In the two decades he’s worked at Super Salvage, Sandy Wedding has done just about every job in the place. For most of that time, his tasks consisted of taking in scrap metal, weighing it, paying for it, sorting it, and shipping it out. Wedding and his co-workers did all this in the easy isolation of the scrapyard’s lot on Buzzard Point, that no-man’s land of industrial eyesores in Southwest, right where the Anacostia and Potomac rivers merge. Down there, no one bothered them and little ever changed.
That was before D.C.’s real estate boom.
Sometime around 2005, citywide trends sneaked up on Super Salvage. The yard suddenly became the target of visits by city inspectors looking for code violations. Tax assessments went up. Fees for renting city-owned property skyrocketed.
Wedding and his colleagues at Super Salvage concluded that the city wanted them out. That’s a common gentrification conspiracy theory—legions of citizens and businesses cited it as the real-estate bubble priced them out of their homes and offices. Yet in the case of Super Salvage, the notion has a strong resonance: Not only is the business planning to leave Buzzard Point, but the city’s priority focus on condos and other revenue generators means there isn’t anywhere else in the city for it to go.
The District has never been a gritty blue collar city. But back before the housing market heated up, there were pockets of the city where basic industrial needs were noisily met—neighborhoods like Buzzard Point and the New York Avenue corridor, crucial to the city’s building industry, hummed along, tucked out of sight.
Within Super Salvage’s gates, the scrapyard remains a hive of activity. Men in trucks filled with old pipes, sheet metal, and appliances drive through the gates and holler greetings to the yard’s employees, then sell their wares for cash. Some of the sellers are individuals who’ve combed the area’s streets for redeemable items; others are plumbers, mechanics, and demolition guys who show up every day to sell the detritus of their trades.
Used about as intensively as an acre of land can be, Super Salvage is covered with massive piles, some as tall as three stories, whose purpose makes sense only to the employees working on them. To anyone else, they’re an ugly jumble of bent wire, old rebar, and I-beams, fire hydrants, jagged metal sheets, household radiators, and used air-conditioning units. Towering over them are cranes with heads that duck and rise like dinosaurs, lifting and sorting. Every built structure in the place looks improvised.
Commodity prices were at record levels over the summer, and the amount of materials coming through the yard rose accordingly. Visits by scrap sellers rose to a record 180 per day. “When prices are high, D.C.’s streets are never cleaner,” quips one employee.
And although the real estate boom is what’s shoving Super Salvage out, it was kind in its way, too. When three buildings at 17th and H Streets NW were demolished recently, the old rebar and pipes and I-beams washed up at Super Salvage—cash in abeyance.
The business was established in 1952 by Bob Kaplan a hard worker who, as a teen during the Depression, picked up leftover coal from railroad beds and sold bones from the butcher to rendering plants. Super Salvage started as a paper recycler—Kaplan would pick up wastepaper from government offices on nearby Capitol Hill—then turned to rags, and finally metal.
Though it’s now largely employee-owned, Super Salvage is still a family business: Kaplan’s great-nephew, Stephen Middelthon, took over as president in 2002. A blond, mustached man with a relaxed air, he expects the employees to perform their jobs without too much guidance.
And they do. Workers are at ease and friendly; while the yard appears to be utterly chaotic, each employee knows his role in moving the scrap metal from its dropoff by customers to its eventual end in a foundry-bound truck.
It starts with Art Simon, a native American in braids who proudly describes himself as “the most honest person I know.” He works the scale, weighing customers’ trucks and assessing the value of the scrap metal they’ve brought in.
That metal—the big pieces, at least—is eventually sorted into one of the huge piles by Conrad Hooper, a crane operator. A Ward 8 native who’s been at Super Salvage for almost 20 years, Hooper will eventually shift the contents of various piles onto the shear, an enormous cutter that breaks big pieces of metal into manageable sizes. That’s done by Rex Newton, a wiry Marylander who was a commercial waterman until the jobs dried up. Now he commutes from Calvert County every day to sit in a tower overlooking the piles.
Smaller pieces are distributed into various heaps and boxes around the yard, as directed by the yard foreman, Celso Martinez. From Puerto Rico, he’s a bridge to the place’s Latino employees, who make up more than a third of the workers. Yellow brass, red brass, aluminum, and sheet copper all have a specific spot. When enough pieces are collected, they go into the baler and are crushed into a 3,000-pound block. And then it all gets sent away in big trucks—to Petersburg and Emporia and other points south, to be melted down and made into something new.
The brains of the operation reside in the office, a squat building at the southeast corner of the yard, where Middelthon and his associates keep the books, schmooze with big customers, and plan for the future. Bob Bullock, a septuagenarian with a shock of ivory hair and a penchant for passing out Wall Street Journal articles, mans the window, serving customers who come to collect their money.
If prompted, Wedding, Bullock, and Middelthon will all gripe that the city wants the scrapyard out of Buzzard Point. It started, Bullock says, with a 2005 zoning change that allowed for mixed residential and commercial development and prohibited new industrial uses. Super Salvage was grandfathered in, but the definition of the land’s “highest and best use” suddenly shifted—and so did tax assessments. The land’s assessed value went up from $800,000 in 2005 to $3.2 million currently and is expected to rise to $12 million next year.
Together with a number of property owners in Buzzard Point, Super Salvage is appealing the rising taxes, but it can’t appeal its public space fees. As defined by the Department of Transportation, public space is the land that lies between the curb and a business’ fence, and can be rented by businesses like Super Salvage that need extra space for equipment parking. But the fee hinges on the coming year’s assessment of the adjacent land—which means that what was once a $6,000 payment on a 6,000-square-foot parcel, stands to go to $90,000 or higher.
An official from the D.C. Department of Transportation confirmed that an increase of that magnitude for renting public space is possible.
“That’s another indication they don’t want us here,” says Bullock.
Middelthon adds that once construction on the new Nationals stadium was under way nearby, the city began to seriously enforce various codes. “We hadn’t seen fire inspectors or Department of Transportation people in 20 years, and suddenly we started getting harassed,” he says.
Although no citations were ultimately issued, city inspectors threatened to ticket the business for trash that customers left outside the gate in the evening, and Department of Transportation officials checked trucks for violations.
“DOT was out there every day,” says Wedding. “Just pulling trucks over, looking for anything and everything—things like taillights out, loads covered, licenses in order. Didn’t matter who it was.”
The Super Salvage folks are correct that the city doesn’t welcome industry in that part of Southwest anymore. A 2006 study by the Office of Planning on the availability of industrial land in the District pointed out that, while the area’s zoning allows for “the continuation of existing industrial uses, which are important economic assets to the city, during the extended period projected for redevelopment, development plans clearly do not welcome industrial uses in the Buzzard Point area.”
That evaluation didn’t come as a surprise to Buzzard Pointers. Even before the stadium went up, it was clear that change was coming to the area. Shortly after the area was rezoned, PEPCO—which has a substation and diesel tanks across the street from the scrapyard—sold two massive parking lots next door to Super Salvage to Akridge, one of D.C.’s biggest developers. The nine-acre plot is now being touted as a potential corporate campus, with water views for condos more than eight stories high.
“We feel this is going to be a very successful neighborhood,” says Mary Margaret Plumridge, Akridge’s spokesperson. “Fort McNair borders it on one side, and that gives a protected view to the west, a very impressive and unique view.”
That’s a notable leap for a neighborhood that was once one of the city’s key industrial areas. And things will change even more when PEPCO retires its Buzzard Point power plant in 2012.
Walking around the streets bordering the scrapyard, Middelthon reflects on the various changes to come. “You think they’ll let us stay here, then?” he asks, shaking his head. He figures things will keep getting worse, a lot worse, if Super Salvage tries to remain. “But what’re you gonna do? You can’t fight the city.”
According to Bruce Savage, a spokesman for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, the industry’s trade association, scrapyards frequently face discrimination. “That’s constantly one of the issues they confront, the desire to move ‘unsightly’ operations out—it’s one of those economic realities,” he says. “They’re seen as junkyards, and there’s a tendency to think that it’d be better if they were somewhere else.”
Middelthon’s biggest fear was that the city would issue eminent domain on the scrapyard, as it did with the properties around the stadium site. That could mean selling at the city’s price—which might not be full market value. And enough developers are trying to convince the scrapyard to sell that Middelthon figures Super Salvage can do things on its own terms and find a cheaper plot of land somewhere else in the city.
So in late 2005, Super Salvage sold an option on its land to Mark Ein, a Washington businessman who owns Kastle Systems, a security company. Ein reportedly paid about $16 million for the right to develop the land. Under the terms of the contract, Ein can exercise that right any time over the next nine years; in the meantime, Super Salvage can continue operating from its current space.
Ein is happy with the deal. “If you just look at a map of Washington and didn’t know the current uses, you’d say that point is one of the prime spots in Washington. It’s surrounded by water, right over the river from Virginia and Maryland, and close to downtown,” he says. “For me, the opportunity to own a piece of land down there was compelling.” Ein thinks the land might not be developed for some time but, with Washington’s supply of commercial property shrinking, Buzzard Point will eventually be a sure bet.
Meanwhile, Middelthon and the Super Salvage guys began looking around for a place to go. Staying in the District was key: As the city’s only scrapyard, Super Salvage is a natural destination for construction and demolition companies working on buildings downtown. Leaving the city would mean competing with other scrapyards in Virginia and Maryland and walking away from the business’ long history in the District.
“We figured we’d find something somewhere—we hoped the city would carve out a few acres for us,” says Middelthon.
Tom Murphy, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute and a former mayor of Pittsburgh, says most cities do offer regulatory or even monetary assistance to industrial companies in an effort to keep those jobs. “I think every city in America would like to maintain an industrial base; those are better-paying jobs,” he says. “Pittsburgh relocated its scrapyards. It’s not necessarily the highest and best use, but we’d help them.”
Relocation in D.C. looks to be more of a bootstraps affair. Starting in 2006, Super Salvage teamed with DC Rock, an asphalt recycling business located a couple blocks away, to find a new location. Dave Cantwell, a partner in DC Rock, had heard that the city was relocating industrial companies to an area called D.C. Village, at the very southern tip of the city. While there are other industrial areas in town, D.C. Village appeared to be the only place that had enough land to accommodate industry from elsewhere in the District. Cantwell pursued the lead.
“I proposed a couple ideas to the city, but they weren’t interested,” he says. “I kept pushing, saying, ‘Let us see a piece of property.’ But now we’ve kind of given up on them because they’ve been so cold and unresponsive to our needs.”
Bullock says that Super Salvage, through its own sources, also received word that D.C. Village wasn’t a possibility. He could have pushed the issue further but was discouraged when he heard that even some of the companies that had to move for the stadium hadn’t yet found a new location in the city.
Roubin and Janiero LLC, an asphalt company that had to leave its ballpark location, is one. In 2006, the city promised to help the company find a spot in D.C. Village; two years later, however, no lease has been signed and there’s no agreement on relocation assistance.
“We got $2 million worth of iron laying in the ground, rusting, at D.C. Village,” says co-owner Angel Roubin. “They’re pushing us in the back corner. The city’s not getting any revenue, so everybody’s losing.”
Sean Madigan, a spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, points out the constraints faced by the city in delineating industrial zones. “It boils down to economics,” he says. “Every city needs services, of course, but the amount of available land is shrinking. The District is only 61 square miles, so warehouse space gives way to office space, which pays much better.”
Of course, very little is paying all that great in the current financial crisis, and Super Salvage is no exception. Commodity prices have dropped considerably since the summer—and they will probably continue to go down. The current credit crunch means that fewer condos are being built, which means less demand for structural steel from the foundries that make it. And that, in turn, translates into lower demand for original materials like the ones Super Salvage provides.
But bad times, like good ones, can go both ways. Washington’s real estate market is slumping, too—so while Super Salvage may be worried about how much money the yard’s piles will bring in, it’s a little less anxious about having to leave Buzzard Point. With condos going vacant by the ballpark, it’s unlikely that new mixed-use buildings are going to be constructed in the neighborhood right away.
So the Super Salvage guys are sitting tight, continuing to accept scrap metal and waiting for gentrification’s next wave. “At some point, real estate like that is going to be developed,” says Ein, the future owner of Super Salvage’s land. “Cities all over the world ebb and flow—neighborhoods change over time. You do want to make sure that businesses like Super Salvage survive in the city, though. You want to find a place for them.”