The support crew had already removed the red carpet, so Mayor Vince Gray trod gingerly across the ice, from the Olympia ice resurfacer he’d been driving to the festive crowd of neighbors, public officials, and Washington Capitals cheerleaders. He stepped inside the airy Park Tavern restaurant for a snack of smoked salmon, charcuterie, and cider as the public rushed onto the rink: kids zipping at top speeds around the islands of trees, adults skating more cautiously and occasionally tumbling to the ice, which struggled beneath the brilliant sun.
Minutes earlier, the crowd had huddled about 50 yards to the north as city leaders described the neighborhood in very different terms. “For decades, this whole part of the District of Columbia was a God-forsaken part of the city,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton at the Nov. 16 ribbon-cutting of the brand-new Canal Park in the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood. “It was just housing after housing after housing where people were living in depressed conditions,” said Gray. “Look at the renaissance that’s taken place here.”
That renaissance has seen the arrival of not only Canal Park—with its skating rink, fountains, art-displaying cube, and film-screening lawn—but also 2011’s elegantly landscaped Yards Park on the Anacostia River two blocks to the south and 2010’s Diamond Teague Park by Nationals Park. The Capitol Riverfront—which is loosely bounded by South Capitol Street to the west, the Southeast Freeway to the north, and the Anacostia River to the south and east, with some spillover into Southwest—has a growing residential population moving into hip new digs like the Foundry Lofts. (The 170 luxury apartments in a former Navy Yard industrial building were leased out last year at a record pace for the developer, Forest City.) Nine new restaurants are slated to open in Capitol Riverfront next year—there are currently just three sit-down restaurants in the neighborhood—and a slew of retailers have signed on to occupy the Boilermaker shops in an old ship-boiler factory. There’s even talk of a 16-screen movie theater.
“We benefit from the fact that we were master-planned from the beginning,” Michael Stevens, executive director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, says of the late-1990s collaboration between D.C.’s Office of Planning, the General Services Administration, and other federal agencies that produced the plan for the neighborhood. “And they pretty much got it right.”
That’s not to be taken for granted. Twenty blocks to the north lies another neighborhood built essentially from scratch on industrial land. NoMa has seen its commercial real-estate market boom but is only just beginning to feel livable: It was conceived as little more than an office park, and is now attempting to retroactively add in a couple of slivers of green space.
The Front, as the Capitol Riverfront BID has tried to brand the area, has taken a different approach. In fact, as apartment buildings have filled up and parks’ ribbons have been snipped, the office buildings have struggled to find tenants. “If you ask me what my greatest disappointment is, it’s the office market,” says Stevens. “The office market hasn’t really discovered us yet.”
Stevens is hoping the Capitol Riverfront will get NoMa’s spillover when it comes to federal-government leases, a realm in which NoMa, with its proximity to the federal core, has excelled. “NoMa will achieve buildout,” Stevens says, “and then we’ll become the release valve for government agencies.”
When it comes to livability, there’s no question the Capitol Riverfront has surged past NoMa. Stevens’ ambitions are still much greater, and he sometimes resorts to lofty European analogies as he outlines his hopes for the area. South Capitol Street, he says, could become a grand boulevard like the Champs-Élysées. He’d like see the Pepco plant at Buzzard Point become “our version of the London Tate art museum.”
Amid skaters, baseball, and big dreams, it’s easy to forget the sad story of how much of the neighborhood was built. While many Capitol Riverfront residents moved to the area during the development frenzy of the past few years and think of it as a brand-new neighborhood, there was something there before it all began. It was called Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg, a 707-unit public housing complex that had fallen into disrepair and was rife with crime.
In order for the new neighborhood to be built, 707 households had to be displaced.
All of the units demolished in the mid-2000s will be replaced one-for-one with new low-income units, blended into the growing mixed-income neighborhood. According to D.C. Housing Authority spokeswoman Dena Michaelson, 386 of those units are already in place, including 162 senior public housing units and 86 units in the brightly painted Capitol Quarter townhouses.
But while former Capper/Carrollsburg residents have first dibs on the new units, not all of them will return: Of the 386 affordable housing units, only 114 are occupied by returnees. Some former residents are comfortably settled elsewhere, and have no desire to move again. Others are denied units because of felony convictions.
There’s been no shortage of bitterness about the process, which was funded in part with a $35 million grant from the federal government under the Hope VI public housing revitalization program. Residents complained that they were being forced out without their consent, that the community that existed at Capper/Carrollsburg would be destroyed, and that the replacement units, while technically considered affordable, would be for higher income brackets than the old ones. (Michaelson denies the latter charge, noting that with the exception of one building, all of the new affordable units are in the lowest income range, from 0 to 30 percent of area median income.) The length of the redevelopment also made it harder for people to return: The process was supposed to be completed at the end of 2013, but the recession froze up funding, and there’s now no set date for completion.
No one is more aware of the backlash than Michael Kelly, who ran the Housing Authority from 2000 to 2009 and now heads the Department of Housing and Community Development. Kelly readily admits that he was made out to be the “villain” by some community members and in the 2008 documentary Chocolate City, which follows residents pushed out of Capper/Carrollsburg. But he says the results speak for themselves.
“Compared to what it was when those people were there—and despite the romanticism portrayed in that film, it was not a very healthy place—any family, one family, that’s gotten to return to this gorgeous stuff is a success story,” Kelly says.
Chanel Caldwell-Cowan, 37, is one of the returnees, and she agrees. A Carrollsburg resident from 1997 to 2002, she’s full of horror stories about the old neighborhood. “My house was broken into three times, I had two cars stolen, and after I saw a rat as big as a kangaroo in the kitchen, I left and moved to Richmond,” says Caldwell-Cowan, taking issue with her former neighbors who lament the loss of the Capper/Carrollsburg. “People say they wreck their ’hoods. That’s not their ’hood, that’s a project. It needed to be torn down. It was already torn down before it was torn down.” And now?
“The neighborhood is great,” says Caldwell-Cowan, who lives in a townhouse apartment on 3rd Place SE. “You have a very large diverse community. People from different backgrounds: religious backgrounds, financial backgrounds. It’s dog city now. Everybody has a dog. Every breed that you can possibly think of.”
Caldwell-Cowan, who says she lost her job after getting hurt but whose husband works at a nursing home, bristles at the suggestion that the yuppification of the neighborhood might rub low-income former residents the wrong way. “It’s about time,” she says. “I go to Yards Park every day. That’s my workout. I have a 3-year-old daughter, so she likes the wading pool. And we go to live concerts and the free movies. I think it’s all great.”
According to Kelly, the parks aren’t just a nice addition to the Capitol Riverfront; they’re essential to transforming the neighborhood. The skaters in Canal Park are simultaneously bringing back the area’s distant past—people are thought to have skated on the canal that ran through the area in the 19th century—and helping it shake off its recent history. The desire to reshape the neighborhood’s image (and increase property values) led two developers with nearby properties, WC Smith and JBG Companies, to help pay for the park, in contrast to NoMa’s early developers, who resisted calls to turn pieces of their land into public space.
“The park really was the centerpoint,” says Kelly, “and it was really the selling point to the community that we were going to respect the culture and the history of the neighborhood through this open space.”
At least the history that city officials consider worth preserving.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery