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Plans to redevelop Anacostia's Big K site hinge on two historic houses

For three years, DC has been trying to redevelop the prominent "Big K" lot in Anacostia, and plans are finally moving forward. This week, city officials expect to host a public meeting about the project, including what will happen to two historic homes on site today.

Big K lot on the 2200 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Anacostia.

Last October, DC's Historic Preservation Review Board unanimously denied plans to develop a six-story residential and retail building on the Big K parcel on the 2200 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE. It would involve demolishing the former Big K Liquor store, the site's namesake, as well as relocating two boarded-up homes to a city-owned lot three blocks away on W Street, something which some neighbors have vocally opposed.

The plans were the culmination of the Department of Housing and Community Development's three-year effort to develop the Big K parcel. Now, DHCD is readying itself to go before HPRB again with a revised concept, which will have a public hearing soon.

At a recent oversight hearing of the DC Council's Committee on Economic Development, DHCD director Michael Kelly described the Big K project as a "transformative project in a very important part of town." Last week, Kelly met with members of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8A to discuss Chapman Development's latest development proposal. DHCD will hold a public meeting to provide updates and discuss the proposed plans tomorrow, Wednesday, February 19, from 6:30-8:30 pm at the DHCD Housing Resource Center, located at 1800 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE.

Big K's recent history

DC acquired the four lots comprising the Big K site in the summer of 2010. Three of the four parcels, not including the liquor store, are located in the Anacostia Historic District. In 2012, the city demolished the 1880s-era home at 2228 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, leaving the two other historic homes intact. Officials weren't able to acquire Astro Motors, a car dealership at the corner of MLK and Maple View Place SE.

After releasing a Solicitation for Offers in June 2012, DHCD received a single qualified respondent, Reston-based Chapman Development. Chapman is known for developing the Grays, an apartment building with the Fairlawn Market on the ground floor.

If Chapman Development meets the conditions of the property disposition agreement, DHCD will sell them the Big K property for $1. According to DHCD's website, the developer's proposal will be successful if it "[results] in a vibrant, mixed use development that promotes walkability and provides neighborhood-serving retail."

Residents were hostile to Chapman's original Big K proposal at a community meeting last September. While some asked DHCD to seek another developer, the agency chose to remain with Chapman, which has tried to mend ties with the community. In recent weeks, the developer's principal donated $10,000 to the Child and Family Services Agency's Partners for Kids in Care Donation Center.

Relocation to 1328 W Street

The two homes on the Big K site today would move to 1328 W Street SE, most recently a Unity Healthcare Clinic. According to sources familiar with the ongoing process, the Department of General Services signed over ownership of the property to DHCD. Although the site has been deserted for more than a year, the temporary structure remains.

The former Unity Healthcare Clinic at 1328 W Street has been deserted for more than a year.

It's unclear if DHCD plans to relocate the historic homes to the W Street side or the V Street side of the lot, where they would rest between Engine Company 15 and Delaware Avenue Baptist Church. Moving them will require a level of technical execution DHCD has yet to demonstrate and coordination with neighborhood leaders who have been outspoken in their opposition to the relocation.

As the saga of the city-owned Big K lot continues into its 5th year, what happens next is anyone's guess.

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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The proposed building does not incorporate a single historic archetectual element. It should fail before HPRB on that point alone.

Additionally the building is 100% low income. It will not support retail and therefore is not transformative.

This building is part of DHCDs efforts to solve DCs affordable housing problem by overburdening communities East of the River.

All of the Public Housing destroyed in NW and SW has created gentrification refugees to the sum of 30000 on the affordable housing waitlist. Unfortunately DHCD believes it is prudent to concentrate high need low income residents in the areas least prepared. Maybe if jobs, school funding, and police came with the development more people in the community would be happy.

by anon5 on Feb 18, 2014 1:01 pm • linkreport

those houses look like they are barely standing. what a joke 'historic'

by corey on Feb 18, 2014 1:03 pm • linkreport

those where shameful site when i was kid and still is too this day sometimes i wish the HPRB would just STFU its nothing really historic about them rundown homes they wanna save, if so why not do something with the properties to showcase the historic value the homes has to the community and what made them historic in the 1st place

by Jay on Feb 18, 2014 1:09 pm • linkreport

Gotta love the Post article about the "opposition" which manages to find exactly one person (the ANC) who is all bent out of shape about it.

They are moving the houses three goddamn blocks away. Get on with it already.

by MLD on Feb 18, 2014 1:20 pm • linkreport

I wish someone would just come by in the middle of the night and give these houses a strong push. If they fell down tomorrow, and this lot could be developed absent these insane requirements, it would be a big win for the area.

by Kyle-w on Feb 18, 2014 1:21 pm • linkreport

The opposition is ridiculous. The complaint is not that the houses need to be preserved, because they will be, but that they have to be preserved IN PLACE. And the same person complains that there are no places to go to. Sigh... If you want new development, you shouldn't simultaneously demand that nothing change.

by David C on Feb 18, 2014 1:27 pm • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

As for that one ANC, [deleted] there is plenty opposition to this development in the community.

I would even say Historic Preservation is secondary.

by anon5 on Feb 18, 2014 1:29 pm • linkreport


The Post writer is the one you should have an issue with - they did the reporting.

Is the opposition documented anywhere?

by MLD on Feb 18, 2014 1:31 pm • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

Anyway, we attend the meetings DHCD holds on the topic. We even commented on the original solicitation.

[Deleted.] Though Chapman may have been the sole bidder to meet the request, Chapman after winning the bid did a study and claimed it was not feasible to do what the original request requested. Maybe if DHCD put out another request and allowed everything Chapman is now doing there would be more bidders. The original request called for no residential and leaving the properties in place. I think the community would be more open if they reissued the bid. Alot of people have issues with the 100% low income and bland design. I think if it was mixed income and had some effort to fit the historic district it would be more well recieved.

by anon5 on Feb 18, 2014 1:48 pm • linkreport

This is comedic. What dumps!! And five plus years of arguing, and no progress at all? I'm all for transparency and public input, but this seems to have taken those principles to their extreme, actively harming the community's economic viability/livability in the process.

How much money will this three-block relocation for these tear-downs cost? What is the estimated resale value of these structures in the new location? Let's then juxtapose this against the large number of people who need subsidized housing, but cannot access it due to DC's short-supply of funding, and the appalling conditions at DC General Hospital/Shelyer this winter. We really need to re prioritize our spending, if the movement of these unwanted houses is deemed more important than our homeless crisis. And perhaps put some kind of cost/benefit analysis into our historic structure designation, I.e. What is the economic viability of the current structure, so that we're not dooming neighborhoods to be filled with vacant blighted buildings that are not salvageable but cannot be touched due to historic preservation status, I love old buildings, but preservation laws should not be allowed to fetishistically latch on to derelict properties in this way, actively harming the communities they claim to be protecting.

Given this will likely take another DECADE, The end result will likely be a total loss of the structures to a fire, caused by homeless squatters. Or mildew/termites rendering the structure unsalvagable.

by Adam on Feb 18, 2014 2:02 pm • linkreport


I am not hard to find. I've been reporting on the Big K lot since 2010. These articles are a matter of public record as well as articles written by other reporters who have been covering this ongoing process.

I've only recently come across your presence online.

by John Muller on Feb 18, 2014 2:04 pm • linkreport

I wish someone would just come by in the middle of the night and give these houses a strong push. If they fell down tomorrow, and this lot could be developed absent these insane requirements, it would be a big win for the area.

I was thinking dynamite.

by Richard on Feb 18, 2014 2:22 pm • linkreport

I understand why it's easy to look at a site and believe it should be developed/redeveloped, but it's important to understand why it hasn't. There appear to be a few factors behind that. Unfortunately, they are not all touched in the article and are often passed over in the comments. Historic preservation does not appear to be one of the top two concerns.

by selxic on Feb 18, 2014 2:37 pm • linkreport

@Selxic: it appears historic preservation has played a large role in the failure of this land to be utilized. The city bought these parcels because the private sector had no use for them. The houses could not be sold as single/family homes in their current form, and no one appeared willing to make the capital investment to renovate/improve them. Given the scarcity of land in DC, this is saying something. The city moved in as a last resort(given the prominent location of the lots), and is now working to better-utilize the land. However, the sole thing stopping the city from moving forward is the historic preservation requirements and the ANC's dogmatic attachment to them.

Simply put, the market demonstrably has no use for these houses, the city has no use for these houses, and their condition looks deplorable. We should cut our losses and move ahead with demolition and better use of the lots, for the benefit of the neighborhood and the city's property tax base.

by Adam on Feb 18, 2014 2:53 pm • linkreport

Adam -- market failure isn't some "natural order" it's a failure in the market. Regulation and subsidy (abatements etc.) are governmental responses to market failure. It's not the fault of the houses that a variety of policies and practices have "conspired" to make the Anacostia submarket economically unsuccessful. Rather than accept market failure as an equilibrium position, revitalization planning works to address the underlying causes, rather than "blame buildings."

The failure of the real estate market in Anacostia has nothing to do with historic preservation. It is unfortunate that HP hasn't been more successful in helping to buoy the failing market, but specific kinds of programs and policies needed to be put in place in order for that to occur.

For the most part, DC's HP policies work in a trickle down fashion, so if you don't have a critical mass of people (aka "private investors") willing to buy properties, fix them, and hold them during the many years it takes for circumstances--the market--to catch up with the inherent value in the property ("appreciation")--a neighborhood remains peripheral.

The same goes for these particular properties. HP aims to preserve buildings, on history-identity grounds. Especially in weak markets such buildings are preserved instead of demolished. If-when the markets are capable of recovery, having such buildings instead of not having them significantly aids in the district's recovery.

That being said, moving the buildings--not super expensive in the great scheme of things, especially recognizing that if they were located elsewhere, they'd be worth between $500,000 and $1 million--can be considered an acceptable decision if other benefits from different kinds of development are seen as greater.

In the case of the Anacostia commercial district, it does need some "reproduction of space" in order to be able to be positioned for success in the 21st century. The Anacostia commercial district is hardly extraordinary in terms of needing a "reproduction of space." Similar kinds of extraordinary redevelopment are occurring on-in 14th St., U Street, Columbia Heights, H Street NE, NOMA, Petworth-Georgia Avenue, Takoma, Brookland, Downtown, East End, Mount Vernon Triangle, etc.

Clearly, Anacostia doesn't really have an economic revitalization plan, or stuff like this would have been addressed more than 10 years ago. The point of public intervention is to stoke redevelopment-revitalization when the market is not functioning.

by Richard Layman on Feb 18, 2014 3:59 pm • linkreport

I see no problem with moving the architecturally interesting buildings three blocks away. I think that's perfect, actually. Their current site needs much higher density asap.

And just to be clear, again, there are now 3 sit down restaurants/bars in the neighborhood (Big Chair, Uniontown and Nurish).

by h st ll on Feb 18, 2014 7:13 pm • linkreport

I don't understand the issue of moving the houses, but if 100% figure accurate, there is absolutely zero reason for putting that much affordable and low income housing in Ward 8. The city needs to STOP income segregating and develop properties like the Reeves Center to contain more low income housing that is close to jobs and amenities reducing the need for high transportation budgets on a limited income.

DHCD needs to refocus and DCHA needs to be dismantled.

by East of the River Ronnie on Feb 18, 2014 7:42 pm • linkreport

This development needs to be placed in a more diversified area, like Georgetown or Tenley Circle.

by NE John on Feb 19, 2014 5:36 am • linkreport

If the developer were allowed to build whatever they want, people (probably the same ones) would just scream about "luxury apartments."

by MLD on Feb 19, 2014 8:33 am • linkreport

Wouldn't it be easier and cheaper to just tear down the historic houses and build new ones that look exactly the same? If they had been maintained then maybe moving them would be better, but they haven't been. Even after they're moved every part including the facades will have to be replaced. Why not just tear down and replicate?

@anon-I understand the POV about over saturation of low-income housing in one area/neighborhood.

Isn't the goal to allow people who already live in the neighborhood to stay in the neighborhood? Wouldn't affordable housing in Shaw/NW force people from the neighborhood into a different one?

@MLD makes a good point- If the developer were allowed to build whatever they want, people ...would just scream about "luxury apartments."

Isn't the perception that is what has caused the "gentrification refugee's"? I'm not sure that has actually happened in the last 10-15 years though. There is evidence that old timers stay in gentrified/redeveloped neighborhoods and experience improved quality of life. Is there evidence that people are forced to move or is that just the assumption?

by Tina on Feb 19, 2014 9:53 am • linkreport

EoR Ronnie -- actually DHCD's housing production trust fund does some pretty amazing stuff, and DCHA under the previous tenure of Michael Kelly (now at DHCD) had a miraculous improvement and is a highly functioning agency.

That being said your point about using city owned properties to build affordable housing west of the river is something I've advocated for a long time (e.g. the police and fire station on U Street, and it wasn't city-owned but the air rights over the Georgetown Safeway, even the Tenleytown library, etc.). It's tricky though, you get the kind of Yonkers reaction, not unjustifiably, because for it to not "bring down" the area it has to be highly managed.

When I first moved to the H St. neighborhood (I don't live there anymore), I was always surprised--being a white liberal produced by the environment at the U of Michigan--that the most vociferous opponents of Sec. 8 voucher rentals were African-Americans, albeit middle-class, who were concerned that a-socialized families would cause big problems.

This was a big issue say on Wylie St., where people I knew worked long and hard to get some of those kinds of tenancies cancelled, because the households contributed to crime and drug problems on their street.

Of course, it's not fair to EoR to have to deal with that either.

2. As I said before, clearly there needs to be a full-fledged revitalization plan for Anacostia. I said the same back in 2005.

3. Meanwhile, for a variety of reasons, including crime and safety, it's hard to achieve a critical mass of private investors-improvers in the AHD, so that's when you need govt. intervention to push things forward.

But it's tricky, because you have to balance equity concerns with stoking the market.

One of the problems EoR that John Muller's previous writings clued me into better is that newly constructed "luxury" properties can't appraise at the right numbers for mortgages.

e.g., I was on We Act Radio a few weeks ago and it's next to a real estate agency. You can buy "Wardman" style rowhouses EoR for between $200K and $300K. So to get a mortgage to appraise for more than $300K is tough.

That's when a revitalization plan becomes very important, because all the various govt. actions need to be coordinated so that improvement is fostered with every step.

E.g., take the new Anacostia Lib. It's in a location that has no revitalization benefit. It could have been developed with a program to achieve multiple objectives, e.g., and

Or as a combination library-higher education (community college, university extension center)-cultural center.

AND it should have been built at the Metro.

A project like that would have accomplished multiple objectives that would have strengthened the community and the commercial district in multiple ways. Instead, a bunch of money was spent and it will achieve little other than producing a new library which is a contribution to be sure.

With the development on the Big K site, it would be key to have a solid retail program, not unlike what was done with an affordable housing property in the SoMA district of SF many years ago, where a very cool, healthy but also selling traditional foods, grocery store was built as part of the project.

Again, that's accomplished with a wide-ranging revit. plan, rather than a bunch of one off efforts by various agencies.

by Richard Layman on Feb 19, 2014 10:29 am • linkreport

yes, the appraisal thing is a big problem.

You could probably construct a mechanism for that -- some some of guarantee by the city in a x year time frame that we will warranty some value -- but it would be unwieldy.

by charlie on Feb 19, 2014 10:50 am • linkreport

another thing to do would be very controversial but would help to build the market for market-rate housing over the long term would be to construct the building as apartments that when the market changes, could be upgraded and the units sold as condominiums.

I presume this happens in lots of places, but I first saw that kind of process on tours of the Warehouse and Gateway Districts in Cleveland.

I don't know how it works with new construction. The Cleveland properties I saw were old buildings eligible for historic tax credits, which they used, and a building has to be generating revenue for five years before you are legally able to do a conversion to owner-occupied.

But that general approach could be used in Anacostia and EoR more generally.

by Richard Layman on Feb 19, 2014 10:54 am • linkreport

@Tina. While homeowners experience an increased quality of life when a neighborhood "turns", the people who are forced out are generally renters. Before a neighborhood gentrifies often there are a high numbers of renters. The landlords who own the home either rent at market which is affordable because the neighborhood hasnt shifted yet, or they take vouchers from tenants. But when home prices surge like they have all across DC it becomes more profitable to either sell the home or stop using vouchers and take market rate which no longer is affordable to people who once lived there because the neighborhood changed. This leads to a loss of affordable housing stock. Couple that with the city closing down public housing complexes west of the river and not providing adequate replacement housing and you have a problem.

DCs solution has been two fold. Make a affordable housing set aside in new buildings in exchange for density bonuses. And to build huge 100% low income complexes East of the River. The problem with the first one is these set asides barely put a dent in the issue. It may be 2 or 3 units out of 100 and may allow 80% ami (not only low income). The problem with the latter is it overburdens neighborhoods east of the river. Those neighborhoods are not equipped to deal with the influx of "high need low income" residents. Ward 8 already contains a disproportianate share of affordable housing. Even the market rate is affordable. Moreover, it segregates the city economically and racially and the city sghould not be participating. In fact they have a duty not to use fed funds that way.

At Richard- I love your commentary. Govt intervention is necessary, but it should consider the needs of Anacostia rather than just one area of the city. Moving everyone who needs affordable housing eotr is sweeping the problem under the rug and creating a larger longer lasting one. Smart development is key and your point about a plan for the area couldnt be more true. Probably mixed income would do well there.

by anotherjohn on Feb 19, 2014 10:57 am • linkreport

@anotherjohn, thanks

by Tina on Feb 19, 2014 11:18 am • linkreport

anotherjohn -- obviously, I agree with you. That's why a broad-ranging plan is necessary, and as part of such a plan every govt. project needs to be harvested so that it accomplishes multiple goals and objectives, not just one.

And yes, renters get screwed as neighborhoods change as a result of private investor-stoked revitalization.

Years ago, there was a seriously great piece in the Gazette, two full pages on the inside jump from the cover, about the impact on PG County of DC's Hope6 program. They change their indexing system every couple years so I can't ever find the piece, but it demonstrates some of the unintended consequences of such efforts. E.g., the ec. problems of the PG Hospital system are largely derived from the fact that it serves poor PG and DC residents. (Same with Greater SE Hospital.) Same goes for the uptick in murder and crime in PGC a few years back.

As charlie knows, I intend to write a position paper this year about what I call a "Marshall Plan" for east of the river (plus a similar piece about Takoma Crossroads-Langley Park, which has different issues as an "arrival city" area for immigrants). But as much as I know about this stuff, I expect the early drafts will miss many elements, as this particular comment thread elucidates.

by Richard Layman on Feb 19, 2014 12:28 pm • linkreport

Seriously why do these houses need to be preserved at all. There is absolutely nothing historically or architectually unique to them. They are old houses which by all means are blighted. Tear them down.

by CC on Feb 23, 2014 6:06 pm • linkreport

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