NE complex's make-over plan has some tenants nervous

By Ovetta Wiggins
Monday, October 19, 2009

Unwilling to accept what appears to be the inevitable, Ollie A. Wilkins intentionally ignores the black and white sign taped to the window near her apartment building's entryway.

"Attention Packing Supplies are here! Please come into the office and pick up your boxes so you can start packing."

The notice is part of a massive undertaking to move residents out of three buildings at Riggs Plaza in Northeast Washington and into nearby transitional housing to make way for Art Place and Shops at Fort Totten, a residential project that will also include a grocery store, sidewalk cafe, children's museum, day-care and senior center, and cultural and arts space.

The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation is driving the development on a 17-acre plot it owns between the Fort Totten Metro station and South Dakota Avenue NE. The project, which would be completed over eight years and has an estimated price tag of $425 million, would give a 21st century makeover, complete with sleek buildings of glass, slate and brick, to a 1950s-era neighborhood filled with three-story brick buildings and mature trees.

"We are talking about revitalizing a neighborhood that is a wonderful community but hasn't had new development in about 40 years," said Jane L. Cafritz, a member of the foundation's advisory board and wife of developer Calvin Cafritz, who is chairman of the board of directors.

The sluggish economy has slowed some projects run by for-profit developers to a virtual standstill, but the foundation, a nonprofit entity with $726 million in assets and the largest foundation that concentrates its giving locally, is moving forward with its ambitious proposal.

The foundation has not decided how the project will be financed and is awaiting city approval to move forward. The D.C. Zoning Commission recently held a hearing to discuss the request for the planned unit development. In the meantime, the foundation, which received the land as a gift about 50 years ago from the late Morris Cafritz, a real estate mogul and an influential commercial and residential builder in Washington, is moving residents into temporary apartments about a block from their current homes.

Wilkins said residents are anxious. "I do think they should put something in writing about how long the residents will be in temporary housing," she said.

A recent letter said she would be placed in a one-bedroom apartment, Wilkins said. "What am I supposed to do with all my furniture? Put it in the trash?" said Wilkins, who has lived at Riggs Plaza for 40 years. "I have the notice on my table, but I'm ignoring that."

Six years ago, Sarah L. Moss, 73, was moved to an apartment building in the 5100 block of Fourth Street NE from one of the Riggs Plaza apartments on Kennedy Street NE in anticipation of the project being built. She was told that her move was temporary and that she would be in a permanent place in two years. Today, about a half-dozen boxes are still packed up in the corner of her living room. More are in her bedroom.

Her neighbor, 67-year-old Caroline Gibbs, who has lived at Riggs Plaza for 32 years, complained that the project will dramatically change the landscape of the neighborhood.

"This is too grand for this area," Gibbs said. "This is not Wisconsin Avenue or Bethesda."

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