D.C. seeks proposals to redevelop housing headquarters into mixed-use, mixed-income complex

The District’s housing agency this week began soliciting proposals to redevelop its headquarters into a property that includes affordable housing, resurrecting a long-stalled plan to use it to bring some former residents of the demolished Temple Courts housing project back into the neighborhood.

The request calls for the property in the 1100 block of North Capitol Street — near the gentrifying Northeast neighborhood known as NoMa, for “North of Massachusetts Avenue” — to be renovated into a business, retail and housing complex.

The call for proposals represents progress toward creating a mixed-income melting pot around the old Temple Courts property. But it remains to be seen how much this phase of the project will help the hundreds of former residents of Temple Courts, which was a 211-unit low-income apartment building.

City officials moved the tenants out in 2008 and razed the building while promising that residents would be able to return to new housing by the end of this year. But plans to redevelop the area around the building unraveled, partly because of the city’s inability to move the housing agency.

The New Communities Initiative — also aimed at redeveloping the areas around Park Morton in Northwest, Lincoln Heights and Richardson Dwellings in Northeast, and Barry Farm in Southeast — was intended to ensure that people of all incomes could enjoy the city’s new prosperity.

An aerial view of the Temple Courts block.

Residents and city staff agreed that two-thirds of the 1,700 or so units in the neighborhood that included Temple Courts — bordered by North Capitol and K streets and New Jersey and New York avenues — would be “affordable.” One-third would replace low-income homes for residents earning up to 30 percent of the area’s median income, and another third would subsidize working-class people making no more than 60 percent of the area’s median income. The rest would be available at market rate.

But the request for proposals for the agency headquarters uses the federal definition of affordability — up to 80 percent of median income — and requires only that “at least one-third” of the building, or 70 new units, meet that definition. There is no language ensuring more heavily subsidized units.

In exchange for building on the city property, assessed at $53.2 million, the request requires the developer to provide space for the agency’s executive offices and fund a separate location for walk-in clients. It also calls for the developer to make “substantial payments” to the agency for “the remaining value of the land” after the cost of improvements is subtracted.

Housing officials declined to explain the difference in affordability standards.

“We’ve started a procurement process, and it would be imprudent to answer questions outside of the parameters of the procurement documents and process,” said Rick White, the housing agency’s spokesman.

D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), head of the council’s Economic Development Committee, said she was generally encouraged by the agency’s plan. But the elevated affordability standard “raises an eyebrow at first blush,” she said.

“We know some of the most needed units for housing are at 60 percent” of the area’s median income, she said, “so I hope they are mindful of that.”

Compounding the concern is that the city is spending $16.8 million to subsidize private development of a nearby 314-unit building, at 2 M St. NE, which was also part of the redevelopment strategy. But only one-third of those units will be affordable.

W. Christopher Smith, developer of that building, has said he found it impossible to find banks willing to finance a project that includes more affordable units.

At this rate, Smith has said, it seems likely that the city may have to do what it hoped to avoid — construct buildings for residents who are mostly poor.

It was that deep concentration of poverty that initially spurred the creation of the New Communities Initiative. Temple Courts was so infested with rats and gangs that residents agreed to allow the city to tear it down, provided that the 190 families would one day be able to return to newer, nicer buildings.

The city is searching for a “master planner” to figure out how to meet this promise. Under Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), the first proposal called for the city to deliver 180 units of housing for former Temple Courts residents by the end of 2013. But it hasn’t delivered any.

Williams left office soon after that plan was adopted. The administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) redid the plan, calling Williams’s pledge noble but unfeasible.

For one matter, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had a decades-old restriction that prevented mixed-income housing on the property that housed Temple Courts. That property is now a paved parking lot.

In response, Fenty’s administration purchased land next door to Gonzaga High School to build housing there, but that didn’t happen, either.

According to documents from the Fenty administration, the city came close to abandoning the idea of redeveloping the housing agency’s headquarters. The two entities couldn’t agree on how much should be spent moving the agency, so nothing happened.

The administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has enjoyed a better working relationship with the housing agency and Adrianne Todman, its executive director. In an interview with city and housing officials this year, Todman said the team was no longer adhering to the plans of previous administrations. “Those plans are old,” she said.

Until the city names a new planner, which it is scheduled to do this summer, just how to redevelop the neighborhood remains a puzzle.

When it comes to resolving the use restriction with the federal housing department to rebuild Temple Courts, not much has been done lately to resolve the issue, HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said.

“We’re still waiting for the District” to outline a strategy that would preserve the 211 low-income units formerly known as Temple Courts, he said.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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