Housing Complex

Will Potomac Gardens Ever Be Redeveloped?

One proposed design alternative for Potomac Gardens. (U Penn)

My column this week deals with the fence around Potomac Gardens, which doesn't seem to fit in an neighborhood where crime is nothing compared to what it was in the 1990s. But I didn't have space to go into the larger anachronism: The existence of a huge, solid block of concentrated poverty in the middle of a much higher-income area.

The vogue in public housing these days is mixed-income communities, and the District's properties are gradually being redeveloped in that vein. Over the last decade, the Arthur Capper, Stanton Dwellings, and Frederick Douglass complexes have been and replaced through HOPE VI funding, while Northwest One, Park Morton, Barry Farms, and Lincoln Heights/Richardson Dwellings are being redeveloped under the District's New Communities initiative. The Housing Authority just missed out on another HOPE VI grant for Highland Additions, but is hoping to land one in the next round of funding. Kenilworth is in the running for a federal Choice Neighborhoods grant, having already been designated a Promise Neighborhood.

Last year, students at the University of Pennsylvania's graduate school of city planning put together a report on Potomac Gardens and the nearby Hopkins complex, exploring how it might be funded either through a Choice Neighborhoods grant or other sources, like a Community Development Block Grant. They also drew up a couple of scenarios for redevelopment, one focused on integrating it seamlessly into the surrounding neighborhood, and another focused on creating high-quality public spaces.

The plans have a couple things in common: One, they involve complete demolition of the old buildings, which the authors decided were too far gone for effective rehabilitation. And two, they envision significantly higher density–going from 352 units to between 627 and 667 units–to accommodate higher-income residents while avoiding displacement. The lower density option would cost $154 million, and the higher-density option would cost $172 million.

What does the Housing Authority think about this? Something in between "we're exploring possibilities" and "it's never gonna happen." DCHA swiftly batted down the Marines' proposal to locate its new barracks facility at Potomac Gardens, saying that it was a good candidate for eventual redevelopment, and it's on a list of several sites for which director Adrienne Todman has requested reports on their funding prospects. But according to spokeswoman Dena Michaelson, "it's not quite ready to be geared up for a HOPE VI." And even if it were, the fundamental configuration of those 21 chunky buildings is unlikely to change. "It's not coming down," Michaelson says. "It's a strongly built development."

The "seamless integration" design proposal. (U Penn)

If they could at least get several hundred million dollars to upgrade building systems at Potomac Gardens–where some units are boarded up, and ground-floor spaces barred off–that would improve the lives of current residents. But eventually, that land should be put to better use, in a manner that allows everyone to return.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    The article about the fence is great - but tearing down the fence won't change the fundamental aspects of the structures themselves that are just as alienating as the fence is. The only way to truly fix the physical problems of the site is to tear it down.

    The additional density from redevelopment is an added bonus.

  • Brian

    I agree with Alex, tear it down!

  • WardQueen

    "mixed-income communities" is in theory a sound idea however the reality is not without challenges. Just ask the
    upper income folks saddled with huge mortgages on properties they can't give away in the drug, gang and violence wasteland that is 95% of Columbia Heights. Until you deal with the underlying issues you can only push the problems around so much until they congeal like a toxin laden puss pimple that eventually bursts and then you have ended up with Columbia Heights on a good day.

  • Hillman

    "But eventually, that land should be put to better use, in a manner that allows everyone to return."

    I agree with the first part.

    But why should there be a guarantee that every resident be guaranteed a return to that exact address?

    Our city has a massive budget deficit.

    A huge percentage of our budget goes to public housing and other social programs.

    Is our goal to use our limited resources to provide the most housing units and training programs and such as possible, or is our goal to artificially keep public housing residents in very expensive areas as a political symbol?

  • Rick Mange’s

    TEAR IT DOWN!!!!

  • Theresa

    There are people living there with their family,that don't
    commit crimes,its home to many families how dare you say tear it down.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    seamless integration proposal FTW!

    it stands out because it's so different from the surrounding neighborhood. making this a rowhouse-based development would be a good start to making sure that everyone actually feels like they're members of the same neighborhood.

  • Jason

    Tear it down. And forget about this 100% replacement nonsense.

  • FJ

    Tear it down.

  • mamawarner

    Public housing is concentrating POVERTY. Potomac Gardens should be torn down and replaced with mixed use housing. However, hopefuly the subsidized housing should be occupied by those that really want to be homeowners otherwise no matter where they live if they bring the same mentality to the new buildings nothing will change. All will suffer and the decent people that live there will want to leave. I don't have a problem with subsudized housing, but if the people getting subsidized housing still want to engage in their old habits pretty soon things will back to the usual, drugs, graffitti on buldings, crime and all the other things that come with people that dont' really care about their neigborhood or their community. I live in a block in SE on Southern Ave where several subsidized families live and it is a nightmare because they let the trash pile up, they refuse to clean up their yards and the property has a lot of litter thrown on the ground, they gamble , smoke drugs, drink alcohol and blast the music everyday and night. The GROWN "children" take over the house and bring in different women or men everyday and fight like cats and dogs. Why would anyone want to put up with that situation if they don't have to. Better skills and the desire to do better is what is needed and I'm afraid that no matter what you supply, give, or subsidize for people it is not going to make them appreciate it if they believe that EVERYBODY OWES them something.

  • CapitolHillResident


    Right now there is a status quo so to speak. Both parties are relatively unhappy. The "wealthy" Capitol Hill home owners are unhappy with the crime and the effects of the Potomac Gardens eyesore on their property values, and the Potomac Gardens residents are not happy that they have to perpetually rely on government assistance.

    Perhaps in this particular situation, a creative solution that offers a win win scenario for ALL involved would be best. This idea treads on a slippery slope in some regards, but it may be the only way to move through this minefield.

    I propose that the city (under partnership with a developer) offer residents of the Potomac Gardens complex a buyout offer for the units they currently live in, in return for their commitment to permanently move out of the complex. The offer would be put to a simple majority vote of the residents living at the complex. These former Potomac Garden residents would then be free to choose a better living situation that works for their individual circumstances (perhaps even home ownership).

    Since Potomac Gardens is comprised of 352 units, the total cost for buying out the Potomac Gardens residents would run in the millions.

    The city would buy the property from the current owner at a slight premium to market value. With the property now free for redevelopment and in the city's hands, the city would allow the developer to develop a large scale project as follows:

    1)Demolish the entire current complex of buildings and temporarily replace it with park space while redevelopment plans are formalized.
    2)Option to build one mixed use mega development project, OR sell off individual parcels of land
    3)Include park or other outdoor gathering spaces equal to 1/4th of the total ground floor square footage.
    4)Construct townhouses or retail that is consistent with capital hill architecture

    If there were any issues with redevelopment feasibility, the developer could be offered tax credits by the city.

    Everyone wins :)

  • Neighbor

    Tear it down! Please move to PG County.