And it shocked him that I showed up at his residence. He’s a very vocal, angry neighbor who has vilified the organization and vilified my predecessor. And the one thing I was told when I decided to take this venture on was, “You know, Stan, you’re walking into a hornet’s nest, ’cause Cardell hates the organization. He’s going to attack you.”
So I took him to lunch and we laid some ground rules, that I was raised to always respect my elders and I will do that, but I won’t allow you to disrespect me. As long as we understand that, I don’t know what your issues were with [AEDC Vice President Mike Wallach, who served as acting president following Hopkins’ death this summer] and with the organization. That’s not important to me. What’s important is, how do we as colleagues move forward for the greater value of the city?
Are you keeping the full staff on?
Right now I’ve got all the staff here. You know, I’m a numbers junkie, I’m a data guy, so I started my first week going through all the numbers. I took a look back over the past couple of years to see what my stress points are. I’ve got some challenges going forward. So that allows me now, after we break for the holidays, to refocus and reenergize the staff. Part of my goal here is to stabilize the organization so we can grow.
Is there a chance that you’ll shake things up?
Well, my goal is to grow the organization, and growing the organization, yeah, we’re gonna get some new blood. I’d like to see new blood on the boards as well. I love a lot of folks, but we’ve got a responsibility to make things happen in this city and this ward. So I gotta have people around me with that same kind of spirit and energy and the need to understand that we are servants of our community. If we’re not doing our job, then we have to reevaluate, is that what we’re cut out to be? I’m never going to be ugly about it, but I’ll be very clear, and I have been with everybody. We’ve met as a group and one on one.
When I first spoke with Department of Housing and Community Development Director Michael Kelly, your upstairs neighbor here, he lamented that not enough was done to keep low-income residents in place during the redevelopment of Columbia Heights and H Street NE. How do you proactive ensure that as things move forward in Anacostia, people won’t be displaced?
I think, to Mike’s point, is working with the community, working with people like Mike to ensure that we provide as much safety net and as much transitional opportunity as possible to afford those who want to take advantage of the opportunity to transition to transition. See, I’m an advocate who beleives that change is not necessarily bad; it’s how you manage it. It’s the impact of change. Our goal here is to manage it very sensibly, very sensitively, and inclusively, so that we’re truly operating on the spirit of one city.
I’m a realist. I know that you’re not going to get everybody, because everybody is not ready. And so those that are ready, we want to support that effort. Because in any major development, particularly that involves individuals who are financially challenged, there’s always a process where some people are washed out of the process. So we have to be mindful of that.
Photo from the AEDC website