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To preserve or redevelop? One man will soon decide for a key Anacostia site

DC's housing agency wants to develop a long-vacant site in Anacostia with affordable housing and retail, but residents and the city's preservation officials say it is incompatible with the neighborhood. The choice between the two hangs on one last appeal.

Photo by Old Anacostia on Flickr.

The city's Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) has owned the "Big K" site on the 2200 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue since 2010. It includes the abandoned former "Big K" liquor store and two historic, yet blighted, houses next door.

DHCD has been working with the Chapman Development company to plan an affordable apartment building on the land. Chapman wants to demolish the liquor store, built in 1906 but just outside the Anacostia Historic District, and move the two houses to a nearby city lot where the former Unity Healthcare Clinic has sat vacant for nearly two years. Chapman would pay for the relocation, while DHCD would renovate the homes with a fund of $750,000.

Chapman also plans to acquire the adjacent Astro Motors to assemble the entire Big K site and build a building of 114 apartments over a retail ground floor. The apartments would be affordable housing for people making 60% of Area Median Income, or about $58,000 for a family of 3. The original proposal was 6 stories and 141 units, but Chapman shrank the project in response to community pushback.

Rendering of the original, larger proposal.

The revised version maxes out at 5 stories, but each of the upper two stories would be set back so they do not occupy the whole footprint of the parcel, forming an "E-shaped building" as seen from Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. DHCD would transfer its ownership of the Big K lot to Chapman for $1, while low-income tax credits and government transfer rent payments would help finance the building.

Top: Elevation of the original proposal. Bottom: The new proposal. Renderings from a community presentation by the development team.

However, at community meetings about the project, residents have opposed the plan. They do not want to see so much new affordable housing, saying that Anacostia already has more than its fair share. Others said that the building's scale is incompatible with the historic district, which mostly comprises lower and smaller buildings.

Residents also opposed the name Cedar Hill Flats. Cedar Hill is the name for the home of legendary civil rights activist Frederick Douglass, and community members wanted to keep that name linked solely with Douglass. Chapman has agreed not to use the name.

The Historic Preservation Review Board "denied the concept for new construction as incompatible with the character of the historic district because it is too large in height and extent relative to the historic buildings in the commercial corridor and out of scale with the historic district" in October. Then, at the end of February, Chapman brought its revised, shorter version to HPRB, which again denied the application:

It is too tall relative to the district's historic buildings and too extensive, to occupy half the square and crowd the narrow sidewalk. It would also destroy the unusual topography of the site. ... The Board recommended that a permit not be issued to move 2234 and 2252 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue because the move would diminish the buildings' integrity and harm the character of this corner of the historic district, and because the houses could be rehabilitated and reused in place.
The preservation staff and board were also skeptical that the $750,000 earmark would be enough to properly relocate the homes without damaging them.

Project goes to the Mayor's Agent

HPRB's charge is only to look at the historic preservation issues in an application. But when a property owner believes the "special merit" or public interest value of a project should outweigh historic concerns (or if there is a financial hardship involved), there is an appeals process to an officer known as the Mayor's Agent. Currently, that agent is J. Peter Byrne, a Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Chapman has appealed to the Mayor's Agent. At a hearing yet to be scheduled, Byrne will review the application to move and rehabilitate the two houses and, will consider the purposes and benefits of the entire Big K project. DHCD and Chapman Development will likely argue the "special merit" of different components of the project, its amenities, and talk about how they help achieve objectives in DC's Comprehensive Plan.

At February's HPRB hearing, staff from DHCD, including Director Michael Kelly, Chapman Development and a consultant from Streetsense, argued that economic development was a key component of the project. Although members of HPRB contended that economic development was not under their purview, it is possible that argument will meet the special merit standard for the Mayor's Agent to rule in favor of the project.

After four long years of debate, the long path for Anacostia's most infamous vacant property may finally be coming to an end—or if this proposal fails, could continue for years more to come.


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.


Long-awaited redevelopment in Anacostia could begin soon

Plans to redevelop a large swath of land along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Anacostia are finally moving forward after a 5-year delay.

A plan to develop multiple parcels along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Anacostia is moving forward. Photos by the author.

Developer Four Points LLC seeks to replace 5 blocks of surface parking, vacant lots and industrial buildings with new homes, shops and offices, including space for several DC government agencies. Meanwhile, DC is preparing other nearby lots for additional redevelopment.

If Four Points' plans are approved by the Zoning Commission, the neighborhood could see nearly 500 new homes, 144,000 square feet of retail, and 900,000 square feet of office space. The developer has already had public hearings for the project, said principal Stan Voudrie earlier this month. Next, they'll submit designs for each individual building for neighborhood groups to review. Since the development falls outside of the boundaries of the Anacostia Historic District, it will not need approval from the Historic Preservation Review Board.

The former MPD Evidence Warehouse will be redeveloped over the next year.

The project's first phase will be to renovate the former Metropolitan Police Department evidence warehouse, located at 2235 Shannon Place SE. In the coming months, construction will transform it from a "white brick building to a building that is wrapped in glass," according to Voudrie.

When completed, it will house the DC Taxicab Commission, the DC Lottery and the District Department of Transportation's Business Opportunity and Workforce Development Center, according to the Washington Business Journal.

DHCD readying "Big K" lot for future development

Meanwhile, the DC Department of Housing and Community Development is preparing land for future development. In 2010, the agency acquired 4 properties across Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue from Four Points' site, including 3 historic homes and a former liquor store, which together are known as the "Big K" lot.

While the 19th-century home at 2228 MLK Jr. Avenue has been demolished, the other 2 homes, within the boundaries of the Anacostia Historic District, have been stabilized.

The 2 historic homes on the "Big K" lot could be on the move.

To make room for new construction, DHCD bought several properties at the corner of Maple View Place SE and High Street SE, 3 blocks away. Today, it's a cluster of 4 brick abandominiums that have sat vacant for more than a decade. Tax records show that the agency paid $918,000 for the properties in April 2012.

According to Mayor Gray and others familiar with the ongoing development process, the plan is to relocate the remaining historic houses to a nearby lot. It looks like the city will tear down the abandominiums on High Street and move the "Big K" houses there.

"I suspect the [High Street SE] structures will go down very shortly," a city official familiar with the application said. "The District's DHCD office seems interested in moving quickly on this project."

A raze application has been submitted for 2352-2360 High Street SE.

Last week, DHCD submitted an application to raze the structures to the DC Historic Preservation Office.

Meanwhile, DHCD is planning to dispose of the "Big K" lot within 18 months, according to a presentation Denise L. Johnson, project manager of the site for the Department of Housing and Community Development, gave in March. Chapman Development LLC, which developed The Grays, an apartment building on the 2300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE, was the only qualified applicant who responded to last fall's request for proposals to redevelop the property.

In the coming years, something in Anacostia will have to give and redevelopment will begin. The potential development of the "Big K" lot and Four Points' proposed new office, residential, and commercial space on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE will test the market.

"We have arrived," said resident Reverend Oliver "OJ" Johnson upon hearing of Voudrie's plans at last month's meeting of the Historic Anacostia Block Association. Johnson has lived in Anacostia for 60 years and is known for his decades of activism, from opposing a concentration of drug clinics locating in the neighborhood and advocating for economic development.

"I want to thank those who have always believed in this neighborhood and welcome those who are now pitching their tents here," he said. "We will continue to work and fight together."


Will economic renewal reach Anacostia in 2013?

Farm vehicles no longer have their own parking privileges in Historic Anacostia. A weathered sign offering them special treatment is now gone; a new perimeter fence and fresh asphalt recently appeared on a site where, in 2008, a developer envisioned a $500-700 million mixed-use project.

The 2200 block of MLK Jr. Ave SE. Photos by the author.

Vacant storefronts, social service providers, treatment centers, art galleries, city government agencies, carry-outs and liquor stores, barber shops and beauty salons, cash checking spots and branch banks, small contractors and creative class incubators, a coffeehouse-bar hybrid and a progressive radio station roughly define Anacostia's commercial strip. A flower shop and faded grocery store recently shuttered.

By spring, new management plans to open a restaurant in former Uniontown Bar & Grill space. The Anacostia Playhouse, leaping across the river from H Street NE, will pull back its curtains in a former training center on Shannon Place SE.

Through fits and starts, more than 5 years after President Obama spoke nearby on his way to becoming the first black President (although widely reported as being in Anacostia, Obama spoke at THEARC, a short walk from the Southern Avenue Metro), Ward 8's Anacostia remains on the periphery of the city's economic renewal.

Will the neighborhood, more than 2 decades after its own Metro station opened, finally begin to attract sustained investment this year?

Can new retail take root?

A sleepy Sunday morning in Anacostia.

What happens to the former Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket at 14th and Good Hope Road SE will demonstrate if the neighborhood economy can move from government-subsidized service delivery, such as a dialysis center and childcare, to support places of commerce such as a restaurant, bookstore, hardware store and grocery.

The former Yes! Organic Market, now the Fairlawn Market, over on Pennsylvania Avenue SE in Ward 7, has endured many struggles, perpetuating the perception of the area as being a difficult market for retail. (Chipotle turned down free rent in 2010 to serve as the anchor tenant on the ground floor of The Grays, where the Fairlawn Market is.)

The corner of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, July 2011.

Ground zero in historic Anacostia remains Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, the same corner where John Wilkes Booth met Davy Herold on his escape to southern Maryland. In the summer of 2011, renderings were released that teased at the intersection's potential. Since that time, despite the backing of Victor Hoskins, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, and other city agency heads, no development of note has happened at the corner.

A public art installation has been planned for nearly a year; it would replace an art installation that was previously torn down. The waiting game continues.

Stanley Jackson, now head of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, predicted in 2005 when he was Mayor Williams' Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development that Anacostia would be "one of the hottest markets in the city" by now. Not yet.

In 2008 the Department of Housing and Community Development, whose signs adorn dozens of vacant properties in the neighborhood, moved into the $18 million Anacostia Gateway development at the northeast corner of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Initial plans were to relocate the city's Department of Transportation here but that did not materialize.

Across the street from Anacostia Gateway, the iconic "ANACOSTIA" neon sign continues to light up a corner that at night is an economic dead zone.

Anacostia's Business Improvement District is slowly coming to life; the pop-up arts festival LUMEN8Anacostia will return this June and storefront renovations are planned to begin in the coming months. In December of this year will Anacostia's BID have more members than it does now?

1300 block of Valley Place SE; preservation and demolition by neglect

To walk the residential streets of the city's first sub-division is to see up close and personal a shining example of preservation and regeneration next-door to an eyesore of demolition by neglect and neighborhood decay. On the 1300 block of Valley Place SE five homes remain that were developed in the mid-1880s by real estate investor and president of the local streetcar line, Henry A. Griswold.

1300 block of Valley Place SE in Historic Anacostia.

Over the past few weeks the exterior of 1328 Valley Place SE has been fully renovated, in part through a popular grant program coordinated by the Office of Planning that targets 14 Historic Districts citywide. Next door, 1326 Valley Place SE, is one of the properties DHCD owns. The crumbling building is literally going to seed, as nature attempts to reclaim what's left.

According to tax records, 1326 was sold in 2005 at a foreclosure auction for a throw over $2,000. Local residents provided documents in 2011 from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs indicating that Darwin Trust Properties, LLC acquired the property at that time.

Darwin Trust's CEO was incarcerated while the city pursued legal action against the company under the demolition by neglect statute. Through the litigation, the city was able to get a court order to let DCRA abate the property. After half a decade of further deterioration, the city finally bought the property in a November 2011 foreclosure sale for just under $12,000. According to a 2013 preliminary tax assessment, the land is worth $116,410 and the total value of the property is $118,520.

Based on the valuations alone, the city got a steal, purchasing the property for less than 10 percent of its assessed value. But the time to take advantage of this bargain is running short. The 2013 assessment is down nearly 15% from the 2011 value of $135,900, as the building continues to crumble.

Given the home's historic character, we can hope the city finds a way to restore what's left and continue to rejuvenate this old street in Historic Anacostia.

Abandominiums abide

Keeping a watchful eye on the vacant properties around her youth center, Hannah Hawkins has seen hundreds of squatters come and go in and out of the surrounding abandominiums over the 2 decades she and her volunteers have supported the community from 2263 Mount View Place SE. On a recent morning Hawkins caught a woman going into the Southeast Neighborhood House. Hawkins asked what she was doing. "I'm looking for artifacts," the trespasser announced before Hawkins chased her off.

The Southeast Neighborhood House, organized to combat poverty is now an "abandominium."

The portfolio of abondominiums in the neighborhood is well-known both throughout circles of the city's chronic homeless as well as real estate agents, developers and city officials. While housing prices continue to rise across the city, in Anacostia they have remained flat. Abondominiums shelter the homeless and criminal class for free while suppressing property values and property tax revenues for the city.

Big K site, 2234 & 2238 MLK Jr. Ave SE.

After demolishing 2228 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE last year, DHCD selected a developer for the Big K site. According to a press release, plans are to "construct a new office building that features commercial and retail space, as well as restore the existing historic houses on the site." Time will tell when this block, first developed by coach painter James Beall in the early 1880s, finally comes back to life.

The real estate site DC Curbed recently featured listings for 8 condos, townhouses and single family homes in the neighborhood and nearby. Asking prices topped out at $229,000 with a low of $43,000 for a condo in Barry Farm.

On the fringes of each end of the Anacostia Historic District are multi-unit residential complexes, the Bruxton Condos and a cluster of 3 vacant apartments on High Sreet SE, whose development has been too long in coming. While most eyes are focused on Anacostia's exterior, its commercial strip, the interior, the integrity of its housing stock, continues to be endangered.

Based on responses the city received at a handful of Ward 8 summits and town halls in recent years, cleaning up existing vacant residential and commercial properties is a top concern of citizens, taking precedent over new development. Multiple reports released over the years by city government and think tanks list strategies to deal with the area's blight, but if there's been any implementation of these methods, the blight largely remains. A 2004 study noted, "The area's combination of natural beauty, waterfront access, transportation resources and cultural heritage is unrivaled in the city, however, it is important as well to note challenges in existing conditions."

Now that the days of old Anacostia's farm vehicles are bygone, can the neighborhood move beyond the limitations of its past and attract new residential and commercial investment?


Demolition and restoration continues at Big K Site

On the 2200 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Anacostia there is the agony of defeat and the thrill of victory. The past is still the present; there was a shooting down the street near the corner with Good Hope Road last Wednesday afternoon. But the future is now; 2228 MLK is just a memory while the long neglected 2234 is being stabilized.

After more than two years, DHCD has begun to stabilize 2234 MLK Jr. Ave on the Big K lot.

This summer stabilization work finally began in earnest at the Big K site, owned by the Department of Community and Housing Development (DHCD) since the summer of 2010. Rotted, sagging, the front porch of 2234 MLK has been cleared away. Fresh 2x4 boards rest on the old red brick foundation in its place.

Two ladders relax against the home originally built by local business owner James Beall in the 1880s. A man is on top of the porch's overhanging roof, which has been reinforced. Each stroke of red paint he applies subtly regenerates the home, forging the old and new spirits of the city's first suburb. With its new cherry sheen, there's a newfound expectation the home will be restored, one of more than 500 structures extant within the Anacostia Historic District.

Sun shining on a reclining chair in the rear of 2234 MLK Ave SE in the summer of 2011.

As 2234 MLK is finally getting the structural reinforcement it has needed for decades, the wood frame home next door is just a memory. More than thirty years of neglect by the Kushner family, proprietors of the Big K Liquor Store (originally built in 1906 by grocer James Conway) did the home in. By the time the city bought the lot the house's fate was sealed. 2228 MLK, formerly 442 Nichols Avenue; was demolished this summer.

2228 MLK Jr. Ave was demolished this summer.

It had most recently been a known squatter's hotel, location to cut drugs, and a place for women of the night to bring their Johns. It is presently just another vacant lot in Historic Anacostia owned by the city.

Future of the Big K site depends on 2226 MLK

Even with an extended deadline, DHCD director Michael Kelly said at a community meeting last month, his agency only received two development proposals in response to the Big K site's Solicitation for Offers. Two is better than one, which is better than zero, which is the likelihood any private development will move forward without Big K's portfolio including the corner parcel of MLK and Mount View Place, historically a used-car dealership.

If you're in the market to buy or sell, Dale "Bubba" Richardson of Astro Motors at 2226 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue is your man. Richardson followed his older brother to Washington from North Carolina. The elder Richardson first opened Astro Motors on a lot farther down MLK in the 1980s, and it has since become a neighborhood fixture.

Astro Motors at 2226 MLK Ave SE at night.

Within the confines of Richardson's small office, a game of checkers is usually going on. Meanwhile, Richardson, or his long-time assistant salesman Floyd Claybrook, is outside washing a new car or negotiating a deal with both new and familiar faces. Long-time Anacostians and friends of Richardson faithfully gather on Friday evenings for cook-outs on the charcoal-powered grille.

The city has approached the landlord of Astro Motors to sell his lot, but no deal has materialized, Richardson says. Although the Gray administration has continued policies started by Mayor Fenty to crack down on used car lots, Astro Motors is still in Anacostia, as it was nearly 30 years ago. Carriages were built and sold on the 400 block of Nichols Avenue more than a century ago. Maybe nothing does change but the weather.

Cross-town, commercial and residential development seemingly happens overnight but across the river, life still moves slowly enough that you can see the 19th century fade away before your own eyes.


Development of Anacostia's Big K site is no laughing matter

Today, we have 2 articles on the Big K site in Historic Anacostia. Also see Chris Dickersin-Prokopp's piece.

"That big bad wolf hasn't come along and blown the houses down," Rev. Oliver "OJ" Johnson says of the 3 homes on the "Big K" lot in Historic Anacostia. "And now the city clearly doesn't know what to do."

Big K site on 2200 block of MLK, Jr. Ave in Historic Anacostia. Photos by the author.

To a smattering of responses at this weekend's Ward 8 Community Summit, Mayor Gray asked rhetorically, "Everybody know what Big K is?"

Attendees were certainly familiar with the site, owned by DC's Department of Housing and Community Development and left to decay for nearly 2 years.

"I tell you what we talked about, didn't we Victor [Hoskins, Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development]?" Gray said, venturing off-message. "We talked about putting those suckers; picking 'em up and moving them somewhere else. And then we looked at it and thought they might fall down by the time we pick them and move them," Gray said through a laugh.

To both lifelong residents and recent arrivals the slow death of the Big K homes is neither trite nor a laughing matter.

2228 & 2234 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE.
Last week DHCD's Property Acquisition and Disposition Division finally released a call for solicitations "offering to sell four adjacent properties referred to collectively as the Big K Site." The four properties are the three homes at 2228, 2234, 2238 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue and the former Big K Liquor store at the corner of MLK and Morris Road, 2252 MLK, built in 1906 by grocer James Conway.

Over the past two years staff turnover within DHCD and a general malaise have allowed the properties, acquired with a Community Development Block Grant, to become further forlorn. The most basic stabilization work on the lots—beyond cutting the grass and trimming vegetation—took DHCD more than a full year.

Rear of 2228 MLK slowly crumbling.
This past January DHCD received approval from the Historic Preservation Review Board to demolish 2228 MLK, but the ever-defiant house still stands. According to people on the street and some amateur reconnaissance, the home and the one next-door at 2234 MLK are still accessible to squatters. Time is ticking as the eventual demolition of 2228 "will occur prior to closing" according to the RFP.

"The city's lack of vision on how to preserve the buildings and create a first class development is very troublesome. The city's carelessness in quickly stabilizing the properties is downright disturbing," says a resident of Historic Anacostia, actively involved in the area's preservation efforts.

"When the homes are not there, I think people in the community will feel a real sense of loss. Yes, it's been a tragedy watching their slow death but there was a hope the city could save the houses and they showed no interest or effort."

Rear of 2234 MLK leaning.

At the Ward 8 summit, Gray vacillated, saying, "I think they have a historic (emphasis added) designation" one moment and then, "But if they do we have to figure another way to get them off of that site so it can be developed."

Many cringed in response, including agency staff who know there have been no feasibility studies looking at moving the homes to another location, making the undertaking highly unlikely.

Recommendations from a community advisory group are guiding the development standards and goals. Historic preservation, mixed-use development, vocational training, architecture compatible with the existing neighborhood, and adequate financing to prevent a start-and-stop are the priority of community residents, according to DHCD.

View of 2228 MLK through the fence of next-door Astro Motors.
Implicit in the RFP is that the city "makes no representations regarding the character of soil or subsurface or the existence, location or condition of any utilities." Planned uses for the space will "contain neighborhood-serving retail and small business space, including a small business incubator" with "no housing" according to the community's suggestions. Total assessed value of the properties is $939,000, with more than 33,000 square feet to develop.

Meanwhile at 2226 MLK, at the corner with Maple View Place, is Astro Motors, a used car dealership that's been in Anacostia for parts of four decades. According to tax records the proposed 2013 value of the lot is $271,050. Without the certainty of the corner lot in the Big K site's development portfolio, potential investors might be hesitant go all in.

"They're waiting for that domino effect," says Rev. Johnson, a past Board member of local development corporations and a lifelong Anacostian, laughing only because he knows it's better to laugh it off than cry it out. "They want the one house to fall over and then knock over the other two. But as you can see those houses aren't going down like that, they've held on for quite some time."


Can Big K catalyze commercial development in Anacostia?

Today, we have 2 articles on the Big K site in Historic Anacostia. Also see John Muller's piece.

Named for a defunct corner liquor store with an enormous "K" painted on its side, the true significance of the Big K site in Historic Anacostia lies in the three decrepit but once majestic wood-frame historic homes that sit on contiguous lots adjacent to the Big K itself.

Last week, the DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) released a Solicitation for Offers for the development of the Big K Site in Historic Anacostia. A Solicitation for Offers (SFO) is essentially the same as a Request for Proposals (RFP), an equally bureaucratic but slightly more familiar term.

The first Agency Goal listed in the solicitation is, "Consistency with the recommendations of the Big K Community Advisory Group." The Community Advisory Group was guided by two relatively conservative DHCD-commissioned market studies (housing & commercial). For the most part, the recommendations are straightforward and predictable:

  • Desire mixed-use project;
  • Project that will support/benefit the community;
  • Prefer commercial use over housing;
  • Full-service restaurant was top choice for retail; and
  • Interest in having cultural use / community garden on-site.
In this case, the desired mix of uses appears to exclude residential. The SFO states specifically that the Advisory Group recommends no housing at all. However, the solicitation also gives weight to the Comprehensive Plan, which values this type of metro-accessible site, located on a commercial corridor, as an opportunity for higher density mixed-use development that does include housing.

More importantly, adding households within walking distance of this site will increase the demand for retail goods and services, raising the feasibility of the project's commercial component.

Physically, the site has some constraints, though none are insurmountable. DHCD only owns 4 of the 5 properties on the block. The one that it does not control is currently operated as a used car lot. Prospective developers could sweeten their offers by gaining control of the car lot and proposing to pair it with the adjacent lot (2228 MLK) included in the solicitation that contains a historic single family home approved to be razed (Solution 1, below).

The Big K liquor store on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave and Morris Rd (2252 MLK) lies outside of the Historic District, but considering the historic nature of the overall site and the community's desire for preservation, it may be wise for a developer to save as much of the building as possible. With that said, there is still plenty of room for the structure to grow up and out (Solution 2), and even laterally behind the adjacent homes (Solution 3).

The two remaining detached, single family homes (2234 and 2238 MLK) are located smack in the middle of their respective lots and must be preserved. But why not move them up to the lot line (Solution 4)? If the additional density gained justifies the cost, this may be an option worth exploring.

Ultimately, what gets built at the Big K will depend on the creativity of the development teams that respond to the solicitation, particularly in their ability to lure commercial tenants and make effective use of the plentiful incentives available at this site. While DHCD does not explicitly offer a subsidy beyond, presumably, selling the property for less than the appraised value, the project may be able to take advantage of Historic Tax Credits, New Markets Tax Credits, and/or Tax Increment Financing. Plus, if a high quality proposal is received and championed by residents of Anacostia, the Mayor and Council may be able to find a way to make it work financially via grants or tax abatement.

Here's to hoping the Big K gets some visionary responses, and why wouldn't it? Developers, architects, and preservationists should be drooling over the opportunity to be able to say that their project triggered the revitalization of Historic Anacostia.


Anacostia loses another 19th century home from neglect

For the past two decades Hannah Hawkins has watched a 120-year-old house gradually deteriorate behind the community center she runs in historic Anacostia. The crumbling home at 2228 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE will be demolished this spring.

2228 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE. Photo by Old Anacostia on Flickr.

The Department of Housing and Community Development has owned the home and several adjacent properties since July 2010. DHCD filed for the raze because, as a historic preservation official noted, "all the exterior walls seemed to be leaning and not necessarily in the same direction."

Losing this building will create yet another hole in a historic district which has more than its share of empty lots thanks to demolition by neglect. Developers say it will likely take years before anything is built here, meaning Anacostia residents will have to live with this damaged urban fabric for quite some time.

The Historic Preservation Review Board worried that allowing the raze would encourage other property owners to just let buildings deteriorate and then apply to tear them down rather than spend the money to fix the historic structures. HPRB allowed the process to continue once DHCD created a plan to preserve the other 3 adjacent properties on the "Big K site," 2234, 2238 and 2252 MLK.

DHCD's neighborhood holdings

Anacostia's Historic District has been endangered for decades. Photo by the author.
DHCD currently owns more than a half dozen properties, not including the Big K site, within the Anacostia Historic District, incorporated in the 1970s. It is looking for developers for 4 properties (1201 and 1203 Good Hope Road SE, 1615 V Street SE, and 1326 Valley Place SE).

A 3-story red brick apartment complex at 1700 to 1720 W Street SE is in the process of being sold, and 1648 U Street SE is moving through the Residential Turnkey Initiative, where the District retains ownership of properties during development.

With pressure from residents and the Historic Preservation Review Board, DHCD has "develop[ed] a more strategic approach to acquiring properties in the historic district, which would include a pre-acquisition analysis to determine the scope of work to stabilize a building," according to materials the agency submitted to the HPRB.

In other words, DHCD agrees that it shouldn't buy a building if it can't care for it.

DHCD also announced plans to work with the Historic Preservation Office to create a "pattern book" that "would suggest basic architectural styles that are representative of Anacostia's Historic District." This pattern book would guide developers of vacant lots to "ensure that DHCD-owned property is compatible with the historic district, while still providing opportunities for affordable housing," said Denise Johnson, a former HPRB member hired by DHCD to work on historic preservation issues.

The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, which owns vacant properties in Anacostia, Deanwood, Trinidad/Ivy City, and other neighborhoods should also be guided by a similar preservation plan, HPRB members agreed.

Absent from both the community meeting earlier last week and Thursday's hearing was DHCD's Director John Hall. Catherine Buell, Chair of HPRB and a resident of the Anacostia Historic District, asked about Hall's whereabouts. The answer: Hall has to prepare for February budget hearings.

With Councilmembers Jim Graham and Michael Brown calling for an investigation into DHCD, Hall should make a conscientious effort to be as accessible and transparent as possible. However, his recent absence hints at problems for an organization that looks to be coming under newfound and needed scrutiny.


Big K lot on the 2200 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in Historic Anacostia. Photo by Old Anacostia on Flickr.
When Rosalind Wheeler Styles was growing up at 2228 Nichols Avenue SE in the 1960s she often sat on the front porch watching the activity of the street below.

"You could watch people going into the Safeway, going to the drug store to get an ice cream float, or going to the Curtis Brothers furniture store," said Styles, who remembers an Anacostia long since changed.

Hawkins, whose community center at 2263 Mount View Place SE is across the alley behind the wood frame home, has more immediate memories of the home and its deterioration. The Kushner family, notorious owners of the Big K Liquor store, woefully neglected the property, which was last occupied in the 1970s.

"There was trash everywhere. Homeless men were sleeping on the back porch," said Hawkins, who recalls repeatedly chasing off squatters until a fence was erected around the lot some years ago.

Although not required to notify the lot's conterminous neighbors, the city government has failed to make a good faith effort to contact Hawkins or Dale Richardson, the owner of Astro Motors at 2226 MLK Avenue, about the city's pending plans to demolish 2228.

Until a recent visit from Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry's staff, Hawkins had not heard from city officials and subsequently decried the city's handling of the property as "criminal" at a meeting at DHCD's headquarters, a short walk from the community center.

Hawkins chastised city officials as "interlopers" who antagonize residents by imposing their plans on communities not before the fact, but after. "And I don't plan to try to play catch up. If you're not going to knock on my door or call me on the telly then so be it," finished Hawkins.

"That house means a lot to me because it was a refuge for me," said Bill Jackson, who first crept into 2228 MLK in November of 2010 to seek shelter from the streets. Jackson, now in an apartment off Southern Avenue, says the home's demolition "will be a sad day for a lot of people in the neighborhood."


How the city bought a homeless vet a house

Earlier this summer, Bill Jackson Jr. sat facing the doorway on a bed sheet laid out on the floor of a second story bedroom. He had the house all to himself. Behind him, a window was boarded up, covered with a ragged white door.

Bill Jackson Jr. squats on the second floor of 2228 MLK Jr. Ave. SE. Photos by the author.

In the hallway, the second floor banister was covered with bird excrement. Most of the balusters lay broken on the floor over, under, and mixed with chunks of fallen plaster. The sun blazed down, shining through holes in the roof and attic floor, illuminating the abandoned house with streams of natural light. Besieged by the mercy of the elements, the historic home was decomposing.

When Jackson first discovered the forgotten home, the side screen door, sans screen, swung open. Using found nails and a soup can, he'd hammered the frame of the door to the door frame. To enter the house you now had to take a deliberate step over the fourteen inch base of the door and duck your head.

The back of 2228 MLK crumbling.
Jackson, an "O3-11 grunt," or rifleman in the United States Marine Corps in the 1970s, did not choose this house on a lark. "I be settin' lil' booby traps sometime. I'll break up some glass bottles and get some Plaster Paris and put it at the top of the steps. If I hear a crunchin' noise I know someone's outside on the landing," he said. Jackson, who grew up on the city's streets and has spent the past two decades scouting apartment basements, vacant buildings and even dump trucks to sleep in, said this was "definitely a good spot, one of the better ones."

Upstairs, Jackson gathered himself and his thoughts. He had a couple hours before he had to be at "801," the 350-bed shelter at St. Elizabeths East Campus. He wasn't sure when he'd be back.

The city buys Bill a house
On July 23, 2010 the Department of Community and Housing Development purchased the "Big K" lot—the three homes at 2228, 2234 and 2238 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, and the liquor store at 2252 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE—for slightly less than 1 million dollars from the long-time owners, the Kushner family. The Office of Planning had previously denied Ann Kushner's request to demolish the properties after decades of neglect.

Mother Nature is having her way with 2228 MLK.
Newspaper accounts and city records indicate the house Jackson's occupied, 2228 MLK Ave., had been vacant since the late 1970s or early '80s. The Kushner family had let Bill's home and next-door 2234, vacant since the early 1980s, putrefy for thirty years.

Though the old homes were purchased under the auspices of preventing their further dilapidation, DHCD has yet to structurally stabilize the properties or even seal them off from Mother Nature's continued encroachment. In its neglect, the city effectively "bought" Jackson the house he was occupying unlawfully.

DHCD seals fence openings, still accessible
At an evening meeting on Aug. 3rd, held at DHCD to discuss potential uses for the "Big K" properties, I decided it was in the best interest of the city and Jackson to disclose the openness and subsequent dangers of the home at 2228 MLK Ave. I told DHCD officials, including the Director, what I knew about Jackson's and his use of the property.

During conversations with Jackson, I asked if revealing his use of the vacant home would jeopardize him. He said, adamantly, he wanted his story told. During Jackson's time at the house, since last November, he said it was occasionally frequented by other homeless men he knew. At night, he said, people would get high downstairs and he could occasionally hear "tricks doing their thing."

"After being alerted that there is a squatter on the property, the maintenance crew inspected the property on Thursday, Aug. 4. At this time, they cut back more brush, re-boarded 2228 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE (although the front door was securely boarded), and examined the fence for holes," Najuma Thorpe, DHCD Special Affairs Specialist, wrote in a follow-up email.

Front of 2228 MLK Jr. Ave SE.
The following day, it appeared the side door Jackson used to enter the house was securely boarded up. Jackson called a week or so later to tell me there were still other ways to get in the house. "It's still Bill's house," he said.

As late as this weekend DHCD had not sealed an opening between the chain link fence on MLK Avenue and an adjacent pole in front of the former Big K Liquor store, allowing people to squeeze in and out. Sometime early this week, a welder sealed the gap. However, through the alley and other openings in the fence the properties are still accessible.

Earlier this week, DHCD reached out to nearby ANCs to inform them 2228 MLK Ave. might have to be knocked down. A representative with HPO confirmed their belief that 2228 is "leaning" and structurally damaged beyond repair. In the nearly 14 months, DHCD has held the property, they have not structurally secured it. There is no record that the property has yet to come before DCRA's Board of Condemnation.

In neglecting the properties, DHCD engendered Jackson's squatting. In its neglect, the city effectively "bought" Jackson the house he was occupying unlawfully.

This story was first published in the September 2011 edition of East of the River Newspaper.


Old Anacostia's spirit unshakable despite vacant properties

Anacostia waits. With entire half-blocks of its commercial district vacant, many of the remaining occupied buildings serve a plenitude of aid agencies. With nearly a fifth of the historic neighborhood's residential properties vacant, this area of the city remains an economic dead zone.

Photo by the author.

Although a smattering of small businesses have opened in the past year in Anacostia, joining established merchants including a music store, clothing boutique, flower shop, and Jamaican eatery, and a promising arts district has begun to attract visitors from within and outside the neighborhood, this small corner of the city remains lost, forgotten economically.

The headquarters of the Department of Housing and Community Development anchors the gateway to Historic Anacostia at 1800 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, but many storefronts sit vacant on either side, down Good Hope Road SE and up "the Avenue."

Northwest corner of 13th & Good Hope Road SE. Photo by the author.
At the northwest corner of 13th and Good Hope Road, a former gas station was torn down years ago, leaving a vacant lot. At 1909-1913 MLK Jr. Avenue SE the external shells of three adjacent two story brick buildings covered with multicolor wheat paste flyers loom over the street. More than five years before, a fire gutted the interiors.

Across the street, a handmade sign in recently opened Second Chance Convenience Store proclaims, "!Sorry! no E.B.T" posted next to a sign that reads "NO Change Without A Purchase." This is the Southside. This is Old Anacostia. Pretentiousness doesn't stifle life here. "Watermellon [sic] Slices 1.75-2.25"

Anacostia's stock of vacant residential properties

2315 High Street SE. Photo by the author.
According to a limited canvassing report provided by DCRA, Historic Anacostia has 40 vacant properties, 16 blighted properties, and 2 vacant lots. 3 of the properties in the report, the Big K homes, are cited as "government owned."

Vacant properties are "complaint generated" according to DCRA, meaning that as citizens report the properties, DCRA follows up. According to officials I spoke with, DCRA has a staff of no more than two responsible for visiting and inspecting vacant properties across the entire city.

Although Anacostians have been diligent in their canvassing and reporting, a recent walk of the residential neighborhood revealed vacant properties and lots that have, presumably, not yet been reported to DCRA. For example, the list of 40 vacant properties omitted several abandoned homes on W Street SE between 13th and 16th Street, some less than a half block from the Frederick Douglass National Historical Site.

1326 Valley Place SE. Photo by the author.
Another house not included in DCRA's list is 1326 Valley Place SE, owned by Darwin Trust Properties, LLC, whose "CEO was incarcerated" during ongoing demolition by neglect litigation. Therefore, the city "successfully secured a court order allowing DCRA to abate the violations."

To put pressure on owners of vacant and blighted properties, city legislators created a Class 3 property tax rate for vacant commercial and residential properties and a Class 4 tax rate for blighted properties. Class 3 properties are taxed at $5 per $100 of assessed value, Class 4 properties $10 per $100 of assessed value.

In contrast, Class 1, residential real property including multi-family, are assessed at $0.85 per $100, and Class 2, commercial and industrial, are taxed $1.65 per $100 up to the first $3 million of assessed value, and $1.85 for value exceeding $3 million.

"[W]ith regard to the high number of city-owned properties that remain vacant and in some cases blighted, I share your frustrations," writes Nicholas Majett, Director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. "Hampered by recent economic downtown in the economy, a number of D.C. Government offices remain focused on this problem. At this time, DC owned properties are treated like privately owned properties with respect to vacancy and maintenance. The difference is that there is no tax reclassification."

Historic rehabilitation grants provide hope

Photo by the author.
Anacostia became recognized by the city as a Historic District in 1973. The Anacostia Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The nomination form submitted to the National Register of Historic Places says,
The Anacostia Historic District is an area of approximately twenty squares in southeast Washington, generally encompassing Uniontown, the Griswold Subdivision, and immediately adjacent areas.

The architectural character of the Anacostia area is unique in Washington. Nowhere else in the District of Columbia does there exist such a collection of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century small-scale frame and brick working-class housing.

The Anacostia Historic District is dominated by three major architectural styles—the Cottage Style, the Italianate, and the Washington Row Style. A number of Queen Anne houses are scattered throughout the historic district.

During the past several decades, much of the housing in area of the Anacostia Historic District has fallen into a state of disrepair. In recent years community organizations, the Neighborhood Housing Service and the Department of Housing and Community Development have been encouraging people to rehabilitate their houses, many of which are in good condition, needing only routine maintenance work. A number of single-family houses have recently undergone dramatic changes as a result of rehabilitation work.

In 2007, Anacostia was selected by HPO for a pilot program that awarded competitive grants of up to $35,000 to repair and restore the exterior of the area's historic homes. More than fifty grants were awarded to homeowners totaling nearly $900,000. The average grant size was $16,856.

Despite strong community participation, the grant program was not renewed for the neighborhood.

What will happen to Anacostia's vacant properties?

Is Old Anacosia's historicity part of its livable future? Will forthcoming change whitewash its history, making the neighborhood unrecognizable? Change happens slow here.

The default inclination of many in our city is to frame and discuss development and revitalization in terms of identity instead of economics and investment. By steadfastly misdirecting the conversation away from policy, for years, and towards identity Anacostians, newcomers and generational residents, have suffered gravely.

Change has been painfully slow to reach Anacostia.
Whereas city officials, academics, the media, and others have begun touting Anacostia as an emerging neighborhood célèbre there is a raw disconnect between the hype and the reality.

Residents want the vacant properties cleaned up and dealt with yesterday while seemingly everyone from bloggers to elected officials and bureaucrats are overlooking the problems of the here and now to speculate on the possibilities of tomorrow. To many, optimism in Anacostia is an oxymoron.

Plans have come and gone while the crumbling homes and buildings of Old Anacostia continue to sit, as they have for years, decades, and wait for life to return to this small bend of the capital city.

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