The first time it rained hard after Carlton Richardson moved into Wheeler Creek Estates in December 2000, he noticed water in his basement and puddles around his house. He called Harkins Builders, which had constructed the complex. The builder did some work, even put in a retaining wall. Richardson didn't think the water would come back. After all, the house was brand-new, part of the District's second mixed-income development created by federal HOPE VI funds.
The water, however, returned. On closer inspection, Richardson discovered that there were no drains in the yards or between the houses. The downspouts on the sides of the homes emptied onto the ground next to the foundation.
Wheeler Creek Estates is a pioneering redevelopment project that replaced the decrepit and largely vacant Valley Green public-housing complex and Skytower Apartments. Contractors moved thousands of tons of soil to transform Valley Green's squat landscape into the rolling hills of a suburban subdivision. "We did everything it took not to make it look like Valley Green," says a housing-authority spokesperson. "We modified the topography and shape to best suit the new community."
There is no actual Wheeler Creek; residents chose the name because they thought it described their posher surroundings. But when it rains, there's plenty of water.
On a walk through the community, Richardson, president of the board of the Wheeler Creek Resident Association, can also point out several homes where 6 inches of soil are gone. Between the homes are gulleys and, in some cases, divots as deep as a foot. In a January survey, about a third of the 104 homeowners reported erosion, drainage, and grading problems in and around their homes.
For more than a year, residents took their complaints to Harkins Builders and Wheeler Creek's property manager, ART Management. ART is a subsidiary of A&R Development of Baltimore, one of the project's developers. A&R Development is also the developer for yet another HOPE VI project, to overhaul the East Capitol Dwellings in Ward 7.
ART and Harkins made repairs at Wheeler Creek, but many of them were not adequate, says Richardson. On a tour of the complex one warm winter day, he stops in front of a house on Wheeler Road, where a newly added pipe runs from the basement, spilling water into the front yard. The whole lawn is one muddy pool. "This front yard is supposed to be beautiful," says a man who gives his name as Mr. Dykes, calling out to Richardson from a first-floor window. "Look at it."
Those who live close to the bottoms of the community's many hills are the worst off. Along Valley Avenue, at the base of Wheeler Creek's steepest incline, mud covers the sidewalk. Down another sloping street, Cole Boulevard, resident Ella Shaw says Harkins workers last June applied sealant to her leaking basement wall. But even with the sealant, she can wring water from the insulation that covers the wall.
Wheeler Creek residents have met with A&R Development's president, Theo Rodgers, three times in the past several months on various issues. The result, they complain, has been pretty much the same: The drainage problems continue unabated.
Richardson and his neighbors also took their concerns to the D.C. Housing Authority. Even though the Wheeler Creek ribbon-cutting ceremony occurred back in October 2000, the housing authority still has responsibility for construction at the development through the end of the year, says agency HOPE VI coordinator Larry Dwyer. Despite meetings with housing-authority officials, Richardson says he hasn't been able to get any written assurances that the drainage problems will be fixed.
Richardson began calling the mayor's staff for help, too, but they eventually stopped taking his phone calls. "We're not getting any assistance from D.C. government," he says. "The developer won't help either."
Richardson adds: "And this is supposed to be a model for all the other HOPE VI communities."
Repairs, Dwyer insists, are forthcoming. The developer couldn't make repairs until now, he explains, because he had to wait for Dwyer to issue work orders, which he says he has recently done.
According to Dwyer, none of the problems residents have reported so far are "unexpected" or "out of the ordinary." The housing authority has studied the flow of rainwater runoff, he says, and the vast majority of it flows to the main sewers. He adds that he's met with the developers about addressing a handful of "individual" drainage problems.
But Dwyer says A&R is not to blame for the soggy yards and damp basements. The developer made sure that Wheeler Creek was built to specification, and the specs didn't include drains in yards or underground pipes by homes to draw water away from them.
Grading Wheeler Creek, Dwyer notes, posed a few more challenges than shaping your typical cul-de-sac. "It's a very difficult topography," he says. "If we missed a couple of places, we'll get it."
Wheeler Creek residents are skeptical. Shaw says that back in December, the builders told her they couldn't do anything until after the ground thaws, possibly in April. In the meantime, she's bracing for warmer temperatures and more water in her basement. "I'll wait to see 'til it's done," she says. CP