Petitioners Say Development Lacks Truly Affordable Housing, Will Further Displacement
By Matthew Koehler
My family and I moved down to Southwest just over six years ago, and in that short time the neighborhood and surroundings have transformed before my eyes. Before, our community, including the Wharf, was sparse in amenities; there was the Safeway, a CVS, the fish market, and less than a handful of restaurants, including Jenny’s at the Wharf, which was forced out by development and high rent.
Since making Southwest our home in mid-2013, however, new developments and high rise apartments have popped up everywhere. The rapid pace of development has changed much of the pace, people, and character of the neighborhood. There are a lot more people down here, with more on the way, which isn’t necessarily (or perhaps a better word) a bad thing. With more people, more businesses can thrive. There is more neighborhood serving retail – most of which is pricey but arguably still good for the economic survival of the neighborhood.
However, there is also a lot more traffic, which is not a good thing and needs better management (more on that later).
For some, all the new development seems like a given. I’ve heard people say that it’s going to happen one way or another, and that, for better or worse in the short-term, it’s always good in the long term.
A group of local activists, the Pro Se Petitioners, don’t feel that development is a foregone conclusion though, and believe the community has not had an equitable seat at the table. On Dec. 16, 2019 they held a press conference to explain their opposition to the development and why they were filing a brief with the Court of Appeals to stop it.
“We’re not against development. We’re just against development that’s not sustainable and equitable,” said Adom Cooper, one of the petitioners. They point to the urban renewal of Southwest in the 50’s and 60’s that displaced thousands of black families and view current development, which isn’t supplying enough affordable housing, as another kind of displacement exacerbating inequality amongst Southwest’s more vulnerable residents.
The Pro Se Petitioners call themselves “a group of racially diverse educators, writers, scholars, new and long-time residents who believe strongly in equitable, people-centered, anti-racist development,” and at the heart of their dispute are the future developments at the intersection of 4th & M (425 M St. and 375 M St. SW).
Back in the mid aughts, developer Forest City, now Brookfield Properties, bought the two empty lots (both public land) at the aforementioned intersection for $10 a piece. They envisioned turning the land into office buildings with some ground-floor serving retail. But over time, the needs of the neighborhood, and DC at large, has changed.
In 2017, Forest City filed to change the development from commercial to residential. This started the PUD (Planned Unit Development) process and is when Coy McKinney of the Pro Se Petitioners got involved, stating “I frequented the Friday Night Markets a lot, and I heard about it. I was already concerned with sky-rocketing housing costs in DC. So when I heard that it was going to happen right across from me, and it was replacing a community space that I felt was important [where Night Market and the Farmer’s Market is held], I got involved.”
The lots sat empty for 12 years after Forest City purchased them as the developers sought extensions on three separate occasions. In the meantime, the ANC managed to get the developers to “activate” the lots, which opened them up for various kinds of community use, like the Night Market and Farmers Market, which have been a mainstay for several years now. The DC State Fair and the 202Creates Art festival were held there, as well. According to Coy, and others in the neighborhood, “the uniqueness of the space, including its central location, and the fact that it was free to use, made it one of the most welcoming, engaging, and important gathering spaces in all of SW by the mid-2010s.”
But it’s not just the impending loss of the lots as useful open space that concerns the Petitioners. With all the new developments going up, there is a dearth of affordable housing for middle class families. Pam McKinney said that, “This was originally supposed to be an office building and now they want it to be a residential building with 600 units, only 11% affordable [at 60% AMI].” Of these, only five of the units will be family-sized three bedrooms at 60% AMI, which they argue is not affordable for a lot of lower-middle income families. Additionally, “White households make three times the amount of money black households do,” which the Petitioners find “inherently racist” because many black households in DC will be barred from living in the new development.
Another factor adding to the lack of affordable housing in the new developments is the proposed community center in the east building (375 M St.), promised rent free for 30 years, another concession the developer made to the ANC. Community centers are good, but Coy says that, “In our meetings with the developer, they told us that more affordable housing could’ve been included in the project if it wasn’t for the community center.” (I can confirm this because I was at the same meeting).
He continued, “SW is the smallest quadrant in the city, yet we have plenty of spaces where people can meet. We have Randall Recreation Center. We have Greenleaf. We have a new library that’s gonna be opened. We have multiple churches with space we can use. So the weight of the community center verse affordable housing…to me, that’s not the proper balance.”
The other factor playing a significant role in this development, and one that 18-20 gathered witnesses to the press conference raised as well, is the increased traffic and danger brought on by the influx of development and people in the area.
Back in 2018 at a zoning hearing about these two proposed developments, ANC Commissioner Andy Litsky raised the troubling fact that developers hadn’t done a proper traffic study and were relying on an old study from the late aughts, before Audi Field, The Wharf redevelopment, and all the other developments went on-line. In fact, at the zoning hearing, the developer said that they would do a new traffic study after the developments were built, which had many at the hearing shaking their heads.
During a Q&A at the Dec. 16 press conference, several witnesses expressed their concerns over the increased traffic,””As far as I’m concerned, this is a circus, here, all the time.”
“It’s accidents waiting to happen,” said another, “quite a few pedestrians have been hit.”
The general concern is that the new developments are only going to add to the increased danger of the intersection at 4th & M and the developer, in citing that their development won’t significantly increase traffic and danger, is inaccurate.
I asked the Petitioners if they win the appeal what the next steps would be and Adom Cooper had this to say:
When you talk about what our big ask would be, it’s to go back to the drawing board because the dynamics of this have changed. When this was approved, there was no Wharf, no Nats Park, no Audi Field – and that’s just 3 examples. So when you talk about what needs to be done is go back to the drawing board. Get a new traffic study, for example, to tell about, you know, what the dynamics of the neighborhood are now and then go forward on approving a different project that would be more affordable and more sustainable.
After 29 minutes in the cold and rain, thankfully under the canopy of the stage on the activated site at 375 M St., the Pro Se Petitioners closed out their press conference and we all went home. Their brief was due that night and now comes another several months of waiting for a verdict from the Court of Appeals.
To read about the Pro Se Petitioners, or get involved, go to https://sites.google.com/view/sw-dc-action/home.
*Original article incorrectly stated that only 8% of units in the proposed residential developments would be affordable. The number of affordable units should have been 11%. That data point has been changed in the article.