When Should a Neighborhood Ask For More?
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.