Investing Along the Anacostia River and Capitalizing on Capitol Hill

The Federal City Council (FC2) held its 2019 Winter Board meeting at Union Station, a place that is near and dear to our hearts. Back in the 1980s, FC2 led an effort to restore this beautiful iconic building after it had fallen into disrepair.

Yesterday’s meeting focused on how the city can use its public investments to build a stronger economy for communities on both sides of the Anacostia River. We heard about real estate projects in Wards 7 and 8 (with a panel of leading developers, moderated by Tom Gallagher) and the city’s relationship with the federal government (in a conversation with Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor Muriel Bowser, moderated by Tony Williams).

Our speakers who discussed real estate in Wards 7 and 8 were all deeply engaged with the local community long before all the Opportunity Zone buzz. They emphasized the importance of listening to what the local community wanted and sharing in project planning.

Bo Menkiti of the Menkiti Group said the key was to “develop from inside out rather than outside in.” Focus on what assets and strengths the community already has and build on them. The Anacostia community said they wanted more commercial corridors and private sector jobs, which inspired his MLK Gateway project at MLK Jr Ave and Good Hope Rd. That intersection has traditionally been the heart of Anacostia’s historic business district.

Chris Smith of WC Smith described how his firm, through listening sessions, was able to deliver what the neighborhood needed. In the 1990s, the community had voiced concerns about public safety and that its young people needed a safe place to hang out. So his firm founded Building Bridges Across the River, which helped build a state-of-the-art community center (called THEARC) where today 14 nonprofits provide educational and cultural programming. THEARC continues to thrive and grow and is recognized for its impact in the community.

Thomas Skinner of Redbrick said Wards 7 and 8 are just on the precipice of huge economic growth. Redbrick owns more land in DC’s Opportunity Zones than anyone else. The company hopes to build a new hotel on the old St. Elizabeth’s site—the first east of the river—along with more office space for employers and jobs. If Poplar Point gets released by the federal government, Anacostia could finally be connected to its riverfront. The dream is that in ten years, community-centered development can thrive on the east bank of the Anacostia River just like it does on the west bank.

Largescale land-use or development projects in the District almost always involve the Federal government. The feds continue to own huge swaths of the city, from the RFK site and Poplar Point to median circle parks and golf courses. With Democrats now at the helm in the House, the city has an opportunity to do more with federal land and inch closer to statehood.

Eleanor Holmes Norton has been working the halls of Congress for a long time sticking up for the District. City residents get a raw deal from the federal government. Of course there is taxation without representation. But we also barely have control over our own local affairs. Congress can still strike down city-approved legislation. Ms. Norton spends a lot of time killing these kinds of House bills. The city also doesn’t have local District Attorneys; the federal government runs the show in our local justice system. The fight for DC’s home rule continues, even as her bill for statehood has received more support than ever before.

Mayor Bowser and Congresswoman Norton are working lockstep to gain more local control over a lot of underused federal assets. Ms. Norton scored a big victory by pushing through federal legislation to allow a public-private partnership to refurbish Franklin Square—which is in the heart of downtown—into a world-class urban park. This could set the stage for more land use deals.

What to do with the RFK site is front and center on everyone’s mind. It’s a large piece of riverfront land that sits largely unused as empty parking lots. Right now the National Park Service’s lease terms require the city only use it for (highly-limiting) sports or recreation. Besides renegotiating the lease, Mayor Bowser says another option is for the city to buy the land outright and build, for example, much-needed housing.

Meanwhile lurking in the background is a president that is openly hostile to urban interests. President Trump did deliver a harsh blow to the city with the shutdown. But the District has largely managed to fly under his radar, quietly sticking up for itself and accomplishing some wins along the way