During the past five years many D.C. neighborhoods have experienced significant changes -- mostly at the expense of low- and moderate-income residents and small businessmen. In Columbia Heights, U Street, Shaw, LeDroit Park and other areas, longtime residents and businesses have been priced out of the market. The same could soon be true for residents and businesses along Georgia Avenue.
The District has a plan to create a special zone along certain sections of Georgia Avenue to "encourage residential uses that may include a mix of small-scale professional office and institutional uses," according to the D.C. Office of Planning. "The use of land, density, bulk and height of buildings and structures" will be strictly controlled, the city says, with certain businesses prohibited.
The District has estimated that the rezoned area of Georgia Avenue could support about 1,600 new housing units to be built in the next five years (720 condos, 600 apartments, 285 townhouses). But if you look at what's happened on U Street, the condos, lofts and other high-end rental units planned for Georgia Avenue probably will be unaffordable for longtime residents. Rents in the area will skyrocket as landlords will be able to rent to higher-income residents. Homeowners will sell to the highest bidder, and property values and eviction rates will soar. In the end, low- and moderate-income residents and small business owners will be displaced. Soon, the only D.C. neighborhoods that will be affordable for low-income citizens and small merchants will be in Southeast Washington.
Why can't we develop the Georgia Avenue area while taking the needs and desires of the current population of tenants and merchants into account? Why are zoning changes needed at all? The area could be improved with the help of current residents and merchants and without rezoning. Of course, it would take commitment and collaboration from the city, financial institutions, community leaders and the residents and merchants of the corridor. Grants and loans would have to be provided for rehabilitating buildings and improving existing businesses (services, facades, parking, etc.). If the city wishes to cluster retail around the Metro stations, it could provide incentives to existing businesses to move to or from those areas.
The District's current zoning plan disregards the residents and merchants of Georgia Avenue. The city's attempt at rezoning would, for example, exclude businesses it deems undesirable -- barbershops, salons, mom-and-pop stores -- from operating in the rezoned sections of the avenue.
The residents and merchants of Georgia Avenue need a redevelopment plan that includes significantly higher levels of affordable rental units in new housing projects as well as economic assistance for existing businesses. The people of Georgia Avenue do want development, but they want -- and deserve -- development that acknowledges, appreciates and seeks to maintain the cultural fabric of their neighborhood.
-- Joseph L. Paul
is president of the Home Roots Foundation, a nonprofit housing and housing education organization operating in the District.