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With real estate deals, D.C. Mayor pushes to “keep prosperity moving”

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) wants to use public property to bring new development to neighborhoods. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)
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As the Washington region grapples with a flat economy, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) asked real estate executives and small business owners Monday to partner with her in developing a slew of city-owned properties across the city, projects that she said could increase the city’s stock of affordable housing and bring new amenities to under-served neighborhoods.

Bowser said that too often residents told her they felt excluded from the development process and that the District needed to incorporate more community input in development decisions and create opportunities for District-based small or minority-owned businesses.

“Today’s event was to announce new parcels that will become available, and also a different approach,” Bowser said. “We’ve talked a lot in economic development about cranes. Our focus will be on how we’re creating jobs and opportunities for D.C. residents and small businesses.”

When she entered office this year, Bowser inherited an uneven economy. On some measures, D.C. has weathered cuts to the federal government better than other local jurisdictions; office buildings in the District enjoy some of the lowest vacancy rates in the region and developers are still aggressively building new office and apartment buildings downtown and in neighborhoods including U Street, NoMa and around Nationals Park.

But the District’s unemployment rate, when compared with the states, is now the highest in the nation, at 7.7 percent.

Bowser has also still not filled key economic positions in her administration. A newly created position that was a central pledge of her campaign, deputy mayor for economic opportunity, remains empty. The mayor has also not yet nominated someone to serve as director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the agency that oversees building permits and business licensing.

And although she re-affirmed her commitment to affordable housing, Bowser also miffed arts advocates and others with her abrupt cancellation of a plan to turn the former Franklin School downtown into a contemporary art museum. The property is now up for bid for at least the third time.

At an event dubbed “March Madness” and held at the Lincoln Theater on U Street, Bowser and her economic development team announced six parcels of land that they plan to seek private development partners. The largest is a 1.4-acre lot in Southwest, located behind a Safeway grocery store near a Green Line Metro station, that could accommodate a 400,000-square-foot residential building.

Other sites include pair of properties at a prominent intersection in Anacostia, at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road SE, that includes a historic store facade. Others include a quarter-acre site at the corner of Second and H streets NW, at the intersection of New Jersey Avenue, and a 5,000-square-foot site near Truxton Circle, at 1520-1522 North Capitol St. NW.

“We want to keep that prosperity moving,” Bowser said. “And it’s important that we focus on neighborhoods.”

The cost of housing remains a pressing issue for the mayor, particularly as it comes to use of public properties. As she spoke to developers inside the theater, a handful of protesters stood with a megaphone out on the sidewalk, criticizing the District’s agreement to provide up to $150 million in direct investment for a new stadium for D.C. United and chanting “housing is a human right” and “displacement is a crime.”

With an eye on concerns from residents who feel left out of the development process,  Bowser announced a pilot program in which officials would craft a request for proposals after gathering more input from the community ahead of time.

The test case will use 17,000 square feet of land on R Street in Shaw, known as Parcel 42, that  has been fraught for nearly a decade over affordable housing disagreements and remains vacant.

Bowser started over on both Franklin School and Parcel 42, terminating negotiations with partners selected by her predecessor, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).

In other cases she has picked up where Gray left off. Deputy Mayor Brian Kenner said his team had completed reviews of three other projects to ensure they would have sufficient affordable housing and would move forward with them.

Those projects are the redevelopment of the former Grimke School and property at 965 Florida Ave. NW, both in the U Street corridor, as well as a third parcel near the intersection of 8th and O streets NW.

Bowser will also try to redevelop vacant and blighted buildings as part of the Halley Terrace apartment complex in Ward 8, a plan Gray initiated.

Staff writer Aaron Davis contributed.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz