Nestled between a public school and affordable housing for seniors and families lies a bustling community garden. Schoolchildren learn how to grow food. Seniors pick up bundles of fresh veggies on the cheap. And some of the District’s most acclaimed chefs purchase herbs and edible flowers grown here.
But the K Street Farm is living on Pepco-owned land, and the utility is preparing to bring a $143 million electrical substation to the property in Washington’s Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood. Community activists are attempting to thwart the plans, saying an industrial facility does not belong so close to a school.
Pepco — the utility company that provides electricity to the District — is proposing to build the substation on the 100 block of K Street NW, a reflection of growing power needs there and in other gentrifying neighborhoods with booming populations, including Shaw and NoMa.
The project has been in the works for about three years, and a small group of parents, churchgoers and neighborhood residents organized protests last week, saying the proposed substation represents the latest example of the city catering to new, wealthier residents at the expense of longtime Washingtonians. The Walker-Jones Education Campus, which is separated from the Pepco property by a parking lot and street, serves children who mostly come from low-income families.
“I don’t think anyone could doubt that the city tends to put these things next to communities they feel have less ability to fight and be heard,” said Parisa Norouzi, executive director of Empower DC, a local advocacy group.
The two-acre-plus parcel was city property until 2015. But Mayor Muriel E. Bowser transferred it to Pepco as part of a huge land swap so that the city could acquire property needed for a soccer stadium at Buzzard Point in Southwest Washington, now D.C. United’s Audi Field.
Pepco has allowed the nonprofit DC Greens to continue operating the community garden on the property, with plans for a 2023 groundbreaking for the substation, which will be used to boost the amount of electricity that can be distributed across the city. Pepco needs approval from the city’s Public Service Commission and zoning board.
Pepco spokeswoman Christina Harper said the company has been working to gather feedback and inform the community about the project since 2016.
The utility operates nearly 50 substations across all eight wards of the city, and many are in residential neighborhoods, Harper said. The substations vary in size — the Mount Vernon Triangle substation would be on the larger side — and many are inconspicuous, residing in small buildings that resemble neighborhood houses. The company does not publicize where substations are, but Harper said some exist near schools.
Tiffany Aziz, the parent of a rising third-grader at Walker-Jones, said she would consider pulling her child out of the school if the substation is built. She learned about it in June, and is trying to develop momentum against the project in a school that she said has little parental involvement.
Aziz said her daughter, Paris, enjoys growing food and visiting the community garden with her classes. The mother organized protests at the site most evenings last week, hoisting signs and gathering signatures on a petition.
“I can’t sit back and hear what’s going on and not act,” Aziz said. “If I’m going to be the only one being loud and taking a stand for these children, then I’m going to do it.”
Aziz also raised concerns about the potential health consequences of having a substation near a school.
The National Institutes of Health says research suggests only a weak association between electric and magnetic fields — which substations produce — and adverse health effects.
“We don’t see any health risks,” said Pepco’s Harper, adding that the utility plans more community meetings about the substation.
But those assurances aren’t enough for Will Jones. He lived in an apartment building across the street from the proposed substation and said the plan contributed to his family’s decision to move with their young daughter to a different neighborhood. He said it’s no coincidence that the substation could be situated in one of the few pockets of the increasingly wealthy Mount Vernon Triangle area that still has a significant concentration of low-income housing.
“Even if it’s inconclusive that it’s dangerous, in our country’s history, our communities have been put on the bad end of a lot of science,” Jones said.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), whose jurisdiction includes Mount Vernon Triangle, said that he understands why residents would be concerned about the substation, and that it is Pepco’s job to ensure the community feels comfortable with it.
“Anytime a neighbor has these questions around health and safety, it is incumbent on the utility to inform them and help them understand,” Allen said. “They owe it to the neighbors to help prove their case and show it to them.”
The proposed Mount Vernon substation is part of a larger Pepco project to upgrade substations, including in Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights.
Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have slammed the Mount Vernon substation, saying Pepco should start embracing alternative forms of energy. The Rev. Graylan Hagler, an organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign and a longtime activist, attended a protest Wednesday night to support the neighborhood’s fight against the substation. He described it as an environmental fight, too.
“They go the path of least resistance. They are always surprised when there is resistance because they assume the community is asleep,” Hagler said. “And we need to be looking at other forms of energy.”