When it first was unveiled as a Great Society showpiece, the Fort Lincoln new town was envisioned as an urban version of Columbia or Reston, with grand federal offices and a monorail system.
But for 40 years, Washington's planned community in Northeast has languished half-built in one of the city's choicest natural settings.
Now, the city's construction boom is reaching Northeast, and city officials say a proposed shopping center anchored by a Costco -- and plans to build 300 new housing units -- offer the most solid hope yet of reversing years of frustrating false starts.
While the takeoff of Fort Lincoln has been predicted decade after decade, never before have so many ideas been backed by real financing and retail tenants.
Developers are completing financing and zoning arrangements for the new housing and shopping center. Costco has signed a letter of intent to locate in the shopping center, and developers are negotiating with two smaller chains that could be "junior anchors." The city has agreed to a $10 million subsidy to pay for site preparation.
"This is long, long overdue. It's still about 14 years behind schedule," said Robert King, 59, an original resident of the community and its Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative for many years. "Everything had to be scaled back. Now we're trying to bring some closure to it."
Work on a new apartment building for seniors should be underway by year's end, with construction of a townhouse subdivision and the 375,000-square-foot retail complex slated to start next spring or summer.
The new buildings would not fulfill all the promises made by the Johnson administration at the new town's inception. But the proposed projects would begin filling the remaining empty land bounded by New York, South Dakota and Eastern avenues -- an area of wooded hills along the city's Northeastern edge that holds commanding views.
To drive the quiet, hilly streets of Fort Lincoln today is to feel caught in a time warp. All 600 townhouses and many of the 158 rental apartments were built in the 1970s, and look it. At the six-acre park, the tennis courts are crumbling in spots, and the landscaping seems tired. There are a few subsidized apartments for the elderly, and a beer distribution plant.
Everywhere else, there are hundreds of acres of hilly, overgrown land.
It was supposed to be different.
President Lyndon B. Johnson commissioned a team of top urbanologists in the 1960s to develop an exemplary urban community at Fort Lincoln, a Civil War-era military site on the District's northeast edge that more recently had housed a detention center for youths. Those planners envisioned a community of 25,000 people of all incomes and demographic backgrounds -- a living example for cities everywhere.
There would be a 60-acre downtown, complete with high-rise office buildings, shops and a lake. Plans for a community college were discussed. The location, just off New York Avenue, a short drive to downtown, Capitol Hill or the suburbs, was said to be ideal.
But the federal government lost interest early in the process, and the District, struggling in the early years of home rule, had little success in driving the project forward. Only a few subdivisions were built -- the last one in the late 1980s.
There was no downtown, not even a village retail center. The population has hovered at about 3,500. Fort Lincoln Elementary School, built in 1975, sat empty for five years because there were no residents with children to enroll.
And along the way, an unusual arrangement by which the city gave a private builder the right to develop Fort Lincoln as a planned community, with its own governing board, has stirred frustration and anger among many residents.
Two years ago, the civic association sued Fort Lincoln New Town Corp., alleging that Michelle Hagans, the master developer of the planned community, never fulfilled pledges for a community fund, retail and commercial development and other amenities. That suit is still pending in D.C. Superior Court.
Hagans, whose father, Theodore, was the principal developer of Fort Lincoln New Town Corp. in 1975 but later died in a plane crash, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Regina Russell, the current civic association president, said King and Hagans have shut many Fort Lincoln homeowners out of the new development plans. She said she knew nothing of the new projects -- except that they have been promised for a long time.
"There's a lot of deception and misrepresentation," Russell said. "It was supposed to be a self-contained community. We were supposed to be a model for a lot of other communities that have certainly surpassed us."
Officials say the latest resurgence has been helped by a construction boom sweeping the District that is starting to reach Fort Lincoln.
Builders increasingly see the District as a desirable place for new housing, while commercial developers are paying more attention to urban markets as suburbs have become relatively saturated with shopping centers.
"This is the neglected part of town. Traditionally, it's been underserved," said Paul Weinschenk, a vice president with the Peterson Cos., which is building the shopping center. "There's a void that retailers understand, now, that they can fill."
Weinschenk said the retail complex, which will be called the Washington Gateway, could make the neighborhood a destination for both city residents and commuters -- tens of thousands of whom will drive past its entrances off New York Avenue every day. The shopping center is expected to generate $6 million a year in local taxes and about 650 jobs, city officials said.
In addition to Costco, which Weinschenk said is projected to open by summer of 2006, the retail complex would include about 14 other shops. The Peterson Cos. is negotiating with a supermarket chain and an office supply store chain to sign on as "junior anchors," Weinschenk said. The company also wants to lease space to clothing stores, a bookstore and an electronics store -- vendors of merchandise in short supply on the city's east side. At least two spaces are targeted for family-style, sit-down restaurants.
All the stores are slated to open by summer 2007.
Plans for the center were announced in 1999, but made little progress until Costco signed a letter of intent to anchor the project. A major hurdle was cleared this year when Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and the Peterson Cos. agreed that the District would advance the developer $10 million to prepare the site for construction.
A percentage of tax revenue generated by the project -- probably about $1 million a year -- will be diverted to pay off the construction loan.
Legislation authorizing that subsidy will be sent to the D.C. Council by July, aides to Williams said. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), who represents the area, said the legislation should pass through the council easily.
Plans for Wesley House, a proposed 120-unit apartment building for seniors, languished for 12 years, officials said, while city bureaucrats bickered about whether roads built to serve the new complex were satisfactory.
"Part of it was simply making certain that all the agencies were talking about the same thing," said Bruce Marshall, an attorney for Union Wesley AME Zion Church, which is teaming with MissionFirst Development to build the project.
Marshall said the Rev. Wesley W. Bowden, pastor of the church, hopes to draw retirees from a range of income levels who have owned homes in the city for decades and want to downsize without moving to the suburbs.
The Concordia Group, a McLean-based developer that is helping to build 209 townhouses between 31st Place and 33rd Place NE, also intends to offer suburban-style homes within city limits. Will Collins, a principal with the firm, said the three-story residences, with garages, would be priced at just below $300,000.
They are the type of homes long envisioned for Fort Lincoln. But there was little interest in market-rate residential construction in the District for much of the 1990s, as the city endured fiscal and political crises.
Collins said developers of the project will seek necessary approvals from the Board of Zoning Adjustments at a public meeting July 21. He said he hopes to begin construction next April or May.
A separate subdivision, which is supposed to include Fort Lincoln's first detached houses, remains in the early planning stages.
At the International Convention of Shopping Centers in Las Vegas late last month, Williams, Orange and Eric Price, deputy mayor for economic development, worked with Weinschenk to recruit potential tenants for the shopping center.
Orange said the city may also consider using additional land at Fort Lincoln to create an "auto park" of luxury car dealers -- an idea that city officials cautioned was only in the earliest conceptual stages.
Fort Lincoln has "been on the drawing board, but the city couldn't get it done. No one was willing to invest," Orange said. Now, "the retail community -- and the development community -- has rediscovered D.C."