Housing Complex

When Should a Neighborhood Ask For More?

Rendering by Bonstra Haresign

Adding to the cascade of projects coming off the shelf, the H Street Community Development Corporation is finally trying again to build on a giant triangular lot it's owned at 4th and Rhode Island Avenue NE since 2004. The current proposal is six stories and 155 small units, all of them priced affordably for people making between 40 and 60 percent of area median income—not a bad little project, at first glance.

The Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the area, Marshall Phillips—a guy who misses no opportunities to emphasize how long he's lived in the area—couldn't have been more supportive when he introduced the project at last night's 5C meeting. After 14 years of vacancy, his constituents just wanted somebody to build something already. "We're hoping that it will enlighten development," Phillips said. "We've suffered long enough."

It wasn't good enough, however, for some of the more recent arrivals. They emphasized the new apartments and retail at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station, and the brand-new luxury condos across the street, where 10 contracts have been signed since the 24-unit building went on the market in late February. They were disappointed that the plan only includes 3,000 square feet of retail, which makes it a sad excuse for "mixed use," and pointed out that restricting it to low-income renters won't better the neighborhood's chances of attracting a better grocery store than Save-a-Lot. (I'd also add that the design doesn't seem to be Bonstra Haresign's best work).

Most of those arguments came from Commissioner Tim Clark, who represents the area across the street. In response, Phillips said that he simply doesn't understand the concerns of residents on the side of Rhode Island where the lot is located.

It does seem crazy, for someone who's seen a development stall and fail and stall again, to put any roadblocks in the path of new housing. And this deal is far from done: H Street CDC's Ken Brewer says that he and his development partner haven't even started to put together the $35 million they need to build it.

But the folks who moved to a place banking on its future improvement, the ones who are all too cognizant of the real estate boom occurring all over the city, think they can ask for something better without torpedoing completely. ANCs on H Street NE have taken particular pride in demanding better architecture and more amenities in projects that come before them, figuring that their neighborhood is desirable enough for developers to jump through some hoops to build there. Is that realistic for Eckington?

Maybe. It's true that investment has been flowing east along Rhode Island Avenue, rents have steadily been creeping upwards, and a resident group has been making a lot of noise about improving the corridor. That site may well be able to attract private interest along the lines of what happened at the Mint condos across the street—which just isn't what the H Street CDC does. On the other hand, there are still eligible pieces of land nearby, and they might stand a better chance of being redeveloped when there are more young people and empty nesters running around.

The ironic thing is that back in the glory days of 2006, this development was approved as something more ambitious: Although it still only had 3,000 square feet of retail, it would have been a nine-story building with 170 units larger on the whole than the ones currently planned, and only a minimum of 20 percent affordable. So at one point, Brewer had enough confidence in the future of the area to develop market rate apartments. Since then, apparently, he found that the soil conditions preclude building below-grade parking spaces, which does limit the size of the building (they're currently hoping to build 40 spaces on the ground level).

It's good for a neighborhood to get in the habit of asking for better design and more retail, since residents often have a better idea of the buying power of a community than outfits like H Street CDC does. They just need to be careful to allow the kind of density that would support that retail—if they demand something "in keeping with the neighborhood" of single family homes, it'll likely never happen.

  • Mrs. D

    I don't get where being concerned over lacking retail space and an all-affordable model works out to "demanding all single-family housing." No one demanded that of Mint, and it doesn't sound like they're headed that direction here. Many people on the neighborhood blog have rattled the cage for large, mixed-use development all over this site (this parcel plus the Foreman Mills Plaza and other nearby parcels). We get it. Build big along RIA. Bring in the residential density to support robust mixed-use developments, with retail we can all enjoy. Just don't sell us short.

  • RT

    I just don't understand how the H Street CDC is developing something completely unrelated to H Street. I think the days of the CDCs in general is over- they don't warrant the types of handouts and subsidies theu receive. But for them to not even be focusing on their primary mission area? Something doesn't smell right...

  • 20002ist

    H St. CDC benefit H St.? You must be new around here. For as long as anyone can remember, HSCDC has been worse than useless. Consider, for example, this WCP piece from 15 years ago: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/articles/13084/h-street-cdc-power-grab/

  • RS

    As a resident who owns a house directly across from where this project is proposed to be be built, I am very much against it. H street development corp is selling our neighborhood short. I am 100% x 100 pro development, but not at the cost of "just getting anything we can", as Marshall Phillips has seemed to subscribe to. This neighborhood needs development that is going to spur more development and make the neighborhood more desirable. This project as it currently stands just doesn't meet the standard we as members of this community need or deserve. We CAN do better.

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  • YesWeCan

    @RS,

    fyi, you don't speak for the entire community and, having affordable unit built doesn't lessen the so-called "desirability" of the community.

    SHAME ON YOU newcomer to our community!

  • Mrs. D

    So, Yes, we should just sit down and shut up about a 100% affordable building, with very, very, very tiny, tiny, tiny retail being built on what should be one of the most desirable stretches of our main street? Um, no. RIA, especially as close to the Metro as this is, should be host to our "showcase

  • Mrs. D

    Erg... "showcase" buildings. Not that there's no room for affordable housing. We have lots of vacant space, and built right, plenty of space for lots of affordable housing. But a building with lots of tiny, affordable units with next-to-no retail right on top of a Metro? Pass, bring on something better.

  • JC @ RIA

    1 yr or 100 years -- all property owners have the right to voice their concerns. They are all as invested in the area's improvement as those who've been there for 20 years. It's preposterous to think otherwise.

    The proposed building is not only wrong for the site; it is plain UGLY and does not fit into the area at all! Edgewood deserves so much more and should not settle for this project as designed.

    Let's not forget that, due to the lack of parking in the project as proposal, it could dump another 115 cars into the surrounding community. The Edgewood neighborhood cannot support that as it is already at near capacity.

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