Housing Complex

Why Is Overhauling the Park Morton Public Housing Complex So Difficult?

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Last week, I met Adrianne Todman for an activity she wouldn’t have advised 10 or 15 years ago: a walk around the Park Morton public-housing complex in the Park View neighborhood, just off Georgia Avenue NW.

“Park was a tough, tough site,” recalls Todman, the executive director of the D.C. Housing Authority. “I would not have recommended that we stroll along here, even in the middle of the morning.”

For decades, the area around Park Morton was plagued by an open-air drug market, gang activity, and gun violence. As recently as five years ago, Todman says, the drab three-story brick buildings that comprise Park Morton were perhaps the most attractive part of the down-and-out surrounding neighborhood. Since then, amid the rapid revival of adjacent Columbia Heights and Petworth, Park View’s fortunes have risen. Renovated rowhouses within a block of Park Morton have sold for as much as $700,000 recently. A French bistro, an upscale wine shop, two popular patio bars, and a restaurant known for its slow-cooked wild boar bucatini have all opened in the past few years along Georgia Avenue—and they’re sure to be joined by many more of their kind in the likely event that a streetcar line is constructed there in the next decade.

All this activity should make Park Morton the ideal candidate for the city’s New Communities initiative. The program, launched in 2005 under then-Mayor Anthony Williams, converts troubled public-housing developments into larger, mixed-income communities. The idea is to deconcentrate poverty, create new housing, and revitalize the neighborhood, while allowing the developer of the project to recoup some of the cost of rebuilding the public-housing units by renting or selling market-rate units.

Park Morton is one of four New Communities projects, and the other three have all struggled to get off the ground. Northwest One, just west of North Capitol Street along K and L streets NW, was the first New Communities venture. Like all of these projects, it’s supposed to replace each razed public-housing unit with a new one, but more than five years after demolition began, only 30 of the 250 units torn down so far have been replaced.

At Lincoln Heights, the city has struggled to attract developers to the economically depressed area near Deanwood. The 440 units there were supposed to have been demolished by now and the residents moved into replacement apartments. So far, no units have been torn down, and just 32 families have been relocated. The fourth project, Barry Farm, is just beginning to get underway, after the city selected a developer last year.

With high demand for housing in and around Park View, Park Morton ought to be the easiest New Communities project to finance. And yet five years after the city first selected a development team to rebuild Park Morton, the housing complex is still basically untouched, save for red plywood boards on the windows of 21 vacant units.

A month ago, the Housing Authority issued a solicitation for a new developer for Park Morton. Interested companies need to submit their proposals by July 1, and the city aims to select a team in the third quarter of this year. That would seem to imply new momentum in the effort to overhaul Park Morton—except, of course, that the new solicitation was only needed because the city terminated its agreement with the previous development team, led by the Linthicum, Md.–based Landex Corp., in February.

Landex, together with its partner, the District-based Warrenton Group, succeeded in building a key off-site component of the project, the Avenue apartment building across Georgia Avenue from Park Morton, with 83 units that included 27 replacement public-housing units for Park Morton residents. But that was about it. Plans for further development never really got underway, leading to growing frustration in the city government and Housing Authority.

“It’s hard to say what went wrong, because we really didn’t get anywhere,” says Kimberly Black King, who oversees New Communities for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. “We just weren’t able to make progress, and that was the major issue: No progress whatsoever.”

The principal hurdle, Black King says, appears to have been the acquisition of additional off-site parcels. The current Park Morton consists of 12 buildings and 174 units. Since the redeveloped site is expected to have around 500 units, an expansion beyond the current, small footprint is needed, so as to avoid tormenting the neighboring rowhouse dwellers with a massive increase in density. Additionally, the Housing Authority’s new solicitation encourages developers to expand retail along Georgia Avenue—which, of course, would necessitate acquiring property facing Georgia.

Landex and Warrenton reportedly reached a deal last year to lease and develop a block-long strip of property along Georgia next to Park Morton. Now that they’re no longer working on the project, it’s unclear whether that deal will carry over to the new development team. Black King says she doesn’t believe any deal was ever finalized, and that when the city canceled the development agreement with Landex and Warrenton, “it was my understanding that they didn’t have any of those parcels under control.” Executives at Landex and Warrenton did not return calls for comment.

New Communities isn’t the only affordable housing program that’s been slow to gain traction. The city’s statutory approach to creating affordable housing, called inclusionary zoning, requires developers of large residential buildings to set aside a certain percentage of the units for low-income residents. But it wasn’t until last summer, four years after the program took effect, that the first inclusionary zoning unit was sold, and only 14 units had been rented by that point. And the city hasn’t been able to find enough affordable apartments for its rapid rehousing program, the principal means of moving families out of homeless shelters.

Some Park View residents have grown antsy over the stalled redevelopment process. “Talking to people in the District government, they’ve told me that this should be the easiest project of the four New Communities developments,” says Kent Boese, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for Park View who writes the Park View, D.C. blog. “And yet it’s not moving forward.”

Both Todman and Black King refrain from calling Park Morton the single best New Communities opportunity. Northwest One, they say, benefits from the recent growth of nearby NoMa and from the existence of vacant parcels of land, while Barry Farm is the most Metro-accessible site. And although Park Morton may boast the highest housing values in the surrounding neighborhood, it’s not without its own challenges.

One is the need to acquire additional parcels, which may be used for off-site public housing, rather than integrating this replacement housing with the market-rate and affordable units on the original site. That would appear to undermine one of the city’s four “guiding principles” for New Communities, which calls for a mix of incomes. But Todman says it could expedite the project, which will ultimately deconcentrate poverty.

Another of those principles is “build first”: The city should construct new housing on or near the site before starting demolition so as to minimize displacement. Again, Todman says that just might not be possible in space-constrained Park View.

“If we were in suburbia, it would be ever more practical,” she says. “But in this neighborhood, do we actually think we can create enough of a swing space so that families are not relocated at all in the interim? I think that’s a high bar.”

Even the success of Park View, a boon to financing the project, has its drawbacks. When the city demolished the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg public-housing complex near the Navy Yard under the now-extinct federal Hope VI program, a New Communities predecessor, there was basically a blank slate on which to build. The result was a brand-new Capitol Riverfront neighborhood, with a mix of housing, parks, restaurants, and offices. In thriving Park View, the city will have to work to keep neighbors happy.

“Unlike Capper, we’re going to be doing construction in a residential area,” says Todman. “With Capper, it was just us. So there’s going to be a ‘pardon my dust’ period here.”

Capper offers one other cautionary lesson for Park Morton: These things can take time. Lots of time. Capper was razed in the mid-2000s, and the redevelopment was supposed to be done by 2013. Instead, of the 707 demolished public-housing units, only 515 have been replaced. The neighborhood reinvention has been a success, but to impatient displaced families, the housing development has not.

That means that when the Park Morton demolition finally begins, it could be a decade before all the households actually have a chance to move back. It’s a daunting prospect for Park Morton residents who worry about long-term displacement.

Yamise Rogers, a single mother who’s lived at Park Morton for 15 years, says the buildings are in need of modernization but believes the complex could be renovated rather than razed. “Knocking it to the ground, I don’t think is good,” she says. “I just think it needs to be remodeled on the inside.”

But with demolition planned, delay has its cost, too. As families move out of Park Morton—to The Avenue, other Housing Authority properties, or elsewhere—their apartments at Park Morton are kept vacant. The Housing Authority says it doesn’t make sense to move a family into an apartment that will soon be razed. But as the process drags on for years, that can mean boarded-up apartments in Housing Authority buildings at the same time that the agency has closed its waiting list for public housing because it’s grown to an unmanageable length of about 70,000 households in need.

Park View neighbors are eager to see the redevelopment begin, too. Boese was grateful that the Housing Authority moved so quickly to issue the new solicitation after the deal with Landex and Warrenton was scrapped. But he says the long delay has probably slowed the development of other properties on Georgia Avenue, and has worried homeowners in Park View who thought the project would be well underway by now.

“People who have purchased their homes nearby have been told by real estate agents that it’ll be redeveloped,” Boese says. “And they’re still wondering when that will be.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery