The Plexies: 2012’s Winners and Losers in Real-Estate News
For D.C. development, 2012 was a year of grand plans and lots of waiting. Post-recession construction picked up, with more than 50 cranes getting projects like CityCenterDC and CityMarket at O off the ground and massive redevelopment plans like St. Elizabeths and Walter Reed coming into focus. But without many headline-grabbing ribbon cuttings, the big stories were more about preparing for the future than celebrating the present.
That holding pattern is reflected in the second annual Plexies, given to the best, worst, and weirdest in District development. And so, ladies and gentlemen, the 2012 awards go to...
Most Ado About Nothing:
If all you knew about the proposed update to D.C.’s zoning code was what you heard at public meetings, you’d think it was a plan to raze half the city. Angry residents—largely from Ward 3—packed an October D.C. Council hearing and trekked down to the Ward 6 meeting to call the Office of Planning’s efforts “bass-ackward” and “beyond [OP’s] mandate.” (Ward 3’s own meeting doesn’t happen until January.) But what are we actually talking about? An update to a 54-year-old code that eases parking minimums in transit zones and allows a few more corner stores and accessory dwellings, in addition to some truly innocuous stuff. Beware a slightly expanded downtown zone and additional pervious surfaces!
Most Tedious Game of “Mother May I?”:
Until the new zoning code’s in place, developers are still required to build off-street parking in new residential buildings, unless they apply for a special exception, which they increasingly do. A Metro- and bus-accessible building on North Capitol Street had to go through the lengthy and expensive process to avoid having to construct 31 parking spaces for a resident population that’s 100 percent low-income and 50 percent exiting homelessness. And a new parking-free Tenleytown building a block from the Metro can’t get underway without a long, bruising fight for an exception, which it’s still waiting for. The thing is, the Zoning Commission’s approved 65 of the 67 applications for these so-called variances in the past 10 years, including all 29 since 2010. Developers will breathe a deep sigh of relief when they can finally avoid this tortuous path to a nearly foregone conclusion.
It seemed like a sure way to bring more affordable housing to the city: require developers to set aside units for lower-income residents when they put up big new buildings. But the inclusionary zoning ordinance in effect since 2009 had led to a grand total of two for-sale affordable units by this summer (one more has come online since, in addition to seven rental units). Both of those first two, in a building on Georgia Avenue NW, are still unfilled after 18 months on the market. So the developer is suing the city for depriving it of the value of its property. Talk about good intentions gone awry.
Most Successful Underdog:
It’s a classic David and Goliath story, and David’s running up the score. The low-income organizing group Empower D.C. scored a big victory this fall when a judge sided with Empower-organized Ivy City residents in barring the city, at least temporarily, from using the vacant Crummell School parking lot to house exhaust-spewing buses. Also this fall, the city settled a lawsuit by Highland Together We Stand, led by Empower organizer Schyla Pondexter-Moore, by renewing its pledge to maintain public housing at Ward 8’s Highland Dwellings for the next 40 years. Advocates for D.C.’s underclass are suddenly feeling, well, empowered.*
Best Nonarchitect Architect:
With all the cranes hanging over downtown, Shaw, and NoMa, it’s easy to overlook one of the city’s greatest architectural triumphs: the ongoing rebirth of the D.C. Public Library system. 2012 saw the arrival of the stunning Bellevue Library, the Francis A. Gregory Library in Hillcrest, the Rosedale Library, and the renovated Mt. Pleasant Library, as well as the announcement that starchitect Bing Thom (of Arena Stage fame) will design the new Woodridge Library. The woman behind it all is DCPL Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, who received the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture this month for her efforts. Her next challenge: overseeing an update to DCPL’s less-than-beautiful flagship Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
Most Problematic Memorial:
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
The planned Eisenhower Memorial has had its fair share of controversy, leading architect Frank Gehry to modify his unorthodox design amid the Eisenhower family’s unified opposition. But the winner in this category is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, which opened in August 2011 and has been a magnet for criticism ever since. In January, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation was sued for not paying a commission to a fundraiser. Two days later, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered a correction to a bad paraphrase in the memorial’s inscription that made the civil rights leader out to be an egotist. After project officials laid out the difficulties of amending the paraphrase, Salazar announced in December that the inscription would be removed entirely, at a cost of close to $1 million.
Most Curious Rebranding:
Healthy Gourmet Market
The sad news came last month: The Yes! Organic Market in Fairlawn would close after more than two years of losses. With a heavy heart, owner Gary Cha said he simply couldn’t continue to operate his only store east of the Anacostia after he’d personally lost more than a million dollars on it, due to its hard-to-access location and perception of high prices. It was a surprise, then, when he decided in early December to keep the store open under a different name: Healthy Gourmet Market. The area could certainly use more grocery stores, but if his problems are location and high-cost reputation, “Healthy Gourmet Market” won’t help.
Least-Necessary Tax Break:
Howard Town Center
Judging from the speed with which the D.C. Council’s finance and revenue committee passed the Howard Town Center tax break, you’d think it was a no-brainer. The panel approved the 10-year, 100 percent property tax abatement, plus three other tax breaks, in less than a minute, with no discussion, on Nov. 29. The only problem? D.C. CFO Natwar Gandhi says the $11 million abatement is unnecessary. The project, Gandhi says, is charging too-low rents and should be able to get extra outside funding for its low-income housing. The watchdog D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute also strongly urged the Council not to grant the extraneous tax break. No matter: The full Council passed the bill on Dec. 18.
Most Intriguing Eviction Battle:
Spirit Fitness vs. Salvation Army
Evictions often lead to public fights, but they rarely involve as many boldface names as the ongoing battle surrounding the Spirit Fitness Health and Wellness Center in Anacostia. The landlord, Salvation Army, is suing to evict Spirit for falling $160,000 behind in its rent payments, while Spirit counters that Salvo hasn’t lived up to its agreements. Leading the fight for Spirit is Rev. Willie Wilson, senior pastor at Anacostia’s Union Temple Baptist Church, 2002 mayoral candidate, and registered president of Spirit–although he wouldn’t admit as much during a phone conversation. At his side appears to be Vernon Hawkins, an alleged coordinator of what federal prosecutors call the “shadow campaign” to help Mayor Vince Gray get elected in 2010. Hawkins is listed as Spirit’s treasurer, and Salvation Army says he was present at negotiations as the church’s chief operating officer–though again, Wilson denies that Hawkins is COO. The trial is set for Jan. 29.
*CORRECTION: This story initially stated that the Highland Dwellings lawsuit filed by Empower D.C. In fact, it was filed by Highland Together We Stand, which is led by an Empower D.C. organizer, and it was publicized by Empower D.C. in a press release and on its blog, but Empower D.C. was not directly involved in the lawsuit. We regret the error.