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Anacostians still waiting for a new day

A recent blitzkrieg of laudatory media reports have focused on Anacostia's residential market and arts scene. But new home signs dot vacant lots and hang from empty buildings. And store after store continues to close.

William Alston-El in Historic Anacostia. All photos by the author.

Along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Historic Anacostia are green signs announcing a "PUBLIC NOTICE OF A ZONING PROPOSAL" that has been 5 years in the making. Is it a new day in Anacostia? To find out, community activist William Alston-El and I took to the streets to visit our old haunts and investigate new leads.

"The neighborhood is changing, yeah, I can say that," Alston-El, a 45-year resident of Anacostia, says without any hint of derision. "But people aren't telling the real truth of what's going on. The real story isn't being told."

Fendall Heights Abandominiums

For 3 years, a banner has hung from the side of the Fendall Heights Condominiums on V Street SE, a short walk from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, announcing "1 & 2 BEDROOMS" with granite counter tops and hardwood floors starting at $125,000. Back in the summer of 2010, the project's 29 units were heralded as Ward 8's first "green" condos.

With financial support from the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities, Department of Housing and Community Development, and US Department of Energy, ARCH Development Corporation, along with a community partner, used construction trainees from the "Arch Training Center" to rehabilitate the building. (Although "Arch Training Center" is acknowledged on the banner, the organization "was dissolved 2 years ago," according to Nikki Peele, Director of Business Marketing for the ARCH Development Corporation.)

Real estate agents from as far away as Frederick and Leesburg listed units for prices as high as $225,000 and $240,000. Consequently, nobody bought in to the four-story Art Deco building, built during the 2nd World War.

Fendall Heights Abandominiums at the corner of Fendall & V Street SE.

According to tax records, the property was sold last month for an undisclosed sum to SCATTERED SITE II LLC. In March, the City Council advanced a $4,780,000 loan at terms of 2% over 40 years from the Housing Production Trust Fund to "Scattered Site LLC" to pay off construction loans and renovate 2 apartment buildings located at 523-525 Mellon Street, SE and 216 New York Avenue-1151 New Jersey Avenue, NW.

According to the contract, the renovated apartment buildings will contain a total of 68 units "affordable to and rented exclusively to extremely low income households with incomes not to exceed 30% of the area median income." It's fair to conclude that the Fendall Heights Abandominiums, which did not draw market rate investment 3 years ago, will now become affordable housing units.

Front entrance to the Fendall Heights Abandominiums at 2025 Fendall Street SE.

Over the past year, Alston-El and I have stopped by the property multiple times. A couple weeks ago we found the front door open. The leasing office had a desk, computer, phone, and filing cabinet, although there was no evidence anyone had signed a lease yet. Doors to units on the ground floor were wide open, and we found them to be as advertised on the banner. Water even ran from the faucet.

The property's 2014 proposed tax value of $3,799,620, up from $3,681,940 in 2013, is surely justified. Now, if it could only find tenants.

"Something is seriously awry when ARCH lets something go," says Rev. Oliver "OJ" Johnson, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and former board member for the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation. Johnson has been critical of the "ARCH" brand since the 1980's, when Pepco formed the ARCH Training Center in response to complaints that they weren't hiring local residents.

"This is an investigative matter," Johnson says. "This type of practice has gone on for years and years. The city has a major role in convoluting these types of projects. It becomes a maze to find how the city deploys money and through what sources it deploys money. If you follow the money, you'll find the truth."

Alston-El says the main reason for Fendall Heights' failure is more mundane than financial mismanagement. "They have to change Fendall Street," he says. "It's a one-way and you can't make it out of Dodge without going down V Street towards 16th Street then out to Good Hope. They have to go past the drugs to get outta here. Yep, folk aren't going for that."

Blighted properties at 1644-1648 V Street SE, owned by "ARCH TRAINING INC."

The bricked and boarded-up buildings around the corner at 1644-1648 V Street SE didn't help, either. There's no banner here, just graffiti in green spray paint letting everyone know that "MONEY GANG J.R. $" was here.

According to city tax records, "ARCH TRAINING INC" acquired the property in June 1999 and have owned it since. Though DC is supposed to tax the vacant and blighted buildings at the Class 4 "Blighted real property" rate of $10 per $100 of assessed value, intended to discourage owners from letting their properties go, the buildings are instead taxed at the lower "001 - Residential," rate of $0.85 per $100 of assessed value. In 2013, the city assessed the eyesore at $489,000 in 2013 with a proposed new 2014 value of $499,200.

Property Record for the blighted buildings at 1644 - 1648 V Street SE, owned by "ARCH TRAINING CENTER," taxed incorrectly at the Class 1 Residential Rate.

13th & W Street SE

Across the street from 19th century Italianate rowhouses is a vacant lot at the northwest corner of 13th & W Street SE, just steps from an abandoned Quonset hut that once housed a "filthy" community health clinic.

Until this spring, a "COMING SOON!" sign advertising "LUXURIOUS TOWNS & CONDOMINIUMS From the 200's" was the only thing standing on the lot. Now it's gone, priority registration closed for the moment.

The "COMING SOON!" sign at 13th & W Street SE advertising "LUXURIOUS TOWNS & CONDOMINIUMS From the 200's" is now gone.

It's easy to see, and media reports have confirmed, that many of the neighborhood's historic single-family homes have been bought and slowly rehabbed over the past two years. However, the future of this corner, a rock's throw from the Frederick Douglass home, is the bellwether of Anacostia's revitalization.

After years of starts and stops, with each turn generating interest and enthusiasm from within and outside Anacostia, the project will have to start all over again as the development's zoning approval has expired.

Retail awaits while social services entrench

In Anacostia, the 1st of the month presents heavy foot traffic for check cashing outfits and a ripe opportunity for the criminal-minded. According to a neighborhood source, the Gold Spot on 2216 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, a couple doors from the former Uniontown Bar & Grill, was stuck up for $20,000 on March 1st.

Gold Spot Check Cashing at 2216 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE is now vacant after a March robbery.

After the robbery, Metropolitan Police Department Commander Robin Hoey gave a report on the 7th District listserv. "Earlier this week a lone gunman entered the Goldspot as an employee was opening the business and robbed the establishment of an undisclosed amount of money," he wrote. "There were no injuries. The event was caught on video tape and the 7th district detectives are currently investigating. its [sic] looks very promising and I will advise further as the case proceeds."

Within a matter of weeks, Gold Spot, which recently got a new awning financed by Western Union, left the neighborhood after nearly 20 years. In response to an inquiry Monday on the current status of the investigation, Commander Hoey wrote, "We served some search warrants and have identified strong persons of interest."

Renae's Flowers & Gifts at 1924 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE closed months ago.

There was no mention of the unsolved robbery on a 2-minute segment Fox 5 ran last week promoting Anacostia's residential stock and retail. "There are a number of factors attracting folks to Southeast," the feature boasted. "Improved roadways leading to this part of the city, grocery stores, restaurants and even government buildings."

Uniontown Bar & Grill has been closed for nearly a year, though the new owners are applying for a liquor license. The Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket on Good Hope Road has been closed for months. Renae's Flower Shop at 1924 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE closed, and the city-owned Big K Site won't be sold off until late next year. The newest shop to open in Anacostia is a thrift store.

A social service provider bought the old furniture store at 2006 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.

And a social service provider will open in an old furniture store that many hoped would become the neighborhood's incarnation of Busboys & Poets. On December 27, 2012, the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative (FSFSC) purchased the store at 2006 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE for $2.195 million.

In 2011, the "oversaturation" of social services was a rallying cry for Anacostians. A women's shelter quietly opened on Good Hope Road SE after neighbors aggressively protested it. With this in mind, the FSFSC has moved cautiously, some believe secretly.

"Our goal is for this building to be a benefit to the Ward 8 community," Dionne T. Reeder, Community Engagement Director for FSFSC, wrote in an email to a small group of neighborhood leaders on January 31st. "We are hosting several discussions with our neighbors. We are inviting many residents from your neighborhood and are planning small meetings so please do not forward this email to other community residents. We have consulted with your ANC Commissions and community leaders who have provided us with a list of residents to begin our discussion."

Former space of Fireside Restaurant, 2028 Martin Luther King Jr Ave SE, has been vacant for more than a year.

Despite favorable press coverage for the area's nascent arts scene, notably the opening of the long-delayed Anacostia Playhouse this summer, the market forces of Anacostia's retail have driven the economy to reliance on government transfer payments.

However, according to a report by the Post's Mike DeBonis, as a result of Chartered Health Plan's "dissolution," small health care providers that serve over 100,000 low-income city residents are facing paralyzing payment deficits. Up and down and around Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE and Good Hope Road SE are public health clinics that treat drug addiction, HIV-AIDS patients, pain rehabilitation, and diabetes. These facilities face fiscal challenges that could force their closure.

Construction on 1239 Good Hope Road SE was recently reviewed by the Historic Preservation Review Board.

In the meantime, attention in Anacostia continues to focus "on the newest and shiniest toy they say they can give us," says Alston-El, referring to an upcoming meeting on the latest plans for the 11th Street Bridge Park Project.

"It's quiet now; nobody's speaking the truth because there are too many distractions going on," he says as we ride down V Street SE to Morris Road SE to meet a friend. "Every week it's something new: one week the streetcar, another week the bridge park, Barry Farm redevelopment, Sheridan Station, the Heritage Trail, you name it. They're keeping us guessing and confused while you got working-class people in this neighborhood, like me, [who] can't find a place to live but you got the Fendall Heights Abandominiums just sitting there."

"No, John, I'm not mad," he adds. "You didn't know? It's a new day in Anacostia. Haven't you been paying attention?"

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


Add a comment »

I have written about how this area of Washington, D.C. is so ignored:

by Douglas Andrew Willinger on May 29, 2013 6:19 pm • linkreport

Maybe I'm dense and can't read between the lines well enough, but I'm not following the thrust of the article very well. It's certainly a sad catalog of disinvestment woes (one could add the closing of Ray's the Steaks to the list, one of the only nearby sit-down restaurants). Corruption, confusion, lack of police accountability, lack of direction, etc., it all seems pretty emblematic of an absence of capable leadership in the area. So who is the author blaming--and is there a prescription? Who is in charge in Anacostia? Is it the guy who keeps getting re-elected with 90% of the vote? Is that the point?

by boris on May 29, 2013 6:56 pm • linkreport

How can one trust a community that reelects Marion Barry to the council?

by Tobias Fünke on May 29, 2013 7:33 pm • linkreport

I don't know much about the operations of commercial real estate or the ins and outs of opening a business or starting one, but I imagine a lot of it has to do with whether the lending institution supporting the business can expect the existing residential community to financially support and repay the investment by a financial institution. Much of the existing community is low income, which is fine in and of itself, but does not support much commercial investment because of the lack of disposable income to support restaurants, shops, etc. Those places which do manage to secure financing still end up struggling because of aforementioned lack of disposable income to support their businesses.

Meanwhile, I'm willing to bet there are a lot of people out there on the residential side who are willing to invest in the community and bring some disposable dollars there. However, just because an individual is willing to move to a neighborhood doesn't mean the financial institution providing them a loan is along for the ride. I am personally extremely well qualified for lenders; nevertheless, a major bank pulled the rug out from under my loan when they discovered the home I was purchasing was "flipped" - I.e. bought, renovated, then resold at twice the value. This to many lenders qualifies as a high-risk loan, which requires a 20% down payment, which even in the "affordable" neighborhoods of the city is almost impossible to pay for unless you are already wealthy. Many older properties in need of renovation or serious upkeep are available for the buying at very low prices, but with careers and family, who has the time and money to improve them on their own, especially with the dearth of good quality (and affordable) residential contractors? For these types of young, middle class professionals, buying a home that someone else has already improved is a great option, except it seems the banks don't want to play along.

Thankfully I was able to find another lender who was able to provide financing, but my guess is there are many folks in similar boats who can't or haven't been able to do so given the attitudes of the major banks. Keeping low-income housing is critically important, but middle-class folks who want to move there need to be supported as well. My guess Is change will be overall positive but slow and incremental for at least a few more years to come.

by Soon2BWard8 Resident on May 29, 2013 10:20 pm • linkreport

I would not have used the word "laudatory" to describe some of the other media coverage, at least in the print media. The Washington Business Journal report, that you link to, is guarded: "it will still take steely optimism to build in Anacostia." The City Paper's take is more about exploring the arts in that area, a reasonable approach considering the role artists have played in challenged areas.

You make a fair point that optimism isn't a new arrival for Anacostia, and failed optimism is more often the end. The catalog you assemble is a fair marker for other reporters to be clear-eyed about the area.

by kob on May 30, 2013 8:27 am • linkreport

I think the problem is people can't really agree what they want in the area. Some people want new stores and business opportunities, some want affordable housing and no gentrification. It's going to be tough to mediate those competing interests well enough to get a solid plan for the area.

by Alan B. on May 30, 2013 9:34 am • linkreport

@kob Fair point. Much of the recent coverage has been uneven, especially Fox 5's story. The WBJ piece is from 5 years ago.

by John Muller on May 30, 2013 10:43 am • linkreport

In full disclosure:

I was a part-time contractor for The Hive for two months in Jan. & Feb. 2012 as an admin assistant answering phones, receiving mail, sweeping the sidewalk out front, and putting out and taking in the sandwich board.

by John Muller on May 30, 2013 10:46 am • linkreport

Excellent article, if overly negative, in my opinion. It's not just a "thrift store" that opened - they did a beautiful renovation and by all indicators its a great store. Sure the crummy grocery, AWS, closed - but it was bought by a well-capitalized local businessman. Work has been ongoing on renovations (and I would imagine leasing), but slower than I would like. Still an improvement.

1600 V is shameful though, no doubt. Very scary on that block. Overall, the neighborhood looks better every day, though, esp. the single family blocks.

PS the new bridge is really nice (and I hate roads). The large pedestrian/biker section will be a game changer for crossing the river. Very nice views and the pitch on the bridge is smallish.

by h st ll on May 30, 2013 11:15 am • linkreport

Good point. It's more a catalog.

I would argue that some of my posts, including the ones on why Anacostia won't develop, long term as an arts district, but also the one on how an arts-related initiative throughout wards 7 and 8 as a self redevelopment and ec. dev. initiative would still be good.

Plus the stuff I wrote last year in response to your original abadominium post, which was and is still very provocative in terms of the issues you raise.

I outlined a way to structure a systemic response to bring back those buildings online.

by Richard Layman on May 30, 2013 1:27 pm • linkreport

@John Muller

Isn't The Hive a project of ARCH???? I could be wrong but I thought it was.

by ABB on May 30, 2013 1:51 pm • linkreport

As someone who worked as a community developer East of the River for the last decade, from a market perspective, Anacostia is poised to explode. All is would take would be the correct alignment of public policy, targeted subsidy, and infrastructure improvements to make this happen. Unfortunately, the subsidy, policy and infrastructure would need to be targeted to market rate housing and retail, elements that are politically unpopular, even though have many residents in Ward 8 want those things and investors/developers ready to jump. All it takes is a small minority of vocal opponents to play on fears of gentrification and white-washing to scare city officials and politicians into a passive position. Meanwhile, low income housing, social service providers and inferior retail will continue to be concentrated in Ward 8. There is a patronizing and racist assumption underlying the lack of advocacy for market rate development, espoused by both local Black activists and divested white liberals.

by Anonomous on May 30, 2013 2:40 pm • linkreport

Retail awaits while social services entrench

That is rather intriguing language to describe a section about businesses leaving the area. The language implies some sort of pent up demand from retailers to move to the area, which does not seem very accurate.

I agree with "Anonomous" that subsidy and infrastructure improvements need to happen to spur private development catering to the gentrifying crowd. Building a bunch of new affordable housing is just not going to attract retail.

by Scoot on May 30, 2013 2:52 pm • linkreport

At what price would you buy in Anacostia? Is there one or is this area a no go until something substantial happens? Half the things I read make it sound like good times are just a few years away and others make me think they'll never come.

by David on May 30, 2013 4:46 pm • linkreport

@ David - what do you think? I will say, people said Near NE, Trinidad, Petworth etc were sketchy (when you could actually get a deal there). Now, people complain about being priced out of those neighborhoods. That said, every investment has risk. No one can say with absolute certainly if Anacostia will continue to improve or regress. On CHOTR I recently noted in many ways the neighborhood already has a plethora of attributes. Beyond what I listed above, there is office space, transit, a sit down restaurant/bar open late and early (more coming), galleries, general business incubators/creative space etc

And really, you would be the one living there. I would live there - my wife wouldn't. Up to you. I will say you can get a beautiful, roomyish rowhouse newly renovated for like 275k.

by h st ll on May 30, 2013 9:22 pm • linkreport

Photo I took today of ongoing work on AWS:

Looks like they are starting the work on framing out the new retail bays (among other things). Also the church of the Agape has almost finished all new (concrete) stairs (still a ton of work needs to be done to that building, though).

by h st ll on Jun 1, 2013 6:51 pm • linkreport

Can't speak for anyone else, but I just signed a contract for a condo in Sheridan Station primarily because it is so close to the metro station and is just one stop from where I am now and 3 stops from my job at HUD. One of my coworkers just told me that her best friend just signed a contract there too. Until more amenities arrive, I will be on metro to the Navy Yard, Eastern Market, etc. I am getting 70% more space for a couple of hundred dollars less a month than at 909 Capitol Yards.

by darin on Jun 3, 2013 9:54 pm • linkreport

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