The new development wars: As wave of projects begin to sprout, so do disputes

New apartments and shops are spreading into neighborhoods across the Washington region, with developers looking to capi­tal­ize on a better-than-average economy and a massive influx of young adults.

Apartment hunters have wider options, more residents have grocery stores in their neighborhoods and, with dozens of new restaurants and bars, Washington has begun to change its reputation as a gray-suit government town.

Many residents are celebrating the changes. But others aren’t.

And as this new wave of development rises, a chasm between its champions and its skeptics is beginning to show.

In Northeast D.C., Ivy City residents have sued to try to prevent Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) from relocating a bus depot for dozens of private buses into their neighborhood to make way for upgrades at Union Station.

In Washington Highlands, one of the poorest parts of the District, public housing residents sued the D.C. Housing Authority out of concern that they would be permanently displaced from their homes when their units at Highland Dwellings were refurbished.

It isn’t just the low income or disenfranchised who are fighting back. In Wheaton, residents turned away a mixed-use proposal pushed by Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). Residents in Reston have formed an advocacy group, Rescue Reston, and say they have gathered 650 signatures opposing the possible redevelopment of Reston National Golf Course.

There have always been battles between residents and the developers, planners and city officials proposing alterations to neighborhoods. But with the economy gaining steam and apartment construction booming, disputes that faded during the recession are beginning to boil again.

“I think in many ways it’s the same, but now we have many more examples of how these communities are getting screwed over,” said Parisa Norouzi, director of the community organizing group Empower D.C.

‘No trust’

Empower D.C. battled former mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s attempts to close excess schools and lease the buildings to developers, projects that Norouzi said were driven by “gentrification or private profit.” She says those battles have better prepared residents and organizers for disputes such as the bus relocation, which Empower D.C. and residents are fighting in D.C. Superior Court. “At this point, there is really no trust in the process,” she said.

A hearing on the case is expected Tuesday. A Gray spokesman declined to comment.

In other instances, the opponents to zoning changes or development are the well-heeled. Neighborhoods in wealthier parts of Northwest D.C. are raising concerns about parking shortages under proposed changes to the District’s zoning code, while in Reston the concern is a lack of green space should the golf course’s owner try to build a project to capi­tal­ize on the construction of two Silver Line Metro stations nearby.

Some Wheaton residents rejected plans to create a mixed-use downtown project because it might resemble the redevelopment of Silver Spring — a success to some but not others. “We know how many small businesses struggled and went out of business in Silver Spring,” Bob Schilke, owner of the Little Bitts Shop of cake supplies, told the Montgomery County Council in February.

Sometimes even the terms used to describe development have have taken on widely different meanings. The D.C. Housing Authority became the envy of other cities in winning seven grants under the federal HOPE VI program, which enabled the District to overhaul blighted public housing projects into mixed-income neighborhoods.

The agency’s renovation of Highland Dwellings, east of Bolling Air Force Base, isn’t a HOPE VI program and no market rate units are even being built. But spokeswoman Dena Michaelson said the agency could have done a better job making that clear to avoid the lawsuit it faced (and since settled).

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