The first large commercial construction project in Anacostia in 15 years will, according to D.C. officials, spark a long-overdue surge of development in one of the city's poorest sectors.
Some civic leaders in the neighborhood are concerned about how the $19 million Anacostia Gateway project will affect traffic, property taxes and rents for small-business owners, but others in the retail-store-starved community are cautiously optimistic.
"To me, it will take away some of the blight, and what we are hoping is that other people will come in and revitalize Southeast," said Thelma Jones, president of the Fairlawn Citizens Association and a 32-year resident.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and developers broke ground last week on the Anacostia Gateway office building, at Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road SE. The three-story office and retail project is part of an ambitious plan to rejuvenate Anacostia and the Anacostia River waterfront, an effort Williams "considers will be his legacy," said Sharon Gang, a spokeswoman for the mayor.
Stanley Jackson, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, predicted the project will be "a great catalyst to stimulate development" along the Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road corridors.
The Gateway building is among a series of ongoing or planned projects east of the Anacostia River or along the riverfront, long a socioeconomic dividing line. A supermarket and single-family homes are being built in nearby Congress Heights, and a shopping mall is planned for Skyland.
Light-rail transit is coming to Anacostia, and a stadium for the Washington Nationals will be built just west of the river, part of a sweeping plan to redevelop the waterfront on both sides of the river over the next 20 years.
The Gateway building will provide 14,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor, 24,500 square feet of office space on each of the two upper floors and 112 parking spots. The developers envision a first floor with a "first-class restaurant" and perhaps a full-service pharmacy and an ice cream or coffee shop, said Butch Hopkins, president of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp.
Anacostia Gateway LLC, which is undertaking the venture, includes the Anacostia Economic Development Corp., DRI Partners and the National Capital Revitalization Corp. The city sold the land at a discounted price as an incentive, Hopkins said.
The Gateway project has been long in the planning. The D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development and the Anacostia Economic Development Corp. have bought 16 parcels there over 11 years, Hopkins said. The lots mainly contained vacant structures, but a few housed small businesses, he said.
The Gateway building is the first step in a two-stage plan for the site, at the foot of the 11th Street Bridge. Construction of the building is scheduled to take 12 to 15 months, said Peggy Armstrong, spokeswoman for the National Capital Revitalization Corp. Next door, the District plans to build a 350,000-square-foot headquarters for the Department of Transportation. It is scheduled to be completed in fall 2008.
Many residents are pleased with the plans, though others expressed doubts.
"I think it's long overdue," said Lendia Johnson, a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission covering the area. "I'm really elated that it's coming." But she said she is concerned about possible traffic congestion.
A study conducted late last year for the D.C. Department of Transportation predicted that the entire project, including the transportation department headquarters, would generate about 285 additional vehicle trips during each morning and evening rush hour. The study also offered suggestions on preventing tie-ups.
Sixty-year resident Cardell Shelton, president of the Southeast Business Merchants Association, said he also is worried about the traffic, and he is opposed to the project. "There could be small loans to merchants already here" for improvement and expansion, he said, rather than a development that could displace small-business owners by driving up rents.
Carolyn Johns Gray, a 30-year Anacostia resident and president of the Frederick Douglass Community Council, agreed. She added that the building's facade should be in keeping with the character of the historic area. "They wouldn't have put that massive building up in Capitol Hill. They wouldn't have put it up in Adams Morgan. They wouldn't have put it up in Georgetown. They do anything they want in Anacostia," she said of the developers.
The developers and Jackson disagreed with assertions that the building did not have residents' interests in mind. The project will create 75 temporary and 45 permanent jobs and bring in shoppers, said Armstrong of the National Capital Revitalization Corp.
Jackson cited "pent-up retail opportunities" in that area that new retail space would begin to meet. He said the city was looking all along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue for "nodes of development" that could spur a wave of revitalization. With its scenery, green space, affordability and proximity to Maryland, Virginia and the District's downtown, Anacostia will sell itself, he said.
In five to seven years, he predicted, Anacostia will be "one of the hottest markets in the city."