Anacostia River: A small-time real estate developer has big dreams
By Marc Fisher,
At the height of the business day, an extra-long, accordion-style Metrobus, the S1, rolls by empty. A grand old Pepco power plant sits idle, locked behind forbidding security fencing. Down by the banks of the Anacostia River, 50 boats bob against the dock of Buzzard Point Marina, but the vessels offer only the illusion of activity — a good number are ghosts, abandoned by owners who couldn’t keep up the payments after the recession hit.
For decades, Buzzard Point has been the Washington waterfront’s next big thing. From The Post, October 1989: Buzzard Point is “the blighted neighborhood south of the Capitol that is now being touted in the real estate trade as the Tysons Corner of the 21st century.”
Twenty-two years later, this great metamorphosis has yet to happen. Duane Deason believes it still can.
In 2004, when Washington’s political leaders were alternately wooing the Montreal Expos and fretting over whether to finance a baseball stadium, the accountant from Alexandria decided to try his hand at the mysterious game of real estate.
Deason is no magnate. He grew up a Foreign Service kid, living in Sweden and Saudi Arabia, then came back for high school and an MBA from Georgetown. His profession is all about numbers — companies hire him as a consultant to scrub their spending. He figured he knew a deal when he saw one.
The long-ignored southern tip of the federal city was suddenly afire with talk of deals. If the city built a stadium in the decrepit industrial zone along the river, and if the concrete plant on the waterfront went away and the strip joints were forced out, the Anacostia might become what riversides are in most big cities: valuable, desirable, livable.
That was a lot of ifs. Which is why the estate of Laszlo Tauber — a Holocaust survivor who built one of the Washington area’s most dazzling real estate empires — was prepared to sell half an acre of riverfront, zoned residential, for a song.
The big national developers were snapping up the largest plots along the Anacostia for mega-projects. They couldn’t be bothered with a scrawny half-acre that wasn’t even near the rumored stadium site. The Tauber lot was on the other side of South Capitol Street, down past Southwest’s housing projects, sandwiched between the headquarters of the U.S. Coast Guard and a string of industrial and semi-abandoned structures.
Tipped to the area by a story in The Post, Deason got in touch with Tauber’s estate and bought the plot for $275,000. He figured it might be worth a whole lot more someday.
“I just felt like waterfront property would eventually pay off,” says Deason, a slim, clean-cut, earnest 44-year-old who lives in Alexandria with his wife and four-year-old son.
When the city finally moved ahead with Nationals Park, Deason felt as if he had gotten the steal of the century. The $693 million stadium sparked wildly optimistic pronouncements of a whole new neighborhood in Southeast. Deason joined with a development company to propose an eight-story condo building for his land.
Then the recession hit. Deason’s deal collapsed.
Years passed with little change on Deason’s side of Capitol Street, except for fans scouting around for cheap parking on game days.
Deason didn’t think of his land as a steal anymore; even fallow, it sucked up $70,000 a year in property taxes, plus more than $150,000 in fees to lawyers, architects, engineers and other consultants. Without a big developer’s backing, Deason had to finance everything, putting up his home as collateral. “People say no one ever went broke on waterfront property, right?” he says. “Well, I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
Two years ago, Deason decided the time was finally right. Construction near the stadium was picking up. Three new parks were being developed. A water taxi launched between the stadium and Alexandria. And there were rumors that the enormous lot just north of his property, owned by Akridge, one of the city’s biggest developers, could be home to a stadium for the D.C. United soccer team.
Working with one of Washington’s hottest architects, Eric Colbert, Deason sought city approval for a 97-unit, semi-circular apartment building with river views. There would be a roof deck for residents, retail space and underground parking.
“Washington has never been a river city in the same way as many other cities,” Deason says. “Everyone wanted to be in the central District or along the Metro. . . . But most cities do evolve along their rivers, and for people who have or want a special connection to the river, we now have that chance.”
Deason can imagine people who work nearby, at Fort McNair or the Coast Guard, deciding to make the Anacostia home. His wife isn’t so certain. “But maybe a top-floor unit with a spiral staircase and a roof deck could change her mind,” he says with a twinge of hope.
First, he needs two green lights: from the city and from a developer with deeper pockets.
At a meeting of the D.C. Zoning Commission on a summer evening, Deason and his lawyer sit in the front row. This, he hopes, will be the culmination of two years of fixes to meet the city planners’ desires. But when his case is called, members of the commission unexpectedly start talking about a decorative flourish on the roof of Deason’s proposed building and whether it might need an extra level of approval. After nine minutes of debate that feel like an hour to Deason, the board votes 5-0 to approve Marina Place.
“This is years of work,” the elated developer says. “It’s an endurance test, and we passed.”
That night, he marks the occasion with a bottle of Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs, and a decision: Now, let’s go find the money.
“No one wants to talk to you til you get zoning approval,” he says. “Banks could still decide there isn’t enough interest, but I think the market’s right. Let’s see.”