Today's Metro section has an excellent, long investigation of what went wrong at Temple Courts and Sursum Corda, the ramshackle collection of low-income housing, a few new residential buildings and parking lots a few blocks from Union Station in Washington, D.C.
The story in a nutshell: Big, complicated public land deals involving private investment, churches and mixed-up property records are really hard to pull off. When residents are moved out with the promise of returning to shiny new buildings, something nearly always goes awry.
In fact, you could tell a similar story about any number of tracts of land in D.C. At the mixed-income Capper-Carrollsburg HOPE VI project, many former residents weren't able to return, and those who were still don't have the community center they were promised. The Henson Ridge redevelopment was riddled with crime years after it got built. Park Morton in Park View is still languishing. Given the difficulty of executing these kinds of redevelopment plans, it's no wonder that public housing residents are reluctant to leave when the city comes along saying the relocation is just temporary.
There's another truth embedded in this story, though: When redevelopment projects take decades, they can be held back by the outmoded ideas of the federal planners who were involved at the outset. At Temple Courts, the city discovered to its dismay a 1971 insurance policy issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that required anything built there to be subsidized housing — out of step with a modern belief in the value of mixed-income neighborhoods. A similar dynamic is at play in Fort Lincoln, where a commercial and residential urban renewal plan signed in 1972 — visionary for the time, but suburban by today's standards — held out until ground was finally broken on a massive shopping complex and housing subdivision just last year. Then there's the post-1968-riots Shaw Urban Renewal Plan, which restricts the density of development in ways builders don't even realize.
Granted, this is a bigger problem in D.C., which used to be entirely run by the federal government. But still, it's the kind of thing that almost makes you wish for a more urbane Robert Moses: Somebody with the authority to simply bring a plan to fruition, without letting red tape get in the way.