Housing Complex

The Battle Over St. Martin’s Convent: Why Preservation Doesn’t Always Stop Development

Project superintendent Michael Blalock, building mover Gabriel Matyiko, and architect Milan Mehta at the St. Martin's Convent site.

Eckingtonians tried to thwart development by saving a historic building.

They succeeded only half-way.

For 85 years, St. Martin's Convent has sat atop a hill in Eckington, overlooking thousands of rooftops, turrets, and trees all the way down to the Washington Monument. It's an impressive view, maybe too nice for what had become housing for a few indigent men.

So the convent is moving, about 200 feet to the east, to T Street and Summit Place NE, where it will become part of a new 178-unit apartment complex-a project that has divided the community and caused a few people to up and leave.

St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church, which is located roughly two blocks away, at the corner of T and North Capitol Streets, owns the land and built the convent in 1923. At first, the place housed what you'd expect: nuns.

In 1990, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington began providing housing for women, most with addiction problems, and their children. In the last few years, Catholic Charities D.C. housed men there-17 at most-who "came through shelter and transitional housing system," says Chapman Todd, director for housing development at Catholic Charities. The last tenant moved out late last year.

In 2003, Catholic Charities and St. Martin's Church began brainstorming ways to put their parcel of land to better use, says Todd. They settled on a project that would create more revenue and still serve the nonwealthy of D.C.: an apartment complex with 184 units, including 50 for people making 30 percent or less of the median area income (or up to $20,650 for individuals and up to $34,200 for families), and 134 units for those making around 60 percent of the median income (or up to $41,340 for individuals and $68,460 for families). The total number of units was later cut by six.

But when a group of Eckington residents found out about the project, they organized to stop what they felt would be high-density development and a new infusion of low-income residents in their neighborhood. Steve Rynecki recalls how it started. In mid 2005, he and others in the neighborhood read a notice about the St. Martin's project on the Eckington Listserv. The announcement painted the development as a "done deal," at a time when few were aware of any plans, Rynecki says.

E-mails eventually led to about 25 locals forming "Eckington Citizens for Responsible Development," which Rynecki describes as a "mix of races and income groups" from around the neighborhood.

The group's main complaint was about height-its members didn't like plans for a five-story complex surrounded by a neighborhood defined mostly by its two-story row houses. The residents liked St. Martin's hill just the way it was-uncluttered and grassy, with the convent about the only structure blocking sweeping views for the attached homes directly behind it.

Most important, the Eckington citizens didn't buy claims the apartments were going to be mixed-income, Rynecki says. They also felt demonized by some longtime residents and by the Catholic Charities development team as hoity-toity gentrifiers who only welcomed the kind of growth that raised property values.

In September 2006, a development consultant for Catholic Charities held a meeting with a local civic association where, among other agenda items, he talked about income requirements for residents of St. Martin's Apartments. After the meeting, one Eckingtonian posted this note on ANC commissioner Kris Hammond's blog:

"When we hear 'Police, Firemen and Teachers' and we find their salary ranges are just above income restrictions, it does not build trust. When we hear about 'some folks' who want luxury condos yet we can't find any of these supposed people, it does not build trust."

At a pivotal point in the battle, the Eckington group stepped up its efforts by getting in touch with the D.C. Preservation League. The hope was that the league could protect the convent from demolition and force the developer to change plans.

Rynecki says the members of his group never believed the strategy would completely block construction-they hoped it would simply shrink the project, keep the hill, and maybe switch the plans to favor row houses over a multi-floored complex. But the planners found a way around the tactic: moving the convent, at a cost of about $1.5 million.

By shifting the convent to a less central spot and incorporating it into the plans, developers could keep both the historic building and the density.

With that plan in place, more people began coming forward in favor of the project. At a zoning commission meeting in 2007, more than 20 people signed up to testify in support of St. Martin's Apartments; three people testified against the project.

One of the more stirring comments came from Frank Braxton, then 92 years old and an Eckington resident since 1952. Braxton, according to a transcript, talked about moving to Eckington while "crosses burned" and "there was a mass exodus from the city." He viewed some of his new neighbors as people who couldn't afford homes in Georgetown, Upper Northwest, and Southwest, and settled in his neighborhood for its relative affordability.

About the people against more low-income housing he asked: "Would they have been with the people who at one time marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, would they have burned crosses-what would have happened if some of these people in opposition had been present at that particular time?"

Toward the end of the hearing, ANC commissioner Hammond spoke about going door to door during his election campaign and asking people about the St. Martin's project.

"One third were against, about one third were for it, and about one third did not have enough information. So, it was pretty evenly divided, and I'm hoping that you would not be emotionally swayed by the number of proponent witnesses," he stated.

Ultimately, the development passed. The fight was over. Construction began on Nov. 1 and the complex is slated for completion in roughly two years.

Soon after the project got the green light, several people from the Eckington Citizens for Responsible Development moved. According to Rynecki, they felt "defeated." One member bought a house farther away from the St. Martin's project but remains in the area. Two couples left the neighborhood. Rynecki doesn't know where they live now. "I didn't forge any deep personal relations," he says.

Rynecki, who lives his wife, his 7-month-old daughter, and his wife's mother and sister, remains in at his house on Quincy Place, on the other side of McKinley Technology High School's fields. "[The project] doesn't even directly impact me," he says. "I felt like it was my duty to get involved with issue. This is not truth in advertising."

ANC commissioner Mary Farmer-Allen, whose district includes the St. Martin's convent, is among those who do not feel so victimized. She says she was aware of some early anxieties about traffic around the new development, but a traffic study ensures, at least to her, there will be enough parking to accommodate the new residents. A "handful" of her constituents remain unmoved, she says, but most support the project.

"At the rate we are going, no one will be able to afford housing in the neighborhood," says Farmer-Allen. "If a child goes to college and comes out making $50,000, she couldn't afford to live here. So my thing was: How can we make this affordable to my grandchildren?"

Top photo by Darrow Montgomery. Other photos by Ruth Samuelson.

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  • Stephen White

    I am one of the residents you mentioned who, along with my wife, moved out of Eckington solely because of this project. We lived just one block from the proposed site.
    Although I and the other members of ECRD (Eckington Citizens for Responsible Development) strongly agreed with the desire for affordable housing and were committed to ensuring a place for the homeless men then living at the convent, we pled with St Martin's Catholic church and Catholic Community Services to consider building a truly mixed-income building along the lines proposed by former DC Mayor Anthony Williams and supported by Hope VI/Victory Housing. A number of my friends in opposition to St Martin's Apartments are professionals in the affordable housing sector who argued that warehousing the poor is not an effective tool in combatting chronic poverty. One only has to witness the demise of Sursum Corda and Temple Courts here in Washington to see the proof of that assertion. Furthermore, the strategy implemented by the proponents of this project was suspect from the beginning, since residents living just 100 feet from the site were completely unaware of the development after the church had voted on it and declared it virtually a done deal. It was also disheartening to be villified locally and in the press as merely a white upper-crust opposition when in fact ECRD was extremely diverse in terms of income ranges, family situations and ethnicities. While I wish the church and Catholic Charities only the best in this effort, the manner in which this development was created, marketed, and achieved leaves a decidedly bitter taste in the mouths of those who would, and will be, mostly greatly impacted by it.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    I think the headline mischaracterizes preservation somewhat ("Why Preservation Doesn’t Always Stop Development").

    I can't speak for all preservationists, but what motivates me wrt historic nominations is not stopping development, but providing another level of review, and mandated citizen involvement. Granted, this sometimes changes development, but doesn't stop it.

    I wasn't involved in this particular matter, but I did suggest to people involved way back when to contact DCPL.

    There were many issues involved here, at least three: (1) preserving the convent; (2) new construction on the site; (3) what type of "program" was going to be provided on the site.

    My own interest was saving the building. By moving it, it was saved. Am I against intensification of land use in places where it can be intensified without demolition of historic housing? No. Not all preservationists agree with allowing moving of buildings. For me it depends, when you have to balance a variety of conflicting objectives, I think it's far better to move a building than to demolish it.

    WRT the "program" for the site (this is an architectural term about the use for the buildings on the site), in this case providing 100% affordable housing, I can understand why Eckingtonians were concerned. They live near "Northwest One" and are fully familiar with the problems of living by people in persistent poverty (Sursum Corda, Temple Courts, etc.). I used to live in the H Street area, and used to bicycle down K Street myself and was assaulted a number of times... to the point where I just avoided the area altogether. So I understand their concerns, based on real experience, not platitudes.

    Now, are people really against affordable housing? I don't think so, the question is really one of management of the property (some companies do a good job like McCormack Baron Salazar or Wm. C. Smith Companies).

    But the reason that HUD has moved to support mixed income developments is because experience has shown that concentrating poverty in assisted housing to the tune of 100% of the households doesn't work on many levels. In other words it's not sustainable and doesn't work to assist people out of poverty.

    That's an issue preservation can't deal with, and only time will tell if Catholic Charities is successful in managing the project once it's open.

    As far as "preservation stopping development" goes, I suppose one issue where this comes up is in working to to save buildings from demolition. That doesn't stop development (and that isn't necessarily the intent), but it can change it, significantly. For example, a landmarking of the Uline Arena makes it difficult to demolish, but doesn't preserve "use," just the building, so there is nothing that prevents the developer from development, but it does/may require a change in the program.

    That being said, I like your column and think it's an important addition to the paper.

  • Joe Lilavois

    My wife and I are also former residents of Eckington who moved away. I cannot say that it was solely due to the massive structure proposed across the one lane street from our home, but it certainly was a factor.

    I think Steve Rynecki and Steven White were very accurate in their descriptions of our situation. It was very disheartening when a church you once had respected would ignore community concerns and instead try to frame objections as divisively as possible. Father Kelly’s Washington Post quote “The opposition is being led by new whites who think they can take control of the neighborhood” made that quite clear. As a mixed race individual who grew up in affordable housing in NYC; that was unfair and disrespectful of the greater community and I was surprised that came out of his mouth in any context.

    As former president of the ECRD my biggest regret in loosing the battle is the consequences my Eckington neighbors are likely to experience. Of the 111 homes within a mere 200 feet from the complex (a legally designated area of concern for the zoning board) 80 homes signed petitions against the project in its current form. That was quite a majority. But the Catholic Church and the city will do what it wants despite the feelings of those mostly affected. In this era of downwardly spiraling home prices, you would think that there would be plenty of existing structures to be converted into affordable housing, but there is no profit in that.

    As for the college grad that comes out making $50,000 they would be earning far too much to be allowed to live at St. Martin’s since it is not a mixed-income complex.

    As for the convent, I am glad that they are forced to keep it preserved but after past dealings with them I don’t trust that the will not “accidently” break it.

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  • Ruth Samuelson

    This was sent to me and a few City Paper editors in December:

    The extreme portions of the St. Martin's Housing Project aside--not to mention its complete lack of parking (parking in the area is already drying up)--the biggest issue with the project from the residents was that St. Martins can in no way guarantee who is going to actually live there. In fact, I remember one official from the project even saying that although on paper the project will have allotments for certain incomes, they could not "turn away" people with section 8 housing vouchers applying for any of the units. And of course there was no plan whatsoever to find people who fit into the 'planned' income allotments. Given the state of such high density projects around the city, who could blame some residents for not feeling on edge even though they just invested their life savings in the neighborhood?

    But what this episode really highlighted for me was the 'reverse racism' that exists in the city of Washington. Basically if you had any issues with the development you are a racist, and--according to residents such as Mr. Braxton--are the equivalent to a modern day cross burner. I find comments like that pretty amazing given that the opponents of the project (who merely wanted it scaled down to suit the neighborhood) are people chose to move into a neighborhood that is 90% black. (And of course, the meetings of citizens concerned with the project were actually completely mixed). But as you can see, the proponents of the project used the equivalent of modern day McCarthyism--allegations of racism--to scare everyone away from testifying. And henceforth, I sign this letter...

    -ANONYMOUS

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw42XZJyFNc Michael Blalock

    Youtube video of the convent.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw42XZJyFNc

  • Michael Blalock

    Move #1

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