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Fort Lincoln:
Finding a Leafy Enclave

By Linda Wheeler
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 18, 1992

Some residents of the District's only planned community, Fort Lincoln, sound like real estate agents: They tend to gush when talking about their homes in far Northeast Washington.

Listen to David Smith: "This is a suburban-style neighborhood in an urban setting. We hear birds chirping and we look at vistas of trees, grass and flowers."

And Alease Chichester: "It is an easy commute to downtown. We have schools, indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, everything."

Clarence Cannon said the senior citizen high-rise living "is the best in Washington for people our age."

Indeed, Fort Lincoln does seem to offer much of what suburban developments advertise, but at reasonable prices with a District address. Planned around a cultural center, elementary school and recreation area, the 550 condominiums, 666 senior citizen apartments and 157 garden apartments seem to hug the rolling hills just beyond Bladensburg Road and South Dakota Avenue NE, bordering on Prince George's County.

The new town of Fort Lincoln was the idea of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who wanted a model town to showcase his "Great Society" programs, a planned community that would be racially and economically integrated. He wanted the "New Town in Town" to inspire other such projects with the hope they would collectively revitalize the nation's urban centers.

The land was originally the site of forts built to protect the city during the Civil War. Later it was used by the National Training School for Boys, a detention facility for juvenile offenders. When that center closed, the land was available and a citywide debate began as to how the land should be used. Some proposed a park while others thought it would be a great location for a community college.

President Johnson convened a meeting of virtually every federal and District agency, intending to create plans for his dream town at what is now Fort Lincoln.

But quarreling followed the dream and every agency had to have a say, as did a number of citizen groups. Years went by while residents of adjoining neighborhoods battled over who would control the plans and the development. Newspaper stories from the day detailed the ups and downs of the plans and the eventual withdrawal of the federal government from the project.

Finally a private company, Fort Lincoln New Town Corp., was selected to actually build the apartment buildings and condominium units. The National Park Service built a playground and park area before handing them over to the District government. The city built an elementary school, complete with an indoor swimming pool.

The community never attained Johnson's goal of having whites comprise 25 percent of the population, the figure closely matching the racial makeup of the city at the time. Robert King, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for Fort Lincoln, said at peak, there may have been half that percentage, and now less than 5 percent of Fort Lincoln's residents are white.

The neighborhood is popular, as seen in the low vacancy rate and few condominiums for sale. But the community has an uneven look in terms of maintenance. Where the condominium association is in charge, lawns are clipped and sidewalks are neat. In the area overseen by the District around the recreational and cultural center, the shrubs are overgrown, the ground is littered with broken bottles and whole sections of brick are missing from the sidewalks.

The difficulty of having the city as a partner is exemplified in the problem of illegal dumping. During the night, trucks dump loads of construction debris and broken furniture in some sections of the neighborhood. As quickly as it is cleaned up, more appears, King said.

"The answer is a fence," he told several residents who complained about the mounds of trash near their building. "But Michele Hagans [the developer] can't just put up a fence. She has to go through the District government to get a fence approved and then wait for the appropriations."

But the combination of city and private interests working together has produced affordable housing in a setting that is relatively crime-free, within a city that has many problems related to drug trafficking and street violence.

Juan Gladis, vice president of Fort Lincoln Realty, which markets new residences as they are built and continues to manage the rental units, said a two-bedroom condominium would sell for about $100,000 and the apartments rents range from $700 to $1,000 a month. He said the senior citizen housing is subsidized, so there is no set rate in the four high-rise buildings.

Gladis said there are about eight condominiums on the market now, and the vacancy rate for the garden apartments is less than 5 percent.

King, who also is president of the Fort Lincoln Civic Association, said his condominium has doubled in value since he bought it in 1976. He has raised six children there, and family members have enjoyed the baseball field, swimming pools, tennis courts and the sense of community that comes from living in a somewhat isolated area.

Other than the illegal dumping and a rash of stolen cars this year, King said the neighborhood is fairly peaceful.

"Sometimes I think Fort Lincoln is cut off from the crime the city is suffering because we are kind of isolated out here," he said. "Our kids are involved in Little League games at night and in tennis matches. We have things for them to do."

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