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In Anacostia, controversial project butts history

(Published February 8, 1999)


Staff Writer

Thereís an unexpected smell in the air some days as you cross the 11th Street Bridge into the vacant lots and dilapidated storefronts of Anacostia: the aroma of baking bread.

But La Marseillaise Wholesale Bakery, tucked away behind a boarded-up hamburger joint, may soon be gone along with most of the west side of the 1100 block of Good Hope Road, to make way for a 200,000-square-foot office building.

The Anacostia Gateway Project, a development concept that people in this neighborhood have talked and argued about for years, may soon be underway.

The plan, in the abstract, is to revitalize the area by luring people over the bridge, said Albert "Butch" Hopkins, president of Anacostia Economic Development Corp. (AEDC) and the man behind the project. The three-acre site, at the intersection of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Avenue SE, just minutes from Capitol Hill, is a great place for an office, especially since rent will be lower than downtown, he said. He said he hopes construction can begin this spring.

Although the project could set off more activity than the economically depressed Anacostia gateway has seen for years, many in the community are angry about it.

"We are not interested in having a lot of office buildings and parking lots," said Carolyn Gray, a longtime neighborhood resident and president of the Frederick Douglass Improvement Association. "We need dress shops, a movie theater, a shoe shop."

Anacostia had all that once and more ó supper clubs, hardware stores, gift shops ó just a short walk from the historic home of Frederick Douglass. The gateway, the only part of Ward 6 that lies east of the river, was once beautiful, filled with red brick storefronts like the ones in the painting Mayor Anthony A. Williams chose for his familyís Christmas card. While Williamsí card was a nod of recognition for his east of the river constituents, the real buildings ó given to AEDC by the city government ó are slated for demolition.

What Anacostia needs is small retail businesses, Gray said. Besides, Anacostia already has an office complex, she noted, on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, just a short walk away from the proposed gateway project site. The three big buildings are marked by the famous "big chair," the only reminder that the site was once a furniture warehouse.

But the privately built "big chair" complex ó which houses medical offices, the D.C. Department of Human Services and the D.C. Taxicab Commission ó has been mostly a disappointment, Gray said.

"Putting the taxi commission here didnít do anything for us," she said. "We still canít catch a cab over that bridge."

The jobs that were promised from the offices never materialized, she said, and most of the retail stores remained stubbornly boarded up.

"That should never have been put there," Gray said. "They tore down a historic building to put that up and it has never been full."

Hopkins says his project will be different. It will anchor the north end of Martin Luther King Avenue, and small stores will "fill in" the gap. He said he especially wants to capitalize on the 15,000 employees expected to relocate to the Southeast Federal Center just over the bridge near the Navy Yard in the coming year.

Bitterness about the project isnít just an argument over office versus retail. And itís more than a fight between developers and historic preservationists. The issue, in part, is AEDC itself.

AEDC was created in 1969. The Martin Luther King commercial corridor was a mess. It still is. In fact, some say, itís worse.

AEDC gets its operating money from federal grants, about $500,000 in earned income from its properties and about $500,000 a year from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, Hopkins said. Much of the land it owns was a gift from the D.C. government.

"Iím concerned," Gray said. "All this money has been earmarked for our community, and there is nothing to show for it."

While the corporation itself is nonprofit, its several subsidiaries ó including the Anacostia Holding Co. and Anacostia Management ó are for-profit entities, Hopkins said. They operate a local shuttle bus service, manage the Good Hope Marketplace shopping center and in recent years built 84 houses in Wards 7 and 8.

But building houses doesnít provide permanent jobs for local folks, residents argue.

They point especially to AEDCís staff of 10, which until recently included only one Anacostia resident. Now there are two, said Yavocka Wilson, director of community outreach, who is one of them. Hopkins has been criticized for living in a swank place on Capitol Hill and driving a late-model luxury car.

"It doesnít help when you take the CDCís money and lease a Mercedes and go up and down the street while things have not gotten fixed up," said Lamont Mitchell, owner of Imani Cafe and a member of AEDCís board. "When youíre tooling down MLK and the place looks like Beirut, it donít pass the smell test."

Some doubt the project will ever come to fruition. A $90,000 study of the gateway site and residences in a one-mile radius was completed in 1994. And little has changed since then.

Hopkinsí plans for the gateway have been slowed by the designation of much of the area as a historic district through legislation introduced by Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose, D-Ward-6, who represents Anacostiaís historic core area.

Hopkins said he supports historic preservation but itís simply too expensive. In order to pay for the $340,000 to preserve the facades at 1901-1913 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, he said, he would have to charge his tenants rents that would scare them away.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator