Fort Totten site in for major makeover that has community, city support

August 23, 2013

For 37 years, I commuted between the District and College Park more than 7,000 times to teach architecture at the University of Maryland.

Typically, I drove along Riggs Road NE, crossing South Dakota Avenue NE near the entry to the Fort Totten Metro station serving the Red, Green and Yellow lines. And as I drove year after year, the same thought recurred: Will this ugly, spottily developed yet transit-accessible District neighborhood ever be improved?

Fortunately, transformation has finally begun. The city recently reconfigured the Riggs-South Dakota intersection and rebuilt a segment of Riggs Road, including underground utilities, beyond the intersection. In addition, property owners demolished an obsolete commercial strip facing this segment of Riggs, creating a large tract where a Wal-Mart may someday appear if Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) vetoes the D.C. Council’s minimum wage bill.

Just off Riggs along South Dakota Avenue is another large tract: 16.5 acres of real estate acquired many years ago by Morris Cafritz and currently owned by the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation. Two-stage redevelopment of this family-owned property, enabled by planned unit development (PUD) rezoning, soon will be underway. But this project will be especially unusual. Unlike many controversial makeover proposals, it has the support of the community, residents and the city, said Jane Cafritz.

Architecturally undistinguished, cookie-cutter apartment buildings stood for decades along the tract. Today most of those old buildings are gone. However, aging tenants living on modest incomes still occupy the few remaining buildings, to be demolished only after already cleared land is redeveloped in stage one.

These longtime tenants favor redevelopment because they will have access to new affordable housing. Up to 550 stage-one apartments are envisioned, of which 98 units will be affordable housing for seniors along with at least 43 non-senior affordable units. The PUD zoning tabulation indicates that the number of subsidized units will accommodate all displaced tenants.

And when the first stage is built on about a third of the property bounded by South Dakota Avenue, Galloway and Ingraham streets NE, tenants will get more than just a dwelling unit. Four to six apartment floors will rise above sidewalk-level cafes and retail stores, a supermarket and structured parking. The complex also will include a day-care center, community activity spaces and a range of residential amenities.

During second-stage redevelopment, three large-footprint buildings, master planned but not yet designed, will provide more housing and structured parking, plus office space, a public library, arts uses, a possible children’s museum and additional retail facilities.

Thus, the Fort Totten site, minutes by foot from the Metro station, is slated for a high-density, mixed-use, robustly urban intervention in a low-density context decidedly suburban in character. Modest detached homes line streets in nearby residential subdivisions, such as Riggs Park and Hampshire Knolls. Also nearby are elementary and middle schools and a public park.

Cafritz wisely mobilized much creative talent for this makeover. Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects (now part of Perkins Eastman), responsible for the redesign of D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront, prepared the original Fort Totten master plan. Based on that plan, a second firm, Wiencek + Associates Architects, did preliminary designs. But Cafritz subsequently commissioned a third firm, Shalom Baranes Associates, the architects helping to shape CityCenterDC, to revisit the master plan and first-stage design.

The Baranes firm reconfigured the master plan and redesigned the first-stage building complex. It included an uncompromisingly modern ensemble of street-fronting edifices that will be functionally and aesthetically unlike anything anywhere else in the neighborhood or in nearby Prince George’s County.

Building geometries are rectilinear, yet there is no sense of blockiness in massing, typical of so many D.C. buildings. At the acutely angled South Dakota and Galloway intersection, the most prominent building’s footprint is triangular. The two buildings facing South Dakota enclose landscaped courtyards, while a pair of buildings closer to the Metro station wrap around a parking garage.

Complementing the architecture are landscaping designs by Parker Rodriguez. Shade and ornamental trees appropriately line streets and sidewalks. General hardscape and softscape treatments are specified for on-site public open spaces and residential courtyards.

Cafritz indicated that first-stage construction should begin within months and will require two to three years to complete. Once built, and if Wal-Mart shows up as well, this project will revitalize this piece of the city.

Yet it will accomplish more by demonstrating how constructive urbanization can positively enhance rather than adversely affect existing, low-density residential neighborhoods. And it will serve as a model for government-backed, community supported, creatively designed redevelopment, showing what is possible in other comparable metropolitan Washington locations.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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