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Posts about Vacant Property

Development


DC has way more vacant properties than it thinks

Editor's note: While this post has two authors, it's written from David Sheon's perspective.

The official count of vacant and blighted properties in DC is about 1,200, but in reality, there are likely many more. The reasons for the discrepancy? A number of loopholes in the system for counting these properties, and not enough staff to close them.


This vacant house might look like it's under construction, but it hasn't been touched in years. All photos by the authors.

When I first became an ANC Commissioner, I knocked on every door in my district and asked my constituents what they wanted to see different. Then, I tallied their concerns to see what issues rose to the top. The results surprised me: Issues related to vacant and blighted (which basically means it's a threat to health and safety) houses ranked second on people's list of concerns, after traffic safety.

After being elected, I compiled a list of vacant properties in my neighborhood. In my 12-block district, I found seven clearly vacant homes. In many cases, these houses were literally falling apart, full of garbage (a broken down pick-up truck from a long-abandoned construction project on one) and overgrown weeds. Neighbors confirmed the properties didn't seem to be in probate (when a property is tied up in court because the owner passed away and it isn't clear who now owns it) but had been vacant for years.

These properties aren't only eyesores; they're a threat to public safety. On many, unsecured doors and windows attract crime, but without actual residents in the houses, there fewer eyes on the street. They also deter investment.

Unfortunately, DC's system for identifying these properties, assessing penalties, and putting properties back into productive use is fundamentally broken.

It's hard to get a property officially registered as vacant or blighted

The road to remediating vacant and blighted properties starts with DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). There, the Vacant and Blighted Enforcement (VBE) Unit is tasked with inspecting vacant and blighted properties and then assessing an appropriate tax rate. The idea is to raise taxes on buildings that aren't being put to use as a way to encourage the owners to sell or fix their properties.

For vacant properties, the tax rate is five percent. For vacant and blighted properties, the tax rate is an even higher 10 percent. But this is where things get really tricky, as there are a number of loopholes that prevent these taxes from being assessed.

For example, once a property is identified as vacant, a property owner can get a permit to do work on the house. The property then becomes exempt from the vacant property tax even if no work has been done. For instance, long time neighbors of one vacant property told me they had never even heard a hammer in the vacant house, even though a work permit kept the vacant building tax from applying.

Another loophole involves putting the property up for sale at a price that is several times the fair market value. The "for sale" status will also earn the property owner an exemption. At one property near my house, which was falling apart, the owner listed it for sale with a price as though renovations had been made. In the condition it was in, the price should have been about $300K however he was listing it at nearly $900K. Clearly no one was going to buy it, but this way he avoided vacant building tax.

Owners can also set up anonymous Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs), often named for the property's address, that don't actually tie back to a person. That can make it impossible to go after individual owners to recover taxes owed or penalties assessed to the LLC. One example of this are the properties owned by Insun Hofgard, who WAMU's Martin Austermuhle reported on last year. Most of her properties, including those that remain unfinished and now blight Kennedy Street, are registered under individual LLCs.

Finally, vacant lots are also exempt.

Even when the VBE does identify properties as being vacant, the law requires the unit to reinspect the property every six months and reclassify it as either vacant or vacant and blighted. The VBE is not sufficiently staffed or resourced to handle this task, and properties routinely fall off DCRA's list, even when what got them on it in the first place hasn't changed.

Why would a property owner want to keep a property vacant as long as possible? As long as DC property values are going up, the longer the owner waits, the more profitable it will be.

In our experience, the system is broken

Since 2013, my neighbor and co-author, David Gottfried, has worked to identify vacant and blighted properties and to ask DCRA to classify them as such.

Every six months, David has followed up with DCRA to ask about keeping properties on the list and applying the appropriate penalties. Despite his efforts, the properties on his own list, which were clearly vacant and often unquestionably blighted, just slipped through the cracks. On my end, only three of the seven vacant properties that I identified in my neighborhood were on the city's list.

Simply put, it's very difficult to get a property classified as vacant, or keep it that way. Even when neighbors keep very close watch and follow up diligently with city agencies, DCRA is too often failing to adequately identify vacant properties and penalize their owners. Our experiences lead us to believe that the actual number of vacant and blighted properties is much higher than the 1,200 properties on DCRA's list, and could be as high as 5,000.


Another vacant property. Here, renovations are now underway—it'd be nice if that were the story more often.

Let's give DCRA what it needs to close the loopholes

This is an important issue for the health, safety, and well-being of our communities. It is also an issue of basic fairness. Negligent property owners who degrade our communities and jeopardize our security should face stiff penalties for their actions.

We need to adequately staff and resource the VBE, remove the burden from community members and DCRA to classify and re-classify properties, and place the onus squarely on the property owners by making them show the city that a property is no longer vacant before a property is removed from the list. We also need to pierce the corporate veil afforded negligent homeowners who use LLCs, so that DCRA and relevant agencies can appropriately penalize negligent homeowners.

Some of these fixes are hard and will take time, but with others, a small change in the law could go a long way. A little bit of political will and leadership could go a long way towards making our communities safer, more attractive, and more pleasant places to live.

We'll discuss pending legislation around vacant and blighted properties in an upcoming post.

Development


My neighbor is an empty house, one of over 3,500 in the District. The DC Council wants to make it affordable housing.

Within one block of my apartment, there are three separate vacant buildings, with little sign of pending construction or development. They've been that way for years, and I live in Shaw, which is booming. DC Councilmember Anita Bonds has introduced a bill that'd let the mayor turn vacant buildings into affordable housing.


My neighbor, the empty building. Photo by the author.

DC wants to buildings to be used, not stay vacant

Vacant, blighted and condemned buildings are of no use to anyone, especially the city. While the property owner might pay taxes and penalties, there's an overall loss of revenue when you consider that occupants would be both taxpayers and consumers. And that's not to mention the negative effect empty or boarded up buildings have on neighborhoods.

Because of this, DC has laws and systems to try and get these units occupied and reintegrated into neighborhoods. The DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has an entire unit, the Vacant Building Enforcement Unit dedicated to buildings around the District that are like the ones on my street. Its job is to compile these lists twice a year, identifying all of the vacant and blighted properties in the district, and then enforce penalties and taxes on the owners of each unit.

Here are the current numbers on vacant buildings

Just how many of these building are out there in one of the fastest growing "states" in the country? Thousands.

In her opening statement last month introducing a bill to address the issue, Councilmember Anita Bonds explained that as of November 2015, there were a total of:

  • 3,535 vacant buildings
  • 345 blighted buildings
  • 132 condemned properties
  • 67 vacant lots of 650 square feet or larger
That is a lot of potential space in a city fighting for every scrap of usable land.

To encourage owners to occupy or develop buildings, the District taxes vacant and blighted buildings at a much higher rate than occupied ones. While occupied units are taxed at around $1 per $100 of assessed value, vacant buildings are taxed at $5 per $100 and must meet certain maintenance standards. Blighted buildings (those is more serious disrepair) are taxed higher: $10 per $100 of assessed value.

When taxes don't work, the city uses liens. But what about when liens don't work?

At first, it seems illogical for properties to sit unused: DC needs more housing, neighborhoods want more retail, and property owners and developers want returns on their investments, not fines and taxes. But there are many reasons for a building to remain vacant even when developing it might serve the greater good.

Sometimes the culprit is an absent owner waiting to cash in when property values rise, often utilizing loopholes to get out of the tax penalties. Other times it is simply a case where accumulated unpaid taxes and penalties have amounted to such a high amount, the situation is stuck.

If I'm a building owner and I don't pay my property taxes, the government has the option to bundle what I owe into an investment called a tax lien that it can then sell to an investor. An investor can then come and buy that lien, making the government happy (they got their money), and now I owe my overdue taxes, interest, and penalties to this investor. If I still don't pay over a long enough period of time, that investor can foreclose on my building and take it away.

Sometimes, though, nobody buys liens. It might be that an investor doesn't want to buy the lien for a building that is falling a part and is not worth the investment. It might also be that the tax lien has become so high no investor will bite. The list of tax sales that went up earlier this year shows the wide range of liens available to potential investors, and just how high they can be: over $1 million for one particular property.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Anita Bonds wants to change that

Councilmember Bonds' bill, introduced after work with different housing advocacy groups, intends to target vacant properties which haven't or probably won't sell. The bill would allow the Mayor to transfer the rights of properties where the property tax debt is 50% or more of the assessed value of the property to a developer or non-profit. The new owner would have to meet strict affordability standards with their plan for the property:

  • For single family buildings, the new property must be affordable to buyers or renters at 90% AMI (Area Median Income)
  • For multi-unit buildings, one-quarter the new property must be affordable for buyers or renters at 80% or below of AMI, one-quarter at 50% or below of AMI, and one-quarter at 30% or below of AMI
The bill also mandates a 40-year affordability covenant on the property (ensuring the affordability rules above in the deed), and outlines a process for the selection of the profit or non-profit developers who would take over the property. Currently the legislation has been referred to the Committee on Housing and Community Development and the Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs for analysis. The housing committee will probably address the bill in May.

Have an opinion? Send an email to the Councilmember Bonds, the chairperson of the Housing and Community Development Committee, at abonds@dccouncil.us, or to Committee Director Irene Kang (ikang@dccouncil.us).

In the meantime, know a vacant building you want turned into affordable housing? Call 311 or email vacantbuildings@dc.gov to report.

Development


Baltimore's problem is sprawl, not a bad economy

The city of Baltimore has over 20,000 vacant row houses and 300,000 fewer residents than at its peak. Governor Larry Hogan recently announced funding to demolish whole blocks of them. A common narrative outside Baltimore is that the city is in collapse thanks to manufacturing jobs leaving, as in many Rust Belt cities. But that's not the biggest problem. Suburbanization is.


Vacant houses in West Baltimore. Photo by charmcity123 on Flickr.

Pundits often paint a picture of a place in economic decline that has never recovered from the loss of thousands of manufacturing and steel-making jobs. "Since at least the 1970s," E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote in the Washington Post in May, "the economy's invisible hand has ... been diligently stripping tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs from what was once a bustling workshop where steel, cars and planes were made."

Like Rust Belt cities, Baltimore used to rely on manufacturing and steel-making, but it has changed. The Baltimore metropolitan region's GDP is higher than Portland (Oregon), Columbus (Ohio), Orlando, Austin, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Nashville, and San Antonio. It ranks fourth in percentage with a graduate or professional degree and fourth in median household income among the 25 largest metro areas. (Washington DC is number one in both categories).

Here's the rub. While Baltimore City's population has dropped by 300,000 people since its peak census count in 1950, Baltimore County has added 550,000. Anne Arundel County over 400,000. Howard County almost 300,000. Harford County 200,000. Carroll County has added over 100,000 people.


Suburbanization into green fields in Owings Mills. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

State spending in the suburbs sapped Baltimore

Baltimore City's surplus of vacant houses is not there because of a poor regional economy or because the Baltimore region's population is shrinking. It exists because the region has built lots of new roads and highways, new schools, new utilities, and new homes outside the city, without equivalent investments inside the core city.

People and businesses have flowed to the geographic shift of new investments in surrounding counties. As this was happening, physical and social decay escalated in many of Baltimore's older row house communities, especially African-American neighborhoods.

Some of this early exodus was the result of directly racist practices such as redlining. However, shifting public investments outward, often based on theoretically race-neutral growth formulas, certainly was anti-urban and had the greatest impact on urban communities of African-Americans.

Regardless, people with choices of all races have made rational decisions to leave behind thousands of houses in poor school districts with old school buildings, high crime, pothole-ridden streets, inadequate transit, and leaky pipes.

A renaissance is around the corner for more neighborhoods

There are new positive trends that portend a brighter future for some of Baltimore's challenged row house neighborhoods. First, Baltimore City has stopped hemorrhaging net population. New city-based industries are thriving in health sciences and technology.

The Under Armour corporation is a major growth magnet with over three billion in annual revenue, and growing, every year. Lots of people are still moving out of the city, but there is a new crop of newcomers, often well-educated millennials and some immigrants.

However, they are not spreading across the city evenly. They are bypassing the most challenging row house neighborhoods.


Baltimore's booming Brewers Hill neighborhood is mixed with new apartments, offices, and fixed up rowhouses. Photo by Elliott Plack on Flickr.

Thousands of new upscale apartments and professional offices are being added downtown and in a ring of neighborhoods around the harbor, often on former industrial brownfield sites. The harbor adjacent row house neighborhoods have been fixed up and growing for two decades. It shows, that when there are amenities in the neighborhood, there is demand for row house living.


Vibrant rowhouses in Hampden west of Johns Hopkins University. Photo by Cat on Flickr.

One sign of what may be to come: the resurging row house neighborhoods west and south of Johns Hopkins University, several miles north of the harbor. Where there is a neighborhood anchor institution, good retail, and reasonable transit, some old Baltimore row house neighborhoods may reverse their fortunes in the next decade. Inclusivity will be important.

However, as in decades before, state and regional decisions on school, infrastructure, and transportation investments will play their part on whether some Baltimore city neighborhoods can come back. These decisions are particularly important for the most vulnerable.

Preservation


Baltimore will tear down whole blocks of row houses to fight blight. Is that wise?

In DC, housing is so scarce that prices are skyrocketing, especially for charming, historic row houses. Just up in Baltimore, however, they can't give many dilapidated row houses away, and Larry Hogan recently announced a plan to tear many of them down. Is that a good idea?


Image from @MayorSRB.

Baltimore officials think so; its mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano think this is something the city needs. Some advocates aren't as sanguine.

In the short run, parks will replace the tear-downs, but Hogan also announced a loan program to encourage developers to build new housing in the same neighborhoods.

What's the point of knocking down housing just to build other housing? Our contributors discussed this issue.

Canaan Merchant articulated the concern:

There is a sense that these neighborhoods will just never recover (at least in our lifetimes) and until then the abandoned houses just make things more dangerous.

But if the "plan" (vague as it is) is to build parks and affordable housing then I have a hard time separating that logic from what we said about so many neighborhoods (like Southwest Waterfront).

Meanwhile, one of Baltimore's best resources are these old row houses and tearing them down is a big opportunity cost that can never be replaced. That's why we have historic districts and why historic districts are valued today.


Photo by urbanfeel on Flickr.

Payton Chung explained the economics:

There is such a thing as property with a negative value. Think about if a smelly, flea-ridden old couch materialized in your living room—you'd pay to get rid of it, right? That's negative value.

Given the high housing prices in DC, we can sometimes forget that the capital cost of rehabilitating (or even maintaining) buildings can be so high that those buildings have negative value. Gut-rehabbing an old rowhouse just to meet code can easily cost over $100,000.

Given that move-in condition rowhouses in West Baltimore can cost $50,000, there's little economic incentive to rehab the houses unless you're comfortable throwing lots of money away. Nor can you just rehab a few of them: vacant properties really drag down the value of entire blocks, and selective demolition isn't an option since rowhouses depend on their neighbors for structural support.

What's more, even good houses at low prices won't be enough to stimulate demand for new housing. It's easy to think "oh, housing prices are cheap, therefore it's a bargain." As new arrivals to Detroit can attest, though, that's not always the case.

Not all rowhouses are created equal. The houses that are being targeted are quite different from DC rowhouses: whereas ours are typically 16-18' wide, Baltimore's rowhouses are just 12-16' wide in most cases. (It's not just a matter of platting—rowhouses have beams across their entire width, and the price of solid-wood beams doesn't scale linearly.) Those extra few feet make a huge difference in livability, especially in the ability to have hallways next to habitably-sized rooms.

Richard Layman, a historic preservation supporter, posted some thoughts on an email list and gave permission to print them.
There is a difference in what people can do in weak markets as opposed to strong markets. In a city like DC, there is demand for property, whereas in Baltimore, my sense in talking with planners over the years is that they are beaten down by the sheer volume of the problem, that they have so many vacant properties and lots, that they see demolition as a reasonable step.

The weak market problem there is stoked by too much capacity for development in Howard, Baltimore, Harford, and Anne Arundel Counties. There isn't enough demand for all those places to be successful, and the success of the counties comes at Baltimore City's expense.

But the reality in a place like Baltimore is that a demolished empty building becomes a vacant lot, no easier to revitalize, and merely a different form of blight, an exchange of one blight for another.


Photo by John Perivolaris on Flickr.

Jeff La Noue lives in Baltimore and gave a perspective from up there:

As a Baltimorean, I appreciate our rowhouse architectural character. However, there have been so many public policy decisions, including poor transit as well as the preponderance of crime and poor schools, that make many row house neighborhoods lose their favorability/marketability. As a result, many shells can't be given away and there is no market to spend any money to redevelop.

We all dream of a time when the conditions change for many desolate row house neighborhoods. However, while we wait, the rot continues. In addition, Baltimore remains relatively affordable and we continue to build lots of new housing in the booming southeast part of the city and suburbs. The oldest and least desirable housing then goes vacant as people move up to better housing and "better" neighborhoods whether they be in the city limits or not.

I certainly would love to see a nuanced demolition plan that does not knock down the most charming and viable. However, I think we need to cull of the weakest of the rowhouse herd. It is hard to leave 20 to 30,000 vacant houses just sit for another decade or more. There is not enough demand for traditional row house living right now, especially with poor transit and little neighborhood retail, to make a massive rowhouse renovation plan financially viable anytime soon.


View from the West Baltimore MARC station. Photo by Adam Moss on Flickr.

Could Baltimore be DC's next bedroom community?

So, there's negative demand for housing in Baltimore, and overflowing demand in DC. If Baltimore were adjacent to DC, we'd be talking about how it's the next hot area, but it's about 40 miles away. Could faster, better transit whisk Baltimoreans down to jobs in DC?

(Maybe that's what Hogan has in mind with his $10 billion maglev, except he doesn't want to pay for it, it wouldn't go to the distressed neighborhoods, and Hogan just cut a transit line that would have.)

What if Maryland improved MARC speeds and frequencies to make the trains Metro-like. Would Washington-area housing demand flow into Baltimore? Richard Layman doesn't think so.

If it were that simple, it would already have happened. I reverse commuted to Baltimore for a time, and yes, Baltimore markets itself as a cheaper alternative for people working in DC, but it really stinks to spend a couple hours each way each day commuting, especially if one does it by sustainable means (bike/walk/transit).

As I wrote previously, Baltimore is undercut by massive overcapacity of development opportunity in the suburban counties, and great poverty and financial needs within the city, which outstrip its financial capacity. It lacks a transit network which would recenter demand on the center city, for both commercial and residential location.

Plus, while it has cool neighborhoods, the city is large and isn't so walkable between neighborhoods as much as it is within neighborhoods. EYA has a trademark, "Life within walking distance." Baltimore isn't set up that way.

Other contributors said that there might be a few spots where this could work, but they're nowhere near where Baltimore is tearing down blocks. Jeff La Noue:
From a Washington perspective, there are tons of super cheap and good looking row houses within walking distance of the West Baltimore MARC Station. That is a place that could seemingly develop market viability, but it needs some initial investment to get it going.

Photo by Ian Freimuth on Flickr.

Payton Chung:

Yes, the property surrounding the West Baltimore MARC station is surprisingly undervalued. However, Sandtown-Winchester won't be improved by transit anytime soon, since it opens a peculiar can of worms: Winchester Street runs atop the Penn Line's B&P tunnel, halfway between Baltimore Penn and West Baltimore, and which is the subject of multibillion-dollar replacement proposals.

Commuting from Baltimore to DC would be much easier if the last-mile transit connections were better. The transit connections and densities surrounding Baltimore Penn and Camden stations leave much to be desired, and Washington Union Station isn't convenient to most workplaces in DC.

Through-routing MARC trains down to L'Enfant Plaza and Crystal City would help, as will the streetcar and [potential] future Metro Loop. So will new office developments within walking distance to Union Station, in areas like NoMa and Capitol Crossing.

It seems Baltimore faces such a mountain of problems that these demolitions may be necessary. One can't help wonder if things would have been different if Baltimore had gotten a full subway system like the Metro, which was proposed around the same time.


The originally-proposed Baltimore Metro network.

And while the presence of the federal government kept Washington in better shape than Baltimore during the worst of times, the Metro elevated the value of downtown DC. Had it never been built, perhaps Washington would still be a "donut" of attractive suburbs around a continually decaying core with rising crime and insurmountable vacancy rates.

History


Before the Anacostia Metro, there were these houses

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.


DC plans to develop this vacant lot on Howard Road, SE. Photo by the author.

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


1010 Howard Road SE, circa 1985. Photo from the Library of Congress.

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


1004 Howard Road SE, circa 1985. Photo from the Library of Congress.

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.

History


Visit an abandoned Catholic school in Anacostia

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.


"Schools [sic] out." All photos by the author unless noted.

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.


The vacant multi-purpose room in the rear of the school.

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.


A dark hallway.

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.


"Choppa City" was here.

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."


Classroom adorned with Warner Brothers characters.

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.


A plaque in the library.

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.


A panorama of Washington's skyline from the roof.

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.


View of Frederick Douglass's home from the roof.

"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.

Development


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."

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