Why Did Developer WC Smith Buy Up Most of Congress Heights?
A walk along the District’s far southeastern edge reveals much that wasn’t there 20 years ago. Heading eastward from the Congress Heights Metro station on Alabama Avenue SE, the first stop is the Shops at Park Village, anchored by a Giant that became Ward 8’s first full-service supermarket since the last century when it opened in late 2007. Turn right on Stanton Road, and there’s the sprawling Villages of Parklands, with more than 1,000 apartments, plus townhomes and a splash park (renovated in the 1990s and 2000s). Off to the right are the Park Vista apartments (completed 2011) and the 75 single-family houses of Asheford Court (2009); to the left is the 257-unit Orchard Park apartment complex (2008) and the Town Hall Education Arts and Recreation Campus, a performance, education, and office development better known as THEARC (2005).
What do these properties have in common, other than having transformed a once-decrepit (if still-poor) section of Congress Heights and Shipley? They were all built or rebuilt by the developer WC Smith.
It’s not uncommon for a developer to go all-in for a neighborhood. The JBG Companies control much of the U Street corridor between 7th and 14th streets NW. Douglas Development bought up much of F Street NW downtown. Nearly all of EastBanc’s properties are within a block of M Street NW in Georgetown. After all, there are advantages to controlling a neighborhood: The developer gets to choose what goes around its properties, theoretically creating a kind of value-building symbiosis.
But there are three things that set WC Smith’s domination of the Congress Heights area apart. First, unlike U Street or downtown or Georgetown, it’s one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods; the average median household income of the census tracts within a half mile of the Congress Heights Metro station is less than $32,000, the lowest of any Metro-station area in the District. Second, the extent of WC Smith’s dominion over Congress Heights is unparalleled: In some sections of the neighborhood, there’s hardly a square foot it doesn’t control.
And finally, in a town where developer-bashing ranks among the favorite pastimes, you’d be hard pressed to find a Congress Heights resident with a bad word to say about WC Smith.
“Let me tell you something,” says Mary Cuthbert, the self-proclaimed “queen of Congress Heights” and a 50-year neighborhood resident who chairs the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission. “When the other developers wouldn’t come near Ward 8, when they were slumlords and their buildings were falling down, William C. Smith fixed those buildings for people like me.”
WC Smith is best known in the District for building and rebuilding affordable housing, particularly in Southeast. It’s been a part of projects like the Sheridan Station redevelopment of public housing in Anacostia and the planned mixed-use development known as the Skyland Town Center. In the process, the company has received much praise from city officials—as well as subsidies, including a $40 million TIF break for Skyland. Smith has also done its part to return the favor: Along with its affiliates, according to a WAMU report last year, the company made 111 political contributions between 2003 and 2012 for a total of $103,450. It was the third-biggest donor to Adrian Fenty between 2003 and 2008 and the second-biggest donor to Vince Gray between 2004 and 2010.
William C. Smith—the name of both the company’s founder and the company itself until the latter was shortened to the initials—made his entree into Ward 8 half a century ago when he purchased the Richman Apartments in Congress Heights around 1955, but it wasn’t until his son Chris Smith succeeded him as CEO in 1986 that the true takeover began.
“We concentrated all our energies right here in the ‘90s,” says the younger Smith. (His father died in 2009.) It wasn’t an obvious choice. The neighborhood, a sought-after, mixed-race, middle-class community in the 1950s, experienced the same flight to the suburbs that plagued much of the city, but was worse east of the Anacostia River. The result was a predominantly black and poor population and an unsightly streetscape. The only major industry nearby was the St. Elizabeths mental hospital.
“When you used to drive through 20 to 25 years ago, the larger properties were half vacant, all boarded up,” says Smith. “That’s because people were leaving wards 7 and 8 for greener pastures.”
Smith’s big move was the 1991 purchase of the collection of buildings that now make up the Villages of Parklands. The company tore down vacant buildings to erect townhouses, built the splash park for residents, and, rather than create a tiny community center just for the relatively small Parklands population, collaborated with the National Park Service to open THEARC in 2005. The education and arts center has taken on enough of a profile as an east-of-the-river hub that President Barack Obama has chosen it as the venue for speeches on economic mobility and fatherhood.
“People thought we were nuts that we were going to sell townhomes in Ward 8 for over $100,000,” says Smith. But they sold quickly, he says, mostly to Ward 8 families who had previously rented and didn’t think they could afford to buy. (Just prior to the 2008 recession, the Smith-built townhomes along Mississippi Avenue SE were routinely selling for more than $300,000, according to city property records; since then, sales mostly have been in the 200s.)
But while the vinyl-sided townhomes, each with a street-facing garage and a tidy front lawn—and the two-car-garage free-standing houses just to the west—might be beloved now by residents who recall a rougher past in Congress Heights, they do pose two potential future dilemmas as the neighborhood continues to evolve.
First is their distinctly suburban format. Without enough demand in the neighborhood currently to support a greater density of middle-class dwellings, these homes seem all right. But with the city’s population growing by about 1,000 residents a month, the time will soon come when the wisdom of building spaced-out, car-centric residences within walking distance of the Metro will seem more dubious.
Opponents of taller buildings in the city’s core invoke the mantra of building “out, not up,” allowing development to spread to the city’s poorer, outlying areas, like Congress Heights. But there’s little room to build out when the “out” areas are taken up by houses like these. Instead, we may end up building out to the suburbs, and the District will lose out on residents and tax dollars.
The Giant on Alabama Avenue—or rather, separated from Alabama by a sea of parking the size of two small city blocks—is an instructive example of the tricks time can play. Before it opened in 2007, a suburban format with extensive surface parking was necessary to lure Giant to the site because it was what the company was used to, says Smith. Now, rather than a design Greater Greater Washington called “straight from Atlanta,” the idea of a more pedestrian-focused store, just a short walk from the Metro, seems logical if not obvious. “If we were doing the grocery store today, would we do [a more urban design]?” Smith asks. “We’d definitely considered it. But we couldn’t do it then.”
The second problem is one of affordability. Where developers often breed resentment, WC Smith has built a tremendous store of goodwill—but you have to wonder how long it’ll last when all this development inevitably makes Congress Heights less affordable to longtime residents. For now, Smith has remained popular in part because residents are seeing the good of development without the bad, since the neighborhood remains much less well off than others with comparable recent development.
“Congress Heights was a working-class community,” says the Rev. Anthony Motley, who’s lived in the neighborhood for more than 60 years, “and it continues to be that. It’s transitioned from a predominantly white neighborhood to predominantly African American, but it’s still working class.”
That could begin to change when the biggest thing to happen to Congress Heights in decades finally arrives: the redevelopment of St. Elizabeths into a mixed-use campus of housing, offices, and retail. Large-scale, Metro-adjacent developments have already transformed formerly blighted neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and the Navy Yard area. It would be naive to think the same couldn’t happen in Congress Heights.
Of course, that will be great financial news for WC Smith, which will finally reap substantial profits from its patient and farsighted investment in the neighborhood. (Smith says the company made no profits in its early years of Congress Heights development. “There was no quick buck to be made here,” he says. “It was all with a long-term view.”) For neighborhood homeowners, too: Their ample houses could easily double in value. But as prices start to rise, longtime renters might begin to find themselves priced out of the neighborhood they’ve inhabited for decades. We’ll see just how beloved WC Smith remains then.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, this story initially stated that WC Smith was involved in the redevelopment of the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg public housing complex. Although WC Smith owns land that was included in the Capper/Carrollsburg planned unit development and built Canal Park adjacent to the site, the company did not directly build any of the housing that comprised the project. Additionally, the story stated that WC Smith was a recipient of the $55 million PILOT subsidy for the project, citing a WAMU report last year that listed Smith as a recipient. In fact, Smith did not receive any of that subsidy.
Illustration by Jandos Rothstein