Former Site of Historic Buildings to be New Home of DCHD…

The following text is based on testimony given by DCPL Executive Director Rebecca Miller at the July 2020 meeting of the Historic Preservation Review Board. 

Fragile from years of demolition by neglect and increasing development pressures, beginning in 1996 DCPL placed the Anacostia Historic District on its list of Most Endangered Places. The buildings at 1909-1913 Martin Luther King Jr., Avenue were contributing elements in the historic district-that is until the city allowed them to collapse in a windstorm in 2015.

The former commercial buildings that stood on land that is now known as the Anacostia Gateway Project were the victims of failure on the part of four mayoral admirations, the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the Office of Planning and most egregiously, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). DHCD took control of these buildings in the mid-1990s. Although not in ideal condition when placed in DHCD’s portfolio, the buildings were left vacant and abandoned for years by the department, a clear case of the District Government eluding its own laws with regard to code violations and demolition by neglect. The apparent disregard by DHCD was evidenced by the former buildings being left open to the elements and to vagrants. The almost certain consequence of this negligence was a fire that gutted and destroyed the rear of the buildings and their interiors in August 2005.

In 2015, the buildings fell over in a windstorm. Yes, a windstorm. Despite the DC Historic Landmark and Historic District Protection Act being explicit in the treatment of landmarks or contributing buildings that are illegally demolished, no action was taken to require the District Government to rebuild the structures. I’ll note that DCPL doesn’t have standing under the law in this matter, so we were unable to pursue this. All the while, other buildings in the city owned by private property owners have been subject to the rebuilding requirement.  The District of Columbia failed to enforce its own laws. A stellar example to the public once again.

In what appears to be an act of self-dealing, DHCD, the very agency that perpetrated the loss of the historic buildings is now slated to be the anchor tenant of the new MLK Gateway development. The DC Council has approved DHCD’s lease and the development team presented two concepts to the Historic Preservation Review Board in July. The proposals call for a larger five-story (note the original buildings were only 2 stories) building. DCHD’s lease also is driving the timeline for this development – requiring permitting by February 2021. With City actions like this – how are developers across the District, both large and small, supposed to take the law seriously. The fact is, they have no reason to do so.

Lack of action followed by a “shrug of the shoulders” is not how an effective building program should work in the District of Columbia. It has been shown time and again that commercial revitalization is critical to the economic vitality of our neighborhoods. DCPL has worked diligently with developers across the city to ensure that historic preservation interests are respected within projects. As everyone in this room has seen, rehabilitation of Washington’s small buildings can be a useful tool in revitalizing urban neighborhoods and in engendering community pride. We fully believe that the successes in other parts of the city can very much take place in Anacostia.

DCPL will continue to work with our partners in Historic Anacostia and across the city to ensure that buildings important to neighborhoods remain or return to productive use.