Posts about Vacant Property
Across Howard Road SE from the Anacostia Metro station, the DC government wants to develop a vacant lot for affordable housing. The site was not always vacant; to build the Metro station three decades ago, 11 houses were razed. Here is their story.
According to a detailed report from the Historic American Buildings Survey, Howard Road, SE was originally developed as part of the 375-acre Barry Farm, a model community for freed slaves initiated by General Oliver Otis Howard of the Freedmen's Bureau in 1867.
By the turn of the 20th century, better transportation and citywide population growth had led many owners to subdivide the original one-acre lots. Housing from the late 19th and early 20th centuries was distinctly urban, following narrow, side-hall plans suitable for the narrow street frontages of the new lots. In the Howard Road District, housing from the 1880's to the 1940s demonstrated how the once pastoral landscape gradually urbanized.
1023 Howard Road SE, razed to make way for the Anacostia Metro Station. Photo from the Library of Congress.
At the time of the survey in the mid-1980s, the buildings in the 1000 and 1100 block of Howard Road ranged in condition "from extremely deteriorated to fairly well kept." Four buildings were vacant and "had suffered varying degrees of vandalism." Six of the seven occupied properties "appeared to be adequately maintained." Nearly all of the homes had porches with lots that included small sheds and garages.
Due to the physical deterioration of the homes and their association with a criminal element it was apparently justified to demolish and clear the properties.
1010 Howard Road
In April 1929, Maggie Sharp of 1010 Howard Road SE died at the age of 61. Nearly a decade later, in June 1938, her husband, Lloyd, died in the home. He was 76.
Police raided 1010 Howard Road in September 1953. They arrested Daniel Ferguson on charges of operating a lottery, and his wife, Lucille Ferguson, on charges of keeping and selling whiskey without a license. According to a story in the Post, "Police said Ferguson, who had three numbers books and a quantity of numbers slips in his possession, ran into an undercover man as he attempted to run out of the back door." In October 1954 Ferguson was indicted as part of a "$1500-a-day lottery ring."
Lucille, apparently living by herself, died on September 20, 1972, according to a death notice in the Evening Star. According to property records the home, which was built in the early 1880s, sat vacant for more than a dozen years before WMATA seized it.
1004 Howard Road SE
In early November 1981, two men entered the home of 86-year invalid Rosella Newman. The would-be-robbers found Newman, who had grown up in the home, in her bed and shot her dead. The home remained empty until WMATA seized and demolished it.
Howard Road Then & Now
1959 Baist Real Estate Map showing Howard Road SE where today is the Anacostia Metro station and bus terminus. Photo from the DC Public Library, Special Collections.
Before the the Anacostia Metro station opened in 1991, the houses faced another demolition threat from the then-new Bolling Air Field in 1943. A legal notice printed in newspapers said the government may take the homes "for the construction of a military access road from Bolling Field to the District of Columbia." But subsequent newspaper accounts and period real estate maps show that residents of Howard Road were momentarily spared.
As plans the current Metro system were developed during the 1960s and 1970s, residents in the greater Anacostia and Barry Farm communities did not apparently object to losing the homes on Howard Road. According to a 1979 article in the Post, "The new proposal [to build the Anacostia Metro station] would require a relocation of 12 residential units, most of them in tiny, decrepit apartment buildings on the south side of Howard Road; three business, one church and the J. Finley Wilson Memorial Lodge No. 1731."
At a meeting that attracted 50 area residents, "Nobody fought for the buildings, but some expressed concern about the impact of heavy Metro traffic on children attending nearby Nicholas [sic] Avenue Elementary School (today Thurgood Marshall Academy]."
Although a federal judge's 1983 ruling temporarily halted construction of the Green Line through Anacostia, the future of the homes on Howard Road SE was a foregone conclusion. Bernard Gray, an attorney and long-time community activist in Historic Anacostia, said people did not try to save the homes on Howard Road, because they had become a source of blight and concern.
According to the 1985 report, "Preliminary examination of city directories, census and tax records for two periods (1899/1900 and 1909/1910) indicates that the subdivision and redevelopment of lots in the Howard Road neighborhood was not the work of large disinterested outside developers, but to a significant degree that of local, small-scale entrepreneurs, both male and female, many of whom lived on, or near, their subdivided lots."
Nearly thirty years later, life and residential and commercial use may finally return to this small corner of Howard Road SE.
Since June 2007, a three-story Catholic school in Historic Anacostia has sat quietly, unused and largely unnoticed. Last week, staff from the Archdiocese of Washington took me on a tour of the abandoned building, last known as the Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, with a small group of architects and contractors.
The school opened on V Street SE in the first decade of the 20th century for children of the nearby parish of Saint Teresa of Avila. It's one block over from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and its cramped visitor's center. With capital, vision, and proper management, this vacant school house could complement the Douglass site as a true visitor's center, capable of capturing out-of-town dollars from the more than 50,000 annual visitors to the neighborhood destination.
The old Saint Teresa School at 1409 V Street SE in Historic Anacostia. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.
The boarded-up school was last used during the 2006-2007 academic year and awaits a rebirth and reuse.
But until then, let's take a tour of the school as it is today. Perched on a knoll above V Street, the brick exterior of the school is painted white and green and is in good condition.
I enter the rear of the school with the group through the multi-purpose room. The basketball backboards remain, without the rims. On a door hangs an activity calendar from March 2006. According to neighborhood sources, the school also served as a community center in the evenings during the 1980s and 1990s.
The school still has electricity, but many of the lights are out as I walk into the hallway. To enter the school, a facilities manager had to disarm the alarm. A member of the group remarks, "Kind of eerie."
Other than peeled paint, cracked floor tiles, and bathrooms with destroyed sinks and toilets, the interior of the building is sound, but there is probably a lot of asbestos in the building. Any possible renovation would require removing asbestos or lead-based paint.
Inside one of the classrooms, it appears that neighborhood children at some time gained access to the school. Across a blackboard someone wrote "V-BLOCK" with "Choppa City," the name of a local street crew, written in cursive inside of the "O."
You can see how the classrooms once looked when school was in session. Above one blank chalkboard, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Speedy Gonzales, Bugs Bunny, the Roadrunner, and Yosemite Sam with two pistols drawn look out on the spirits of former pupils. Casper the Friendly Ghost adorns the walls of another room. Underneath one of the apparitions is a road sign that reads "Ghost Town." Being a former Catholic school, in this room and other parts of the building are signs and drawings of Jesus.
In the second-floor library, no books remain on the wood shelves that line the perimeter of the room. Three of the room's four windows are boarded up. A plaque on the wall states, "Library Established by Sr. Mary Dolorine 1955 Sponsored By The Mother's Club."
On a chalkboard in a 3rd floor classroom, "Taylor Tucker," remains alongside a note reading, "Schools [sic] out -> So Ugly." In the upper left-hand corner is the date of the last day of school, June 4, 2007. As I pick up a loose piece of chalk to write my name on the board, I hear someone call out, "The roof's open!"
I ascend the stairwell and walk on to the roof. Everyone in my cavalcade has their cell phone out, snapping unobscured panoramic photos of the city's skyline: the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome the most noticeable, the Washington Cathedral further off in the distance.
Someone points to the Douglass house. "What's that?" They ask.
I respond, "The home of Fred Douglass, resident of Anacostia from fall 1877 to his death in late February 1895." I snap a few photos of Douglass's mansion through the southside canopy.
"This would make a great rooftop restaurant, don't you think?" someone asks.
"Yeah, but they would have to go through zoning and [Historic Preservation Review Board] first," replies another visitor, a contractor. "But it sure would be one of the coolest restaurants in the city. You can look at the Douglass house or you can look at the Capitol."
After ten minutes of marveling at the views, we make our way back through the empty school. Two young architects ask the facilities manager if the school has a basement. It doesn't he replies, it has a boiler room which he shows the two visitors.
Once we are all back out on V Street, we thank the staff of the Archdiocese for the tour and promise to be in touch. In the meanwhile the old Saint Teresa School sits and awaits a rebirth and productive reuse. With recent news that the city wants to get tourists off the National Mall and brand its neighborhood attractions as "cool," the old Saint Teresa School might be the perfect place to launch the campaign.
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 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.
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."
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."
A recent blitzkrieg of laudatory media reports have focused on Anacostia's residential market and arts scene. But new home signs dot vacant lots and hang from empty buildings. And store after store continues to close.
Along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Historic Anacostia are green signs announcing a "PUBLIC NOTICE OF A ZONING PROPOSAL" that has been 5 years in the making. Is it a new day in Anacostia? To find out, community activist William Alston-El and I took to the streets to visit our old haunts and investigate new leads.
"The neighborhood is changing, yeah, I can say that," Alston-El, a 45-year resident of Anacostia, says without any hint of derision. "But people aren't telling the real truth of what's going on. The real story isn't being told."
Fendall Heights Abandominiums
For 3 years, a banner has hung from the side of the Fendall Heights Condominiums on V Street SE, a short walk from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, announcing "1 & 2 BEDROOMS" with granite counter tops and hardwood floors starting at $125,000. Back in the summer of 2010, the project's 29 units were heralded as Ward 8's first "green" condos.
With financial support from the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities, Department of Housing and Community Development, and US Department of Energy, ARCH Development Corporation, along with a community partner, used construction trainees from the "Arch Training Center" to rehabilitate the building. (Although "Arch Training Center" is acknowledged on the banner, the organization "was dissolved 2 years ago," according to Nikki Peele, Director of Business Marketing for the ARCH Development Corporation.)
Real estate agents from as far away as Frederick and Leesburg listed units for prices as high as $225,000 and $240,000. Consequently, nobody bought in to the four-story Art Deco building, built during the 2nd World War.
According to tax records, the property was sold last month for an undisclosed sum to SCATTERED SITE II LLC. In March, the City Council advanced a $4,780,000 loan at terms of 2% over 40 years from the Housing Production Trust Fund to "Scattered Site LLC" to pay off construction loans and renovate 2 apartment buildings located at 523-525 Mellon Street, SE and 216 New York Avenue-1151 New Jersey Avenue, NW.
According to the contract, the renovated apartment buildings will contain a total of 68 units "affordable to and rented exclusively to extremely low income households with incomes not to exceed 30% of the area median income." It's fair to conclude that the Fendall Heights Abandominiums, which did not draw market rate investment 3 years ago, will now become affordable housing units.
Over the past year, Alston-El and I have stopped by the property multiple times. A couple weeks ago we found the front door open. The leasing office had a desk, computer, phone, and filing cabinet, although there was no evidence anyone had signed a lease yet. Doors to units on the ground floor were wide open, and we found them to be as advertised on the banner. Water even ran from the faucet.
The property's 2014 proposed tax value of $3,799,620, up from $3,681,940 in 2013, is surely justified. Now, if it could only find tenants.
"Something is seriously awry when ARCH lets something go," says Rev. Oliver "OJ" Johnson, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and former board member for the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation. Johnson has been critical of the "ARCH" brand since the 1980's, when Pepco formed the ARCH Training Center in response to complaints that they weren't hiring local residents.
"This is an investigative matter," Johnson says. "This type of practice has gone on for years and years. The city has a major role in convoluting these types of projects. It becomes a maze to find how the city deploys money and through what sources it deploys money. If you follow the money, you'll find the truth."
Alston-El says the main reason for Fendall Heights' failure is more mundane than financial mismanagement. "They have to change Fendall Street," he says. "It's a one-way and you can't make it out of Dodge without going down V Street towards 16th Street then out to Good Hope. They have to go past the drugs to get outta here. Yep, folk aren't going for that."
The bricked and boarded-up buildings around the corner at 1644-1648 V Street SE didn't help, either. There's no banner here, just graffiti in green spray paint letting everyone know that "MONEY GANG J.R. $" was here.
According to city tax records, "ARCH TRAINING INC" acquired the property in June 1999 and have owned it since. Though DC is supposed to tax the vacant and blighted buildings at the Class 4 "Blighted real property" rate of $10 per $100 of assessed value, intended to discourage owners from letting their properties go, the buildings are instead taxed at the lower "001 - Residential," rate of $0.85 per $100 of assessed value. In 2013, the city assessed the eyesore at $489,000 in 2013 with a proposed new 2014 value of $499,200.
Property Record for the blighted buildings at 1644 - 1648 V Street SE, owned by "ARCH TRAINING CENTER," taxed incorrectly at the Class 1 Residential Rate.
13th & W Street SE
Across the street from 19th century Italianate rowhouses is a vacant lot at the northwest corner of 13th & W Street SE, just steps from an abandoned Quonset hut that once housed a "filthy" community health clinic.
Until this spring, a "COMING SOON!" sign advertising "LUXURIOUS TOWNS & CONDOMINIUMS From the 200's" was the only thing standing on the lot. Now it's gone, priority registration closed for the moment.
The "COMING SOON!" sign at 13th & W Street SE advertising "LUXURIOUS TOWNS & CONDOMINIUMS From the 200's" is now gone.
It's easy to see, and media reports have confirmed, that many of the neighborhood's historic single-family homes have been bought and slowly rehabbed over the past two years. However, the future of this corner, a rock's throw from the Frederick Douglass home, is the bellwether of Anacostia's revitalization.
After years of starts and stops, with each turn generating interest and enthusiasm from within and outside Anacostia, the project will have to start all over again as the development's zoning approval has expired.
Retail awaits while social services entrench
In Anacostia, the 1st of the month presents heavy foot traffic for check cashing outfits and a ripe opportunity for the criminal-minded. According to a neighborhood source, the Gold Spot on 2216 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, a couple doors from the former Uniontown Bar & Grill, was stuck up for $20,000 on March 1st.
After the robbery, Metropolitan Police Department Commander Robin Hoey gave a report on the 7th District listserv. "Earlier this week a lone gunman entered the Goldspot as an employee was opening the business and robbed the establishment of an undisclosed amount of money," he wrote. "There were no injuries. The event was caught on video tape and the 7th district detectives are currently investigating. its [sic] looks very promising and I will advise further as the case proceeds."
Within a matter of weeks, Gold Spot, which recently got a new awning financed by Western Union, left the neighborhood after nearly 20 years. In response to an inquiry Monday on the current status of the investigation, Commander Hoey wrote, "We served some search warrants and have identified strong persons of interest."
There was no mention of the unsolved robbery on a 2-minute segment Fox 5 ran last week promoting Anacostia's residential stock and retail. "There are a number of factors attracting folks to Southeast," the feature boasted. "Improved roadways leading to this part of the city, grocery stores, restaurants and even government buildings."
Uniontown Bar & Grill has been closed for nearly a year, though the new owners are applying for a liquor license. The Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket on Good Hope Road has been closed for months. Renae's Flower Shop at 1924 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE closed, and the city-owned Big K Site won't be sold off until late next year. The newest shop to open in Anacostia is a thrift store.
And a social service provider will open in an old furniture store that many hoped would become the neighborhood's incarnation of Busboys & Poets. On December 27, 2012, the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative (FSFSC) purchased the store at 2006 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE for $2.195 million.
In 2011, the "oversaturation" of social services was a rallying cry for Anacostians. A women's shelter quietly opened on Good Hope Road SE after neighbors aggressively protested it. With this in mind, the FSFSC has moved cautiously, some believe secretly.
"Our goal is for this building to be a benefit to the Ward 8 community," Dionne T. Reeder, Community Engagement Director for FSFSC, wrote in an email to a small group of neighborhood leaders on January 31st. "We are hosting several discussions with our neighbors. We are inviting many residents from your neighborhood and are planning small meetings so please do not forward this email to other community residents. We have consulted with your ANC Commissions and community leaders who have provided us with a list of residents to begin our discussion."
Former space of Fireside Restaurant, 2028 Martin Luther King Jr Ave SE, has been vacant for more than a year.
Despite favorable press coverage for the area's nascent arts scene, notably the opening of the long-delayed Anacostia Playhouse this summer, the market forces of Anacostia's retail have driven the economy to reliance on government transfer payments.
However, according to a report by the Post's Mike DeBonis, as a result of Chartered Health Plan's "dissolution," small health care providers that serve over 100,000 low-income city residents are facing paralyzing payment deficits. Up and down and around Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE and Good Hope Road SE are public health clinics that treat drug addiction, HIV-AIDS patients, pain rehabilitation, and diabetes. These facilities face fiscal challenges that could force their closure.
Construction on 1239 Good Hope Road SE was recently reviewed by the Historic Preservation Review Board.
In the meantime, attention in Anacostia continues to focus "on the newest and shiniest toy they say they can give us," says Alston-El, referring to an upcoming meeting on the latest plans for the 11th Street Bridge Park Project.
"It's quiet now; nobody's speaking the truth because there are too many distractions going on," he says as we ride down V Street SE to Morris Road SE to meet a friend. "Every week it's something new: one week the streetcar, another week the bridge park, Barry Farm redevelopment, Sheridan Station, the Heritage Trail, you name it. They're keeping us guessing and confused while you got working-class people in this neighborhood, like me, [who] can't find a place to live but you got the Fendall Heights Abandominiums just sitting there."
"No, John, I'm not mad," he adds. "You didn't know? It's a new day in Anacostia. Haven't you been paying attention?"
Perched atop a hill overlooking historic Anacostia, tucked behind a new condominium development is an abandominium from an era the city has left behind and this neighborhood is trying to forget.
From the 1960s until the last decade the Parkway Guest House was a gathering spot for drugs, prostitution and all forms of illegality. During the 1990s it essentially became "a cheap crack hotel," according to activist William Alston-El. "This was the place you could go to die if you wanted to. They had so much drugs up in here it was crazy."
According to tax records, Stanton View Development LLC purchased this abandominium (SSL 5807 0008) and the empty land around it in January 2012 for an even $1,000,000. A placard on the ground announces the coming of 46 new condos at River East at Anacostia Park and encourages folks to reserve their units. The website, however, advertises a less ambitious development that has yet to break ground. For now, this cracked-out abandominium abides, stuck between time awaiting its next guest or demolition.
A look inside the Parkway Guest House
On a recent visit Alston-El and I found the building wide open. As we entered through the front door we found two handwritten notes to the left of the pay window.
One, bearing the date "5-8-97," reads, "Excessive smoke will set off smoke alarms. Anyone caught tampering with these devices will be banned from these premises. Fire dept. Detective The Manager!!" Beneath reads, "NO DRUGS POSSESSION OF DRUGS OR USE OF DRUGS ON OR IN THESE PREMISES IS PROHIBITED NO WARNING MGR." A concentrated layer of dust covers the yellow phone books on the counter. Alston-El picks up a "NO VACANCY" sign.
We move through the house makings odds on which we expect to find more of, drug paraphernalia or antiques. In a back room former guests have left their mark on the wood paneling.
"'Pootah Boo' from that South Side MOB MUGGIN HARD DRIKIN HENNESEY BUSTIN Off the Roof At My enemies Watch em bleed Till Im 6 feet DEEP" was here. So were "Frank & Rita '92" who proclaimed their love by drawing an arrow through a heart and two smiley faces.
Alston-El points to the floor at an empty green drug baggie. "Yep, that's crack. Yeah, this is still the place you can come and do your thing only now it's better, no room fare for an abondominium," he says with a laugh.
Out in the hall a mirror reflects the emptiness and darkness of this place as we move towards the back of the vacant building and past another reception area. The intercom next to the rear door emblazoned with "Parkway Guest House" in black trimmed gold-lettering stopped working years ago. We hit the stairs to rooms 6, 7, and 8.
Upstairs, a narrow hallway leads past three rooms. Much of the ceiling in each is now on the floor. Through the windows, sun refracts off the siding of the Grandview Estates, a 46-unit complex that opened nearly four years ago alongside hopes of local economic regeneration. Further down the hall in room 8, the roof has given in.
"You don't see this sort of craftsmanship anymore," Alston-El says as he unwinds an antique Ruby Red Glass Globe Exit sign from a light fixture above. Were you to follow the exit blindly, you would go out the door and fall to the ground below.
For Anacostia and the surrounding neighborhoods of Hillsdale, Barry Farm, and Ft. Stanton, the initial step towards sustained economic revitalization can be a doozy. The contrast of a new condominium complex filled with young professionals side-by-side with a vacant building equally accessible and dangerous to roving populations of the area's homeless, substance addicts, and prostitutes will continue to be the prevailing paradox east of the river, from Talbert Street SE to Brandywine Street SE, until greater public and private investment is joined by robust citizen activism and wherewithal.
The concentration of abandominiums from single family homes to apartment buildings to the Parkway Guest House presents a portfolio that with the right leadership, partnership and vision presents as much opportunity as challenge. Now that restaurateur Andy Shallal has announced his plans to open new franchises in Takoma and Brookland, it seems a logical location to begin expanding east of the river would be in an abandominium such as the Parkway Guest House.
Two people died in a fire last week in a vacant low-rise apartment building in Fairlawn. Meanwhile, Mayor Gray pledged $100 million towards new affordable housing. The two together present a clarion call for solutions to the housing problems east of the Anacostia River.
Community activist William Alston-El outside of the former Parkway Guest House, 1262 Talbert Street SE. Photos by the author.
"Marion Barry told Gray the only way he's going to get re-elected, if the Feds don't get him first, is if he plays that affordable housing game," said community activist William Alston-El. "But it ain't a game, it's a matter of life and death. His pledge is too late for them two. [Mayor Gray] needs to come out to the neighborhood and see how people on the lower level are living."
Over the past year, Alston-El and I have toured the Anacocostia neighborhood's extensive portfolio of abandominiums. As dangerous as guns, HIV/AIDS, alcohol, and drugs, the accessibility of vacant properties is a public health concern.
What happened at 1704 R Street SE?
Anacostia High School just down the way, a group of women sit with a child on the front stoop of 1706 R Street SE, next door to the boarded-up middle row building, 1704 R Street SE, where a two-alarm fire took the lives of 2 squatters days before. Yellow tape surrounds the scene. Police cruisers idle across the street as we walk by acknowledging their presence.
The smell of smoke and burnt wood is still thick in the air. "It smells like death out here," Alston-El says before explaining his connection to one of the deceased; he boxed with her brother while imprisoned in Lorton. "There aren't too many Toogoods around." We walk around to the alley to investigate.
A large sandy colored cat bounds over a backyard fence and suddenly stops, plopping down in the charred remnants in the rear of 1704 R Street SE. "Get away from here," yells an onsite fire restoration specialist as the feline scurries away. He approaches us and asks our credentials, "We're reporters looking for the truth," Alston-El offers.
At that the man who says he's been "standing next to dead bodies for 10 hours," begins to tell us the circumstances he knows.
"All indications are that the four-apartment building had been modified by the people who had been living here without permission," he says. "The bottom right dwelling, how you got into it, before the fire, was you opened the door but someone took a piece of plywood and sheeted that off from the inside probably for their own protection against someone injuring them while they were sleeping. That became the cause of death.
"When the fire started in this room here, in the back right, and I mean right because everything in construction is discussed facing the front of the building, so when it started in the back right and really started to spread it's really very difficult for the human mind to run through 1,400 degrees."
I ask if the cause of fire is known. "No, that's under investigation. So they didn't have a way out and were overcome by smoke. Passed out. There was no skin injury when we found them they just suffocated from lack of oxygen. The entire inside of the building is 100% unstable. My job is to structurally support the building so they can do an investigation to answer the question you just asked which is, 'How did it start?'"
Reports from the DC Fire Department corroborate the restorationist's details. "After the heavy volume of fire was knocked down, units re-entered the building, where they located two civilian fatalities. Two firefighters were hurt in the early stages of the firefight and taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries."
According to Alston-El, Toogood was an alcoholic with a bad leg and had been living in the abandominium for three years. "No wonder she didn't make it out. Somebody was firing up their drugs, something went wrong and they dipped out leaving that fire behind."
Police have been canvassing the neighborhood seeking information and any eyewitness accounts of a third party fleeing the blaze.
With a housing crisis, buildings should not remain vacant
Mayor Gray made it a priority in his State of the District address to provide more affordable housing. One place to start is to push for action on existing abandoned buildings the city already owns, or where bureaucratic hurdles are blocking owners' progress.
Take the sprawling Bruxton abandominiums at 1700-1720 W Street SE, still owned by the "DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA SUITE 317" according to tax records. A sign from the Department of Housing and Community Development announces "No Trespassing or Dumping."
In separate colors someone from the neighborhood has spray painted "FUCK" "CRuddy" just beneath the sign. The winter has slowed the ivy's growth which has begun to cover the banner advertising "spacious" 2 bedroom / 2 bath homes "coming soon."
The District has given affordable housing developer Manna the rights to redevelop the Bruxton, but it remains boarded-up and vacant to this day. A Manna staff member commented in March of last year:
SE Manna, Inc. is committed to making this property part of a vibrant Anacostia community. Manna was awarded the property in 2009 through the District's PADD program and began developing the property as the Buxton Condominium. Along the way, Manna has invested over $300,000 in pre-development costs and has encountered several "speed bumps" those in the affordable housing field would be very familiar with, including:City needs help reporting abandominiums
Manna is currently in compliance with all terms required by DHCD and its private lender, including 9 units pre-sold. The Buxton is awaiting DHCD approval to move forward and we are eager to begin this project, and continue to market the available units to qualified buyers.
- Permitting issues dues to lack of water availability;
- The District's Department of Housing and Community Development terminated our contract on the building, though we were in compliance with all terms. This decision was reversed through the intervention of Mayor Gray, Deputy Mayor Hoskins and DHCD Dir. John Hall;
- The units were originally priced from $170,000-$205,000. Manna soon realized that the market in this neighborhood could not bear that price, applied and received funding through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to reduce prices to $95,000-$140,000.
Although the city owns its share of abandominiums or has initiated the long and involved litigious process of getting vacant or blighted properties back into productive use, the greatest number of abandominiums are held by tax delinquents, absentee owners, or dissolved companies.
"Because these vacant properties are privately owned, we are bound by very tight statute on what we can reasonably do," said head of the DC Office of Consumer and Regulatory Afair's Vacant Building Enforcement Division, Reuben Pemberton, respected in Anacostia for his responsiveness and attendance at civic meetings.
Pemberton works with 4 investigators. In order to classify a property as vacant or blighted it has to have two inspections.
"We have a lot of eyes out there in the neighborhood. People can send us an email at email@example.com or call 202-442-4332 to report a property," Pemberton said. DCRA's Vacant Building Enforcement division performed more than 4,200 inspections in fiscal year 2012 and is on schedule to do more than 5,000 this year.
"Look at that thing! That's an antique!" says William Alston-El as two workers in yellow vests and hard hats emerge from the long-vacant Wilson Courts in Congress Heights. The men carry an aged band saw.
"Man, I've been working with tools my entire life and I've never seen anything like that," Alston-El observes with reverence as we angle for a closer look.
"That has to be from Saint Elizabeths. We're nothing but a couple blocks over," Alston-El says. "There are probably tools, medical equipment, diaries, and who knows what else that's been lost in this community and still hasn't been found. Who knew Ward 8 is filled with hidden treasures?"
An innovation of the early 19th century, the band saw could cut both wood and metal. Its original design is little altered today, albeit with current materials. More than one hundred variations of the modern band saw sell today at Home Depot from companies such as DeWalt, Steel City, and Rockwell.
The former Wilson Courts, 523-525 Mellon Street SE, a 4-story multi-family apartment complex with a faint art deco touch outside the building's two respective front entrances, was sold in September 2008 to Affordable Housing Opportunities Inc. for just under $1.5 million, according to tax records. (The value of the building's inventory of antiques is unavailable.)
A year later a firestorm broke out within Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8C when a local non-profit introduced plans to develop transitional housing units. Many old-time residents joined neophyte arrivals in opposing the plans, arguing the neighborhood was over-burdened with similar facilities and a further concentration of social service agencies would do more harm than good.
Now, a couple years later all seems to be forgotten as the building has remained uninhabited. Per the permit posted by the DC Office of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs since February, after demolition of interior walls, there are plans to convert the building's existing 20 units to 43.
However, before redevelopment happens an untold number of relics from late 19th and early 20th centuries remain in the basement, according to the demolition crew's foreman.
Together with the 6-man crew, William and I speculate what the band saw might be worth An engraving around the arc of the base will surely provide clues of its provenance for an appraiser specializing in 19th century tools. (Comparable antique band saws on Ebay list for $250 to $500, often selling for more.)
Through preservation groups and local media work, I have toured the campuses of Saint Elizabeths a handful of times over the past 3 years. What little I have seen of the abandoned halls, rooms, basketball courts, and book cases show most of the remnants of the past are gone, cleared out over the years by former employees and recent contractors.
An engraving around the arc of the base will surely provide clues of its provenance for an appraiser specializing in 19th century tools. (Comparable antique band saws on Ebay list for $250 to $500, often selling for more.)
Through preservation groups and local media work, I have toured the campuses of Saint Elizabeths a handful of times over the past 3 years. What little I have seen of the abandoned halls, rooms, basketball courts, and book cases show most of the remnants of the past are gone, cleared out over the years by former employees and recent contractors.
Restaurateur Andy Shallal will not be bringing his Busboys & Poets franchise to Anacostia quite yet. Last night, Stan Voudrie, the landlord of the shuttered Uniontown Bar & Grill, told the Historic Anacostia Block Association he is considering 5 bids. Busboys "is not one of them."
Voudrie said he has shown the space to a number of experienced and locally-known restaurant owners. The proprietor of Uniontown Bar & Grill was evicted when her assets were frozen following a plea on drug charges, but the kitchen, fridge, and bar areas remain equipped. With space available to expand upstairs, Voudrie said a new restaurant could be open within a matter of weeks.
When asked who the 5 bids came from, Voudrie was rather reticent. "I can't share because they don't want it to get out that they were under consideration and then ultimately didn't get it." One thing is certain. The name Uniontown Bar and Grill will change, and the new name will not be Busboys & Poets.
Despite a direct marketing effort led by a close knit group of Anacostia residents to lure Shallal to the neighborhood, for now, everyone will have to wait. Shallal, touted by radio host Kymone Freeman as the "man from Mesopotamia," recently told Anacostia's own We Act Radio (1480 AM), "My dream is to open Busboys in Anacostia. And I know that might piss off somebody but you know what they can get pissed off. I don't care."
Shallal said (around 59:00), "It was beautiful because I got a poster that was sent by residents of Anacostia. It said Anacostia on top and there were all these residents and a dog and kids and all this and it says, 'We want Busboys and Poets here.'"
Vacant properties in Historic Anacostia abound. According to multiple sources within the neighborhood, the most likely space for Busboys & Poets is the former furniture showroom at 2004-2010 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE. Although social service agencies have toured the property, there have been no signs of activity.
Building the space out to accommodate a restaurant could cost "a million or more in tenant improvements," according to one neighborhood source familiar with the ongoing effort to secure a tenant. With a basement level and 2 upper floors, the privately owned building is more than 10,000 total square feet. This provides ample capacity for a performance space, which would complement the Anacostia Playhouse tentatively scheduled to open in March 2013, and a possible culinary arts training program which neighborhood residents have expressed a demand for.
Anacostians' self-agency and determination to market their community as open and ready for business is commendable, and other communities could replicate it. But residents should heed an old colloquium that harkens back to Anacostia's bucolic past: "Don't put your eggs in one basket." Waiting for Busboys & Poets to validate Anacostia as an emerging neighborhood is unnecessary. It already is.
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