The economic development solution for what ails communities east of the Anacostia River is complicated. There are legitimate concerns about displacement of residents. Simultaneously, there are real issues about expanding the middle class that could also effectively grow small businesses capable of providing meaningful employment opportunities over the long term. Those two considerations aren’t mutually exclusive — although some elected officials and special-interest groups often present them as if they are.
The answer to economic challenges cannot be driven by fear or quick fixes. Unfortunately, that’s the mixture that has been suffocating the proposed Reunion Square development in Ward 8. The big squeeze has been aided by DC Council member Trayon White and his posse of supporters, who haven’t seen a development project they didn’t want to block or bilk for their own personal gain under the guise of protecting the community.
As initially designed, Reunion Square was an ambitious mixed-use development that Mayor Muriel Bowser, many Ward 8 residents, small-business owners and longtime community leaders have called critical to the future of Anacostia. The project, by the development team of Four Points LLC, Curtis Investment Group and Blue Sky Housing LLC, was to include retail stores, offices, workforce housing, and space for cultural and arts organizations.
Bowser asked the council last year to provide $60.8 million of tax increment financing (TIF) for phase two of the project. That essentially meant the city would provide a subsidy for the development primarily through the sale of bonds, with the money later repaid by taxes generated by the completed project.
The proposal was part of Bowser’s effort to “bring the same amenities east of the river as every other ward across the city,” said mayoral spokesperson LaToya Foster. She cited new affordable housing, grocery stores and the Entertainment and Sports Arena, among other examples.
The mayor also has been pushing for relocation of government buildings to neighborhoods east of the river. Foster said those efforts “will create daytime activity that will catalyze development projects that aim to attract retail, restaurants and grocery stores.”
There is some debate about the efficacy of government buildings as an economic engine. However, many people agree that Reunion Square could bring a transformation, especially in conjunction with the 11th Street Bridge Park project.
“It will bring disposable income to Anacostia critical to merchants who are there now. It will also attract new small businesses, the kind our residents want,” said Duane Gautier, director of ARCH Development Corp., a nonprofit that has been working in historic Anacostia for more than three decades. He also touted the fact that Reunion Square would provide a new home for the Anacostia Playhouse, which promotes local theater groups and is owned by an Anacostia resident.
Gautier’s organization ignited a cultural revitalization in downtown Anacostia around 2007, with the opening of the Anacostia Arts Center and Honfleur Gallery. Later, it opened its coworking space known as THEHIVE 2.0. Reunion Square could build on those elements.
“If that project is not funded, it will be a disaster,” Gautier added.
Get ready for disaster, coupled with severe myopia and what former President George W. Bush described as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Unsurprisingly, Council member White and his friends used the standard Chicken-Little-Sky-is-Falling propaganda campaign to block the council’s approval of the initial TIF proposal, having stirred fear among low-income residents and some local business owners. He held Reunion Square hostage until he forced Bowser to renegotiate the amount of the TIF, dropping it to $25 million, while altering the size of the project, ultimately reducing the footprint for the retail space and cultural organizations while eliminating the 180-room hotel.
Acknowledging the compromise struck with White, the Bowser administration spokesperson called the revised project “still a victory.”
That’s not how residents I spoke with see it. “We have been wanting a hotel in this ward for 40 years,” said one resident who requested anonymity, concerned about pushback from White. “What Trayon and his cabal have proposed will make this ward nothing but a perpetual ghetto.”
In a prepared statement issued by his chief of staff, White defended his action. He asserted that he has helped “ensure that we promote robust and responsible development to bring more retail and other amenities to Ward 8, while balancing concerns regarding potential displacement of residents and businesses.” He boasted that he got developers to agree to a “100 percent affordable senior building,” and argued that he “is responsible for thinking collectively and inclusively for the community at large.”
Send a doctor over to the John A. Wilson Building: White surely has injured his arm with such vigorous back-patting. That’s the kind of thing that happens during election season; White is running for re-election.
Still, it’s difficult to understand why he wouldn’t want more retail space or a hotel. More jobs would be available to Ward 8 residents, particularly those who lack college degrees and have had a harder time finding permanent employment.
While preserving existing housing is paramount, Reunion Square isn’t the only place where low-income units could be constructed. The city has several parcels of land it owns that could be used — and are being used — for affordable housing.
An argument could be made that with a glut of existing low-income housing, it’s time for the government to export affordable units to other parts of the city. Ward 8 needs market-rate, workforce housing that would help bring more people with that disposable income that Gautier mentioned. Those are people who would be a consistent presence along an upgraded commercial corridor rather than visitors coming in for the occasional special event like patrons of the sports and entertainment complex in Congress Heights.
Who is White representing — his friends who have used mau-mau tactics at several development projects including Maple View, or Anacostia residents who have been pleading for years for upscale redevelopment?
If a petition by Ward 8 residents posted recently on Change.org is any indication, the answer to that question might be the former rather than the latter. More than 250 residents, at last count, were hoping to force White to meet with them and to stop the compromise proposal from moving forward in the council.
There are other places in the city, Shaw for example, where residents have worked together and continue to work together with their elected representative to minimize displacement while spurring growth. There are important lessons from those experiences that could lead to a more effective economic development mixture east of the river than White’s small-minded, self-serving proposal — which may keep his friends at the government trough, but will do nothing for Anacostia residents.