In October, H Street Main Street, the team behind the H Street Festival and other neighborhood events, unveiled an ambitious vision for the redevelopment of several parcels at the intersection of Benning and Bladensburg Roads, known to some as Starburst Plaza.
While this is an unofficial proposal and thus may never come to fruition, the mockup nonetheless shows several options to sustainably re-think and re-activate the space to better serve both current and prospective neighbors.
Here’s what the new Starburst could look like
Each of the four proposed layouts significantly increase public space as well as biking and walking paths.
One of the four even magnifies the community impact of the current plaza by making it larger and closing it off from the loud traffic of neighboring Bladensburg and Benning roads.
New biking and walking options would help solve another problem–proximity to retail. As GGWash reported in 2015, the current Hechinger site is 75 percent surface parking. That approach served the area well when it was a Sears and Hechinger’s home improvement store, with drivers coming from all over the region. With those stores long closed and drivers long gone, our community is looking for walkable options.
For many years, developers have hesitated to include retail space in new construction due to a lack of foot traffic. For example, ground floor retail in The Flats at Atlas–vacant since 2012–remains a concrete reminder of this lack of critical walking mass. With 2,000 new units of housing in this project alone, there might finally be enough feet on the ground to tip the scale in favor of retail.
Finally, the proposal includes an aggressive home affordability package on parcels where no housing currently exists. Roughly 400 of the 2,000 units would be set aside as affordable units. This is almost double the legal requirement set forth in DC’s Inclusionary Zoning regulations, and far more than I ever saw in my time serving on ANC 5D.
Further, the affordable units will be set aside for those who need them the most. Capped at 50 percent of median family income (MFI), a family of four earning a maximum of $55,150 annually would be able to rent a two-bedroom unit for $1,240 per DHCD guidance. By comparison, similar market-rate units of that size are renting for more almost four times that rate in nearby neighborhoods.
Redevelopment will also make my neighborhood safer
While many call this area the “Starburst,” neighbors I formerly represented as an advisory neighborhood commissioner have other names for the plot, including “Scooby Park,” a nickname for the synthetic drug sales which used to plague this public park and transportation hub. Earlier this year, safety concerns reached critical mass with a mid-day shooting.
Since then, the community has come together to take back the plaza. MPD has redoubled their efforts with a near-constant, dedicated set of patrols. Organizations like H Street Main Street have held concerts, farmers markets, and evening festivals to activate the space. This focus continues to show our community what is possible in this, often with very positive results.
While there is much to be proud of in the Starburst, these collective approaches simply are not sustainable, nor are they new. Over the years, MPD’s dedicated presence has come and gone–with good reason–as leadership, priorities, and staffing fluctuates.
Further, MPD and our larger neighborhood should have to permanently lose a patrol unit whose sole job is to keep Starburst under control. City agencies should not have to continuously spend grant dollars just to keep this one public space active, safe, and clean.
If we could get Starburst to a place where it did not need such a high level of continuous monitoring and cleaning, those resources could be put to far better use helping the many daily Starburst visitors who would benefit from city services but are otherwise doing nothing wrong there.
This proposal is in its early days, and remains nothing more if and until the CVS and Hechinger landlords sign on to either develop or sell the properties. When that happens, I hope those developers will look to this well-balanced proposal as a model and a basis for discussion with the community.