Residents of Anacostia have been waiting for revitalization to reach their corner of DC, but have found even their own government failing to keep buildings from eroding away.
"Welcome to HISTORIC ANACOSTIA” read a sign, with a soft southern sigh, enclosed by yellow caution tape at the foundation of the northwest corner of Good Hope Road SE and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE.
Weather-worn, the sign partially obscured the metallic arm of a front loader, cranking up and down in the background on July 19. It was clearing away the last of the structural remains of an art deco building that once housed a Peoples Drug Store.
The demolition came as an unpleasant surprise to preservationists and neighborhood activists in Anacostia.
On Thursday, July 14, city officials assembled on the corner and inspected 1201 Good Hope Road, incrementally crumbling for years. “I don’t think the condition appeared very different from how the building has looked for some time, but it certainly would ultimately fail, so it was anyone’s guess when,” wrote Tim Dennee, with the Office of Historic Preservation, in an email to community members. HPO did not object to the demolition of 1201, as it was a case of “imminent danger.”
Although the building had been sagging for months, if not years, in Old Anacostia there was now a newfound desire to clean up the property.
On Monday, July 18, DHCD released renderings of what the future of the corner could look like.
"I believe the rendering ... passed around is an ideal that is floating around and the demolition of those properties could be the catalyst to make that rendering happen,” warned Greta Fuller, ANC 8A03, in an email to the Office of Planning.
Was the impetus to demolish 1201 Good Hope Road the portending danger, real or imagined, it had posed for some time? Was it the machinations of a recharged administration? Or the steady flow of shockwaves from the nearby construction of the 11th Street Bridge? At a recent meeting at DHCD, a handful of staff, including Acting Director John Hall, said the neighboring construction regularly shakes their building.
Its aged citizenry already perpetually skeptical of city government, the newer generation of Anacostia community activists are now forming their own conspiracy theories. The formation and cataloguing of such theories is a generational method of marking time on the Southside.
Suspicious circumstances surround demolition
On the evening of Monday, July 18, officials from the Department of Housing and Community Development phoned ANC 8A04 commissioner Charles Wilson and told him that 1203 Good Hope Road SE, with approval of the Historic Preservation Office, was also coming down.
"Not so. When I was there with the DCRA and Housing Enterprises reps, we agreed only that 1201 could come down because of the concrete-parged MLK facade cracked and leaning forward,” wrote Dennee in another email. “I asked if they could show me anything on 1203 that could be considered to pose an imminent danger to health or safety. They suggested nothing and pointed only to the unsafe condition at 1201. I asked then if there was any reason why 1203 would not require a raze permit application, and no reason was offered,” he continued.
Public notice for DHCD raze permit on 1201 & 1203 Good Hope Rd. SE, posted July 18, 2011. Photo by the author.
On Tuesday evening, July 19, a permit numbered R1100103, the building’s epitaph, was posted on the door of 1203 Good Hope Road SE.
"Very much a surprise to me,” wrote Dennee. “From the number, I just looked up the permit opened and issued yesterday—and its description states ‘RAZE A BRICK BUILDING AT 1201 AND 1203 GOOD HOPE ROAD—PER SIGNATURE OF KEN WILSON AND HISTORIC PRESERVATION ARCHITECT MR. T.J.DENNEE—SEE APPLICATION.’ Our office was not a signatory.”
In response to the demolition of 1201 Good Hope Road SE and the pending demolition of 1203 Good Hope Road SE, a group of residents demanded a meeting with DHCD.
"It’s not so much the outcome we were concerned with, it was the process,” says Catherine Buell, a resident of Historic Anacostia and the chair of the Historic Preservation Review Board. She attended the meeting as a private citizen. “People in the community were asking questions about the demolition. It gave off the impression and appearance that the processes in place were not followed.”
"A representative for DHCD from DCHA, who manages the maintenance of properties in DHCD’s inventory, inspected the property on July 14th and was very concerned about the condition of the two properties, but more specifically the wall of 1201 that faces MLK Jr. Ave SE,” said John Hall, DHCD’s Director, in the meeting with residents. “DCRA and HP were alerted and came to inspect the properties. DCRA authorized the emergency demolition and approved the permit.”
With the demolition permit for 1203 Good Hope Road SE rescinded, Buell and other attendees felt satisfied with DHCD’s explanation. However, there is a palpable feeling that DHCD and the city makes and plays by a different set of rules that governs private citizens and commercial property owners.
"If I did what they did, I would be fined a couple hundred thousand dollars,” said a commercial property owner in the area who requested anonymity.
"We all agree that we want to create a partnership between the community and the government, and in order to build that relationship there has to be a certain level of trust,” said Wilson.
Demolition by neglect a widespread problem
These are not the only government-owned properties in Anacostia suffering from demolition by neglect. A year prior, DHCD purchased the “Big K Lot”: the residential properties of 2228, 2234 and 2238 MLK and the former site of Big K Liquors, 2252 MLK.
The three homes have been in advanced stages of deterioration and rot for years. A review of city records revealed that 2228 MLK has been vacant since the late 1970’s, and 2234 MLK has been vacant since the mid-1980s.
Fast forward a year from DHCD’s purchase, with a change in mayoral administrations and leadership at DHCD, one thing hadn’t changed. The Big K properties had yet to be stabilized, the city continuously complicit in their ex post facto demolition by neglect.
DHCD purchased 2228, 2234, 2238 and the former Big K Liquor store July 23, 2010 from the Kushner family for under $1 million.
"It would be a severe embarrassment to the Gray Administration if these homes were allowed to deteriorate and fall down or be demolished under his watch,” cautioned Wilson. “These properties need to be stabilized now. Only if and when the properties are stabilized, the government can work with the community on the restoration of the site.”
Distrust is not confined to the Southside.
"The Big K site has appeared on the DC Preservation League’s Most Endangered Places list several times,” wrote DCPL’s Executive Director, Rebecca Miller, in an email.
We recognize that DCHCD has only taken ownership of the properties recently, but they should do everything possible to stabilize the buildings to deter further deterioration. So often we hear about buildings that ‘have plans’ so the owner doesn’t feel the need to maintain the property. It’s proven however, that a little bit of maintenance can save big when it is time for rehabilitation. Preservation doesn’t dictate use — however, these are important buildings to the Anacostia Historic District and their returning them to service should be a priority.
Enforcement efforts face hurdles
A 4-building vacant apartment complex at the top of High Street SE has touches of old graffiti. Photo by the author.
According to a May Letter from Nicholas A. Majett, Director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, to Anthony Muhammad, Chairperson of ANC8A, DCRA is coordinating with “sister agencies to pursue and enforce the demolition by neglect statute” in all areas of the city.
Over the last year, the DC Office of Planning, along with the Office of the Attorney General, has actively pursued several demolition by neglect cases in and around the Anacostia Historic District. Three of these cases (2228 MLK, Jr. Avenue, SE; 2234 MLK, Jr. Avenue, SE; and 2338 MLK, Jr. Avenue, SE) were owned by Ms. Ann Kushner who was in the process of selling the properties when her husband died.
On behalf of the District of Columbia, OAG filed a demolition by neglect suit against Ms. Kushner in D.C. Superior Court for all three of these properties. However, the DC Superior Court judge would not grant the District’s request for an injunction because Ms. Kushner made representations to the court that she was financially unable to repair the properties.
Ms. Kushner did apply for a raze permit to totally demolish the properties, but OP denied her request. The case was finally resolved when the DC Department of Housing and Community Development purchased the properties from Ms. Kushner.
As Anacostia residents have discovered, however, even a sale to the government does not necessarily mean the property will be saved from demolition.