Fort Totten development is slow to start


Some of the now-empty Riggs Plaza buildings are expected to be demolished later this year. Many of the community’s residents are living in buildings that won’t be torn down until new ones are built. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation is one of the leading charitable institutions in Washington. Established by real estate magnate Morris Cafritz in 1948, the foundation issues millions of dollars in grants annually to local charities.

The organization has been less successful, however, at financing construction of a new development to replace the Riggs Plaza Apartments in Fort Totten, leaving residents displaced from the existing units to wait years for new apartments that still have no firm arrival date.

The Cafritz foundation has owned the property, situated on 17 acres along South Dakota Avenue Northeast, for more than five decades and began moving residents from their homes to temporary units more than two years ago. But the foundation is more than a year from being able to start construction, according to Jane L. Cafritz, a member of the foundation’s advisory board and wife of developer Calvin Cafritz, who is chairman of the board of directors.

Cafritz said she expected demolition of some Riggs Plaza buildings, now empty, later this year. She said many of the Riggs Plaza residents are living in 98 units on the site that would not be torn down until new units are constructed.

“They are the Riggs Plaza community and they will be welcomed back when the project is completed,” Cafritz said.

But Cafritz said she was not sure when that would be. For more than five years, the foundation has been planning to replace the Riggs Plaza apartments with 900-plus new, subsidized apartments and a grocery store in a development called Art Place and Shops at Fort Totten. The plans call for nearly 2 million square feet of development and were approved by the city in 2009.

Cafritz said construction had not yet begun in part because of the complexity of the project. “It takes a long time to get all of the plans coordinated. It’s everything from the design to the uses to the community input,” she said.

She also said the collapse of the financial and real estate markets had played a role. “The truth is, the development changed from the time that it was designed to what we think of now as good community design. We now know that good community design requires mixed-use,” she said.

The foundation isn’t the only developer planning to bring new retail and housing to the area. Los Angeles-based Lowe Enterprises and Chevy Chase-based JBG are teaming on a a nine-acre mixed-use project at Riggs Road and South Dakota Avenue nearby and also plan to have a major grocery anchor. JBG opened the Wal-Mart in Alexandria and is working on stores for Tysons Corner, elsewhere in the District and in Rockville.

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) , whose district includes the Lowe-JBG site and borders the Cafritz site, said she planned to address both projects in a development meeting in early November.

“Our concern has been making sure that the projects support each other and I think everybody in the community had hoped they would have moved faster,” she said.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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