Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Vacant Property

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."

Development


Anacostians still waiting for a new day

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.


William Alston-El in Historic Anacostia. All photos by the author.

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.


Fendall Heights Abandominiums at the corner of Fendall & V Street SE.

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.


Front entrance to the Fendall Heights Abandominiums at 2025 Fendall Street SE.

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."


Blighted properties at 1644-1648 V Street SE, owned by "ARCH TRAINING INC."

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.


Gold Spot Check Cashing at 2216 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE is now vacant after a March robbery.

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."


Renae's Flowers & Gifts at 1924 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE closed months ago.

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.


A social service provider bought the old furniture store at 2006 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.

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?"

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