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City seeks plan to revitalize area east of the river

(Published October 4, 1999)

By REBECCA CHARRY

Staff Writer

A new shopping center and supermarket at Benning Road and East Capitol Street could be the cornerstone of a revitalization plan currently being developed for far Northeast and Southeast Washington. New libraries in Deanwood and Benning Heights as well as an office building and recreation center near the Minnesota Avenue Metro station could also figure in the plan.

Those initiatives are e-merging as part of a larger plan for economic development of the entire area east of the Anacostia River. A study is being formulated jointly by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, the D.C. Office of Planning, and Sorg & Associates, a private firm with experience in historic preservation and architecture. Sorg is being paid about $370,000 for the study.

The Benning Road and East Capitol site — centrally located at the intersection of two main arteries and near the Benning Road Metro station — would be expected to draw customers from among residents who live within a one-mile radius.

The planning effort is largely conceptual at this early stage, said Kent McDonald, project manager for Sorg. Planners are less concerned with exact locations and land ownership than with formulating a general strategy that responds to the needs of residents, he said.

"The mechanics haven’t been worked out yet," said DHCD representative Bettie Crawl. "We’re just talking concepts."

The existing commercial area around Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue would be strengthened and expanded, according to the plan. Anchored at the south end by the existing Safeway supermarket, a pedestrian-friendly commercial strip would stretch north for about a mile, anchored at the north end by an office complex and expanded parking near the Minnesota Avenue Metro station.

Buildings of historic value along Minnesota Avenue could be restored. Others would be torn down and new facilities built. The historic art deco facade of the defunct Senator Theater, on the west side of Minnesota, just south of Benning, also would be restored.

"What we have now is a fairly disorganized collection of shops that are not very attractive. The range of goods offered is not very wide. They are mostly gas stations or franchises — there is very little sense of place," McDonald said.

In addition to the two main commercial areas, existing neighborhood shopping areas would be improved at strategic intersections such as Nannie Helen Burroughs and Division avenues, and along Eastern and Southern avenues. Those would serve neighborhood residents within walking distance.

Libraries, or similar learning centers, are proposed for the vicinity of 5000 Sherriff Road NE — within a quarter mile of six schools — and along Ridge Road SE near Fort Dupont Park.

A new public recreation center is proposed behind the closed Carter G. Woodson Junior High School on Minnesota Avenue. A chain of parks and playgrounds, with bike and hiking trails, would be built along Watts Branch, which flows northwest across the area from Southern Avenue to the Anacostia River.

Also envisioned in the plan is new housing to be built on three large vacant lots – one at Benning Road and F Street SE, near the former Eastgate public housing project, another at 50th and C streets SE near J.C. Nalle Elementary School and a third on Clay Terrace in Lincoln Heights near Woodson Senior High School.

Based on visual surveys of the area and feedback gathered at a series of community meetings, the final document will present a strategy for economic development over the next three to 10 years, McDonald said.

Fewer details are clear about plans for other areas east of the river, he said. A series of community meetings has been held in the Congress Heights and Hillcrest neighborhoods, but the study team is still determining which developments already are underway.

The study team was met with jeers at a recent Congress Heights meeting when they presented a plan for new housing at the Frederick Douglass dwellings on Alabama Avenue SE. Residents, who informed the researchers that the Douglass site had just received a widely publicized $30 million federal grant for redevelopment, charged the study team with "not doing their homework."

Earlier parts of the Sorg study identified four other major commercial areas east of the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington that should be revitalized — the Anacostia gateway, at the foot of the 11th Street Bridge; the area around the Anacostia Metro station; the Skyland Shopping Center at Naylor Road, Good Hope Road and Alabama Avenue; and Poplar Point, a large mostly undeveloped area between Interstate 295 and the Anacostia River.

Retail and office uses are suggested for the Anacostia gateway. A cultural arts or vocational training center is proposed for the 4-acre Anacostia Metro site. Revitalized shopping is proposed for Skyland. A large regional shopping complex or university campus is proposed at Poplar Point.

A report with details for these initiatives is expected to be available from the Office of Planning by the end of October.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator