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Posts about Capitol Hill

History


Was your neighborhood "obsolete" in 1950?

The National Capital Park and Planning Commission, forerunner to today's NCPC, declared most of Shaw, Mount Vernon Square and Triangle, Capitol Hill, Southwest, Buena Vista and other neighborhoods "obsolete" in 1950. Yes, amazingly, they really used that term.


"Problem areas" and "obsolete characteristics" according to NCPPC, 1950.

That's some of the astounding information in the 1950 document Washington, Present and Future from NCPPC. ShawNeighborhood listserv participant RayM scanned a number of pages showing plans to radically remove multi-family dwellings from historic neighborhoods and force the kind of low-density, single-use, less walkable pattern of development that permanently destroyed many urban areas.

What was wrong? People lived in neighborhoods with alley dwellings, some of which were less well maintained. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs talked about how planners in Boston declared the North End a similar "slum" simply because people lived at a certain population density per acre, and the view at the time was that government had to force people to live more spread out.

There are certainly reasons to believe race played a part as well; these neighborhoods were predominantly African-American. The solution, people thought at the time, was to tear down the old neighborhoods and build new ones in the "towers in the park" style of the housing projects we all know and loathe today. Here is their plan for Shaw:

Fortunately for Shaw, a thriving neighborhood with beautiful old row houses and some of DC's best-preserved carriage homes, most of this plan never came to pass. It largely did, however, in Southwest:

Besides wholesale demolition of neighborhoods, planners tried to push people out of so-called "blighted" neighborhoods with zoning. On Capitol Hill, for instance, the zoning plan wanted to take the fabric of different size buildings coexisting and declare that illegal. Instead, all commerce in the NE quadrant of the Hill would be restricted to H Street, Massachusetts, and a 2-block stretch of 8th, and all multifamily to Maryland Avenue.

They also wanted to widen 11th Street and demolish everything for 2 blocks on either side of East Capitol to create a new extended Mall. (This is the reason that the street between A and C NE is Constitution, not B, and likewise in SE is Independence, even though the original L'Enfant plan called them B Street).

Many of these decisions were efforts to segregate

It's important to recognize that some characteristics of the District today come directly out of explicit "social engineering" decisions that planners pushed on the District when the 1958 zoning code was written. Rules against accessory dwellings and corner stores, parking minimums and single-use zoning were all efforts to zone many of the people, mostly African-American, out of the neighborhoods.

That's just one reason to be pleased that last January, DC's Zoning Commission adopted a new zoning code that will take effect on September 6th, doing away with the code that came from this era.

This post originally ran in 2012, but since the history hasn't changed and the new zoning code goes into effect soon, we wanted to share it again!

Retail


Take a closer look at these houses. They used to be stores.

For generations, DC had a healthy mix of stores and homes in every neighborhood. Only a fraction of that diversity is still there today because 60 years ago, the city's zoning laws changed to outlaw new retail from going up in residential areas. Some corner stores are still there, but most have turned into homes. In the photos below, check out former storefronts that are now somebody's living room window.


The entrance and windows in the front 9th and Q Street NW don't look like what's on most houses. That's because it used to be a restaurant. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

In 1958, DC's Zoning Commission designated a number of residential areas as R-4 or R-5 zones, meaning they were for row houses or apartment buildings, respectively. New retail space isn't permitted to open inside either type of zone.

The retail that was already there was grandfathered into the new law, meaning it's been allowed to stay (though if a store closes and remains vacant for three years, the location can no longer be commercial).

On the map below, which looks at the area north of East Capitol Street and south of H Street NE, the Zoning Commission's change limited new commercial buildings to the places in yellow:


Base image from Google Maps.

Below are a few examples of Capitol Hill buildings that used to house retail. We focused on that area because it's where we live, but as the photo above indicates, you can find buildings just like them all over the District.

1201 F Street NE


Photo by the authors.

Located at the intersection of 12th Street, F Street, and Maryland Avenue, this corner building once housed a grocery store owned by William G. Pond (you can read about that in Boyd's Directory of DC). The former bay window of the store is now the entrance to a home and the former store entrance facing the intersection is now a small window. The concrete steps leading to the original entrance are still visible on the right side of this photo.

711 E Street NE


Photo by the authors.

In 1910, Edward T. Noll built this one-story retail building and its twin at 713 E Street NE. The buildings have large, protruding bay windows and decorative overhangs, but are now both homes.

627 3rd Street NE


Photo by the authors.

Abutting an alley, this building has housed several grocery stores throughout its existence, including stores owned by Herman W. Menkin in 1909 (Boyd's Directory of DC, 1909), Myer and Rae Band from 1933 to 1969, and Cynthia Sewell as recently as 2011. The first-floor windows used to flank the entrance, with a sign overhead, but the entrance for the home is now on the right side of the building.

1000 Constitution Avenue NE


Photo by the author.

The corner of this building used to have an entrance facing the intersection, which has since been replaced by bricks. A door leading to what was once the entrance for the upstairs apartment is visible on the right side of the photo. In the early 1900's, Leon Skop ran a grocery store from this space.

The five buildings described above are among the many red pins in this incomplete map of former retail locations in or near the Capitol Hill Historic District. Photos and descriptions for each of these pins are available at our blog, DCFormerRetail.tumblr.com.


Red pins are homes that once included retail spaces. The pins are clustered in the Northwest corner of the map because the authors have not yet systematically catalogued former stores east of 14th Street NE and south of East Capitol Street. Base image from Google Maps.

In some places, corner stores are coming back!

After a laborious eight-year process, DC's Zoning Commission adopted a new zoning code that will take effect on September 6, 2016. For the first time since 1958, the code will permit new corner grocery stores by right.

Also, limited types of other corner stores will be allowed under a variance in seven of 34 types of residential zones. The areas zoned R-4 on Capitol Hill are included in this change.

Despite the well-documented benefits of street fronting stores—they provide an opportunity to meet neighbors, increase the number of eyes on the street, and create a pleasant place to complete your daily errands by foot—some DC residents opposed the 2016 zoning change out of fear that "corner stores would alter residential neighborhoods by bringing in a commercial use."

But the historical record demonstrates that commercial uses along today's residential streets would not be unusual in this part of the city. Indeed, without retail, the Capitol Hill Historic District is less true to its name than many residents might realize.

Education


Eliot-Hine, a DC middle school, is falling apart

Katelyn Hollmon, a student at Eliot-Hine Middle School, cried when she testified before the DC Council last year, saying she and her classmates shouldn't have to attend a school that reminds them of the homeless shelter where several of her friends live. "Just because we're kids doesn't mean we don't have rights... It is not enough to believe in us. You must invest in us also," read her testimony.


All photos by Heather Schoell.

We often look at investments in education in terms of expenditures per student and academic program. But there's another key piece of the puzzle: the poor condition of our school facilities.

Over the last decade, Capitol Hill's Eliot-Hine Middle School has struggled. Enrollment and test scores have declined, but so has the building itself. Film blocks its windows, preventing natural light and fresh air from entering classrooms, and making it difficult to open them in case of an emergency. The heating system is full of dust and dander, and makes the classrooms so unbearably hot that the school has to turn on its air conditioning as soon as the heating system goes on in the fall. And that leads to another problem: Noise from the A/C units makes it too loud for teachers and students to communicate.

According to the District, many of these problems don't exist. In 2008, as a part of the "school blitz" associated with the merger of Eliot Middle School and Hine Junior High School, Eliot-Hine was allocated $8 million for new windows and additional work was done throughout the building. According to DGS data used by the DC Council to prioritize capital spending in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget, the condition of Eliot-Hine was rated "good," the same rating as neighboring Stuart-Hobson MS, which recently completed a $40 million renovation.

Last spring, after proposals to further delay the modernization of Eliot-Hine came forward, the community stepped up. Social media was filled with photos of restrooms with trash bags covering urinals, broken doors, and mold. Local ANCs wrote letters and the community spoke out at District Council hearings. Despite these efforts, the Eliot-Hine modernization was, again, delayed, this time to FY2019 and FY2020 (meaning construction will end on August 31, 2020).

However, the Mayor heard residents and the District took immediate action. Last spring, restrooms got repairs and ceilings and radiators were painted, among other repairs.

Still, many underlying conditions persist and other promised improvements—science labs, new furniture, and new technology in classrooms—have yet to be completed.

"Eliot-Hine is old and falling apart," Malia, a 4th grade student who attends one of Eliot-Hine's feeder elementary schools told the DC Council Education Committee last year. "Half the toilets don't work. I don't like using the bathrooms there; they are too disgusting to use."

Underlying problems are resurfacing. Ceilings are again damaged and mold is returning. The heating and A/C systems continue spread years of accumulated mold, dander, and dust. Rodents continue to infest the building.

And it's not like the community isn't aware, nor is the problem that it doesn't care. Over Spring Break, a group of parents, with the support of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation, organized the Eliot-Hine Extreme Bathroom Makeover, where they cleaned, painted, and put up mirrors in two restrooms.

Just last week, Eliot-Hine asked the community for help with preparing the facility to host Watkins Elementary next school year while its building is torn down and replaced.

DC can have safe, smart, and healthy schools for all students

The most disappointing part of the story of Eliot-Hine is that billions of our tax dollars have been spent and countless students still attend inadequate facilities. Across the District there are more than 20 schools that have not been renovated, and others, like Eliot-Hine, that fail to provide even the basics for our students. Last summer, the DC Auditor released a report stating that the District's school modernization program lacks accountability, transparency, and basic financial management.

In short, we have failed our students and our taxpayers.

While we can rehash the poor decisions of the past, it is more important that as we move forward we make our first priority that all school facilities (1) comply with applicable safety codes, (2) have adequate heating, air conditioning, acoustics, lighting, ventilation, and meet other basic needs, and (3) meet basic academic programming requirements. Furthermore, decisions about where our District's school modernization dollars are spent must be made in partnership with the community and our decision-makers must be held accountable.

Moving forward at Eliot-Hine

In late March, Mayor Bowser announced her plan to pump an extra $220 million into school modernization over the next two years as part of a $1.2 billion plan. The Mayor announced that her office will be using more realistic cost estimates and that 98 of the District's 112 schools will be modernized by 2022. This is progress, but it still leaves crucial community involvement and transparency out of the planning process.

On March 1st, DCPS and DGS convened a School Improvement Team (SIT) for Eliot-Hine (of which I am a member). Our government agencies came to the first meeting of the SIT with a proposal for a 480 student facility that incorporates space for Eliot-Hine's Radio/TV course, expanded music programming, and various other amenities at a price tag of approximately $30 million. While nearly everyone in the community would be pleased with this outcome, this process fails to address the problems with school facilities planning.

Since reaching an enrollment of 348 students during 2011-2012, Eliot-Hine's enrollment has plummeted to a projected 188 students for 2016-17. Given the continued growth of our District's public charter sector, as well as enrollment projections provided to the Maury ES SIT, as that feeder of Eliot-Hine prepares for an expansion, that state "students in 4th and 5th grade will continue to utilize the lottery to access PCS and DCPS alternatives rather than continue to Elliot-Hine MS," it is unclear how Eliot-Hine will return to these old enrollment figures. Even if Eliot-Hine meets these projected enrollment numbers, it will mean that there is still a great deal of under-utilized space within the facility.

Planning cannot happen in a vacuum. Rather, we must engage the community, per the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Student Assignment, to "secure input into the studies on school capacity, utilization and attendance zones." I believe we must also determine if there are additional amenities that the broader community can use. At Eliot-Hine, this could mean lending the second gymnasium to neighborhood elementary schools that lack a full-sized gym or for school-wide performances; a new 9th grade academy for Eastern High School, which is nearing its building capacity; a partnership with the DC Youth Orchestra, Challenger Center for Space Science Education or another organization that serves students from across the District; or co-locating with a charter school. The possibilities are endless and should be discussed.

The fact that the Mayor and Council seem to be much more focused on the school modernization capital budget is a positive sign, but major concerns about out-year projects remain. A number of questions remain, especially in terms of community input. The process should begin with community input and the District's leaders should develop plans that include specifics for each school and the broader community of schools. Only then should architects develop a budget that will fulfill those plans and meet all relevant educational specifications. Without comprehensive community planning on the front end, the District's school modernization budget will continue to be largely a shot in the dark. We can and must do better for our students.

If you want to get involved in the school modernization process, you can testify before the District Council at the DC Public School and Department of General Services FY2017 Budget hearings on April 14 and April 22 respectively.

Development


There's a great opportunity to add housing on Capitol Hill

New housing is going up on a Capitol Hill site that was once meant for a higher education project that never got off the ground. The plan is to make it a mix of condos and rowhouses, but it might be smart to make it all condos.


Base map from Google Maps.

The site, at 1325 D Street SE, backs up to the Safeway on Kentucky Avenue, and is roughly a half mile in either direction from the Eastern Market and Potomac Avenue Metro stations.

Two of the four buildings will become 41 condominiums, while the other two buildings will be demolished and 41 rowhouses—with garages—will go up in their place.


Site rendering from the developers.

In the rendering above, the white building on the far left is the Safeway. Long term, I could see this site becoming higher density housing with a new Safeway on the ground floor, such as what was done at the Safeway on Georgia Avenue two blocks from the Petworth Metro station.

A nicely designed six-story building could fit in well at that site and would extend the range of housing offered in a neighborhood where there will always be greater demand for housing than supply.


The Safeway with apartments above in Petworth. Image by the author.

In a city where housing prices are escalating rapidly, we need to maximize housing production in a way that achieves a number of things.

Given the proximity to the Metro stations, I believe that, while it would probably generate tons of resident opposition, more high-density condominiums or apartments would be a better use of the land than rowhouses. My reasons are:

  1. More people on the site would mean getting more out of its transit accessibility.
  2. A more diverse housing stock (type of dwelling and who lives there) in that part of Ward 6, which is dominated by single family rowhouses.
  3. More residents to the area, generating more support for retail and community improvement and more income tax revenue.
  4. The property would yield higher property tax revenues (this is likely even though, depending on the final design, rowhouses would likely sell for $1.5 million to $2 million, depending on the final design.
Adding rowhouses with parking is somewhat disadvantageous from a sustainable mobility standpoint because even though the site is well located for transit use, and arguably is still walkable to the US Capitol (albeit at a distance) and more distant points, the housing is likely to appeal foremost to potential residents who prefer to use cars, because each unit will have on-site parking, an amenity that is not available to most residents in Capitol Hill.

On the other hand, if it's hard to find on-street parking, it's more likely the buildings will attract residents who get around by some way other than a car.

At a minimum, the rowhouses could include basement apartments, which would extend the amount and diversity of available housing in the area and help provide a mix of owner-occupied and rental housing.

This post originally ran on the author's blog, Urban Places and Spaces.

Development


Construction is starting on a mixed-use building at Eastern Market. It took seven years to get this far.

In a ceremony on Friday, a mixed-use development formally broke ground at where the closed Hine Junior High School used to stand, across the street from Eastern Market Metro. This hard-fought project has been in the works since at least 2008, and is a good example of how long many of these projects can take amid community battles.


Image from the development team.

Here's a quick chronology of the Hine project that covers some, but definitely not all, of the steps:

1864: A beautiful building is constructed for the Wallach School along Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 8th.

ca. 1893-1938: Some other school buildings start filling in more of the square, including one for a new public high school and junior high, the latter called Hine.

1950: The Wallach building is torn down.

1966: The Hine school is built, covering most of the entire block from 7th to 8th, Pennsylvania to C. The parking lot on the north side also spans where a closed C Street used to be. Its design relates poorly to the surrounding streets and it forms a dead zone between the Eastern Market and Barracks Row commercial areas.


Left: Wallach School, 1864-1950. Right: Hine Junior High School, 1966-present.

1993: The flea market at Eastern Market starts using the Hine parking lot.

2007: The Hine school closes. Discussions begin about redeveloping the site.

May 2008: Councilmember Tommy Wells hosts a preliminary community meeting about the redevelopment proposals.

June 2009: Four development teams present their proposals. One proposal, from Stanton and Eastbanc, stands out, David Cranor writes. It's also the densest.


The "green blobs" plan, one of four proposals for the site.

September 2009: The DC government selects Stanton/Eastbanc's proposal.


The winning plan.

Early 2011: Stanton/Eastbanc go to various community meetings to present their more-detailed proposal. Some nearby residents focus on fighting the overall size of the project, which has sections ranging from four to seven stories (taller on Pennsylvania Avenue, shorter elsewhere). Others who are more supportive of new housing near Metro focus on architectural issues that wouldn't affect the overall opportunity to add housing.

The Advisory Neighborhood Commission creates a committee to work on Hine, which ultimately supports most of the overall size and advocates for a set of other changes based on community feedback.

April 2011: The project goes to the Historic Preservation Review Board, where many people oppose the height. Preservation staff, however, argue that a building of this size is appropriate for a prominent corner like this one.

2012: The project moves on to the Zoning Commission. The same debates over height continue to rage.

October-November 2012: Hine opponents try to unseat ANC commissioners who supported the committee's recommendations and didn't fight the project's size more fiercely. The incumbents win reelection.

November 2012: The Zoning Commission approves the project. The developers say they are hoping to start construction in summer 2013. Neighbors appeal in court.


Photo by Bill Walsh on Flickr.

August 2014: The DC Court of Appeals rejects the appeal. The opponents petition the court for a rehearing in the case.

November 2014: Some Hine opponents again run for open ANC seats in the two districts nearest the project, but are not elected.

January 2015: The Court of Appeals rejects opponents' petition and clears the way for Stanton/Eastbanc to begin construction.

June 2015: Demolition begins on the old Hine building.

July 17, 2015: The project formally breaks ground.

June 2017: The first building, on the south side along Pennsylvania Avenue, should open if all goes according to plan.

One thing that stands out from this timeline is how long opponents successfully blocked the project with their court challenge. It took about two years from when Stanton/Eastbanc won the bid until they had all of the necessary approvals; that's not quick, but not so unusual in DC, and this was a large and complex project with many small changes along the way. Then, the court case blocked progress for almost two more years.

It's clear that opponents primarily do not want to see mid-sized buildings like these on the site, but one of their arguments was that this site didn't have enough affordable housing. Unfortunately, the long delay ensured that needed housing, both market-rate and affordable, was not available for a long period of time.

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