Housing Complex

The Plexies: The Winners and Losers in D.C. Real Estate and Development in 2013

The Plexies 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.

  • tntdc

    Save McMillian Park

  • Bob See

    Save Atlantis.

  • Stronghold_Res

    RE: McMillan - Formal park, perhaps not, but from getting to know my older Stronghold neighbors, it def. was a place that people used to relax and play at before (and many times after) it was fenced off. To wit, there are some great, old photographs of a baseball field at the site and of groups using it for community picnics.

    That said, yes, VMP is adding a fancy-schmancy refurbished park to the space, but at the same time destroying the rest of the site (including the underground) by dropping down a development worthy of Rockville or a New Jersey suburb. That's where the rally-cry of "Save McMillan Park" from the neighbors comes from - it's to save this space (including the underground) from a car-centric and (sadly) mediocre development.

    The McMillan site - whatever you want to call it - and the residents of this area, deserve better than what's been offered so far. Put it back out to bid and get something the entire community can be proud of - not just what a group of deep-pocketed developers want. This space could be a jewel and a point of pride for the city; instead, the District is going to create another Chinatown - a place that 'kinda' looks historic, but is really like a Disney town. It'll be Columbia Heights - but without the charm - just so we can have a Chipotle, Starbucks and Harris Teeter. Blech

  • Bob See

    McMillan "park" may look green but it's a brownfield.

  • monkeyrotica

    McMillan Park Dwellings for Generational Poverty.

  • Pointless

    I've already forgotten about MacMillan Park;
    now all I want to do is
    Save Brookland Green!

  • tntdc

    McMillian was fenced off because inter-racial couples were seen there in the early 40's. The pretext was enemies might poison the water. Hopefully there will be mass civil disobedience to tear the fence down.

    The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead as the centerpiece of residential Washington in the McMillian Plan. It's Michigan marble fountains are still around. The McMillian Plan envisioned a large city park in this location.

    Central Park in NYC, also an Olmstead park, is a much bigger waste of space. Concrete over it for development.

    The "Concrete Over McMillian" crowd are transient barbarians who need to leave DC. You will anyway when your parents stop paying your rent and you can't afford it. Back to their basements.

  • NE John

    Develop the crap out of Brookland.

  • NE John

    cept 4 the little green

  • NE John

    I've been here 57 years, and on Michigan Avenue most of that time; I'm an engineer; love DC; and I don't see any reason in hell for saving the underground sand filtration areas. Are you guys crazy?!?

  • OG in DC

    @tntdc Inter-racial couples. Are you serious. Story keeps changing... been here, gonna be here. Want the redevelopment of McMillan, and most of my neighbors and friends who have been here and who stay here do to. Sick of people who don't ask me about anything else trying to tell me what I want in my neighborhood.

  • Whoever you are not

    Washington dc: real estate plantation.

  • gimbels lover

    "Put it back to bid" is classic Ubertarian nonsense from people who think good development is the product of cutthroat competition.

    But let's get real. We should look at Central Park: build 40 story buildings all around it.

  • Crickey7

    "Save McMillan Park" is a joke, right?


  • EYA

    Thanks for the great article! We think it's worth mentioning that EYA's Chancellor's Row brought about $150 million in new townhomes to the area four blocks south of Brookland Metro station before Monroe Street Market broke ground. The neighborhood is certainly benefiting from these, and several other, investments in the community.

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  • ReasonableUrbanist

    @tntdc You can't seriously think that there's much similarity between McMillan and Central Park, except in square footage. Central Park is incredibly well-designed and has enough amenities and variation within it to keep a dense population active. McMillan is, on the other hand, not surrounded by Manhattan-level density to keep it active. It's also just a huge field. Not much you can do with a huge field, compared to Central Park.

    There's a certain threshold of size and activity, at which point parks become more vacuous than engaging. McMillan is both too large and empty to really be anything like Central Park.

  • Peter K

    I'm going to assume that Mayor Gray's "$187 affordable housing commitment" in the last section is a typo and not commentary on the sad state of affordable housing in DC.

  • Eric

    It's interesting that the writer calls the "Save McMillan Park" slogan misleading and then goes on to say that there is no park. That statement is equally misleading. It was declared a park by president Taft in 1911 and was used as a park by the citizens until World War II. City maps today still refer to it as McMillan Park. It was designed as part of a ring of parks around Washington. Perhaps a better slogan would be "Don't turn McMillan Park into an office park."

  • RT

    The writer has taken off where Lydia depillis left off in ceaselessly promoting any and all outsized ill advised development projects. He wrote a piece about "ubertarians," newly arrived (last few years) residents in the city who like to take the limousine service and their politics. He said what do you think of that name? Leave your thoughts in the comments box, but then left no comment box.

    So my comment is, that their old name was better: myopic little twits.

  • Daniel Goldon Wolkoff

    On McMillan's obnoxious, cynical Plexie Award:

    So EYA/VMP don't get a Plexie for a very PLASTIC, miserably designed, and redesigned numerous times, development "plan"?
    Mr. Aaron, you write, like all the local apologists
    " 25 Acre site has sat vacant". Yes, Aaron, it also spontaneously sprouted a chain link fence, with barbed wire strung across the top.
    We know the DC govt, all the mayors and City Council since 1986, wouldn't be so viscous and stupid, as to forcibly exclude the people from their own 25 acre green space, and registered historic landmark all these years. Not them, while pouring our tax dollars into the cities vast majority of parkland in upper NW.
    Even beekeeper, Jeff (Trammel Crowe) Miller in the Mayor's Office of ($70 billion) Economic Developemnt has blocked the educational, fascinating tours of McMillan by local ANC and Bloomingdale Civic association. Is he scared that the people might come to understand this issue?
    And we are so fortunate to have journalists like you, who make the effort, for us, to avoid placing any responsibility for this social injustice, and environmental crime, committed against OUR city, by this miserable clique of hacks and felons we call our representatives.
    Really Aaron, when did the City Paper become such a biased pro-big business useless rag? Truly a bad joke? I recall CP once championed the peoples causes against the stupidity and racist discrimination of governments like Gray, Fenty, Hoskins, Thomas,, Brown, Brown, Miller and Tregoning,and the rest of the gentrification power elite, etc. Please try harder to be more professional, get the real story,inform the community, like your mandate demands. Maybe CP should refuse the advertising money from EYA VMP and all these big developers who have our govt. in their pocket, or just try too be a good reporter, please.
    Despite you, and the Washington Post, VMP and our pitiful govt., concerted, contrived effort to distort and squelch the truth and defy common sense, we are all talking about making this world class "great place" a major park national destination and historic site. Parks are development Aaron,, like in NY, where the HighLine wasn't a park when it was a highway, but New Yorker love their city and made a highway into a park, amazing NO? Really unlike poor self hating DC. We, like real smart growth all over the intelligent creative resourceful environmentally conscious world, can include all the important things the community needs in adaptive re-use of existing structures and compatible development parkside.
    We just don't support the Jeff Miller, Vincent (unindicted) Gray, VMP, destructive MEGA Super urbanization, on top of very misguided DEMOLITION of really wonderful historic structures and failed infrastructure. We also see the corrupt system, of a Mayor elected ( yes by massive electoral fraud) but still, to manage OUR property, not give it away in corrupt "surplussing" with no democratic process at all.
    Some day when you become a better reporter please include all the information and serve the community, GOOD LUCK!

  • Barrie Daneker

    Ok Let clear some misinformation these NIMBY's are promoting. This Plex award need a song "TELL ME LIES TELL ME SWEET LITTLE LIES"

    #1. This site was not designed by OLMSTEAD! Yes that's right everyone. These folks want you to beleive that this site is just like Central Park! NOT! it was designed by his SONS! As we all know the sons are never as good as the father!!!

    #2. The site was NEVER A PARK! This image of a baseball field is simple not fact! Would you let your kids play there! NO! And picnics really on top of a manhole cover!

    #3. Destroying the Cells...yes! Because they are constructed of failing cement that has no re-bar (steel rods) in it. Which means it's not safe at all. We put re-bar even in sidewalks so they can with stand the pressure. So keeping them it just not possible!

    #4 Fenced off because of inter-racial couple. WOW have you missed the mark on this one. The area has been integrated back dating to 1898. WRONG! WOW you must be new to the area!

    #5. New transient residents want to develop the site! Wrong again! Most long time residents actually support "CREATE MCMILLAN PARK". If you review the NIMBY's group of support it's mostly new residents who have wants and have failed to realize that there are needs of the residents of DC who have to come first...affordable housing, jobs, services, grocery stores and small businesses!

    #6. Define Park! You can call it whatever you want but this site is not one! If you think the site was pretty when first developed it wasn't. hence it was landscaped over so that it didn't look like this huge industrial Blue Plains site. That's the real deal!

    #7. Mr. Wolkoff has some way out there comments from someone who has no experience in development of anything! He designs stain glass just a bit easier than designing a community! He hates the fence, well it went up befor eyou were born and for safety reason for the water supply and to keep people away from a working water industrial site. BTW it did have pricker bushes before there was a fence to keep people off the site. He speak of Park land in Upper NW...well Mr. Wolkoff DC is the 2nd greenest urban city in the US... The Public Land Trust has stats on this and shows how wrong you are about park and green space in DC and how much we actually have and spend on pearks each year...more than any other city in the nation. WRONG AGAIN! As for the tours... well it's an old insdurtial site that work is on going due to the $150 Million project for Bloomingdale Flood issues so I say the Nimby's in the area have gotten their share of the space for that and the $150 million that is being wasted on this not well thought out plan for flooding! the rest of the city gets to decide what to do with the site! FYI I LIKE WITH IN 200 FEET! How close are you Mr. Wolkoff??? You are 1.4 miles away from McMillan but you know what my neighbors want... REALLY???

    Finally it's TIME! It's time for residents to see the $9.6 million they paid for an old industrial site to be transformed into a huge useful PARK! A Real PARK with play fields, a pool, community center!


    BTW if you would like to join those who support this project. You have my email. bdaneker@hotmail.com

  • Sid

    All I see are beautiful windows Mr Daniel has produced, and then Barrie name-calling people with the vicious "NIMBY" tag. Ugh. Double and triple ugh. STOP WITH THE NAME CALLING!

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