Posted by Aaron Wiener on Dec. 30, 2013 at 5:06 pm
Nothing brings a grin to a mayor’s face quite like raising an oversize pair of scissors and cutting a ribbon. All the more so in an election year. While 2014 does portend some potential pitfalls for Vince Gray—look no further than the process to redraw school boundaries for the first time in more than 30 years—the completion of a number of major projects ought to give the mayor something to celebrate. The question then becomes whether and how the projects are making D.C. a better place to live, for both its wealthy and its not-so-wealthy residents. Here’s what we have to look forward to in development in 2014.
A wave of multiblock development projects began to arrive in late 2013. The city’s largest supermarket opened at Shaw’s CityMarket at O; residents of the pricey apartments above it started to move in as the year came to a close. Likewise, the first tenants moved into their units at downtown’s posh CityCenterDC, as did the first retailer, upscale luggage store Tumi. But both projects will really take shape in 2014, when leasing begins for the remaining two buildings at CityMarket and the Cambria Suites hotel opens there, and the rest of CityCenter is completed and office tenants start to move in, as well as the rest of the retailers and residents of the multimillion-dollar condos. Only then will we know the extent to which the two projects have transformed their neighborhoods.
But they’re just the foaming tip of the wave. The bulk of it will continue to swell and tumble as even bigger projects start to form. In November, the city selected a development team to build on the 67-acre Walter Reed site between 16th Street NW and Georgia Avenue, where an expected federal-government approval early this year will allow real planning to start. Bigger yet is the 183-acre St. Elizabeths East Campus near Congress Heights, where the city plans to select an “academic anchor” (likely a college) this summer to kick off the development of the rest of the site. And the most controversial of all is the 25-acre former McMillan Sand Filtration Site along North Capitol Street, whose developer cleared a major preservation hurdle in late October; while several more approvals are necessary before construction can begin, this is the closest the long-dormant project has come to reality.
Yes, 2013 had its fair share of ribbon-cuttings. But as those projects become fully realized, and as even larger ones get underway, we’ll get a sense of whether the city’s really making the most of its valuable pieces of land.
Gray says to expect it by January; more realistically, we could see streetcar service on H Street NE by spring. But what’s a few months when D.C. hasn’t run streetcars since 1962? The big question isn’t when it’ll begin, but how it’ll be received. The streetcar will run along largely the same route as the X2 bus, and it’ll sometimes be slower than the X2, because it won’t be able to navigate around the inevitable improperly parked cars and delivery trucks. Until it’s in service, we won’t know if the streetcar will actually make H Street more accessible and spur new business and development, or if it’ll just be seen as a transit mode for yuppie types made skittish by the bus.
With 37 miles of streetcar lines planned for the District, will the inaugural H Street line herald a new era for D.C. transit? Or will it be to Gray 2014 what bike lanes were to Adrian Fenty in 2010, a code word for a perceived focus on the gentrifying elements of the city while neglecting those most in need?
There’s no better way for a mayor or a city to demonstrate compassion for less fortunate residents than by providing more affordable housing. In November, Gray made a $187 million commitment to more than 40 affordable housing projects in the city, with a total of 3,200 units. In 2014, we’ll start to get a better sense of how those projects are actually coming along. The sprawling 20-building Parkway Overlook complex south of Anacostia, for instance, has been vacant since 2007; will we finally see steps toward returning it to productive use, at a time when the city’s housing supply is growing tighter and pricier? Also on the list is So Others Might Eat’s 202-unit affordable housing project on Benning Road NE, which could potentially help transform the struggling neighborhood around the Benning Road Metro station.
Meanwhile, the city took a big step this year toward a project that’s already inflamed local passions, the redevelopment of the Barry Farm public housing complex. In June, the D.C. Housing Authority selected Baltimore-based A&R Development to convert Barry Farm, just south of Anacostia, into a mixed-income community. It’s no easy task. The city was supposed to complete theredevelopment of the similarly troubled Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg across the Anacostia River by late 2013 after demolishing the public housing in the mid-2000s. It’s now 2014, and the replacement affordable units are nowhere near done—and that project’s economics were made easier by the arrival of Nationals Park and the U.S. Department of Transportation in the neighborhood. Barry Farm is likely to be tougher, and angry opposition to the redevelopment (albeit partly from nonresidents) has already shut down the one recent attempt at a public meeting on the project. People will look to the Barry Farm project, and its progress in 2014, in assessing whether the city’s equipped to undertake other public-housing redevelopments it’s been eyeing.
Of course, central to the issue of affordable housing is the basic question: How affordable is housing? At this time last year, realtor Terri Robinson of Long & Foster, who’s worked in D.C.-area real estate for 43 years, predicted that prices had passed their trough and would rapidly climb in 2013. She was right; the average sale price for a single-family house in the District is now more than $780,000. In 2014, Robinson says, we could see some relief from skyrocketing housing costs. “The prices have continued to rise, but I think that will slow down next year because the interest rates have started to increase,” she says.
Nonetheless, as long as the city’s population continues to boom, the housing crunch won’t let up. It’s a problem begotten by success. But it’s also one that requires action by the city to counteract, and it’s largely on the basis of that action or inaction that D.C.’s leaders will be judged come Election Day.