Housing Complex

Judge Recognizes Homeless Defendant as Harvard Law Classmate

372px-Harvard_Law_School_shield.svgIt started like so many cases that come through the D.C. Superior Court. On a Saturday morning earlier this month, a homeless man appeared before a judge for an arraignment on charges of unlawful entry, bail violation, and failure to appear for a status hearing.

The defendant, Alfred Postell, appeared confused. When the court clerk informed him of his right to remain silent, he responded, "I'm a lawyer," according to the court transcript, to which the clerk replied, "Okay." A minute later came the following exchange:

THE DEPUTY CLERK: Okay, I need a Gerstein for the—both matters, unlawful entry and the Bail Reform Act.

MR. POSTELL: Drug.

THE DEPUTY CLERK: I didn't say drug. I said unlawful entry.

MR. POSTELL: I'm a lawyer.

THE DEPUTY CLERK: Okay.

(Pause.)

A court employee, who was not authorized to speak on the record and asked to remain anonymous, says in an email that while Postell was clearly not in a perfect mental state, something about him seemed different from other homeless defendants with mental illnesses:

Although this man is in serious mental decline, I noticed that there was something unusual about him. The tone of his voice is unlike our other intakes in that he is oddly professorial. Postell's answers are somewhat scrambled: to a question he might respond with something completely irrelevant:  “The food truck that came to the Law Firm had sandwiches, twinkies, hard boiled eggs, tuna fish. This was at 8th and M.” or the like. Even so, he has an especially articulate delivery.

Read more Judge Recognizes Homeless Defendant as Harvard Law Classmate

Morning Links

shawGeorgetown's West Heating Plant is officially not a historic landmark. [UrbanTurf]

The vote is a victory for the heating plant's owners. [WBJ]

The Fillmore School arts incubator comes courtesy of a well-heeled couple already active in Georgetown. [UrbanTurf]

Downtown traffic signals will get re-timed. [Post]

The new Park Chelsea building in Navy Yard has 523,000 bricks. [WBJ]

Two exhibits take on D.C.'s development boom. [DCist]

Today on the market: Truxton Circle rowhouse in need of serious rehab—$475,000

Judge Rejects $250 Million Price Tag for Embattled Section 8 Building

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A Section 8 building owner's ultimatum that low-income tenants come up with $250 million or face eviction violates the D.C. law requiring a "bona fide offer of sale" prior to tearing down a building, a judge has ruled.

Last June, the Williamsburg, Va.-based Bush Companies notified residents of the Museum Square Apartments at 401 K St. NW that Bush planned to tear down the aging apartment building. Under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, Bush was required to give the residents a chance to buy the property. It did so, but set the price at $250 million—a heavy lift for the 302 households at Museum Square, who are all low-income and mostly Chinese, many with a limited command of English.

Two members of the D.C. Council found that sum exorbitant and introduced legislation to limit the price that building owners can charge under TOPA. The tenants also thought it violated the law and filed suit in October. Bush responded by filing its own suit against the city for legislation drafted by then-Councilmember David Catania and then-Mayor Vince Gray that, Bush alleged, unfairly targeted the company.

Yesterday, the tenants scored a major victory in the case, as D.C. Superior Court Judge Stuart G. Nash issued a summary judgment in their favor. Bush (operating under the name of its affiliate for Museum Square, Parcel One Phase One Associates, L.L.P.), Nash found, had failed to demonstrate a reasonable basis for determining that $250 million constituted a bona fide offer of sale.

The term "bona fide" is not defined in D.C.'s housing law. In most TOPA cases, it's determined by the market: Before an owner sells a property, he or she must give the tenants a chance to buy it, with the price typically set by whatever a third party is willing to pay. But in the case of demolition, there's no market force determining a price, and so it's up to the owner to come up with a fair offer.

There isn't an exact legal precedent for defining "bona fide," but Bush, in its argument in this case, relied on the closest thing that exists. In 1999, the Phillips Collection bought an apartment building adjacent to its 21st Street NW museum for $1.4 million. Two years later, Phillips issued the tenants a notice to vacate so it could demolish the building and construct a Center for the Study and Appreciation of Modern Art. Accompanying the notice was a TOPA offer, setting the price of the building at $7.8 million. Phillips said that was the amount it would cost to find a comparably suitable building nearby for its art study center; the tenants countered that it wasn't a bona fide offer; and the matter went to court. The Superior Court and Court of Appeals both ruled in favor of Phillips, finding that the unique intended use of the property meant that Phillips shouldn't have to set the price at the existing market value of the apartment building.

But Nash determined that the specific circumstances of the Phillips case didn't apply more broadly to residential properties like Museum Square. (Bush intends to rebuild the property as 825 apartments and condos.) "The problem with Parcel One’s interpretation is that, if market value is removed as the basis for ascertaining whether an offer has been made in good faith, there is no readily identifiable alternative," he wrote in his ruling.

Because Nash was weighing the tenants' motion for a summary judgment—a ruling without going to trial—he had to find their case overwhelmingly persuasive in order to rule in their favor. And he did. In order to justify its $250 million offer, Bush relied on its calculations for the future value of the property, after redevelopment. Nash rejected that methodology, leaving Bush without a remaining argument in its favor and the tenants victorious.

"It is beyond dispute that the methodology adopted by the defendant was neither designed to, nor did, achieve a reasonable estimate of the property’s current market value," Nash wrote. "Accordingly, the Court finds that no reasonable fact finder would be able to return a verdict on behalf of the defendant."

Read more Judge Rejects $250 Million Price Tag for Embattled Section 8 Building

Withering Heights

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No one lives at Lincoln Heights.

It doesn’t appear that way at first glance. On a recent afternoon, there are plenty of people outside. A few children play in one of the courtyards formed by U-shaped triads of low-rise apartment buildings. Two women sit outside one of the apartments. 

But when I approach them and introduce myself, one quickly says she’s not a resident. The other one? Nope, she isn’t either.

Across the courtyard, a young woman fumbles with her keys to lock an apartment door as she wheels out a baby stroller with the other hand. She pushes the stroller into the small courtyard and walks around in circles, trying to coax the baby to sleep. Does she live at Lincoln Heights? She shakes her head.

I exit the courtyard and hike up a small hill to another row of garden apartments, where a woman is sitting outside in purple T-shirt advertising the 2014 Lincoln Heights pre-July 4 celebration. I tell her that I’m hoping to speak with Lincoln Heights residents.

“They’re not gonna talk to you,” she interrupts. “Not a single one of them is going to talk to you. They don’t trust you.”

Residents of the Lincoln Heights public-housing complex have ample reason to distrust outsiders who come through the neighborhood peddling stories. By this year, the city was supposed to have demolished all 440 dilapidated apartments and relocated the residents to new units under the signature New Communities program to replace distressed public housing with mixed-income communities. Instead, all 440 apartments remain intact, if barely, and just 32 families have received new housing. The rest remain in their aging apartments, where they complain of a host of maintenance issues, in a neighborhood plagued by crime, poor planning, and neglect. 

The stalled progress is not unique to Lincoln Heights. The other three New Communities projects have also reached a near-standstill, with missed deadlines piling up faster than bricks and mortar. At Northwest One, the initiative’s inaugural project located near NoMa, the city’s been unable to figure out how to build new housing, so a giant parking lot currently sits where low-income apartments once stood. Attempts to plot out with community members the redevelopment of Barry Farm, by the Anacostia Metro station, have nearly turned violent. At Park Morton, in Park View, the stagnation got so bad that last year the city canceled its contract with the project’s developers, the Linthicum, Md.-based Landex Corp. and District-based Warrenton Group, and effectively hit the reset button.

But Lincoln Heights has been arguably the hardest of them all. With the city having delivered on so few of its promises, residents who might have initially jumped at the prospect of upgraded housing have grown suspicious of interlopers coming to talk about New Communities. People like me. 

As it turns out, the woman I find at the top of the hill is exactly the right person to discuss New Communities’ shortcomings. A 35-year resident of Lincoln Heights, Patricia Malloy serves as the advisory neighborhood commissioner for the area and as the chair of the resident council for the Lincoln Heights New Communities project. She’s been involved in the effort since it began in 2006. But the excitement she had at the start of the project has turned to cynicism. 

“Talk to the damn Housing Authority,” she says, referring to the agency that runs D.C.’s public housing, including Lincoln Heights, and shares responsibility for the redevelopment with the mayor’s office. (Like her neighbors, Malloy is initially less than thrilled to discuss New Communities, although she grows more talkative with each successive opportunity to critique the New Communities process.) “They don’t want to redevelop this. They want us living like slaves.” Read more Withering Heights

Morning Links

bpStreetcar will run less frequently than initially planned, and won't be free for long. [Post]

Renderings of the Spy Museum at L'Enfant Plaza. [Architect]

Petworth's Sweet Mango Cafe is likely to be redeveloped. [Park View D.C.]

The Ivy City boom continues. [Post]

More on the planned Buchanan School redevelopment. [UrbanTurf]

Traffic-camera revenue continues to drop. [DCist]

This homeless man works in the U.S. Senate. [Post]

Georgetown's Fillmore School set to become an arts incubator. [DCist]

The Petworth housing boom continues. [UrbanTurf]

Today on the market: Brightwood Park semi-detached with a wrap-around porch—$575,000

Morning Links

downtownGet ready for the Union Market housing boom. [Washingtonian]

Old Town, Bethesda, Capitol Hill top list of most desired D.C.-area neighborhoods. [UrbanTurf]

Maketto is the beginning of a crowdfunded real-estate trend. [CityLab]

Photo tour: the bowels of McMillan. [DCist]

The First Street NE cycletrack expands. [WashCycle]

Ward 8 D.C. Council hopeful offends charter school. [LL]

Today on the market: Downtown 2BR condo—$639,000

Preservation Office: Spring Valley Parking Lot Isn’t a Historic Landmark

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When a developer submitted plans to erect a two-story building on a parking lot in Spring Valley, some neighbors objected. Their wariness of new development in their proverbial backyard wasn't unusual, but their reasoning was. The parking lot, they contended, was a historic landmark.

The construction of the surrounding complex, the Spring Valley Shopping Center, took place near the midway mark of the last century, at a time when auto-centric retail development was catching on across the country. The shopping center itself received landmark status in 1989, and neighbors tried to argue that the parking lot, ordinary though it looked, was likewise historic because it contributed to that development trend.

But so far, the city's historic preservation authorities are having none of it.

Because the shopping center has historic designation, any alterations have to secure the approval of the Historic Preservation Review Board, which will review the case on April 30. But before the HPRB hears a case, the Historic Preservation Office delivers a staff report recommending approval or denial, which typically guides the HPRB decision. The HPO's Steve Callcott delivered that report for the Spring Valley case yesterday. His conclusion: Losing a few parking spaces won't wreck the site's historic character.

An aerial view of the site from 1949, showing parking clustered in the center, rather than facing Massachusetts Avenue NW

An aerial view of the site from 1949, showing parking clustered in the center, rather than facing Massachusetts Avenue NW

"While the inner block parking has been visible from Massachusetts Avenue since the complex’s construction, it is arguable as to whether this is an important and intentional characteristic of the site that is worthy of preservation or merely an existing condition," he writes. "In the absence of documentation, evaluating an existing condition and ascribing to it a specific intent is problematic and open to interpretation."

Read more Preservation Office: Spring Valley Parking Lot Isn’t a Historic Landmark

Morning Links

rosedaleHistoric designation could disrupt redevelopment of Georgetown's West Heating Plant. [WBJ]

Borderstan returns! [ARLnow]

Why you shouldn't hold your breath for new Metro lines. [PlanItMetro]

Capitol Hill school slated to become residences. [Capitol Hill Corner]

More numbers show that the D.C. area's population growth is slowing. [Post]

For now, the D.C. metro area is the world's 77th largest. [GGW]

A video on researching your home's history at the Washingtoniana Collection. [The Home Story]

A critical take on the Barry Farm redevelopment. [MintPress News]

Tonight, learn about family homelessness from experts, a homeless resident, and ... me. [Street Sense]

Today on the market: Rosedale rowhouse/church—$399,998

Morning Links

gtownParsing D.C.'s latest affordable-housing law. [District Hopper]

Diversity in gentrifying neighborhoods: a social benefit or just window dressing? [CityLab]

Harriet Tregoning tackles national homelessness. [National Journal]

One-way streets are terrible. [Post]

America spends much more subsidizing homeowners than supporting affordable housing. [CityLab]

Crystal City stands to benefit from the 1776-Disruption merger. [WBJ]

A profile of Lucy, DC Water's newest tunnel-boring (and tweeting) machine. [Express]

Today on the market: 8BR Georgetown house—$9,500,000

NoMa Underpass to Become Never-Ending Rainstorm

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Over the past six months, representatives of NoMa have contemplated whether they should turn one of their neighborhood's grimy underpasses into a silent movie theater. Or a giant optical illusion. Or a sign-language classroom.

Finally, they've settled on their first answer: a never-ending rainstorm.

NoMa, you see, has a problem with parks. Which is to say, it doesn't really have any. The neighborhood was designed for offices, with little thought for the residential population that might someday inhabit it. But in recent years, the population has skyrocketed. When the Metro station opened in NoMa in 2004, and for several years after, the neighborhood had zero residences. Now there are more than 3,000 of them.

Courtesy of $50 million from the city, the NoMa Business Improvement District is trying to retrofit the neighborhood with attractive public spaces. Some of them will be traditional parks, like a small one north of New York Avenue NE and a plaza on L Street NE. But lacking spaces for a full slate of proper parks, the BID also has to be creative. So last year it launched a design competition to overhaul its four less-than-attractive underpasses below the railroad tracks. The BID is spending $2 million of its parks funding on the underpass transformation.

And the NoMa Parks Foundation has selected its first winner. The underpass on M Street NE will be redesigned by a team of Rhode Island-based Thurlow Small Architecture and the Dutch firm NIO, who pitched a concept called, simply, Rain.

The team actually proposed the idea for L Street NE, but the NoMa representatives opted to move it to M Street. The proposal is still in the conceptual design phase, but the idea is for LED lights inside hundreds of polycarbonate tubes to produce the effect of raining. As people move through the space, the rain will appear to move with them—a similar concept to the Rain Room that drew large crowds to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2013.

Read more NoMa Underpass to Become Never-Ending Rainstorm

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