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One proposed design alternative for Potomac Gardens. (U Penn)

My column this week deals with the fence around Potomac Gardens, which doesn’t seem to fit in an neighborhood where crime is nothing compared to what it was in the 1990s. But I didn’t have space to go into the larger anachronism: The existence of a huge, solid block of concentrated poverty in the middle of a much higher-income area.

The vogue in public housing these days is mixed-income communities, and the District’s properties are gradually being redeveloped in that vein. Over the last decade, the Arthur Capper, Stanton Dwellings, and Frederick Douglass complexes have been and replaced through HOPE VI funding, while Northwest One, Park Morton, Barry Farms, and Lincoln Heights/Richardson Dwellings are being redeveloped under the District’s New Communities initiative. The Housing Authority just missed out on another HOPE VI grant for Highland Additions, but is hoping to land one in the next round of funding. Kenilworth is in the running for a federal Choice Neighborhoods grant, having already been designated a Promise Neighborhood.

Last year, students at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of city planning put together a report on Potomac Gardens and the nearby Hopkins complex, exploring how it might be funded either through a Choice Neighborhoods grant or other sources, like a Community Development Block Grant. They also drew up a couple of scenarios for redevelopment, one focused on integrating it seamlessly into the surrounding neighborhood, and another focused on creating high-quality public spaces.

The plans have a couple things in common: One, they involve complete demolition of the old buildings, which the authors decided were too far gone for effective rehabilitation. And two, they envision significantly higher density—going from 352 units to between 627 and 667 units—to accommodate higher-income residents while avoiding displacement. The lower density option would cost $154 million, and the higher-density option would cost $172 million.

What does the Housing Authority think about this? Something in between “we’re exploring possibilities” and “it’s never gonna happen.” DCHA swiftly batted down the Marines’ proposal to locate its new barracks facility at Potomac Gardens, saying that it was a good candidate for eventual redevelopment, and it’s on a list of several sites for which director Adrienne Todman has requested reports on their funding prospects. But according to spokeswoman Dena Michaelson, “it’s not quite ready to be geared up for a HOPE VI.” And even if it were, the fundamental configuration of those 21 chunky buildings is unlikely to change. “It’s not coming down,” Michaelson says. “It’s a strongly built development.”

If they could at least get several hundred million dollars to upgrade building systems at Potomac Gardens—where some units are boarded up, and ground-floor spaces barred off—that would improve the lives of current residents. But eventually, that land should be put to better use, in a manner that allows everyone to return.

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