Kenyan McDuffie intent on transforming D.C. Ward 5’s prospects
By Mike DeBonis,
Kenyan McDuffie sits in a car and stares at the 30-foot-tall garbage dune.
Every day, dozens of garbage trucks come off their routes, trundle past the modest houses in the Langdon neighborhood and tip out their contents here on Bryant Street NE. Bulldozers push the trash into piles that are then shipped to far-off landfills.
This all happens less than 50 yards from someone’s home.
“Look at this . . . ” McDuffie says. “It’s ridiculous. This is almost criminal to me. This is unfathomable. This is untenable.”
“Most days,” he adds, “you can smell it, too.”
McDuffie (D), a D.C. Council member, has represented Langdon and the rest of Ward 5 for six months. On the campaign trail last year, he listened as residents lined up at meet-and-greets and candidate forums to complain about their communities being used as a “dumping ground” while other neighborhoods are being transformed by new residents and new businesses.
And in his short time on the council, McDuffie has moved aggressively to change that. He is convening a task force led by city planning officials that will be charged with looking at how to reconcile the city’s gritty past with its future as a denser, more populous, more prosperous place. That means a hard look at transforming Ward 5, which now contains 70 percent of the District’s industrially zoned land.
Not all of McDuffie’s bailiwick is so literally a dumping ground as the 2100 block of Bryant Street. But if there’s a rail yard, cement plant, fleet parking lot, printing plant, laundry plant, meat packer, fishmonger, food wholesaler, liquor distributor, auto-repair shop, taxi barn, bus garage, storage facility, salt dome, warehouse or trash transfer station in the District of Columbia, it is most likely located in Ward 5.
In recent years, matters have been further complicated by sex and drugs: Strip-club impresarios and medical marijuana growers have been drawn to the ward, partly because of the affordable real estate but mainly because city regulations give them little other choice.
“If I was a business owner and I wanted to open up a parking lot or I wanted to open up a medical marijuana facility, I would come to Ward 5 first, because it makes business sense,” McDuffie says. “So I don’t begrudge these business owners for doing that. But as a council member . . . I think it’s our responsibility to take a more balanced approach.”
Some mighty forces have shaped the ward’s predicament.
One is history.
The trash transfer station on Bryant Street opened nearly two decades ago. Nightclubs have operated on nearby Queens Chapel Road NE for years. And the rail line they abut, the taproot of the ward’s industrial heritage, dates back to the 1830s.
“It’s not like we went to Ward 5 and said, ‘Let’s rezone the whole ward so that we can let these uses go there,’ ” said Harriet Tregoning, the city’s planning director. “They’re artifacts of where the rail lines go in the city.”
Another is economics. A 15-year real estate boom has already claimed large swaths of industrial land, most of which was outside Ward 5, in areas closer to downtown. Hundreds of acres have been claimed in ongoing efforts to redevelop the Anacostia River waterfront alone — including the construction of Nationals Park and coming redevelopment of Buzzard Point in Southwest.
The functions displaced by the development have either left the city altogether or gone to Ward 5.
That goes for garbage: This year, crews razed a city transfer station on New Jersey Avenue near the Southeast Freeway, meaning more volume for the city’s Fort Totten facility. It goes for parking: The Public Works Department moved its dump trucks and snowplows from the area to a Brentwood lot. And it goes for strip clubs: One of several gay-oriented clubs evicted for the stadium construction landed in an Ivy City warehouse.
“Quite frankly, I understand why: [Ward 5] looks like it’s an appropriate place to have a snowplow parking lot,” said Don Padou, a Brookland lawyer who has represented resident groups in the ward fighting nightclubs and other unsavory potential neighbors. “The problem is, the more of these things that get put into Ward 5, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
McDuffie calls the problem one of “overconcentration” — he shies away from the phrase “dumping ground” — and a “business as usual” mentality among city leaders. “We need to think about it differently,” he said.
Differently, he says, could mean moving those functions to other parts of the city or moving them out of the city altogether.
Rezoning effort underway
But as the city continues to grow rapidly — at a pace of about 1,100 additional residents each month, according to newly released census estimates — planners emphasize that the city needs its industrial land as much as ever.
Much of the land, Tregoning said, is necessary to maintain a well-functioning and sustainable city. “In a snowstorm, it’s nice to be able to get to our salt stores. It’s nice to be able to get to our snowplows when we need to have them,” she said. Forcing wholesalers and contractors out of town, she added, would mean higher costs and poorer-quality services for the city’s residents and businesses.
Tregoning, who will occupy a leading role on the task force, also said that a major city has some obligation to make room for a variety of activities, even if they might be unsavory to some.
“I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say ‘red-light district,’ but there’s a Tenderloin in most cities,” Tregoning said, referring to the historically seedy San Francisco neighborhood. “There are all kinds of things that help make a city lively and interesting that are not necessarily any one neighborhood’s first choice for where to be.”
“That being said,” she added, “they don’t need to be all in one place.”
A wholesale rewrite of the city’s zoning regulations, now underway, is likely to include new provisions to buffer residential neighborhoods from industrial uses, Tregoning said. And more will be done, she said, to protect neighborhoods from large nightclubs that locate in industrial zones but whose customers have no choice but to park in residential areas.
Politicians and planners alike see great potential in food-and-drink producers as a more neighborly industrial use. Three breweries are already operating in Ward 5. A craft distillery recently opened in Ivy City, and another brewery is preparing to open around the corner.
The centerpiece of the District’s burgeoning comestibles economy sits a few blocks to the east, where this year a South Carolina-based developer completed a wholesale renovation of the D.C. Farmers Market, formerly a tumbledown warehouse that was known for its weekend flea market.
Now branded Union Market, it matches a selection of upscale artisan foodstuffs with the ambiance of a Crate & Barrel.
If not there, where?
While the ward’s hopes and dreams are manifested in small-batch gin and humanely raised lamb chops, its current reality has more to do with motor coach exhaust and a crumbling old school.
When Union Station executives moved to evict charter tour buses to make room for a new intercity bus terminal, city officials looked to Ward 5 — specifically, the grounds of the vacant Alexander Crummell School in Ivy City. Around the lot are a nightclub, warehouses and a vast school bus parking facility. But it also abuts homes, whose residents have objected mightily to having exhaust-belching buses next door.
The matter is now being litigated in D.C. Superior Court. McDuffie and colleague Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) have called on Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to abandon the plans, even though the $1.6 million lot is all but complete. So far, Gray has resisted.
“It’s really easy for a member of the council to say, ‘Don’t put something here,’ ” said Pedro Ribeiro, Gray’s spokesman. “The question then becomes, where, then, should we put it?”
McDuffie has not proposed a specific alternative location for the bus lot. He’s also now playing defense on another project, one that highlights the political challenges of suggesting that the uses considered for Ward 5 ought to be elsewhere.
Metro is considering relocating its Northern Bus Garage from its current location on 14th Street NW, in neighboring Ward 4, to a site on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, off North Capitol Street in Ward 5. The soldiers’ home site, north of MedStar Washington Hospital Center, has been eyed for extensive residential and retail development.
McDuffie says he believes that the former Walter Reed hospital campus, in Ward 4, would be the “more logical” site for the bus lot. But that ward’s council representative, Muriel Bowser (D), has opposed that idea. She also sits on Metro’s board of directors.
The task force has yet to begin its work; McDuffie says he expects his colleagues to pass a bill authorizing its work in January. Once it convenes, he says, it could issue a report as soon as next fall.
McDuffie and Padou suggest that the task force could recommend rezoning some industrial land for more salutary uses. “Right now, we have more industrial space than the city will ever need,” Padou said.
A 2006 study commissioned by the D.C. planning office concluded much the opposite. With only 5 percent of the District’s land zoned for industrial uses, its “supply of remaining industrial land is very limited and continues to shrink,” consultants wrote, and they warned that city leaders “should exercise all caution in future land use decisions.”
McDuffie notes that rezoning comes with hazards — more intensive zoning means more valuable land, which means an increased possibility that development could price residents out of the “dumping ground” they’d lamented for so long.
But the status quo can’t persist, McDuffie says.
“If I want a nice restaurant, how far do I have to travel?” he asks. “If I want to go somewhere my kid’s first-grade class is having a party, why do we have to travel 45 minutes to Gaithersburg or Anne Arundel to go to a Gymboree? Well . . . we have all these warehouses. Why can’t we have a bowling alley here? We’ve got all the potential in the world.”