Photo by DG-rad on Flickr.

As the federal government returns control of St. Elizabeths East and Walter Reed to the DC government, the District has an opportunity to re-envision those neighborhoods. The Parklands in Ward 8, a neighborhood that has seen dramatic improvement over the last 2 decades, offers a successful model of equitable development.

The Parklands succeeded with a combination of a for-profit developer, passionate residents, a community development corporation, nonprofits, newly-opened federal land, and federal investment incentives. Hey, no one ever said this stuff was easy.

In the early 1990s, the Parklands in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Southeast, DC was a 1,400 apartment complex with a rate of a murder a month per block. “But in 1991, in the midst of a drug and crime wave that had hit Southeast especially hard, the high rate of casualties was hardly unprecedented” writes Tony Proscio, author of Becoming What We Can Be: Stories of Community Development in Washington, DC.

The book then goes on to chronicle the magnificent turn-around of first the Parklands, then the neighborhood as a whole. Despite the blight and crime, a number of residents were determined to work together to make it a better place. Even before redevelopment occurred, community leader Brenda Jones founded the Parklands Community Center to provide youth with a safe space to learn and play.

Then in 1991 William C Smith & Co. acquired the Parklands apartment complex and renovated it to include “smaller scale clusters of ‘villages’ within the wider area. The renamed ‘Villages of Parklands, which formally opened in 1994, made room for the humanizing lawns and walkways that contribute not only to social interaction and recreation but, just as important, to safety.”

It became clear amid the rejuvenation of the neighborhood that children needed a place to grow and learn. William C Smith & Co teamed up with the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR) to create a community center for Ward 8.  Through generous contributions from local philanthropic organizations and the District of Columbia government, and the hard work of BBAR, the Town Hall Education, Arts, and Recreation Campus (THEARC) was born.

THEARC sits on a site formerly used by the Department of the Interior, which was returned to the District after sitting vacant for years. Today, it houses the Washington Middle School for Girls, Boys and Girls Club, a Children’s National Medical Center clinic, the Washington Ballet, Corcoran College of Art & Design, and the Levine School of Music.

By 2007, a grocery store opened in the neighborhood, the first in two decades. The Giant at the Shops at Park Village was made possible through the city’s use of land that had previously been Camp Simms Military Base, investment leveraged by the New Markets Tax Credit, the advocacy of the East of the River Community Development Corporation, and William C Smith & Co. Today, a neighborhood once ridden with crime and blight now has a grocery store, a sit down restaurant, a world class community center, and truly mixed income housing; from subsidized housing, to rental, to single family homes.

This large-scale redevelopment was made possible because of the commitment of the private, nonprofit, and government sectors. It was the ability to leverage investment in a multitude of ways that made redevelopment of the Parklands inclusive for all levels of income. The redevelopment of St. Elizabeths and Walter Reed should look to emulate this model.

For more stories of community redevelopment in Washington, including Columbia Heights, Edgewood Terrace, and H St, check out Becoming What We Can Be: Stories of Community Development in Washington, DC by Tony Proscio.