15th and Penn SE after the demolition of the old KFC. Festive, with barbed wire by johnmcochran2012 used with permission.

Residents in the Hill East neighborhood are still in the dark about the future of 67 acres of ill-used land sandwiched nearby between Capitol Hill and the Anacostia River known as Reservation 13. The area is currently occupied by expanses of parking lots, abandoned buildings, and the now-shuttered DC General family shelter. The old RFK soccer stadium, the DC armory, and the DC Jail are also located nearby.

DC had grand plans to develop Hill East back in 2008, which some residents say the city has treated as a “dumping ground.” (Over the years it's hosted a contagious disease ward, pauper's cemetery, an asylum, and more.) When the economic downturn struck and funding dried up, the city drastically scaled back plans. Now two mixed-use buildings with housing and retail are going up on a pair of two-acre parcels north of Massachusetts Avenue SE, but there's little else planned.

Hill East neighborhood. Image created with Google Maps.

Last year DC Mayor Muriel Bowser pitched the entire area to Amazon for its second headquarters, sparking both anger that she didn't involve residents in the proposal, and also hope that something substantive might finally get built here. When the company decided to locate half of its HQ2 in Arlington and half in New York City, the possibility of using it as an catalyst for development also died.

This could all change again if District officials announce they will seek federal permission for a complex that could include a stadium at the RFK site to host the Washington football team, as some reporting suggests. Bowser has been working behind the scenes with Republicans on a deal to transform the sprawling grounds into a new 60,000+ seat football stadium—just the latest twist in the long Hill East/Reservation 13 saga.

Changes to Reservation 13 in the Draft Master Plan. Image by DC Government.

DC General is closed and Amazon isn't coming. Now what?

After 8-year-old Relisha Rudd disappeared from DC General in 2014, Bowser vowed to close the former hospital and replace it with smaller shelters in each of the city's wards. She promised this would mean safer accommodations for people experiencing homelessness.

DC General was a hospital, then a family shelter. It's now closed.

The DC General closure also opened Hill East and Reservation 13 up to development that would've almost certainly been in high demand had Amazon located its second headquarters there, as DC pitched in its HQ2 bid. Now the shelter is shuttered (though only two of the replacements are open), and ground was broken on the first phase of the mixed-use project in May 2018, two years behind schedule.

Hill East Phase I plans are for the F-1 and G-1 parcels of Reservation 13. They include 344 apartment units, 104 of them affordable. Of these, 52 are reserved for people making zero to 30% of the Area Median Income (AMI), and another 52 will be for those making 51 to 60% AMI.

Ground was broken on the project in April 2018, but the groundbreaking ceremony was canceled. Developer Chris Donatelli says he expects the project to be completed in two and a half years. Hill East project rendering by Donatelli Development.

As for subsequent phases though, things are still up in the air. When reached for comment about next steps, Chanda Washington, communications director at Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development (DMPED) wrote in an email, “The next step is for DMPED to do some additional feasibility analysis, engineering analysis and work with the community to implement the Council approved Master Plan. Given the size of the property, this will likely occur in phases, similar to the process currently being followed at St. Elizabeths.”

As much as Reservation 13's neighbors would like it, plans don’t seem to be coalescing. The Amazon announcement initially stoked anticipation, but since then, plans for future phases of Hill East seem to have again fallen off the radar.

Hill East, looking west toward the intersection of Pennsylvania and Potomac avenues. Image by johnmcochran2012 licensed under Creative Commons.

A new stadium could again change the dynamics of the project

When news broke on December 7 that Bowser was proposing a new football stadium for the RFK site, local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (ANCs) jumped into action and held a community meeting, Hill Rag reported. Ward 6 and 7 residents tried to get the Mayor’s office to go on the record with her position on a new stadium, but Bowser’s staff demurred, instead praising new sports fields slated to replace parking lots north of RFK.

Local ANC 6B10 Commissioner Denise Krepp was incensed that the Mayor’s representative refused to admit knowledge of letters showing Bowser requested Republicans' assistance to secure a longer hold on the RFK site for the District, reported both by the Post and WAMU. “Does the mayor think I’m an idiot?” Krepp asked after the meeting.

Hill East reflections by johnmcochran2012 used with permission.

Bowser's staff reiterated that there will be no other construction in Hill East until other aspects of the project proceed. Ketan Gada, Director of Hill East District Redevelopment for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED), said at the time that the agency is taking “a more wait and see approach” and that whatever happens “will adhere to the master plan … that was agreed upon in 2008.”

Building a new football stadium might seem like an odd priority in light of the situation at the nearby DC Jail, which is more than 40 years old. Criminal justice advocates have pushed for a new facility for some time, citing poor conditions including rats, sewage leaks, and high temperatures that came to light after a damning 2015 Washington Lawyers’ Committee report and the 2016 death of death of inmate Lester Irby.

Free bread in Hill East by johnmcochran2012 licensed under Creative Commons.

The city has approved funds for a new facility, but has yet to produce a concrete plan to build it. Bowser proposed rebuilding the jail as did her predecessor, Vincent Gray, who had originally suggested a $1.1 billion safety masterplan with a new corrections facility in Southwest.

Ultimately Gray's idea was scrapped, and now the city is searching for organizations that can collect feedback on the would-be redevelopment of the facility in its longstanding location.

Monday sunrise in Hill East by Jim Havard used with permission.

So what's next for Hill East? No one knows.

The RFK stadium, which hosted its last professional soccer game in October 2017, is now covered in peeling paint. The jail is poorly-ventilated, not to mention an eyesore. Housing is lacking, and many residents are frustrated that the District hasn't followed through on promises of connecting the surrounding area to the waterfront and the Anacostia neighborhood, and to build more affordable housing and other badly-needed amenities.

Barren parking lots in Reservation 13 on Independence Ave SE.

Improving communication could begin to restore some trust and goodwill. Until then, neighborhood advocates are wary; the Amazon bid didn't help matters. Before the recent controversial RFK stadium negotions came to light, some Hill East residents were furious that city officials included their neighborhood in the city's HQ2 bid without telling them beforehand, even when prodded for information.

Until the city is more forthcoming about what exactly it has planned and when, Hill East residents likely won't know what's planned for their own backyards, and the large tracts of cracked parking lot will remain between them and their neighbors across the Anacostia River.

This article is part of Greater Greater Washington’s Urbanist Journalism Fellowship program, which is made possible through a collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project.