Community groups don't often support a parking lot over retail development when it comes to plans for available land, but that's just what happened in Southeast D.C.
As a result, cars will come to the Fort Davis and Fort Dupont communities, but they will be heading to worship services rather than an all-night gas station. That's the result of a nine-month fight against a developer by a group of community activists.
The New Macedonia Baptist Church held a groundbreaking ceremony last week to officially celebrate construction of a church parking lot at 4107 Alabama Ave. SE, where developers had planned to redevelop a long-vacant gas station into a new 24-hour operation. Development company Alabama PMG had proposed to invest $1.3 million to build a 24-hour service station, a Dunkin' Donuts and a Baskin Robbins on the site, after the company purchased the property last year.
However, a coalition of neighbors from Fort Davis and Fort Dupont caught wind of the proposal and formed a task force last March to beat back the redevelopment plans. The church purchased the property in late December from the developer, said the Rev. Patrick J. Walker, the church's pastor and an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in the area.
Task force members and environmentalists tout the sale to the church as a victory. "It's nothing but a parking lot, baby, [but] it's better than a 24-hour Dunkin' Donuts," said Johnnie Scott Rice, a longtime resident and a spokeswoman for the task force.
Civic associations from both neighborhoods had complained that seven nearby gas stations were already too many, for an area of 2,000 residents. They complained that the gas station would have generated too much vehicle and pedestrian traffic at all hours, and that drug paraphernalia items could be sold there.
The residents' biggest fears surrounded environmental issues. They cited a previous gasoline leak at the site in 1988, when a Shell station was located there. Neighbors discovered gasoline in basement toilets and sewers of nearby condominiums after the leak, prompting officials to house two testing wells on the property, Rice said.
Three gasoline tanks were removed from the site, city officials said in previous interviews, following complaints of suspected vapors.
Alabama PMG had hired a consultant to study the land to ensure that there was no contamination and had applied for city permits to replace underground fuel tanks.
Task force leaders said the permit process had been on the fast track to allow a new gas station, before community members found out and starting asking questions about the environmental impact to the area.
Homeowners and condo dwellers packed community meetings on the issue and kept pressure on developers.
"We were able to stop them from railroading this in. . . . This was definitely a total community effort," said Leon Hobbs, the former Fort Davis Civic Association president and a founder of the task force.
Walker said the church will build a parking lot that is nearly 16,000 square feet, and as the 1,500-person congregation expands, church leaders expect to build a multilevel parking structure at the site.The three-quarter-acre location will also be used to host community block parties, health fairs and bazaars, Walker said.
New Macedonia families use two or three cars to attend multiple Sunday services, Walker said. And as many District churches flee the city forPrince George's County and outlying suburbs to find more land and parking, Walker said, he is pleased New Macedonia has addressed future parking concerns.
"We wanted to ensure that we stay here," Walker said. "We have been looking at acquiring the land for quite some time and we were finally able to get the price down."
Many neighbors have bought lots and built homes in the community since 1975, Rice said, and the church has been in the area for those three decades. One spinoff of the victory over the gas station has been the newfound sense of empowerment among community members, Rice and Hobbs said, be it to combat drug sales in their neighborhood or other unwanted business development.
Rice added that robins and bluejays have built nests on a fence at her home and said she hopes such signs of nature will remain, now that a potential environmental threat has been removed.
"We won," Rice said. "The victory goes to God because the church bought it. It was always something that we in the community wanted the church to have."