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How an Unofficial Park Became the Crucible in D.C.'s Long-Stalled Public Housing Reboot

Thursday, July 27, 2017
"It's a chance to see if the city's going to come through and keep some of the residents who have suffered through the worst days."

Washington City Paper by Andrew Giambrone

On a cool night last December, during what would have ordinarily been a mundane hearing on urban planning, District resident Shonta High recited a poem she had written for the occasion.

Dozens of people were gathered in a meeting room downtown to speak about a contested redevelopment project two and a half miles north in Park View, a gentrifying neighborhood along Georgia Avenue NW filled with rowhouses and minority-owned businesses. In recent years, bougie coffeeshops, a doggy day-care center, and a beer garden with pergolas and benches have moved in.

High has lived for 16 years at the Park Morton public housing complex, an ailing property just east of Georgia Avenue. She has two daughters—one 17, the other two—and experiences bipolar depression, which has made it hard for her to find work after losing her job in the early 2000s. Subsidized housing and disability benefits have helped her stay afloat while raising her daughters A’Tira and Amarissa.

Despite the obstacles life has thrown at her, High wants to be an entrepreneur: specifically, a wedding planner who would assist couples on their “big, beautiful, wonderful day.”

But along with the roughly 300 other residents of Park Morton, she’s caught in a battle with nearby homeowners over the future of her neighborhood, with consequences far more wide-ranging than what will happen for just Park Morton residents.

The District wants to redevelop the 12-building complex as part of an ambitious city effort called the New Communities Initiative. Its goal is to stem the displacement of low-income residents by integrating them into new, mixed-income developments alongside tenants who pay market and affordable rents, thereby deconcentrating poverty and reducing crime. 

Districtwide, the New Communities Initiative hangs in a delicate balance. It’s premised on residents’ “right to return” to their neighborhoods after construction occurs, and on one-to-one replacement of public housing units.

Ideally, this model harnesses off-site land where new housing can be built before residents relocate and old housing is demolished—a principle known as “build first.” But since its inception in 2005, New Communities has proceeded by starts and stops. Two of the four communities involved in the endeavor have largely discarded the build-first strategy, calling into question whether it’s viable. 

One of those communities was Temple Courts, the initiative’s inaugural project. Officials demolished the 10-story tower in NoMa in late 2008, and the site became a parking lot, which it still remains. It took years for a few dozen replacement units to open in the vicinity, during which time many former residents moved elsewhere. (The District plans to select a master developer for the project by the end of the summer.)

Another is Barry Farm in Southeast D.C. The District abandoned build first there last year, saying it would be too costly and would have forced residents of the half-vacant property to endure increasingly unsafe conditions. Having expected the opportunity to live on site during reconstruction, and fearing they’ll never be able to return, many Barry Farm residents have gone to battle with the city. Nonetheless, the D.C. Housing Authority is now starting the months-long process of relocating about 200 Barry Farm families to other public housing, or giving them rental vouchers to use for private apartments. (It can take months to place a voucher in D.C.) 

Park Morton is a comparative success. Although a nasty battle with neighbors threatens the project, it has otherwise advanced more expediently—and more peacefully—within the New Communities portfolio than any other project. It is also poised to be the first under the initiative to follow a robust build-first model.

“It’s almost like Park Morton is the shining star and Barry Farm is kind of a black eye,” says Claire Zippel, an analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute who focuses on affordable housing. “It’s going to be incredibly critical for DCHA and the District to keep in touch with those families [at Barry Farm] so they know once they’re relocated what the timeline is for returning.” 

With the District becoming pricier and the federal government continuing to slash funding for public housing, the stakes of the initiative have never been higher. Currently, there are over $1 billion worth of deferred maintenance needs across DCHA’s 56 properties, which contain more than 8,300 units.

“Park Morton is an opportunity to show New Communities can work in other places, and there’s a lot riding on that,” says Brianne Nadeau, who represents Ward 1 on the D.C. Council. “It requires political will. It requires government funding. It requires the right partners. And it requires constant communication with all the stakeholders. But that’s not rocket science. We can do that.”

Susan Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who has studied the New Communities Initiative and similar mixed-income redevelopments across the U.S., says the program is essential because D.C. has one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. 

“It’s a chance to see if the city’s going to come through and keep some of the residents who have suffered through the worst days,” she explains.

At risk are both the wellbeing of the District’s lowest-income families and the validity of the public-private model that it and a handful of other cities have promoted as a way to revitalize impoverished areas. So too are the political legacies of Mayor Muriel Bowser, who in part campaigned on jumpstarting the New Communities Initiative, and her three predecessors.

“I can’t keep sitting here and telling [residents], it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming,” Bowser told a housing official at a 2013 D.C. Council hearing, when she chaired the council’s economic development committee. “I’ve got to tell them the truth, right? At some point, we have to.”

***

But just as it looked like Park Morton was indeed coming, neighbors emerged to beat it back. 

To advance the project, officials have earmarked three acres of park space on the site of a former D.C. public school building for new mixed-income housing. 

This is where the neighbors’ outrage begins. The new development would reduce the park’s size by roughly two-thirds. Beyond that, they say the proposed development would diminish neighborhood character, increase traffic, and make parking even more difficult to find. They’re also exasperated by the planning process, which they describe as undemocratic.

And so they’ve taken to public meetings, online listservs, and now court to express their frustrations. While Park Morton’s residents continue to live in ramshackle conditions, the project’s opponents vociferously deny that their indignation has anything to do with public housing residents potentially moving closer to them, or with race. Park Morton’s tenants are predominantly black, while the neighborhood around them is increasingly white and of mixed race.

On Dec. 5, High spiritedly delivered her poem to the D.C. Zoning Commission, which was considering whether to grant the project exemptions from height, density, and other rules.

“The redevelopment will bring a change that refresh things anew, but many of the people who oppose have a view that’s obscured,” High read aloud. “Try to see this from our point of where we’re tired of living in squalor, and here I am, a proud mother of a brilliant scholar.”

She meant A’Tira, who excels academically. In her apartment High keeps a binder—1.5 inches thick—where she faithfully stores her daughter’s scholastic accolades. “This was my proudest moment, oh!” she said in a recent interview, holding a President’s Education Award with Barack Obama’s signature on it. “She has all these honor-roll awards. She did all of this in the face of the adversity here at Park Morton, with the shootings, the crime, the drugs, just, the everything, and the stereotypes.”

The December zoning hearing lasted for more than five hours. One nervous Park Morton resident who testified said she felt like she was on a “guillotine,” while another asked High to present her brief remarks in her stead because she was not accustomed to speaking in public.

Four months later, the commission unanimously green-lighted the planned development in a written order. 

But then in June, four homeowners who live on the same block as the park challenged the decision in the D.C. Court of Appeals, stalling construction on the project. 

The neighbors’ petitions are expected to delay the redevelopment by up to a year and a half, given the court’s appeals process. And because the project would take around two years to build, Park Morton residents probably wouldn’t be able to move into new apartments until 2020 or 2021.

That’s assuming the court rejects the neighbors’ appeals instead of remanding the case to the zoning commision. The latter happened in December for the planned McMillan Sand Filtration site redevelopment, perhaps the District’s most debated project. The court could also deny the plans for the park outright, as it did last year for a project that was to go up on an empty lot in Brookland. 

Like other families affected by the New Communities Initiative, Park Morton residents have already been waiting almost a decade for reconstruction to begin. As a result, intense emotions—and related concerns about the status of public housing in an ever-more vanilla Chocolate City—envelop the initiative and the people it touches.

In a historical irony, Park Morton was constructed in 1960 as replacement housing for some of the thousands of mostly black Washingtonians displaced by Southwest’s urban renewal in the 1950s. Officials razed run-down rowhouses on Park Road and Morton Street NW to make room for a garden-style public housing complex flanked by balconies.

Fast forward to today, and among the issues that Park Morton residents regularly deal with are outdated appliances, inconsistent maintenance, pests, mold, and leaks.

The front doors of the property’s 12 buildings, which altogether contain 174 two-bedroom units, are usually wide open for outsiders to come and go. Crime and drugs—facilitated by blind alleys that pervade the property—have plagued the community for decades, marring its reputation.

Even on the surface, Park Morton appears to be in disarray. Air conditioners are set vertically in windows because panes are too narrow to accommodate them normally, shortening their useful lives. Balconies brimming with belongings (bicycles, vacuums, and holiday lights, to name a few) lack exterior panels, or have ones that are badly dislodged. Small gray mailboxes next to sidewalks are damaged.

And while kids run around the complex playfully—four listened to Fetty Wap from a smartphone on a recent afternoon (“I knew this song since I was a baby!” one said)—anxiety grips the place.

Tamika White, president of the Park Morton Resident Council, says the majority of the property’s residents are pessimistic about the future of their home and don’t attend meetings or even read community flyers. When she’s knocked on doors to speak about the redevelopment project, many have told her they don’t care. 

“It saddens me,” White says, tearing up. “I don’t even know what kind of, like, mindset you’re in that you don’t care where you go.”

A six-year resident of Park Morton who has four children and requested anonymity to guard her privacy agrees. “It’s not a futile fight because you do want to feel like your voice matters,” she says while sitting on a handrail near the complex’s playground and swatting away flies.

On that playground, in 2014, a man shot and injured 6-year-old Khalia Smalley and a 25-year-old man in a burst of fire. Though Smalley recovered, she and her mother left Park Morton months later. For residents, the shooting brings back memories of more-trying times.

“It shook us to the core, like, ‘OK, we’re not about to go back to doing this,’” says Shonta High, who was pregnant with her youngest daughter and at home with her eldest during the incident. 

Although violent crime in Park View spiked in 2015, like it did across the rest of the District, the neighborhood has stabilized over the past year, with few high-profile incidents.

Now, the struggle Park Morton residents find themselves in isn’t about public safety, but public space.

The three-acre park at the center of the controversy sits on Georgia Avenue NW between Irving Street and Columbia Road NW. It’s located about four blocks south of Park Morton and is within walking distance of two Metro stops. 

Before there were community garden plots on those three acres, there were classrooms. In 2008, the District closed the old Bruce Monroe Elementary School due to underenrollment and razed it the next year after no charter schools applied to occupy the building. 

In the interim, neighbors advocated for recreational space rather than a parking lot to go on the site. The park opened in 2010 with $2 million from the District and with the understanding that it was to be a temporary amenity while its future use was considered. 

This is where the District and its developer partners hope to construct the first phase of the redevelopment, which includes a nine-story multifamily building, a six-story building for seniors, and eight townhomes, on the site’s north and west sides. At least 70 of the 273 planned units would be market-rate, 90 would replace units at Park Morton, and 110 or so would be affordable to people who make up to 60 percent of D.C.’s area median income, which equates to about $65,000 for a family of four. 

One of the three acres would remain a park. In fact, it would be designanted as an official city park, which the current site is not.  

Neighbors who advocated for the park years ago, and newcomers as well, currently have signs posted on their front lawns opposing the redevelopment. Some say the buildings would dwarf their homes, and that they don’t want to lose the gazebo, two basketball courts, tennis court, surface parking, playsets, or community garden.

“I bring my niece and nephew over there to play in the playground,” a woman told zoning officials in December. “I’ve taught my nephew how to ride his bike in that playground. It’s something that for me, personally, I have a very strong emotional attachment to.”

David Bobeck, a neighbor and one of the four people who filed legal challenges against the development, echoes that sentiment. 

“I’ve seen fathers over there playing tee ball with young children, and everybody can do their thing without getting in each other’s way,” says Bobeck, who is not satisfied with idea for a smaller one-acre park on the same land. “I’m not convinced that that park will be big enough to really provide a significant resource for a community of this size.”

Some Park Morton tenants and their backers say the opposition comes from a deeper, darker place. “Because they don’t want public housing,” the six-year resident says when asked why she thinks nearby homeowners dislike the project. “Let’s call a spade a spade. We look different. We act different.” An advocate who supports the project had earlier told the zoning commission that the concern of the opposing group was “borne out of racism and classism.”

At a March 2016 community meeting on the project, 44-year Park Morton resident Cassandra Jackson spoke to an audience of more than 100 people. “You all had labeled us, you all look down upon us as if we don’t exist,” she said. “I have worked, cleaned, washed, ironed, done every hotel in Washington, D.C. all my life and, yes, I am retired.”

Last December, at a second zoning hearing, homeowner Nida Chaudhary repudiated what she said were unfair rhetorical tactics by proponents of the redevelopment. “They’ve been actively reducing these arguments to racism, and it’s just so offensive,” she said. “Like, I am just overwhelmed with anger.” (Chaudhary is one of the neighbors who have appealed the zoning commission’s decision.)

Days earlier, at the first hearing on the project, Shonta High had rhymed in her poem:

“Where you failed to see the human side because we’re mostly people of color, many of the angered people that don’t support this project don’t even know each other. A park or a home, this is a choice that ultimately must be made, and when it comes down to those that oppose, they prefer to sit in the shade.”

D.C. planning officials tried to attract developers to build on the former Bruce Monroe site in 2010, after the school was razed, but received only one solicitation response and declined to award a contract. Around the same time, under Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration, the planned redevelopment of Park Morton began to fall apart. It had been in the works for seven years at that point.

In 2014, more than four years after it had selected the Maryland-based Landex Corp. and the D.C.-based Warrenton Group to lead the Park Morton project, the District killed its agreement with that development team, claiming the “reasonable timeframe for progress … ha[d] expired.” 

Landex and Warrenton had built 27 replacement units for Park Morton within an 83-unit building on Georgia Avenue, aptly called The Avenue. But the team failed to acquire additional land to be used for off-site development, which led to the collapse of the deal.

Later that same year, the D.C. Housing Authority sought fresh proposals for the redevelopment of Park Morton. Developers identified Bruce Monroe Park as a suitable site, both because of its size and because the District controlled it. Officials awarded the bid to The Community Builders, a nonprofit, and Dantes Partners, a for-profit, acting as a joint venture called Park View Community Partners. Their plan is to build on the park, move dozens of Park Morton tenants in, and then gradually demolish and redevelop the existing public housing. This team has been successful so far, save for the wrath of the neighbors.

Bobeck has lived in Park View since 2002 and witnessed the neighborhood become safer and more upscale while retaining much of its diversity. Wanting a yard and some space, he bought a 12-foot-wide rowhouse in his price range and stayed there. Bobeck sees Park View as a family neighborhood with unique “character and flavor.” 

“Living here is such an incredible joy and really doesn’t compare to any place I’ve ever lived in my entire life,” he says, adding that he uses the park daily. “We’re not cookie-cutter over here.”

Bobeck would like for “the park to remain a park” but acknowledges that this outcome “probably isn’t very realistic” at this point. 

“I do think the development as proposed is of a scale that is not appropriate in any way for this community,” he says. “We’re living on top of each other already. Another 500 people, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Beyond the park, Bobeck and his peers are vexed by the process. The District says it conducted dozens of community meetings and the development team did door-to-door outreach. From Bobeck’s perspective, these efforts only served to “silence” the park’s neighbors.

“It was not a case of, ‘What would you guys like to see?’ It was a case of, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” he says. Reflecting on the entire experience, he laughs. “It’s almost insulting.”

Two of the other appellants challenging the redevelopment did not respond to requests for comment, and the fourth could not be reached. But in December, they publicly told zoning officials they felt strong-armed by the District and that they believed the project was already a “done deal” by the time community meetings were held.

One of them, Ryan Cummins, even said the District used “bullying tactics.” “We don’t have the luxury of people who are keenly familiar with this process, professional lobbyists to show up in number, who don’t even live in the neighborhood, to accuse the opposition of things,” he said.

Although the neighbors don’t have an attorney in the case (the appeals court has consolidated their petitions), Bobeck says they welcome any assistance. “We just knew that we had to do something because we are desperate to save the park,” he concludes. “We’re really kind of flying by the seat of our pants.”

Their appeals come amid a significant increase in legal action against planned developments. According to Bisnow, 57 zoning appeals have been filed since the beginning of 2013, and 11 cases are pending before the court. In addition to the McMillan and Brookland projects, these cases are holding back the creation of nearly 4,000 new units of housing, including more than 1,400 affordable ones.

Rob Fossi, regional vice president of development for The Community Builders mid-Atlantic division, says such challenges have become par for the course. “This was something, unfortunately, that we were hoping not to encounter, but preparing for,” he says, adding that while the matter is pending, the team can work on design, permitting, and financing, among other tasks.

Audra Grant, president of the Luray-Warder Neighborhood Association and co-chair of the Park Morton Steering Committee—a group that’s helping to guide the redevelopment—manages to see both sides. 

“Frankly, if there was a nine-story building going up in front of my house, that’d be very daunting to me too,” she says. (Officials and developers say the project must be large to finance affordable rents.)

Grant has lived across an alley from Park Morton since the early aughts and is often "out and about” in the neighborhood. Though she sympathizes with the neighbors, she stands with the tenants.

“If you have a chance to improve the human condition and livelihoods, that’s more important than preserving a garden,” she argues. “I never see more than 20 people on the park at once, at various points in the day.”

Those numbers held water at dusk on a recent evening, when temperatures felt like they were in the triple digits. Around a dozen men played basketball on the south side of the park, while other people walked around. Few ambled on the north side.

***

When it approved the disposition of Bruce Monroe Park to the development team, a D.C. Council committee reported that it wasn’t clear that the mayor’s office “gave appropriate consideration to all viable public uses of the property, including continued use of the space as a public park.” But the committee, and ultimately the full Council, passed the deal for its overall benefits.

Such criticism is familiar for Bowser, who in 2016 stirred consternation when announcing a plan to build new family homeless shelters in residential neighborhoods. Although the Council re-engineered the plan to require that the shelters be situated on public land—rather than on private land, as the mayor had proposed—neighbors in Wards 3 and 5 sued the District, citing concerns about the site-selection process. (Those neighbors lost that court battle this year.)

Angie Rodgers, who directs the New Communities Initiative within Bowser’s office, disagrees with the notion that the District didn’t integrate community input into its plans for Bruce Monroe. Rodgers has overseen neighborhood meetings about the project since early 2015, including a contentious one in November of that year, which 200 or so people attended. Some participants mistakenly believed that the District wanted to build on the whole park, she recalls. 

“If you just showed up in November, then you might think we sprung this on the community, but that is not indeed what happened,” Rodgers says. “We have tried to be honest and consistent.”

She admits that not everyone will be happy with the redevelopment process, but says the District is motivated by fulfilling its promises to public housing residents. “We felt we were putting together a project that was the right thing for the Park Morton residents, and balanced a lot of competing interests,” Rodgers says.

At Barry Farm, a New Communities site that’s been contentious for several years, many tenants themselves oppose the redevelopment. They must leave their longtime home while it’s under construction through a phased relocation plan. 

They worry about being permanently displaced. “We’re not plants, we’re not trees,” Barry Farm resident and activist Paulette Matthews told the D.C. Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners last year, suggesting it was wrong for officials to “just uplift somebody and put them where you want to.” 

In 2015, a group of Barry Farm residents also appealed a zoning decision. The appeal has held up construction as the matter unfolds. 

Rodgers says Barry Farm—not Park Morton—is the “rare bird” of the initiative. Barry Farm’s apartments were originally built as temporary housing, she explains, so the complex has deep structural issues that resulted from years of wear-and-tear and from federal disinvestment in public housing. She adds that the development team for Barry Farm hopes to submit a second-stage development plan to zoning officials this fall.

“I understand that this is a painful moment for folks—and it has also been a long time coming,” Rodgers says. “At the same time, the sooner this process completes, the sooner there’ll be new units at the site.”

However the situation at Park Morton resolves itself, residents concerned with gentrification and affordable housing may have the New Communities Initiative on their minds when they go to the polls next June to vote in D.C.’s Democratic primary. Others may not have even heard of it.

Some experts say it’s too soon to say whether Bowser’s management of this program she inherited, and has worked to revive, will bear fruit. Others point to her unrivaled investments in affordable housing and homeless services, in the context of a behemoth economic challenge, as laudable public policy.

For Kent Boese, the chairman of the neighborhood commission that includes Park Morton, the initiative was “extremely frustrating” before the current administration. A candidate in the Ward 1 Council race, he says that only time will tell if New Communities can emerge from the shadow of its past.

“It really depends on how successful they’re able to be with other communities outside of Park Morton,” Boese says. “The trick is going to be replicating it. People are still waiting and seeing with this one.”