DC gov’t suspect as they seek to develop Big K site in Anacostia
“The warlords in the Congo have more integrity than these people,” says James L. Hope, a long-time resident of Anacostia and international traveler, one of many longtime East Washington residents who expressed their suspicions during a meeting held last month by the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) at the Anacostia Gateway Government Center. The meeting was held to solicit community input on the agency’s summer acquisition of 2228, 2234, 2238, and 2252 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, known as the “Big K” site.
“This is nothing more than a dog and pony show,” Rev. Oliver Johnson said as he rose to his feet. “They are meeting the benchmarks of the grant. All they have to do is turn in those attendance sheets to meet the grant deadlines. It’s pseudo participation,” Johnson, a sixth generation Washingtonian and former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner later told me. “They think we don’t have the acumen to see through the razzle-dazzle.”
In July, DHCD acquired the Big K properties from the Kushner family for just under one million dollars, thus avoiding the one million threshold requiring City Council scrutiny. DHCD hopes “to strategically invest in a long-standing abandoned and deteriorated group of properties that represent a blight to the Historic Anacostia neighborhood,” according to an official statement.
Presented at the meeting was DHCD’s timeline which called for “Next Steps” to incorporate community comments into an RFQ [Request for Proposals] and then issue an RFQ to secure development partners by December 2010. DHCD’s recommendations were to secure a development partner by February 2011 and meet with the community, and by spring 2011 to continue “on-going community meetings around development timeline and program.”
DHCD’s Executive Director, Leila Edmonds, was not available for further comment. Along with other officials at last month’s meeting, she was decried as a “professional mover” by Rev. Johnson, who predicted that a changeover in Mayoral administrations could sharply change the organization’s leadership.
At the heart of the future of the Big K site is the Anacostia Historic District which includes 2228, 2234, and 2238 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, but does not include the former site of Big K Liquors at 2252 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
In early 1978, after years of community driven advocacy, Anacostia was designated a Historic District, roughly bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue on the west, Fendall Street at the rear of the Frederick Douglass house on the east, and Bangor Street at Morris Road on the south. The historic designation by the Joint Committee on Landmarks of the National Capital includes 550 buildings dating from 1854 to 1930 within a 20 block area listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We feel that these buildings are important to the Anacostia Historic District. Now that the city is in control of these resources we feel they need to be brought back into productive use in a timely fashion,” says Rebecca Miller, Executive Director of the DC Preservation League, which has listed the Anacostia Historic District on its 2005 and 2010 list of Most Endangered Places for Washington, DC.
According to Catherine Buell, recently appointed Chair of the DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), the Kushner family’s request to demolish the properties earlier this year was denied by the HPRB.
“It is difficult to say what HPRB will and will not support at this point. We will have to wait and see a proposal before the board,” says Buell, an associate attorney with Patton Boggs.
Expressing a need for parking, workforce development, affordable housing, and locations for area youth, some in the meeting focused on Anacostia’s need for commerce.
“The Anacostia metro stop is the gateway to one of the most historic communities in the city, yet one of the most neglected in terms of high level development. The community has more than its fair share of social programs, like the Salvation Army Headquarters across the street from the Big K property,” remarked Drake Wilson, a resident of the 1600 block of V Street for more than two decades and an active member of numerous neighborhood civic groups. Drake called for the former Big K liquor store, falling outside of the zoned Historic Anacostia District, to be demolished immediately. “What is most disturbing is that these social programs have a strong presence on the ‘main street’ where businesses should be located.”
Anacostia’s main streets remain blighted with a large inventory of vacant properties and a high concentration of social service agencies —- from Bread for the City on Good Hope Road to the Whitman Walker Clinic on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, and the Good Hope Institute, a high volume methadone clinic which attracts heroin users and their dealers who idle in the neighborhood throughout daylight hours.
“There’s a lot of hustling going around,” says Hannah Hawkins, known for her work with Children of Mine, an after-school program for neighborhood children, located at 2263 Mount View Place SE, directly behind the Big K site.
“There was trash everywhere. Homeless men were sleeping on the back porch,” notes Hawkins who says the historic homes on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue were abandoned when she moved into her location on Mount View Place in May of 1992.
“It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen because you have a lot of speculators. They are always looking out for their concerns as opposed to the concerns of the general public,” observes Hawkins. “The Salvation Army went up like a thief in the night. They came into the community without any major references,” notes Hawkins, a native Washingtonian, who says DHCD officials have yet to reach out to her in any way.
Questioning the timing of the purchase in the middle of this summer’s Mayoral contest, current Ward 8 Councilmember and former Mayor Marion Barry says he was not informed of the DHCD’s purchase beforehand. In a subsequent letter, sent in November, to District officials and community organizations Barry writes, “It is unprecedented that the government would buy a liquor store because it’s an eyesore rather than getting DCRA [Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs] to clean it up.”
“If it is possible and can be done right we can move the houses to an alternative site,” says Barry. “In Washington we are so land poor we need to go up. I would support housing or office space with retail on the ground floor; something half the size of the Salvation Army building with parking on the bottom.”
Others in the community such as Nikki Peele, of Eat, Shop, Live Anacostia, a newly launched branding campaign, have expressed a desire that DHCD rehabilitate the current properties to become a restaurant and cultural center that can be used as a performing arts venue.
“Both parties, DC government and the community, want to see the best outcome for this property,” says Charles Wilson, ANC 8a04 elect and founding member of the Historic Anacostia Block Association.
With 2010 coming to an end, the past decade of change and development that has defined the continued, albeit sometimes contentious, re-emergence of many of the city’s historic commercial corridors has eluded Historic Anacostia. With 2011 dawning, the process of change in Anacostia moves forward with lingering questions and suspicions as to what the future will bring to the Big K properties.