In some cases, the revitalization of the District has been the story of a rising tide lifting all boats, but for other long-neglected neighborhoods, a better metaphor might involve the bursting of a dam.
Only a decade ago, the area to the west of the Washington Navy Yard was a dried-up, post-industrial ghost town. But these days, a spate of construction projects is breathing new life along the banks of the Anacostia River as part of an ambitious residential and commercial venture called the Capitol Riverfront — which is transforming the area’s historic structures while trying to preserve the original industrial spirit that buoyed the neighborhood during the Navy Yard’s heyday.
Across the river in the neighborhood of Anacostia, however, the changes have been much more subtle — and few insiders expect a flood of development there in the near future. But, because Anacostia had been a symbol of stagnancy for so long, many people have taken note of recent stirrings in the Southeast neighborhood, where a sit-down restaurant and bar opened earlier this year — the first in decades — and art galleries have been popping up. Plans to move the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security, and with it tens of thousands of jobs, to neighboring Congress Heights have spurred further speculation about Anacostia’s prospects.
Today, as real estate on the river’s opposite shore rises to new prominence, so too is long-dormant Anacostia churning. That the area around the Navy Yard and Anacostia would share successes should come as no surprise, however, because their fortunes have long been tied.
Tides of Change
Gazing across the Anacostia River from the grassy parklands on the water’s southeast shore, onlookers can spot the Navy Yard by the 4,050-ton destroyer moored at its docks. More tourists shuffle across the decks of the USS Barry now than sailors, but the decommissioned battleship remains an imposing symbol of the industry that grew up around the Navy’s oldest shore establishment. Until the War of 1812, this was the site of the Navy’s largest shipbuilding operation. Afterward, it became an important center for making ordnances. By World War II, it was the largest naval ordnance manufacturer anywhere. At its height, the Navy Yard employed 25,000 workers.
The Navy Yard’s growth as an industrial center and employment base helped push the District’s population over the river. In the mid-18th century, what is now Anacostia was incorporated to become a bedroom community called Uniontown for the Navy Yard’s workforce. The land in the mostly rural area was affordable for workers at the Navy Yard, and Uniontown soon grew into a thriving middle-class neighborhood. As evidenced by some of the impressive houses dotting Anacostia today, however, it also added more affluent residents into the mix. The neighborhood continued to do well into the mid-20th century, but as the role of the Navy Yard shifted to becoming more administrative, and as new suburbs were drawing the people who could afford them further away from downtown, Anacostia’s appeal was gradually eroded.
“It’s a situation where it slowly declined because the Navy Yards became less important first as a shipbuilding center and then as an ordnance production center. All of that stuff got moved out to other areas,” said Timothy Dennee, an architectural historian with the D.C. Historic Preservation Office.
Around the same time, the area also saw one of America’s largest migrations play out as part of a national saga fueled by long-simmering issues of race and class.
Back in 1854, Uniontown was incorporated as a neighborhood that forbade blacks and Irish from living there. But abolitionist Frederick Douglass moved there in 1877, near the end of the Reconstruction Era, as did other African Americans. By 1950, Anacostia was about 80 percent white, though by no means monolithic in regards to race. But over the next couple of decades a major demographic shift occurred. The so-called “white flight” and “urban renewal” sweeping across American cities in the middle of the 20th century completely inverted Anacostia’s makeup, to the point where more than 85 percent of its residents were black by 1970.
While some people blamed the reverse itself as the cause of Anacostia’s decline, more subtle changes in housing policy and planning are what spelled the neighborhood’s economic collapse. Following a drive to clear low-income communities from the center of D.C. — in some cases to accommodate freeways for commuters traveling to and from distant suburbs — the city ran into a shortage of low-income housing. So in 1967, the District announced it would add 30,000 units of subsidized housing in Anacostia. The result was that residents who were struggling financially filed in just as more well-to-do ones poured out.
Zoning laws were also rewritten around this time and by 1970, three-quarters of Anacostia was zoned for apartments, thus dramatically driving down the percentage of homeowners. The area’s tax revenues also fell steeply as the District’s changing income distribution clustered many low-income residents in neighborhoods east of the river. Anacostia soon began to suffer from the sociological problems associated with concentrated poverty combined with geographic isolation from the rest of the city and its social services.
Rioting after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 destroyed many of the area’s commercial properties and caused other business owners to flee, further stranding the community from amenities and branding it a dangerous place.
Meanwhile, industrial activity in and around the Navy Yard was withering and buildings that were once sites for manufacturing began to fall into disrepair, fueling the vicious cycle of Anacostia’s decline. With few residential buildings, and no longer drawing a robust daily workforce, the area around the Navy Yard essentially became a deserted quarter of the city.
On either side of the river, life in Anacostia and the Navy Yard was on the wane.
Today, visitors strolling west from the Navy Yard will come across the sculpted walkways, fountains and manicured gardens of Yards Park, a 5.5-acre waterfront recreational area that opened last year to complement the torrent of development that has transformed what was once a no-man’s land into an up-and-coming destination in less than a decade.
The Capitol Riverfront aims to capitalize on its prime location and natural appeal — notably one and a half miles of waterfront stretching north to the U.S. Capitol, which is just blocks away. Anchored by the Washington Navy Yard, the 500-acre project is designed to preserve the area’s distinct industrial heritage while incorporating state-of-the-art green building technology (including more than 30 LEED-certified existing or planned buildings and the largest green roof in the city atop the Department of Transportation).
In short, it’s a grand, multibillion-dollar, public-private endeavor that could finally fulfill Pierre L’Enfant’s original vision for Washington by creating a true hub of activity along the water’s edge.
Already, the mixed-use community attracts 35,000 daytime employees in 6.5 million square feet of office space — including the Washington Navy Yard and U.S. Department of Transportation — along with nearly 2,500 residential units housing 3,300 people.
“The riverfront is an incredible advantage to us,” said Michael Stevens, executive director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District. He points out that the area boasts a stop on the Metro’s popular Green Line and is walking distance to Capitol Hill — and, for baseball fans, is a stone’s throw from Nationals Park. But its distinguishing feature, he says, is the combination of accessibility to transportation and the scenic backdrop of the river. “There’s just not a lot of waterfront [in D.C.] where you can live, work and play.”
Though Washington is positioned at the fork of a great waterway, it has been relatively slow to fully develop this real estate asset, and that has played to the Capitol Riverfront’s advantage, experts say.
“Here we had the capital of the country, and yet it didn’t have much of a waterfront to speak of. There’s Georgetown waterfront, but that’s pretty new, and then there was all of this other waterfront that was under-utilized,” said Will Smith of UrbanTurf.com, an online real estate guide. “The whole idea of the Capitol Riverfront was to recapture this under-utilized waterfront land and make it into a great neighborhood, and there was a concerted effort by the city and the development community to do that.”
The biggest component of the revitalization in the neighborhood has been the development of The Yards, which is expected to be completed over the next five years. The project, which sits on more than 40 acres of land — bounded by M Street in Southeast, the Navy Yard, 1st Street, SE, and the Anacostia River — calls for Forest City Washington Inc. to create 2,800 residential units for sale and for lease, 1.8 million square feet of new office space and 400,000 square feet of retail space, while grooming new swaths of parkland and recreational waterfront.
In doing so, the developer is tasked with converting existing historical structures from their industrial past for modern-day use. According to people in charge of the project at Forest City Washington, that’s a job the development company relishes.
“We liked the fact that The Yards was going to be a combination of some historic buildings, adding authentic character and also new buildings to create this great synergy between old and new,” said Ramsey Meiser, senior vice president of development for Forest City Washington. “Typically, the company likes mixed-use urban redevelopments, and we’re very comfortable redoing historic buildings, so this fit right within our comfort zone.”
Meiser cited Forest City’s work in the 1990s on Tobacco Row, a redevelopment of six abandoned tobacco warehouses on the James River in downtown Richmond, Va., as an instance when his company created a new mixed-use residential district that incorporated historical structures.
The final results at The Yards, according to Meiser, will be an assemblage of historic buildings that maintain their original character, other structures that are a meld of historic and modern design, and new buildings styled with a nod to the area’s industrial past. “We’re going to work within the existing structures of the historic buildings, and the designs that we have in mind for a couple of the new buildings will be very consistent,” he said.
Meiser noted that the Boilermaker Building — a historic structure beside the Department of Transportation headquarters that will serve as a main retail hub with six to eight shops and restaurants — “is going to remain consistent with what it looks like today.”
“On the other hand,” he said, “there’s also a pavilion building that stands in the park where we tore the non-historic metal siding off and fixed up the concrete. That building is going to be wrapped in glass and pretty much look like a glass cube.”
The Foundry Lofts, a 170-unit apartment building created from a four-story structure dating back to 1918, will keep much of the original feel intact, Meiser said, while adding two new modern stories on the rooftop.
Although these projects have gotten many people to take a fresh look at the area, the Capitol Riverfront is years away from completion. Moreover, the recent economic recession and subsequent credit freeze hurt the ambitious project, which only picked up steam again in 2010 thanks in large part to a $40 million infusion from the D.C. Housing Finance Agency.
In the meantime, if there is one frequent complaint from Capitol Riverfront residents and visitors, it’s that there just aren’t enough amenities right now. For example, there’s only one bar — Justin’s Café, which doubles as a spot for happy hour and takeout pizza in the first floor of the Velocity building at 1st and K Streets, SE.
But that hasn’t detracted some residents who see the long-term potential.
“This area is really a coming area — it’s convenient to get to almost anywhere you might work in the city. And if we could get a little retail it would be phenomenal,” said Peter Ufland, as he was enjoying an evening with his 1-year-old at Justin’s.
Ufland, a 42-year-old liberal studies professor at the Community College of the District of Columbia, moved into a high-rise in the neighborhood with his wife in September of 2009. Although he sees future growth, he questioned some of the current costs residents are paying. “I think it’s a little bit strange that they’re charging premium prices for what’s still an undeveloped neighborhood,” he told us.
Developers counter that retailers and restaurateurs usually want to see a sufficient population in the neighborhood before they invest. Luckily, the say, the neighborhood is nearing that critical mass, growing from a relatively small number of residents a decade ago to more than 3,300 people today.
Besides the new waterfront park, the other very prominent arrival to the riverbank is also primarily about entertainment: Nationals Park, which opened in 2008. The 41,546-seat stadium — built at a cost of more than $600 million — brought Washington its first Major League Baseball franchise after more than 30 years, and breathed its own new life into the area.
Given all of the growth seemingly emanating from the river, one might be forgiven for thinking that the impetus behind every project in the area was its proximity to the water.
Not so, says Brian Allen Jackson, senior vice president of EYA, the company responsible for Capitol Quarter, a townhouse community that will feature more than 200 new homes along seven city blocks in Southeast between M Street, 3rd Street, I Street and 5th Street.
“When we got involved with the Capitol Quarter project back in 2003, it was before baseball or the Anacostia waterfront was being transformed. What we saw is an area that was walking distance to Capitol Hill, but that had become really disconnected to what was happening on Pennsylvania Avenue and Barracks Row to the north and east because it had been 23 acres of nothing but low-income housing,” Jackson explained.
Two years earlier, the District had been awarded a $35 million federal grant to redevelop the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg public housing projects as a new mixed-income community. EYA agreed to revamp the sewer system and orchestrate other infrastructure improvements as well as to build about 90 low-income apartments for the D.C. Housing Authority — alongside market-rate, for-sale homes that would be identical in style to the low-income ones.
All of the homes are designed in a row-house fashion mimicking Capitol Hill. The low-income apartments are scattered throughout the development. “When you walk through the community you can’t tell the low-income townhouses from the market-rate townhouses, which is one of the concepts behind the project,” Jackson said.
The money for Capitol Quarter was paid forward by the city using guarantees from the increased tax revenue that the development would generate. Right now, four blocks are occupied with a second phase under construction and on target to be completed in 2013, Jackson said. The market-rate homes for the second phase will run from $675,000 to $860,000 for two- to four-bedroom townhouses. The townhouses from the first phase of the project ranged in price from $540,000 to $740,000, so there’s already been considerable appreciation in value.
Although geared toward the Hill community, Jackson said Capitol Quarters has definitely benefited from all the action closer to the water. “It’s really been remarkable to see what’s happened there,” he said. “The fact that we now have new development to the west and east and south of us has made it an even stronger community. And now, of course, our buildings have spectacular rooftop views.”
Anacostia on the Horizon
“It just felt familiar, it felt homey, it felt right,” said Jeanne Cannon, who moved to Anacostia last year from Cape Cod, adding that being near a body of water reminded her of life in Massachusetts.
Cannon, 49, will soon start as the director of a nearby early child development center. Her husband, Bob Cannon, is a project manager for the Department of Homeland Security, and they moved so he could help orchestrate the department’s massive relocation to a 4.5-million-square-foot headquarters that is being erected on the west side of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue — the largest public works project since the construction of the Pentagon.
The couple moved into a remodeled 1905 row house that they say was significantly more affordable than comparable houses they had looked at elsewhere.
Since the Cannons arrived, Anacostia added a new bar and grill called Uniontown at the end of January. In other places that small change might not be that big of a deal. But because it opened up in Anacostia, where no bar has opened in decades, Uniontown has created quite a buzz, including coverage by the Washington Post and National Public Radio.
The reception has been even greater in the neighborhood, according to Natasha Dasher, Uniontown’s owner.
“While we were remodeling people would pop in the window and ask, ‘What is it? What’s it going to be?'” she recalled. On a recent weekday evening during happy hour, the bar was completely packed and a line was crowded around the doorway. “I thought the excitement was going to die down, but it really hasn’t,” said Dasher. “The community has definitely shown up and shown out.”
Meanwhile, arts spaces like the Honfleur Gallery, which opened in 2007 near the 11th Street Bridge, and Vivid Solutions, a digital print lab and photo gallery that opened on Martin Luther King Avenue, are adding a bohemian vibe to Anacostia.
Duane Gautier, who founded the ARCH Development Corporation, a nonprofit based in Anacostia, more than 20 years ago, helped to bring Honfluer and Vivid Solutions to the community. He said there’s also a restaurant in the works that will feature live music and will hopefully open this year.
A lifetime lover of the arts, Gautier says if Anacostia becomes a caldron of creativity, that could stir other positive developments. “There’s been so many studies about how to renovate Anacostia, and none of them have really been able to move forward,” he said. “What we do is work on a small scale, storefront to storefront.”
Modest investments like Uniontown or art galleries can bring great dividends for Anacostia, and they are often easier to finance than big projects, according to Stan Voudrie, a principal at Four Points, a real estate development firm that has moved its offices to the area.
“Our focus since the economic downturn has to been to do smaller projects that we can do in this economic environment that don’t require big infusions of equity,” he said.
While there have been some setbacks during the recession, Four Points nevertheless has ambitious plans to help redevelop Anacostia in a partnership with George Curtis III, a local property owner whose family business has been in the neighborhood since 1926.
In a joint venture with Comstock Homes, Four Points will start construction on 40 residential units at W Street and 13th Street, SE, in the fall. Four Points will also be redeveloping a warehouse on Shannon Place into a 75,000-square-foot office building.
“We see this as a natural place for growth, much like the Capital Riverfront. Because of the close proximity to downtown employment centers and access to the Metro, there’s a lot of potential for residential and retail development,” said Voudrie. “I think people are being driven back into the city because commute times have gotten so out of control.”
Voudrie also pointed out that the Department of Homeland Security’s move “makes the prospect of office building in this neighborhood more likely and more likely to happen sooner.”
But in addition to looming development projects, Anacostia has drawn interest recently for the historic homes it inherited from the golden days when the neighborhood thrived alongside the Navy Yard. Today, the Anacostia Historic District nestles homes in various Victorian styles, including Italianate, Second Empire and some larger Queen Anne houses.
Les Johnson, a 42-year-old human resources director, moved to the neighborhood in part to have more room for his growing family. In September 2010, Johnson bought a three-bedroom fixer-upper that dates back to the early part of the 20th century in the historic district for $200,000.
“The top reasons that we moved to the area and decided to stay here is the location — the proximity to downtown, and that you can get to Maryland and Virginia pretty easily — and then the value for the house that you get,” Johnson told The Diplomat. “You can actually afford a pretty nice home here.”
Robert DeWitty, a 37-year-old attorney, said he bought a building in Anacostia several years ago as an investment but then rented it out while he was working overseas.
“Before there was a lot of drug activity, but all of the sudden when we came back about a year ago it wasn’t there any more,” he said. “It was good for me to be away, because I’ve really been able to see a lot of the changes.”
Last fall, DeWitty moved into a home in his building with his family and is continuing to work on its renovation. Growing up in upper Northwest, DeWitty says he never thought about Anacostia. “You know, that was a place that you just didn’t go.” These days though he feels differently. “Anacostia is really the type of neighborhood that grows on you,” he said. “On a clear day you can see across the water all the way to the National Cathedral.”
And perhaps one day soon, people may be able to stand on the other side of the river — on the revamped waterfront by the Navy Yard — and see Anacostia in a brand new light.
About the Author
Luke Jerod Kummer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.