In Southwest D.C., Developers and Architects Bet on Public Space and Affordable Housing to Create Equitable Development

The Wharf, a $2 billion development, tries to tread a fine line of drawing people back to the city’s waterfront while not driving away area residents.

“One of the issues in redeveloping in communities is access to what we’re creating,” said Ben Audrain, senior associate with WDG Architecture, where Metropolis’s director of design innovation Susan S. Szensay led a discussion about neighborhood development in Washington, D.C. on December 7. Access for the community means little without the community’s input on what’s being created in the first place. In turn, Audrain contended, community involvement has allowed development projects—including The Wharf, a $2 billion, 2 million-square-foot project on which he and several co-panelists worked—to become welcoming spaces for the neighborhoods in which they’re built.

Washington, D.C., hasn’t always been sympathetic to community concerns: Urban renewal of the mid-1960s and 1970s eradicated large portions of Southwest D.C., relocating not just families, but whole neighborhoods, to the other side of the Anacostia River. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that despite the fact of being separated from the rest of the city by the [I-395] freeway, Southwest was a thriving community,” Shawn Seaman, an executive vice president with PN Hoffman, said. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of the people that were there before urban renewal were dislocated to the east of the river communities.”

Developer Desa Sealy, CEO of Gotham Urban Ventures, has found success recently in redeveloping affordable housing within the communities on the other side of the river, in Anacostia. “Affordable housing developers have a different model, and earn their money differently, through appreciation over time,” she says. “[That model] also looks at preservation rather than new construction. When you’re looking at taking existing stock and renovating it, often those units are larger. So you can do the two- and three-bedroom units using subsidy over time, knowing that your appreciation and value comes at year 15 if you decide to sell after using tax credits or refinances.”

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Fifty years after the District’s urban renewal, development remains a complicated issue. On 14th Street Northwest, the city made a targeted investment by installing a major government office in 1986, the Franklin D. Reeves Municipal Center, which has been a catalyst for economic revitalization in the neighborhood that surrounds it. “You can’t walk more than a block and a half without someone wanting to ask you if you want a craft beer and a yoga class,” says developer Donahue Peebles III, senior associate of development for the Peebles Corp. But that doesn’t necessarily benefit the people who live there: “As the neighborhood value goes up,” Peebles continues, “What happens is that renters, in particular low income renters, are pushed out of those neighborhoods and forced into more secondary and tertiary areas where you’re in a grocery store desert, or where schools don’t necessarily provide the same social outcomes.”

The Wharf attempts to tread a fine line of drawing people back to the Southwest waterfront while providing amenities for and eschewing displacement of area residents. It succeeds by presenting itself as a truly democratic, urban place where, for example, pedestrians, cyclists, and automobiles share a street without curbs. “The key difference between the Wharf and other parts of Washington is the quality of the public space,” landscape architect Jeff Lee says. “That’s a citywide issue: Having a quality open space is the most democratic thing you can do. Anybody from any age group or any income group can come.”

Part of the Wharf’s success story stems from the involvement of a wide array of entities, from local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) to city departments, and of course the architects and developers who built it. The public-private partnership embraced tax increment financing (TIF) pilot bonds issued by the city to finance the Wharf, with the end result being a mutually beneficial development. “The District put TIF pilot bonds in place that helped us create the infrastructure and allowed us to write down cost of apartments,” Seaman says. “So we have over 200 apartments in Phase 1 that are affordable at very low levels: 30 percent and 60 percent AMI. The public places and the piers wouldn’t have existed without TIF bonds, and the money that’s generated from the project is going to be north of $50 million per year for the District.” That’s the kind of creative partnership and financing strategy that cities elsewhere can emulate, where existing residents as well as newcomers benefit from redevelopment to their neighborhoods.

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