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Building Blocks

In Anacostia's Bleak Corners, Investors Envision Vibrancy

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2005; Page E01

The 1100 block of Good Hope Road, in the heart of Anacostia, is a scarred piece of land.

A broken clock hangs above the entrance of a boarded-up liquor store. Weeds and graffiti have overtaken the dilapidated row houses next door. Around the corner, barbed wire and a chain-link fence protect a hodgepodge of vehicles at a small construction company.

Albert R. "Butch" Hopkins Jr., left, president and chief executive of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp., and developer Douglas Jemal take in the changing sights along Good Hope Road in Anacostia. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

How Anacostia Stacks Up
_____In Today's Post_____
Strong Job Growth Puts Region Among Top Lease Markets (The Washington Post, Feb 14, 2005)
Vacancy Rates Decline Across Most of Region (The Washington Post, Feb 14, 2005)
_____Special Report_____
Metro Business: Coverage of Washington area businesses and the local economy.

But this rundown tract is also being watched as one measure of whether a hoped-for revival of Anacostia is finally taking root -- something D.C. officials insist will follow from the proposed new baseball stadium in Southeast, development of the Anacostia River waterfront, and construction of a new building for the D.C. Transportation Department.

Already, developer Douglas Jemal has staked his claim, buying a half-acre tract at the corner of U Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. In the shadow of what will be the new offices of the transportation department, he plans to assemble the equivalent of a city block, raze what's there, and put in a residential and retail development that could feature an upscale microbrewery or restaurant at the bottom, and condominiums above.

"Can you imagine if this whole corner was redone and you had a District Chophouse or Rock Bottom brewery here?" Jemal asked one recent afternoon as he stood in brown cowboy boots on the grassy lot, amid broken glass and beer bottles. "You have traffic here. You have residents here. People just need some place to come."

The idea is raising both eyebrows and expectations, revealing some of the tensions likely to arise if private investors take an earnest interest in the neighborhood. A few property owners say they are going to demand a healthy price before selling to developers like Jemal -- or may even try to demand a share of the development profits. The District's historic preservation board is already pinpointing abandoned row houses it wants saved. Some community leaders, meanwhile, are worried that new money will inevitably displace longtime residents.

"We've waited so long for amenities to come to our neighborhood. . . . It's a viable area to put business," said Lendia Johnson, who has lived on Howard Road in Anacostia for more than 30 years and serves as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the neighborhood. "But I do worry that folks who've lived here for so long will have to move if so much new development happens at once and they can't afford it."

Anacostia is well-known for its historic downtown, which starts at the corner of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and runs along a few side streets. The area, called Uniontown in the 1800s, originally housed the all-white workforce from the nearby Navy Yard, across the Anacostia River. The descendants of slaves and freed blacks lived in the nearby Barry Farms section of the neighborhood. In the 1880s, blacks began moving into Uniontown; the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass is now a major tourist attraction in the area.

In the early 1900s, the main commercial strip was a hub of barber shops, small drug, grocery and hardware stores, and family-owned furniture shops. During the 1950s and 1960s, as suburbs around the District began to develop, white residents left and more blacks moved in. Many of the small shops began to close or followed their customers to the suburbs.

Over the next 30 years, the neighborhood fell from its middle-class perch. Commercial streets became a hodgepodge of check-cashing outlets, liquor stores, and abandoned buildings. Interstate 295 barreled through in the 1960s, giving the area a sense of being little more than a shortcut from the suburbs to downtown. Residents complain about a dearth of proper restaurants amid a relative sea of carryouts that pass food to customers through bullet-proof glass. The area remains troubled by crime, with one-fourth of the city's murders, according to police statistics for the 7th District.

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