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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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?”