The Plexies: The Winners and Losers in D.C. Real Estate and Development in 2013
In 2013, D.C. put aside the longstanding question of whether the city would grow and started asking how it should. Do we allow taller buildings to accommodate our population boom? Do we allow additions to short buildings? And, most critically, how can we ensure the city’s growing wealth benefits low-income and homeless residents?
Those were the big questions. The small battles were often more provincial, nastier, and downright puzzling. Here, without further ado, are the 2013 Plexy Awards, for the best, worst, and weirdest in D.C. development this year.
Most baffling affront to home rule: Phil Mendelson
Yes, the chairman of the D.C. Council. Rep. Darrell Issa couldn’t believe it either, stating incredulously at a congressional hearing, “I did not expect people to say, ‘Please don’t give me authority, I can’t be trusted.’” Yet that’s what Phil Mendelson did, with the assent of 11 of his 12 colleagues. Mendelson introduced symbolic legislation urging Congress not to make any changes to the Height Act—including a change that would have handed some power over D.C.’s building heights from Congress to the Council. Mendelson says Washingtonians “don’t trust the [D.C.] government” with that power. But after an inglorious year that included a damaging government shutdown, do we really trust Congress more?
Most quixotic quest: Jim Graham
Reactions to the three-story pop-up sprouting from the roof of a two-story V Street NW rowhouse this year ranged from outrage to ridicule. Or, if you’re Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, a declaration of war. Graham first sought to get the Zoning Commission to ban pop-ups—something it can’t do without a wholesale rezoning of chunks of the city. Then he tried going through the Board of Zoning Adjustment and the Historic Preservation Review Board, neither of which has any power to prevent pop-ups like V Street’s. If all else fails, he’ll consider legislation. We’ll see how much traction he gets for a plan to tell residents they’re no longer allowed to add an extra story they thought they could when they bought their property.
Most transformed neighborhood: Brookland
It’s a hidden gem no longer. Brookland, with its quiet streets and gorgeous detached houses, was largely off of most Washingtonians’ radar, to the delight of residents who enjoyed its low housing prices and rents. Then came Monroe Street Market. The $200 million project, partly complete now, will include three buildings with more than 550 apartments, artist studios, a Barnes & Noble bookstore, a Busboys and Poets, and a restaurant from the owners of Meridian Pint—all on a formerly desolate patch of land right by the Brookland Metro station (technically on the Edgewood side of the tracks, but who’s nitpicking?). No wonder home prices in the neighborhood have already jumped, by various estimates, between 13 and 39 percent.
Loudest rebel without a cause: Empower D.C.
You might recognize Empower as the winner of last year’s Plexy for “Most Successful Underdog,” for the advocacy group’s efforts to stop the city from turning an Ivy City school parking lot into a bus depot. But since then, Empower’s made lots of noise with little to show for it. The group scuttled a June presentation of development plans for the Barry Farm public housing complex with loud chants that left some residents angry to have their meeting ruined by a bunch of non-residents. Two weeks later, Empower protesters (and children they brought along to do their bidding) drowned out Mayor Vince Gray’s first education address with their violent shouts. Activism is good, but it’s hard to discern what Empower’s trying to accomplish, other than volume.
Saddest concession to reality: D.C. Housing Authority
In April, the Housing Authority made official what was already obvious: If you’re hoping for public housing or a Section 8 voucher, you’re out of luck. The waiting list for these housing assistance programs was already 70,000 names long, meaning waits of more than a decade, and the Housing Authority had an entire department dedicated to managing it. So the agency closed the list. The goal is to clean it up—purging it of ineligible people—and to reorganize it to allow for greater choice in subsidized housing. But for the time being, the suspension of the list is a symbol of just how unable the city is to house everyone in need.
Best strategic threat: Walmart
This summer, Walmart faced a conundrum: The D.C. Council had just passed legislation requiring large retailers to pay a much higher minimum wage, something the Arkansas-based chain really didn’t want to do. So the company issued a threat. If Gray signed the bill and it became law, Walmart decreed, it’d scrap three of its planned D.C. stores and reconsider the three already under construction. It was a win-win (and, for D.C. advocates of higher wages who didn’t want to lose Walmart’s jobs, a lose-lose): either the bill would die, or Walmart would get an escape hatch out of building the three stores it was least keen on anyway, the ones in poorer sections of town. (One of them was planned only after Gray demanded it.) Was it a bluff to force the mayor’s hand? We’ll never know; Gray vetoed the bill, and the first two D.C. Walmart stores opened in December.
Worst caving to NIMBYism: District Department of Transportation
For the past year, the L Street cycletrack has vastly improved biking downtown—provided you’re heading west to east. The M Street cycletrack was supposed to serve as a continuous, protected bike lane in the opposite direction. But in April, the District Department of Transportation caved to complaints from the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church over the loss of street parking and decided to remove the protected lane for the 1500 block of M Street NW. That’s a minor annoyance to cyclists, who can no longer count on separation from cars for the length of M Street, but it’s a majorly bad precedent. What’s to stop any business from interrupting the city’s transportation grid out of provincial concerns? Say, a nearby strip club, which followed the church’s lead and tried to nix another section of the cycletrack.
Most soul-crushing coup: MLK Library Friends
LaToya Thomas, the founder of the MLK Library Friends, thought she was up for a typical, low-key re-election to the presidency of the central library support group—until she learned that a coup was in the works. The D.C. Library Renaissance Project, founded and funded by Ralph Nader, had been fighting the redevelopment of public libraries across the city and had set its sights on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, where a mixed-use overhaul was anticipated. The group’s leader, Robin Diener, set up a last-minute candidacy for the MLK Library Friends presidency, registered dozens of her friends and supporters to vote, and overwhelmed the longtime MLKers to win in a landslide. The re-elected vice president immediately resigned in dismay, Thomas said she was done with the group she started, and library supporters were left to wonder what the election would mean for plans to renovate the outdated library.
Most misleading slogan: Save McMillan Park
It’s a powerful rallying cry: The city’s about to destroy McMillan Park by allowing a developer to build a mixed-use complex atop it. The only problem is that there is no McMillan Park. For more than a quarter century, the 25-acre site along North Capitol Street has sat vacant; prior to that, it served as a sand filtration facility. There was a perimeter walkway, but since the 1940s, it’s been closed off to the public. (The area across First Street, near the McMillan Reservoir, did serve as more of a park, but now the Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t allow public access.) Still, there’s good news: The development team is planning an eight-acre central park that incorporates the historic silos, plus additional open space and a restored perimeter walk. In order to save a park, you first have to create one.
Most skeptically received promise: Streetcar service by January
Streetcars were supposed to start running on H Street NE in 2009. Then it was 2012. Then 2013. So you’ll have to forgive Washingtonians for being less than credulous when Gray promised last month to have “passenger service probably starting in January, not later than early February.” That’d require unusually quick safety certification, plus several other steps. But then again, with the first streetcar arriving on H Street this month for testing, residents may finally be starting to believe that this streetcar thing will actually happen.
Most futuristic parking garage: Hecht's
A 1,000-car parking garage may not sound like an urbanist’s dream. But following advice from Planning Director Harriet Tregoning, Douglas Development is building its parking behemoth at the soon-to-be-redeveloped Hecht Company Warehouse site on New York Avenue NE in such a way that it can later be converted to residential units, if demand for housing in the area increases or demand for parking drops as the result of, say, a new Metro stop or streetcar line. It’s the kind of flexible approach smart-growth advocates love—to the extent that they can love a 1,000-car garage.
Biggest ghost town: Parkway Overlook
Unless you take a wrong turn into a no-outlet loop behind the Suitland Parkway, you’d never have occasion to pass the Parkway Overlook. Some top city officials had no idea it existed until this year. Which is kind of insane, given its size: 20 apartment buildings that once housed over 1,000 people. It’s sat vacant since failing several inspections, ending in 2007, at a time when housing is at a premium in the city. But now that Gray has pledged to spend part of his $187 million affordable housing commitment on rehabbing it, D.C.’s biggest ghost town is set to return to life.
Correction: This post initially stated that Gray's affordable housing commitment was $187. In fact, it's quite a bit larger: $187 million.