East of the Anacostia River lie beautiful neighborhoods like Deanwood, Anacostia, and Bellevue, full of historic houses and tree-lined streets. They’re also DC’s poorest wards. There’s no shortage of land to be developed, and plans like those for Poplar Point and Benning (PDF) have slowly but surely shifted focus across the river to areas that were previously neglected by the rest of the city. To make the area more attractive, boosters have started calling the area River East.

Much of River East has seen cheap, poorly planned apartments pop up over the last half century, giving large swaths a layout closer to suburban sprawl than the walkable urbanism of its oldest neighborhoods like Historic Anacostia. But Jamilah over at River East Idealist pointed out a project that reinforces my faith in the potential for River East to prosper: Wheeler Terrace.

Image from Live Maps. View interactive.

The project, a partnership between the owners and the Community Preservation and Development Corporation (CPDC), will upgrade seven buildings at Wheeler Terrace to much “greener” while keeping them affordable. CPDC took out a special mortgage on the site, and unit owners will save money on utiilties, keeping the units affordable.

Wheeler Terrace is only about a half mile walk from Congress Heights Metro Station using the footpath over Oxon Run. It’s actually twice as far to drive as to walk. The property has no parking lots, only street parking, and there is also a Metrobus stop in front of the complex. Directly across the street is Oxon Run Park, complete with hiking paths, basketball courts, and picnic areas. Enterprise Community Partners, which gave this project a $50,000 grant, is also rehabilitating two adjacent plots, Wheeler Creek and Parkside Terrace.

Though the buildings will qualify for LEED Gold certification, they are still not exactly perfect. The apartments, built in the late 1940’s to house World War II veterans, use a “towers in the park” layout that doesn’t engage the street. They are in a secluded corner of a residential neighborhood known for heavy crime. But when the apartments were threatened by developers who wanted to raze these 133 affordable housing units and replace them with luxury condos, the residents banded together and formed a tenants association that not only helped stave off gentrification, but also succeeded in lowering crime in the neighborhood.

This is a very promising story: affordable housing near transit gets redeveloped without pricing out any of the current residents. Other troubled parts of River East ought to embrace Wheeler Terrace as a prime example for redevelopment. You don’t need to replace a community to make it a better place to live. In cases like this, the apartments’ residents prove to be the most valuable asset to the city.