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Walking tour explores Fort Totten's present and future

Development at Fort Totten has been slow despite access to 3 Metro lines, its close proximity to both downtown DC and Silver Spring, its access to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, its green space and its affordability. But as demand increases for housing in the District, this previously-overlooked neighborhood could become a hot spot.

Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Last Saturday, the Coalition for Smarter Growth concluded their spring walking tour series with "Fort Totten: More than a Transfer Point," a look at future residential, retail and commercial development near the Fort Totten Metro station. Residents and visitors joined representatives from WMATA, DDOT and the Office of Planning on a tour of the area bounded by South Dakota Avenue, Riggs Road, and First Place NE.

Today, vacant properties and industrial sites surround the station and form a barrier between it and the surrounding area. Redeveloping them could improve connections to the Metro and make Fort Totten a more vibrant community.

There is a significant amount of new residential, retail and commercial development planned within walking distance of the Metro station. But Saturday's tour began with the only completed project, The Aventine at Fort Totten. Built by Clark Realty Group in 2007, the 3-building, garden-style apartment complex consists of over 300 rental units as well as ground-floor retail space.

The Aventine at Fort Totten, the newest apartment complex in Fort Totten. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Visitors were ambivalent about the success of the Aventine due to its small amount of retail space and lack of connectivity to surrounding neighborhoods. While residents noted that it created more options to live close to Metro, representatives of the Lamond Riggs and North Michigan Park civic associations agreed the development differed from the original vision for the project.

They called it an example of the need to continually engage real estate developers and local government agencies to ensure that new development is of a high quality and responsive to the local context. Throughout the tour, residents said that future development proposals should adhere to DC's urban design guidelines, improve pedestrian access and have a plan to mitigate parking concerns.

Between South Dakota Avenue and the Metro station, the Cafritz Foundation will redevelop the old Riggs Plaza apartments to build ArtPlace at Fort Totten. When finished, the 16-acre project will contain 305,000 square feet of retail, 929 apartments, and 217,000 square feet of cultural and art spaces, including a children's museum. Deborah Crain, neighborhood planning coordinator for Ward 5, noted that ArtPlace will include rental units set aside for seniors and displaced Riggs Plaza residents.

An ad for ArtPlace at Fort Totten at its future home.

As one of the largest landowners near the Fort Totten Station, WMATA has a huge stake in future development around the station. They own approximately 3 acres of land immediately west of the station along First Place NE that is currently used as surface parking lot for commuters. Stan Wall, Director of Real Estate at WMATA, discussed the great potential for development on the current parking lot mentioned that the agency will solicit proposals for development of the area in the near future.

Parking lot at Fort Totten station.

Anna Chamberlain, a DDOT transportation planner, talked about how streetscape improvements could calm traffic, making streets around the Metro station more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. DDOT is also working to improve connections to the Metro, as some areas lack clearly defined walking paths. The agency will begin designing a path connecting the Metro to the Metropolitan Branch Trail within the next few months.

New sidewalks and street trees on Riggs Road.

The final stop on the tour was Fort Totten Square, a joint effort by the JBG Companies and Lowe Enterprises to build 350 apartments above a Walmart and structured parking at South Dakota Avenue and Riggs Road. DDOT has completely rebuilt the adjacent intersection to make it safer for pedestrians and more suitable for an urban environment, replacing freeway-style ramps with sidewalks, benches, crosswalks and improved lighting.

Jaimie Weinbaum, development manager at JBG, says they're committed to working with the city and residents to make Fort Totten Square an asset to the community. They've promised to place Capital Bikeshare stations there and would like to have dedicated space for Car2go as well.

With help from the private sector and public agencies like DDOT and WMATA, Fort Totten could become a model for transit-oriented development, but much of the new construction won't happen for a long time. Until then, residents eagerly await the changes and continue to work with other stakeholders toward creating a vision that will benefit everyone.

Zach Smith is a resident of the Fort Totten neighborhood in DC He is a program associate with LOCUS, a program of Smart Growth America, where he advocates on behalf of real estate developers focused on building smart growth and transit-oriented developments.  


Add a comment »

I am a little leery of an Urban format Walmart.

by Richard Bourne on Jun 17, 2013 11:06 am • linkreport

Please find a way to do shared parking here between transit riders and private development tenants here.

This is a perfect place for DDOT to create a parking district and design parking that meets needs of public and private users together.

Maybe WMATA can dedicate a share of land sale value to DDOT to kick this off and give DDOT the charge of providing for station area commuter parking, instead of WMATA having to pay for replacing parking in a structure.

WMATA shouldn't care how people get to its station at Fort Totten. Trading off bike/ped/parking access to the station should really be a DDOT/DCOP concern, not WMATA's concern directly.

by jnb on Jun 17, 2013 11:17 am • linkreport

Actually the more I think of it at a transfer station there really could be a market for retail to make use of a 'virtual tunnel.' If you could metro to ft totten, get out to shop, return within 30min and re enter and continue your original trip it would really be valuable. For small things it would be invaluable. The retail would have to be right up against the turn styles as it is in other countries and you would probably have to have the virtual tunnel implemented. Honestly I think you should be able to get out and back in for free at any metro station within 30min and continue the same trip.

You should also be able to get in and out, paying nothing in 15 minutes but that is another matter.

by Richard Bourne on Jun 17, 2013 11:28 am • linkreport

Take a loom at fort Totten on Google maps. Until street connectivity is improved, fort tater tots is going to be an island. The metro station is in that weird loop that is actually moderate walking distance from Riggs road and south Dakota. Improved connection to the very nice rowhouse neighborhood to the west is needed. Right now there is just a walking path through a field.

by Nick on Jun 17, 2013 11:39 am • linkreport

Exciting stuff.

But is there any word on what would happen to the Waste Transfer Station (A.K.A. the Dump)? Seems like that could be an obstacle to development in more ways than one...

As Nick points out, there's a huge dead zone on the west side of the station area which includes a large park and the Dump. Given that the Dump has to go somewhere and the park probably can't be redeveloped as a practical matter, I'm not sure I see that changing.

by Kristen on Jun 17, 2013 12:30 pm • linkreport

Nice article.

I've only been out there when transferring or coming via bus. They need a cool bar and restaurant (or two) to start to make it a destination.

by h st ll on Jun 17, 2013 12:33 pm • linkreport

I happen to live at the Aventine complex. One of the draws about it for me is that my wife and I can walk a short distance to the subway, and she can take the red line directly to where she works, and I can take the green line directly to where I work. Plus it's two stops from Columbia Heights and two stops from Silver Spring, without the CH or SS price tag.

But, for the life of me, I cannot understand why there isn't more there. Three metro lines, close to SS and CH, close to I95. The land around the subway has to be worth millions. There are some beat looking union halls, beat looking church, beat looking KFC, and liquor stores. The area has so much potential. Its nice to see movement on the Walmart, there are 2 really tall cranes there now. The Riggs Plaza thing has been talked about for years now since I've been there. I'll believe that when I actually see work being done.

And that park people mentioned, in case anybody doesn't know, it's technically part of Rock Creek Park. So nothing can be done there without federal government.

by Nickyp on Jun 17, 2013 1:41 pm • linkreport

Most of the problems of the actual station deal with the chosen site. Why in the hell was the station built in Ft Totten Park and not at Riggs Road and the train tracks.

I know some people are going to hate this but; if they wanted the station in the park they should have got rid of the park. It is inconvenient to anyone trying to reach the station no matter if by car, bus or walking. If the park was not there they could have developed a grid around the station that connects with nearby neighborhoods making it better for all.

Could have at-least shown one older picture of the station

by kk on Jun 17, 2013 3:26 pm • linkreport

Park land can be a major pain. The laws preventing not even one square inch of park land being impacted by transit to get fed funding create huge problems for transit planners.

by Richard Bourne on Jun 17, 2013 5:22 pm • linkreport

The Ft. Totten / Ft. Circle parks are okay but what we need are better pedestrian and bike connections to the south and west.

There are few paths through the parks, which encourage people to make their own trails, which isn't good. We don't have to create a new grid if they can just make the area a little more accessible.

I'd like NPS to take a more urban approach to this wooded area, maintaining more often, making it more accessible and safe. Honestly, some of the underbrush should be cleared and the years of accumulated trash removed. That's probably not going to happen any time soon.

by Randall M. on Jun 17, 2013 6:29 pm • linkreport

The failure of development at Ft Totten is easy to explain. It's a marginal site in virtually all the ways developers rate an area for rebuilding. Among the biggest deterrent is the reputation of the neighboring communities, and as they say; it's all about location location location and Totten really ain't got it. Really, it's status as a junction is its only draw.
So long as there were easier places to build that offered a bigger bang to the buck, places where redevelopment could build upon some attraction or gentrification already in place, then the chance of a Ft Totten redevelopment were small. What has changed is that the market is saturating. The site is getting standard metro stop luxury apartments now only because every other station location along the Red and Green Lines were already taken. Even with this new development, I would rate the odds that Totten will suddenly blossom in the next few years into a desirable residential location pretty low. Think, better than West Hyattsville, and about where Prince George's Plaza is at.

by Alger on Jun 17, 2013 8:28 pm • linkreport

I suspect that the real estate by Ft. Totten is just too valuable to be left blighted. As it is, with basically everything south of Columbia Road gentrified, that only leaves upper NW east of 16th Street, including neighborhoods like Brightwood, Mantor Park, Petworth, and Upper Georgia Avenue; and parts of NE like Brookland, Chillum, Lamond-Riggs, North Michigan Park, and Woodridge as the only low-hanging fruits east of the Anacostia left.

The Ft. Totten area is valuable in the sense that two Metro Lines converge there. South Dakota Avenue meets Riggs Road over there. The neighborhoods near Brookland and North Michigan Park are close enough that residents would go to the stores there. I suspect that, once the Cafritz development opens, more retail and residential developments will follow.

I suspect that, if Kennedy Street NW ever gentrifies, Ft. Totten will only benefit.

by Rain17 on Jun 19, 2013 12:35 am • linkreport

I've been living walking distance from and using the Ft. Totten metro for a few years now and am constantly meeting new neighbors. White/Hispanic/Black all new, young folks. I would argue the neighborhood is already gentrifying.

by Oh yeah on Sep 5, 2013 1:58 pm • linkreport

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