Pity on the Hill
By the time this column hits newsstands, the residents of eastern Capitol Hill will have glimpsed a possible future of the area near RFK Stadium known as Hill East. But as the paper went to press, my crystal ball had revealed few details: In advance of a Wednesday evening presentation to the community, developer Chris Donatelli declined to comment, as did his colleague Larry Clark, who only disclosed that the proposal for the first phase of development was designed by ubiquitous D.C. architect Eric Colbert. Donatelli told local Advisory Neighborhood Commission chair Brian Flahaven that the proposal lays out a mixed-use retail/residential project, but offered no additional details. That’s the sum of what, as of late Wednesday afternoon, is known about plans for this highly desirable, 67-acre site by the Anacostia River.
But the most important question may not be what’s in the proposal. Far more interesting, anyway, is why it’s the only one. The city’s latest call for proposals—one that comes after a 1974 plan for Hill East that was never implemented, and four proposals in 2008 that were pared down to two in 2010 before being scrapped altogether—drew just one response by the January deadline, from a partnership of Blue Skye Development and Donatelli Development.
According to Chanda Washington, spokeswoman for the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, this is the first project solicitation under the current administration to receive just one response. “We really don’t know why we only got one proposal, but the guess is that developers think the market’s just not ready yet,” says Washington. “That’s really all we can say. ’Cause we really have no idea.”
But neighbors and people familiar with the thinking in the mayor’s office have an idea: The city attracted so little interest because it stopped showing any commitment to the project.
So now we’re left to speculate on what the city’s done wrong to bring us to this point, and whether, after being disappointed by abortive efforts 30 years ago and five years ago and three years ago, we’re facing one again.
According to the DMPED webpage on the Hill East Waterfront Redevelopment, “the District expects to select a master developer for the site in mid-2010.” Mid-2010 is not just when the city stopped bothering to update its public information on the project; it’s also when city leaders decided not to move forward with their previously lofty ambitions for the site.
The city received four responses to its May 2008 request for expressions of interest, and the neighboring community coalesced around one of them, from the Hunt Development Group. But with a economy tanking, financing hard to come by, and the city wanting to avoid a second Poplar Point—a development site whose master developer pulled out over difficulties securing financing—the administration of then-Mayor Adrian Fenty scaled back the plan dramatically in 2010, opting to develop just two parcels adjacent to the Stadium-Armory Metro station instead of the full 67-acre site. Hunt dropped out, and two development teams remained in the running.
But then Fenty lost the mayoral primary to Vince Gray, and the project sat in limbo. In late 2011 came the news that Gray had traveled to Tampa to tour the Buccaneers’ training facility with an eye toward possibly building one for the Washington Pigskins at Hill East. Many neighbors were furious, arguing that such a facility would bring little benefit to the area and derail the mixed-use development they had rallied behind.
“The mayor was pressured into saying, ‘I’m going to go back and pick one of those two developers who submitted the scaled-back RFEIs,’ to which we said, ‘Oh, that’s great,’” says Flahaven. But that’s not what happened next. Gray administration officials told Flahaven the D.C. attorney general had informed them that they couldn’t move forward with the existing proposals and had to rebid them, but declined to share the attorney general’s decision when asked. DMPED’s Washington still says she can’t share the decision, but says, “The Attorney General felt because of the time pass and change of scope, the two who were not shortlisted weren’t given a chance to bid on the reduced scope of the RFEI and that could have created legal issues. The Attorney General felt we could lose time because of possible legal issues so we restarted the clock.”
Neighbors were skeptical. “My immediate reaction was: That seems like a phony argument, number one,” says Flahaven. “Number two was, they want to change the terms of what was in the request.”
And they did. Where the earlier request gave the developer chosen for these two parcels along 19th Street SE the right of first refusal on the eventual development of the rest of the site, the latest request dropped this provision. That makes the project less attractive to developers, and also raises suspicions among neighbors about the city’s motives. Some wonder if Gray is still hoping to keep the space available for a training facility, or even preparing for a Pigskins move back to the site of RFK Stadium.
Washington denies the Pigskins rumors. As for right of first refusal, she says in an email, “Considering the financial market that we believe impacted a lot of developers, we didn’t want to risk giving the whole site to a developer who couldn’t come through. We are committed to rebuilding the site in accordance to the Council’s approved master plan.”
But some neighbors aren’t convinced. “The city is falling on its ass,” says ANC commissioner Francis Campbell, whose constituents are the site’s immediate neighbors to the west and who has lived a block from it for 35 years. “We had a project that was vetted by the community, which was the Hunt Development plan, after thousands of dollars on their part. For one reason or the other, the city failed to follow through on it.”
The front of the Hill East site on 19thStreet SE is separated from the Anacostia River by slightly more than a quarter of a mile, but you’d never know it. Between 19th Street and the river stand a rusted chain link fence, an enormous parking lot, the D.C. General complex, a medical examiner’s office, another parking lot, and a couple more fences, one of which is topped with barbed wire. In other words, it doesn’t look like much, even though it’s one of the most valuable pieces of property in the city, a large waterfront site with direct Metro access.
What sits between 19th Street and the river is what’s made the site so hard to develop. Then-Mayor Anthony Williams closed D.C. General in 2001, but the Fenty administration began moving homeless families there, supposedly on a temporary basis, as it shut down shelters elsewhere in the city. Advocates have deplored the conditions at D.C. General and urged the city to provide better options for the homeless, but there’s still no concrete plan to close the shelter. Other social services on the site, like a methadone clinic, are likewise difficult to move.
Which makes Hill East a headache from the city’s perspective, at least relative to other development sites. And the existence of these other sites has also stood in Hill East’s way: With new office and residential buildings coming online along the Southwest Waterfront and in the Capitol Riverfront area, some city officials are concerned that the demand simply doesn’t exist for high-density development at another riverfront site, say multiple sources familiar with the process.
As a result, Hill East hasn’t featured prominently in Gray’s development speeches and plans. His 2014 budget proposal includes a map of eight high-priority development projects in the city. Hill East isn’t among them.
Washington insists that Hill East isn’t a lower priority than the other projects. But a Council source who’s heard that the mayor has asked for Hill East not to be prioritized until projects east of the Anacostia move forward speculates that the Gray administration would prefer to see the neighbors shoot down the Donatelli proposal down after Wednesday’s presentation, so as to avoid having to commit to a development of which it is wary.
“If the community comes back and says, ‘This is not a proposal that we’re excited about, this is not something that we believe matches the vision,’ I don’t think the deputy mayor’s office will be heartbroken,” says the source.
The blame for the halting progress on Hill East doesn’t belong to one agency, or even one administration. The Fenty administration concentrated homeless facilities on the site; city agencies have failed to provide a replacement for D.C. General; Gray threw the city’s commitment into question with talk of a training facility; and DMPED hasn’t exactly gone out of its way to make the site appealing to developers.
“The sense I’ve gotten from people who were involved in those first couple of rounds is that they may not be taking it seriously anymore,” says James Rea, a commercial real estate agent with Long & Foster who lives a block from the property, of the waning developer interest in the site as a result of the city’s iffy commitment.
Some neighbors are beginning to give up hope. “They’ve taken it off the front burner and put it on the back,” says Campbell. “I’m pessimistic now that the city will get anything done.”
It’s up to the Gray administration to be clear about its commitment to Hill East. If it truly wants to carry out the master plan after more than 10 years, it should either move forward with the Donatelli proposal or quickly issue a new request with the financial and other incentives needed to attract multiple good proposals, and it should prioritize development of the remainder of the site beyond the two parcels currently under discussion. But if it thinks now is not the right time for development at Hill East, it should drop the charade and say so. After years of feeling strung along by the city’s shifting plans for the site, the neighbors deserve as much.
Illustration by Jandos Rothstein and Carey Jordan
Due to a reporting error, the article originally misspelled the name of Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven.