Martha’s Table, a venerable D.C. charity and longtime 14th Street fixture, is preparing to break ground on a $20 million headquarters in Southeast Washington and will move many of its programs to one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods by early 2018.
Martha’s Table becomes the latest charity to shift its energies away from a corridor once defined by prostitution and drug dealing but now renowned for expensive condos and mobbed restaurants.
Last year, Central Union Mission cashed in on its landmark building at 14th and R streets NW and moved its homeless shelter to a new location a few blocks from Union Station. It has been replaced by a luxury apartment building — “The Mission” — where two-bedroom penthouses rent for nearly $7,000 a month.
Another longtime 14th Street nonprofit, Whitman-Walker Health Services, is mulling how to redevelop its immensely valuable Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center now that it is moving this month to newly leased space down the street.
Martha’s Table, which expects to serve 1.1 million meals this year and owns two-thirds of a block on 14th between V and W streets, isn’t completely abandoning its longtime home, its president, Patty Stonesifer, stressed. It will continue to operate a food program and early childhood center in the gritty-turned-pretty neighborhood where it was founded 35 years ago.
“We consider this an expansion, not a departure,” said Stonesifer, the former head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who caused a stir in philanthropic circles when she took the top job at Martha’s Table two years ago. “The board has been asking itself for years, ‘Where can we have the most impact?’ ”
The charity’s new home will be the cornerstone of a planned three-acre complex of social service providers in Hillsdale, not far from Anacostia. Martha’s Table will construct a 40,000 square-foot, light-filled building with two playgrounds, gardens, an industrial kitchen and a color scheme based on the paintings of Jacob Lawrence.
Services will include a branch of its popular preschool program, food distribution, nutrition and parenting workshops. Teens in the second-floor after-school program will have a view of Washington stretching from the Anacostia heights to Washington National Cathedral and beyond.
“You’re going to want to know us when it’s the Fourth of July,” said a near-giddy Stonesifer during a visit to the site last week, looking over a vista that features a fireworks-level view of the Mall and the Capitol. “It’s going to be beautiful.”
The rare, unbuilt parcel is being donated by the Horning Family Fund, the charitable arm of the Horning Brothers development firm. The fund gives away about a million dollars a year to about 30 groups, mostly in Ward 8 in Southeast Washington. The Hornings are giving a total of $10 million toward construction of the Martha’s Table facility, including the land and cash.
Billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein is putting up an additional $1 million, leaving $9 million for the charity to find through tax credits and fundraising. It hopes to begin construction in mid-2016.
“It’s great to see other organizations look at the importance of programming in Ward 8,” Horning Brothers chief executive David Roodberg said of a part of the District where more than 35 percent of residents live in poverty, an area that suffers from the city’s highest unemployment rates.
“I’m glad they’re coming; we need something like that,” said Helena Lomax, 36, an unemployed mother who was picking up one of her three children at Moten Elementary School, across the street from where the facility will be built. “Will they provide any jobs in Ward 8?”
Some, said Stonesifer. The charity is planning for a staff of 125, some of whom will be hired from the neighborhood. But she said the bigger local impact will be the lifelong “hand at the back” the charity will be able to offer the families that will soon be its neighbors. By taking services to where poor people live, groups like Martha’s Table have a better chance of connecting with clients year after year, offering child care to infants, food for grade schoolers and enriched after-school care for teenagers.
That’s the way it used to be on 14th Street, where Martha’s Table was born amid the pawnshops and liquor stores as a place for neighborhood kids to get a healthy snack on their walk home from school.
“It’s going to feel like turning back the clock,” said Timothy Jones, a 19-year employee of Martha’s Table and its director of after-school programs. “In the old days [on 14th Street], you would run into parents on the corner and the kids playing basketball.”
Now few of the families who come to 14th Street to pick up bags of groceries or drop off pre-school students live nearby. They come, often by bus, from neighborhoods where the average rent is far lower than $2,400 a month, which is the price of a one-bedroom at the Bentley, a new building on 14th featuring a private pet grooming salon. There’s still a liquor store nearby, but this one sells $55 bottles of craft rye whiskey.
Washington’s shifting demographics mean that many nonprofits’ clients have been moving to other parts of the city. The inevitable question: Should the charities follow them?
George A. Jones, head of Bread for the City, a food, clothing, medical and legal service provider in fast-changing Shaw in Northwest Washington, said there is no simple answer. In a relatively small city with multiple public transportation options, a central location can still be the best place to serve many in need, even if the surrounding blocks have grown richer.
“People have always come from outside our Zip code to access our services,” said Jones, who serves about 2,500 families a month at both the Shaw location and a new branch in Southeast Washington. “No matter where we are, people are going to find us.”
Another calculus, of course, is how best to capitalize on a hot real estate market. Bread for the City, which just spent $7 million to upgrade its 22,000-square-foot headquarters on Seventh Street NW, across from the newly renovated O Street Market, has no plans to sell. That could change, Jones said, if the nonprofit saw a drop in demand and got an offer for the property “that’s too good to refuse. That hasn’t happened yet.”
For Central Union Mission, a lucrative offer came not long after 14th Street began transforming at warp speed.
“When the prostitutes on 14th Street were replaced by moms with baby carriages, I knew it was time,” said David Treadwell, executive director of Central Union Mission. His homeless shelter was a nearly 30-year resident of 14th Street until the building was sold to a developer for about $7 million in 2012. The sale gave Central Union Mission the money to build a new $12 million shelter on donated city land a few blocks from Union Station. “It was an effective way for us to reach the audience that needs us most.”
But Treadwell cautions that a real estate windfall doesn’t mean that a nonprofit organization is financially flush for life.
“It was a enough to get us going,” he said. “But in this [expensive] city, you can never stop fundraising.”
Whitman-Walker Health Services is also moving, but only down the street. The HIV clinic-turned-general health-care provider decided to stay in what remains a central location for its largely gay clientele. But on May 18, it will shift to newly leased space three blocks south on 14th. After two years of deliberation, the health provider will soon announce how it plans to leverage the valuable land it owns at its original location at 14th and R streets.
“Everybody’s got to go through the same decision process,” said Whitman-Walker chief executive Don Blanchon. “How do you take the value of your real estate and use it to further your mission. There is no one-size-fits-all model.”
Stonesifer said her organization is months from making a decision about the 35,000 square feet of storefront and office space it owns along some of the hottest blocks in the city. Gentrification or no, there is a still a waiting list for the pre-school. Clients still line up to shop in the free food pantry. They will continue dispatching trucks filled with sandwiches to homeless gathering spots around downtown.
“We are absolutely committed to having early childhood here and having food support here,” she said. “But the bottom line is we don’t know” what they will eventually do with the property.
“I don’t want a lot of developers calling me,” Stonesifer said. But she knows they will.
Martha’s Table has already built a major presence in Anacostia, opening a branch of its Martha’s Outfitter thrift store on Martin Luther King Boulevard SE. Even more, the nonprofit organization is in the middle of an ambitious campaign, along with the Capital Area Food Bank, to open monthly food markets in every D.C. elementary school in Ward 7 and Ward 8.
One of these “Joyful Food Markets” was in full swing last week at Moten. Dozens of families piled into a lunchroom that had been converted into a kind of pop-up Whole Foods, with piles of fresh produce and stacks of rice, multi-grain Rice Krispies, tuna, peanut butter and beans.
A survey last fall showed that nearly half the school families worried about running out of food during the month. The school’s principal said many of the mothers can’t work because they have no access to affordable child care. Their soon-to-be neighbor could help on both counts, she said.
“They’ve already built their reputation with the families here,” Principal Mireille Lopez Humes said. “There is a lot of need here.”