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?"
"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.