Alexander Crummell school in Ivy City, DC. Image by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

The historic, long-abandoned Crummell School and the surrounding area in the Ivy City neighborhood in Northeast DC are planned for redevelopment. Out of the three proposals put forward, the city recently chose the proposal that builds the most new homes, including a significant number of affordable homes.

At first glance, this might look like a good thing to Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) supporters. However, one of the non-selected proposals was developed directly by members of the primarily low-income community, and it chose to maximize parkland and recreational facilities over the number of homes.

What was the right call here, for YIMBYs and for the city? Was maximizing the number of homes the only priority, or should redevelopment include more parkland? I'd argue that being a YIMBY doesn't always mean blanket support for new homes, and in this particular case we need to look at the systems and history at play in Ivy City.

A chance for some needed community investment in Ivy City

For years, the Crummell School has been at the center of various development debates. According to Friends of Crummell School, it was originally “built in 1911 to serve African American children from the historic working-class community of Ivy City and neighboring Trinidad.” It has been out of use since 1980 and remained city-owned property.

For many living in the nearby community, the slow deterioration and neglect of the building symbolized for the lack of investment and neglect facing the neighborhood. According to the 2010 Census, the median household income for the Ivy City area is around $17,000. Just over 50% of the population lives below the poverty line in older rowhomes and small apartment buildings.

The building was designated a historic landmark in 2002 due to its architectural merits and unique history. It became a rallying point for many in the community in 2012 when then-Mayor Vincent Gray proposed paving over parts of the site to create a parking lot for tour buses. The residents successfully pushed back against that plan, and in 2016 the city issued a request for proposals to redevelop the site.

This redevelopment process was one of the pilot projects for OurRFP, which essentially directly engages residents in crafting the city’s requirements for the redevelopment proposal. The results were, overwhelmingly, that many in the community asked to preserve the historic nature of the site but also wanted it to return to a productive communal use. In particular, a lot of neighbors asked for space for education or vocational classes, and/or a recreational space for youth.

A group of youth from the area even created a video asking for a recreational facility to be part of the plans, as seen in this storyboard created by EMPOWER DC.

Fundamentally, this site has become an emotional and marquee development debate in DC. Both residents and advocates have been watching and involved for some time. In the end, three proposals were submitted for the site, all which add housing and affordable housing and also pay to refurbish the school (an expensive task) and return it to productive use. They differ in the details of how much and what kind of housing and community space to build.

Development team

Proposal for historic Crummel School building

Other development/uses

Total housing units

Total affordable housing units

Ivy City Partners (selected)

Mix of: industrial/workforce training space, community center, clinic, retail

53,000 square feet of retail

~½ acre of public open space/walkways surrounding the school (includes gardens/farm)

375 units

113 units

  • 30-50% AMI = 85 units
  • 0-30% AMI = 28 units

Trammel Crow and partners

Becomes a YMCA

14,000 square feet of retail

Senior center

~½ acre of public open space/walkways surrounding the school (includes playgrounds)

Temporary large recreational park during construction

318 units

105 units

  • 40-60% AMI = 88 units for seniors, 17 no age restrictions

Crummel School Site Community Redevelopment Team

Becomes a community center governed by a community land trust

1 acre of permanent public open/recreational space surrounding the school

New gymnasium building (adjacent to community center)

122 units

122 units

  • 0-30% AMI = 37 units
  • 30-60% AMI = 85 units

You can see that the selected proposal has the least amount of public space (less than half an acre) but does provide the the most new homes (375), 113 of which are designated affordable to those making at or below 50% of Area Median Income (AMI). For reference, 50% AMI for a single person is $38,010 a year.

The Trammel Crow proposal was similar in many ways, but also included plans for a neighborhood rec center, which was highly important to the community. Finally, the proposal put forward by many in the community prioritized parkland, rec spaces, and a community land trust, which would have given the community more control over the homes built while also ensuring deeper levels of affordability.

In June, the DC Council hosted the first public hearing for this selected proposal, and many neighbors spoke out strongly about the lack of public parkland. This was a land disposition hearing to debate how much of the public property surrounding the school building should be granted to the development team for their project.

Dozens of diverse community members and advocates testified against the selected proposal, saying things like it “minimizes public space and maximized profits for the developers.” Many pushed for a design like what was put forward in the third proposal, which was created by a coalition of community members and non-profit developers.

Now that Ivy City Partners has been officially selected as the redevelopment team for the site, changing base proposals is no longer on the table. But Ivy City Partners may still make tweaks to their plans. How should they respond to neighbors asking to add more parkland?

Alexander Crummell School. Image by AgnosticPreachersKid licensed under Creative Commons.

Parkland arguments can be a red flag. Are they here?

At a glance, this seems like a clear-cut case for YIMBYs. Opponents are saying greedy developers are taking away green space and they instead support a much lower-density option.

We’ve heard this before; fighting for public parkland at the expense of housing has been a consistent a red flag. In a city that has more green space per capita than most (about 20% of our total land area), this argument should be scrutinized. We have seen too many cases where the public space argument is used as cover for neighbors combatting change in their neighborhood, or who don’t seem to like density and new neighbors:

  • At SunTrust Plaza in Adams Morgan, a group of neighbors have successfully stalled a proposed new building for years over battles to preserve a small concrete corner of public space.
  • Some adjacent residents in Park View have challenged the Bruce Monroe redevelopment proposal over concerns that it will shrink the current public park there. The redevelopment will bring 108 affordable units, and perhaps most crucially an additional 94 replacement homes for the crumbling public housing nearby.
  • The long embattled McMillan Sand Filtration Site has seen years of court cases and delay. One of the arguments from concerned neighbors is the loss of green space (though the current site has been fenced off from the public for over a decade).

I think it’s worth raising the red flag in the above cases and those like them. Public amenities are wonderful, but everyone always wants more of them. “Make this a park” can't always be the answer. Responsible communities must balance the desire for public amenities with other land uses, and right now the most dire need in DC and most US cities is for more urban housing.

Wealthier communities also need to recognize what they already have in terms of quality access to parkland, especially if their constant opting out of new development means other less-fortunate areas shoulder more of the new homes and pressures of growth.

But the Crummell School is legitimately a different case. Here, should YIMBY priorities shift? As YIMBY celebrity Sonja Trauss discusses in this great Planet Money episode, being YIMBY isn’t about showing up for every new building everywhere. Sometimes there are other things more important building new homes.

Part of what attracts me to YIMBYism is the structural critique it takes to land use, which is fundamentally an equity critique. Typically this means pointing the finger at more privileged neighborhoods and pointing out they have been pushing all the new homes away into other neighborhoods.

However, equitable land use in Ivy City might be less about homes and more about access to parkland. It also would be great to add homes, since Ivy City doesn't exist in a vacuum and DC desperately needs more homes. We should always add homes and affordable homes in DC. But it's ok to not be a single-issue YIMBY.

Rendering of selected proposal. Image by Ivy City Partners.

Threads of this conversation played out during the June hearing in multiple exchanges with Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5) and witnesses. As one witness explained:

We have the second largest urban green space in the county… But if you look at how that green space is dispersed, unfortunately there are great disparities in terms of who has access to that. I totally understand where you’re coming from in terms of density and need the for development. But I think we need to think about how we distribute that development equitably and how do we create an array of green and public space that allows equitable access.

McDuffie agreed:

I absolutely agree that is is about the equitable distribution… We actually have lots of [green space]. We don’t own a lot of it, a lot of it is federal, but it is about who has access to that space and where it is.

We have a history of housing discrimination in this country and DC is no exception. When you look at where a lot of the black communities are situated, just look at a lot of the industrial land.

Though additional recreational spaces and parks have been built in Ward 5 over the years, McDuffie explained that because of the location of Ivy City and its transit challenges:

[kids] are cut off from those amenities and those investments that the city has made…You are absolutely right, it’s an issue of equity if there are communities that aren’t able to access our parks and recreational centers, and Ivy City has been cut off from a lot of that for a long time… We have had 22 consecutive balanced budgets with surplus after surplus. It is only fitting, it only right, it is only just, it is only equitable that communities across the city can enjoy the prosperity in a way that is equitable.

Rendering of the proposal crafted with the support of a group of community members. Their design prioritizes green space and recreational space. This proposal was ultimately not selected. Image by Stoiber + Associates.

As YIMBYs, our first choice when presented with a development opportunity is typically “build more homes and affordable homes.” That’s a great place to start, but here is a case study where YIMBYs might want to take a step back. Decades of inequitable development and investment patterns have put Ivy City in this situation where it really doesn’t have the same kind of access as, say, a neighborhood in Capitol Hill does, or in Spring Valley in upper northwest DC.

A goal among many YIMBYs is shining a light on these inequitable patterns, their consequences, and the forces behind them. Given that structural critique, to me it feels appropriate for YIMBYs to support a less-dense option given that the alternative is more green space for a community starved for it.

It’s part of our job as equity-conscious YIMBYs to take the “more housing conversation” to areas where that conversation never happens, and to point out specious green space arguments in areas where residents keep using that logic to push the pressures of growth onto other, typically less-well-off neighborhoods.

Is Ivy City's zoning the problem?

It's not unreasonable for Ivy City residents to want a lot of public space at the Crummell School. Theoretically, improving the public space is the main point of redeveloping this property, and it's not fair for Ivy City to receive less or lower-quality public space because the city is maximizing housing… because wealthy neighborhoods in Northwest won't accept their fair share of housing.

But why is this zero sum game? Why can't developers set aside a park as large as the one in the Community Redevelopment Team's proposal, and then build a taller building to also produce as much housing as the Ivy City Partners plan?

Right now the Crummell School is zoned PDR-1, the lowest density industrial zone in DC, allowing for 50-foot-tall buildings. PDR-2 zoning exists right next door, across Okie Street and allows 60-foot-tall buildings. PDR-3 zoning begins one block away across Fenwick Street, and allows 90-foot-tall buildings. Other zones across the city are even more flexible.

Is the parkland versus housing tension in Ivy City the result of bad zoning? If denser buildings were legalized, would developers offer the public space the community wants? And would the community accept the deal?

Right now, I don't know the answers to those questions. But I do know that we get the city we zone for, and that how to zone land is a choice our government makes, and that we can change it to produce different results if we want to. Maybe there's a reason taller buildings aren't practical here, or maybe none of the proposals here asked for a zoning change because of the typical backlash that comes from asking for taller buildings. If the community were now offered the choice of getting the public space they want in exchange for higher density zoning, I would be interested to see the reaction.

What's next for the Crummell School?

The hearing in June was to discuss the exact amount of land to be granted to the selected development team. No decision was made in that hearing, and the committee is continuing to review testimony.

The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED), the city agency managing the process, did testify that there will be continued community engagement with the community, but admitted at the hearing that it will be very difficult to significantly change the amount of public parkland in the design.

A final vote on the land disposition will need to go in front of the full DC Council in the fall. There is still time to make changes; June's hearing was about identifying potential ones. We'll have to wait to see the next iteration of the plans for the property.