The Bridge at 2442 MLK Jr. Ave is a planned 200,000-square-foot transit-oriented development that will sit just around the corner from the Anacostia Metro stop. Image by MRP Realty used with permission.

This article is part of a limited series exploring the history, current policies, and initiatives to create equitable transit-oriented development in the region. The complete series is available here. And then learn more by tuning into the series’ companion webinar, moderated by George Kevin Jordan, GGWash’s editor-in-chief.

Over the past 30 years, rental apartments and condos conveniently located near transit hubs, shops, jobs, and leisure activities — also known as transit-oriented development — have proliferated in DC and throughout the region. The environmental and human health benefits of TOD are well documented, but many longtime residents in DC feel this housing is built for the city’s growing class of new, wealthier inhabitants, say local housing advocates and experts.

As development mushroomed mostly west of the Anacostia River in recent decades, low-income and Black residents were priced out of these economic hot spots at some of the highest rates in the country. An Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity survey shows the most intense demographic and economic change from 2000-2016 occurred in Ward 6 and parts of downtown. While much of DC’s new development prioritized transit access, to the east there’s little TOD to be found.

“I feel like, unfortunately, those types of units are not affordable for a lot of the residents who were born and raised in the city,” said Rufaro Jenkins, former president of the Tenant Association for Parkway Overlook, a Congress Heights apartment complex with affordable units. Tenants there fought for a decade to get the building redeveloped in a way that would allow them to stay.

Percentage of residents who describe themselves as Black.* Image
by David Ramos for Greater Greater Washington.

By the time the DC government made a deal in 2018 to preserve Parkway’s 220 affordable rental units, Jenkins had already purchased a house in the area. The renovated housing was nonetheless a victory for former tenants who were able to move back in, including two of Jenkins’ adult children.

Although Parkway serves a pressing need, the property only contains residential units and isn’t close to a Metro station. As such, it lacks the conditions that Priya Jayachandran, CEO of the National Housing Trust (NHT), said make a community come to life.

“When you have transportation nodes like a Metro stop bringing that full panoply of resources that people need in their lives — jobs, healthy foods, transportation, and potentially entertainment — all within walking distance, [you have] the hallmarks of healthy, vibrant communities,” said Jayachandran, who has worked for the past six years with another group of Congress Heights residents to bring a TOD project to the corner of Alabama Avenue and 13th Street SE.

Besides Park 7 — a massive mixed-use property near the Minnesota Avenue Metro station with 377 mostly affordable rental units, retail, and lots of controversy — the half-dozen people interviewed for this article were hard-pressed to think of existing transit-oriented development in wards 7 and 8. That’s about to change.

Building footprints and number of housing units in each census tract.* Image by David Ramos for Greater Greater Washington. 

TOD projects coming east of the Anacostia River

Nearly a decade after Park 7 was completed, plans for TOD projects east of the Anacostia River are gaining steam. Fed up with rodents, mold, and unsafe living conditions, the mostly elderly tenants of a rent-controlled apartment complex next to the Congress Heights Metro station fought to redevelop their homes while keeping them affordable, and in January 2022 they won their suit. Besides housing, the Congress Heights Metro station project also includes new shops and offices.

Standard Real Estate Investments acquired the two-acre site and its seven properties. The firm is partnering with developer Trammell Crow Company and NHT Communities, the nonprofit development arm of NHT, to build 179 residential units catered to households earning between 30% and 80% of the area median income.

The Congress Heights Metro station project is part of WMATA’s recently released 10-year strategic plan for TOD projects throughout the region. Guided by this document, the DC government aims to build a portfolio of new transit-oriented developments.

There are two other housing projects planned steps from the Congress Heights station, under the DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED): the multiphase St. Elizabeths East redevelopment on a 183-acre lot, which will eventually contain housing, shops, educational and community space, and the Malcolm X redevelopment, which aims to transform a 45,000 square-foot parcel of land on a former elementary school campus into housing for educators, among others.

Rendering of St. Elizabeths East development. Image by DMPED.

The Bridge, a project from MRP Realty in collaboration with the Bethlehem Baptist Church, will be a 3-minute walk to the Anacostia Metro station and include 11,000 square feet of retail, 118 mixed-income units, and a community center. The apartments will be for households earning up to 50% of AMI, except six permanent supportive housing (PSH) units for households earning up to 30% of AMI, according to reporting from Urban Turf. Gragg Cardona Partners, Foundation Housing, and Carding Group are planning to build the Residences at Benning Road, near the eponymous Metro Station, with commercial spaces as well as affordable assisted living units.

Barriers to TOD in wards 7 and 8

As a handful of TOD projects crop up across the Anacostia River, there are still barriers to creating the kind of growth that has proliferated west of the Anacostia in neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, NoMa, and Navy Yard for years–and ensuring those benefits are equitably distributed. Creating TOD projects with all of their defined components — in walking distance of a transit station and the inclusive of both residential and commercial spaces — can be challenging.

“When you are adjacent to transit, you’ve got shared systems, shared ownership, agreements to navigate with the District and the federal government, [and] cost overruns [when] having to redesign,” Jayachandran explains. “The development is just a lot more complicated.”

Building TOD east of the Anacostia — in communities that have experienced decades of disinvestment from government agencies and private entities, often rooted in racial biases and systematic discrimination — comes with additional unique barriers.

For WMATA, which has the potential to build 26,000 new housing units through TOD projects planned throughout the region, the issue is inventory. According to Steven Segerlin, the director of real estate development at Metro, the agency does not own much land in the District and its only east of the river stations with enough land to develop are Congress Heights, Anacostia, and Deanwood.

Therefore, of 11 projects under contract in Metro’s new strategic plan, only one of them — the Congress Heights mixed-use development — is located east of the Anacostia. And while the projects near Anacostia and Deanwood stations are referenced in the plan, they are classified in groups of developments that could either take at least 10 years to be under contract, have site constraints, or require additional coordination.

Rendering of the transit-oriented development in Congress Heights. Image by WMATA.

Another issue when it comes to developing mixed-use properties that are affordable to low- and moderate-income households can be financing. According to a DMPED spokesperson, lenders may require a high percentage of signed lease agreements before funding, and there are additional challenges.

“Unlike other parts of the city, mixed-use TOD developments east of the Anacostia River often need more subsidy for both the residential and the retail components since market-rate residential rents typically aren’t high enough to support market-rate/mixed-income residential development,” said a DMPED spokesperson via email.

Beyond Housing Production Trust Fund resources, DC agencies are tackling the issue by providing gap financing for projects that attract private investment to underserved communities, prioritizing projects close to transit and other amenities, and “leveraging the District leasing power,” according to DMPED.

In some cases, barriers to TOD are more literal. Last year DDOT opened a pedestrian bridge for residents of the Parkside development to reach the Minnesota Avenue station. While developers label Parkside as TOD, it’s worth noting that to access the Metro stop, members of the growing community around Parkside must cross over the Anacostia Freeway, which continues to divide the area and kick off noise and pollution.

“If you can fly, it could be great. But [in reality], connectivity and the ability for people, regardless of their mode of transportation, to have direct access and efficient access to that location is critical. It’s fundamental to how we understand what it means for something to be genuinely accessible,” said Melissa Bondi, the state and local policy director at Enterprise Community Partners’ Mid-Atlantic office.

The new Parkside Pedestrian Bridge opened in January 2022. Image by T.Y. Lin International used with permission.

Challenges to building meaningful TOD can be diverse. Sometimes, the harm comes from planning projects without considering residents’ needs. Bondi has seen cases in which “a highway is bifurcating half of a neighborhood from accessing that grocery store and they can’t get to it… as if anybody should have a monopoly on people’s access to food.”

Since food is a basic human need, some argue that building around food access can yield similar benefits to TOD, or work in tandem with that framework. While it seems like a no-brainer to build grocery stores in food deserts and near housing, Bondi has seen major grocery chains block competing stores from opening within a certain radius of their facility — consider Safeway’s efforts to monopolize the Ward 7 grocery market.

In other cases, it can be difficult to convince developers and property managers to build something residents want, when they “could be nervous about how much money they could get,” said Bondi. Typically, investors plan for the amenities they think will generate the most profit.

“Is [a grocery store] the highest and best return on their investment compared to other commercial [options] they could put in that same space?” Bondi said. “So we have this conflict over what are we maximizing — the profit on the building or the value and benefit of the building? Because a really well patronized, small grocer could be a huge asset for everyone, including the building.”

On October 12, 2022, GGWash hosted a webinar, moderated by George Kevin Jordan, GGWash’s editor-in-chief, based on this story series. Watch the recording to learn more about the topics raised in this article.

As more TOD projects advance in communities east of the Anacostia, residents will likely be forced to advocate for the designs and amenities that best serve their needs. Still, Bondi remains optimistic. “We work really hard to persuade [developers] that it’s worth their perceived risk.”

*Housing and demographic data from Census ACS 2020 5-year estimates. Walksheds from WMATA.

This article is part of a limited series exploring equitable transit-oriented development, made possible with a grant from Amazon. Greater Greater Washington’s editorial department maintains editorial control and independence in accordance with our editorial policy. Our journalists follow the ethics guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Christina Sturdivant Sani is a proud DC native whose work has exposed disparities and injustices that permeate under-resourced communities. She finds joy in highlighting creative solutions in this rapidly changing city. As a coffee shop connoisseur, she has a list of more than 60 cafes that she's visited in the District. If you see her at your local shop, story ideas are welcome!