The DC government is getting ready to sell

give Donatelli Development a large parcel of land, at the corner of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road, for a mixed-use project at the site. This project will help revitalize Downtown Ward 7, moving the area one step closer to a lively, walkable, mixed-income neighborhood center next to the Minnesota Avenue Metro station. DC should move forward with the sale, but should also reserve some land at the edge for the future street connection recommended by the Minnesota Avenue Great Streets plan.

Aerial view of the Minnesota Ave-Benning Road intersection. Image from bing.

The parcel is on the northeast corner (top center in the above image), with a large surface parking lot and several low buildings. DC originally bought the land from multiple individual landowners to construct a “Government Center” with buildings for the Department of Employment Services (DOES) and Department of Human Services. They are moving ahead with the DOES building, between the Metro garage and Minnesota Avenue (the tan parcel in the upper right of the photo), but decided not to build Phase 2, the Human Services facility at the corner of Minnesota and Benning, and bid it out for development instead.

Donatelli and Blue Skye Development won the RFP, which includes retail, community space, affordable housing, and some market-rate housing. A “retail incubator” will help retail businesses get started.

However, the current plans do not leave room for a road behind the project, adjacent to the Metro tracks. The Minnesota Avenue Great Streets plan suggests extending the current road from Minnesota to the Metro garage around to the Benning Road viaduct, creating a new intersection, and then down again on the other side.

This project would relieve traffic at the busy intersection of Minnesota and Benning, and make it easier to add pedestrian amenities and longer crossing times at the city’s most dangerous intersection for pedestrians. For those concerned with vehicular Level of Service, the connection would also improve traffic congestion, reducing the Minnesota/Benning intersection from LOS F to D, which is the difference between jammed and moving.

Proposed new road connections to the Benning Road Viaduct.

Image from DDOT’s Minnesota Avenue Great Streets plan.

DC doesn’t have the money to construct this connection right now, but they will one day. DC needs to reserve the ability to build the connection in the future. Unfortunately, ODMPED has not pushed for this. According to ODMPED Project Manager Ayris Scales, the connection was “merely an option” in the RFP and “not a requirement” of the Great Streets plan.

Tomorrow evening, the DC Council will hold a hearing on the formal land disposition for this project. They should agree to the sale, but retain a public right-of-way at the edge of the site for this connection. Since it should become a road, they could certainly let Donatelli use that right-of-way for access to parking or loading docks.

The DC government bought the land from private owners for the purpose of making public use of the property. Selling it back Giving it away to one private owner with a provision that ensures public access to the small piece we’ll need one day helps to justify the public’s role in buying and selling the land. Furthermore, the site already has a public alley, which Donatelli will need to close. Taking away one public right-of-way in the middle of the property while reserving another at the back benefits the overall project while maintaining the public access we need.

Councilmembers Kwame Brown (At-Large) and Mary Cheh (Ward 3) chair the two committees holding tomorrow’s hearing. Email kbrown@dccouncil.us and mcheh@dccouncil.us to ask them to approve this sale but reserve a public right-of-way at the edge of the site for this future connection. This is the best way to maximize the future potential of Downtown Ward 7, reduce congestion, and improve pedestrian safety at the same time.

Update: The original version erroneously said that DC was going to sell the land. Instead, they are giving it away for free and receiving more affordable housing in exchange. That means that DC is not foregoing any potential revenue, except possibly some small amount of future tax receipts, by slightly narrowing the disposition.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.