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"Neighborhoods are like children. They need attention differently."

"Gentrification is a word urbanists and people in this area banter about," said former Mayor Anthony Williams at a panel discussion last night, "but neighborhoods are like children. They need attention differently."

11th & U Streets. Photo by the author.

No one size fits all. Williams said residents in Upper Northwest "just want services and not development." Meanwhile across the Anacostia River, the demand is for "critical government attention," like the big projects in the works at Saint Elizabeths and Skyland, or the recently-opened early childhood development center Educare in Parkside.

The DC Humanities Council organized the panel, which Washington City Paper editor Mike Madden moderated. Washington Post business reporter Jonathan O'Connell and Historic Preservation Review Board members Maria Casarella and Rauzia Ally joined Williams to discuss the role of public policy and economic development.

Is there a "Plan" to displace residents?

In 2003, when Williams was mayor, he set a goal of attracting 100,000 new residents over the following decade. A recent survey now shows the District is gaining people at a rate of a thousand a month.

Some in the audience expressed suspicions that this is part of a devious and covert plan to drive members of old Washington communities out of the city. Williams disputed the concept. "The notion that there is a plan may sound good, but it's crazy," he said, and noted that as mayor, he supported programs like the Housing Production Trust Fund to preserve affordable housing.

Offering a reality check of sorts for skeptics, O'Connell added, "Marion Barry is glad to sit down with developers." During Barry's mayoralty, "investments were made that were part of 'the plan'" such as building the Verizon Center downtown and the Reeves Center at 14th & U Streets in the mid-1980s.

"The value of real estate has more of an impact than policy," said O'Connell. "Apartments are being built on 14th Street not because of policy but because it is the best place to build apartments in the country." Williams consented that "the market moves faster than the city." From bike lanes to new neighborhood branch libraries, panelists and audience members agreed that public policy decisions and capital investments made years ago guide current trends.

Neighborhoods need to be involved in shaping growth

Neighborhood revitalization is at its best when residents can work with government to regenerate from within, argued Casarella. She cited the successful restoration of homes in historic Anacostia through the Office of Planning's Historic Homeowner Grant Program as an ideal example of a working partnership between the city and neighborhood residents to direct change instead of just reacting to it.

Commercial and residential development in designated historic neighborhoods passes through Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, which receive "great weight" at the final level of agency review, said Caserella. "You are the most important planner."

"When was the last time that ever mattered?" an audience member called out. "I have to dismiss your cynicism," Casarella said, reflecting the overall belief of the panel that Washington's active neighborhood level associations influence both planning and economic development.

Ribbon cutting for Old Market Square in Historic Anacostia, fall 2011. Photo by the author.
Panelists discussed how parks can be an irreplaceable public good for a neighborhood when an audience member asked the panel to predict the future of development "east of the river which is 15 years behind what has happened on U Street."

"It is very hard to add green space later," O'Connell said, alluding to ongoing development in NoMA where "they missed planning a park." With development projects either in the early stages or waiting to break ground throughout Wards 7 and 8, O'Connell cautioned residents to remain vigilant in maintaining their natural recreation space. "Poplar Point is 110 acres and 70 acres is set aside to be a park. I would be careful to make sure the 70 acres stays," as the project slowly moves toward development.

Whereas previous conversations in the Humanities Council series have been emotionally charged, the evening's conversation featured a more reasoned tone, with mature and insightful analysis. Most people were able to agree on at least a few things: as the city grows in population, neighborhoods will respond differently, but the best response is when residents engage constructively in the process. That gives residents both a sense of ownership over their neighborhood, and a voice in decisions that guide local development.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


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"When was the last time that ever mattered?" an audience member called out. "I have to dismiss your cynicism," Caserella said, reflecting the overall belief of the panel that Washington's active neighborhood level associations influence both planning and economic development.

Repeated for emphasis, if anything I would make the argument that neighborhood associations have too much influence when it comes to specific projects.

Also, it's good to point out the myriad programs there are to help people stay where they want to stay even if prices in the neighbhorhood sharply rise.

by drumz on Sep 28, 2012 1:43 pm • linkreport

In what way is Poplar Point slowly moving towards development? It seems like it's actually the opposite.

by selxic on Sep 28, 2012 2:17 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the informative write-up.

I think "featured" is missing a "u" though.

by H Street LL on Sep 28, 2012 2:26 pm • linkreport

@Selxic... Good point.

"awaits development" is more accurate than "slowly moves toward development."

by John Muller on Sep 28, 2012 2:28 pm • linkreport

I agree with drumz. The majority of the community and civic associations are nothing more than a cabal of longtime residents interested in using their platform to advance their agenda. These are generally not inclusive groups, they often do not have open/public meetings and yet, are given great weight (not the same as the legal definition for ANCs) before the City.

It is a total crock.

by William on Sep 28, 2012 2:48 pm • linkreport

The "be careful to make sure the 70 acres stays" bit reminds me of this:

Green space is important, but as the quote from Jane Jacobs indicates, it's too easy to take its virtues for granted. More important than green space is _access_ to green space. Several narrow parks abutting businesses and residences will serve the community far better than one massive blob of green space that few people can access. Imagine 70 acres of Old Market Square type parks and the impact that would have on neighborhoods compared to the impact of 70 acres in one big pile on the other side of the freeway.

by Lucre on Sep 28, 2012 3:32 pm • linkreport

Lucre: Yeah, I had the same reaction. There is already a ton of parkland there, but a lot of it is not in places that it can serve the neighborhoods well. There are so many huge fort circle parks east of the river. Absolute number of acres of parks is not the problem with parks there.

by David Alpert on Sep 28, 2012 3:45 pm • linkreport

FWIW, while the Anacostia program that Maria Casarella cites is important, the reality is that Anacostia will change demographically over time as more people move to the city and supply in the currently attractive neighborhoods is dissipated.

E.g., VT professor Derek Hyra argues that Shaw has been successfully resistant to "gentrification."

I counter that he isn't studying the neighborhood over a long enough time frame, and taking into account the "delay" in demographic change induced by the fact that subway service in this area came later than in communities served by the Red/Blue/Orange Lines. Also that it has fewer subway stations.

While it's true that Anacostia has limited fixed rail transit service, that will change with a streetcar, and as other changes happen in the area, slowly the tipping point will change.

by Richard Layman on Oct 1, 2012 1:36 pm • linkreport

A good article about a good meeting. One point raised late in the meeting noted that efforts to improve low-income neighborhoods often end up enriching affluent absentee owners at the expense of low-income residents.

Some communities are tackling this problem by transforming their property tax into a public services access fee. This is accomplished by reducing the tax rate on building values and increasing the tax rate on land values. The lower rate on buildings makes them cheaper to build, improve and maintain. Surprisingly, the higher rate on land helps keep land more affordable by taking some of the profit out of real estate speculation.

The end result of this "universal abatement" is more affordable residential and commercial space, more infill development, and more jobs in construction, home improvement and other fields. (While deep housing subsidies will always be needed, reducing the market price of housing will allow limited subsidy dollars to help more people.) Another important result is that community-created land values (from transit or other improvements) are returned to the community instead of ending up as windfall profits to a few landowners.

Several working groups in the Sustainable DC Initiative have already identified this tax reform as an important measure. Readers of Greater Greater Washington should also bring this to the attention of the Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force and the DC Tax Revision Commission so that the District can make real progress on this important issue.

More information can be obtained from

by Rick Rybeck on Oct 3, 2012 4:54 pm • linkreport

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