Robert L. Moore, 74, D.C. housing official who helped redevelop Columbia Heights dies


D.C. Housing Director Robert L. Moore spoke during a meeting of the Residents Advisory Council in Washington on June 12, 1981. With him were council secretary Carolyn N. Lilly, left, and chairperson Kimi Gray. (Fred Sweet/File/The Washington Post)
July 10

Robert L. Moore, an often-embattled onetime director of the D.C. housing department who later led a community development corporation that played a central role in the rebirth of the District’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, died July 7 at a hospital in Takoma Park, Md. He was 74.

His death was confirmed by the Rev. Shirley B. Cooper, Mr. Moore’s assistant at the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights, where he was president and chief executive for the past 26 years. The cause was cancer.

Mr. Moore came to Washington in 1979 as the director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development. He was one of the first appointments of the District’s then newly elected mayor, Marion Barry.

Described in a Washington Post article as “a garrulous man with a ready smile,” Mr. Moore said he planned to rehabilitate hundreds of derelict city-owned houses and turn his $95 million agency into a model of efficiency.

“I want people who can work,” he said at the beginning of his tenure. “I don’t respect longevity unless it is tied to performance.”

His good intentions soon ran aground, however, with a bungled project to build more than 500 housing units in Northeast. Rejecting the recommendations of a citizens’ advisory panel and a committee of architects, Mr. Moore hired a company with little development experience to manage what became known as the Bates Street project.

Begun in 1980, the project was still unfinished when Mr. Moore resigned as housing director in 1982. At least $13 million were spent on the Bates Street effort before it was halted in the mid-1980s because of construction problems and financial mismanagement.

Mr. Moore later spent five months as director of the housing authority in Camden, N.J., before he was fired in 1986. He entered a treatment program for what he described as a cocaine dependency, then spent several months in jail after pleading guilty to embezzling $6,000 from the agency he once directed in New Jersey.

In 1988, Mr. Moore became president and chief executive of the Development Corp. of Columbia Heights, one of many groups seeking to bring improved housing, shopping and social service centers to the blighted neighborhood.

Bordering Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, Shaw and LeDroit Park, the Columbia Heights community had never recovered from the city’s riots of 1968. Hundreds of buildings were decaying or abandoned, and many lots were overgrown with weeds. The drug trade and violence were rampant.

“On some blocks, there are eight or 10 vacant houses,” Mr. Moore told The Post in 1997. “It makes the block look like a war zone.”

His checkered past invited scrutiny at first, and he sometimes clashed with members of his own organization and faced criticism from community watchdogs.

Nonetheless, his skills as a dealmaker helped him form effective partnerships with developers, foundations, private investors, government agencies investors and local residents. Over time, the promise of neighborhood redevelopment began to gain momentum.

“Mr. Moore was an early advocate for the vision of a new Columbia Heights,” D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said Thursday in a text message. “He and I worked closely together to implement the vision of the new Columbia Heights [and] a ‘restore the core’ strategy that has transformed vacant lots into a vibrant contributing area.”

After a federal grand jury investigation, Mr. Moore was cleared in 2001 of any wrongdoing when his organization sold a renovated house to a top D.C. housing official. A 2002 Washington Post investigation found that his nonprofit corporation had collected millions of dollars in public and private investments but had little to show for the money.

Mr. Moore maintained a lower profile in more recent years, as he and his organization became prominent players in Washington’s urban revival. He was a liaison between the D.C. government and representatives of the Washington Wizards in the early stages of the building of the Verizon Center.

In Columbia Heights, Mr. Moore’s group played a major part in refurbishing the Tivoli Theatre and in developing the DC USA shopping mall, which opened in 2008 and is the largest retail development in Washington. The once-seedy and abandoned 14th Street corridor is now one of the most lively and trendy spots in the District.

Robert Leon Moore was born July 26, 1939, in New Jersey. He was a graduate of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte and, according to news accounts, took part in desegregation sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960.

He received a master’s degree in urban studies from Howard University and worked in federal and municipal housing agencies before becoming executive directive of the Houston housing authority in 1976.

His marriages to Marilou Moore and Diane Sims Moore ended in divorce. A daughter from his first marriage, Kim Moore Starks, died this year.

Survivors include a son from his first marriage, Robert L. Moore Jr., and a son from his second marriage, Anthony Moore, both of Washington; a brother; and two grandsons.

Mr. Moore served on the boards of many housing and community development organizations and was a trustee of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation.

Graham has introduced a measure in the city council to name the 1400 block of Girard Street NW in Mr. Moore’s honor.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.