Anacostia Waterfront Revival?

by Karen Beach

Each summer, waves of would-be renters flow up Connecticut Avenue and around to Dupont Circle, down into Foggy Bottom and over to Virginia to view living quarters that command well over a thousand dollars a month. With such high rental demand in northwest Washington, it seems inconceivable that mere minutes from this madness lie neighborhoods, still in view of the Capitol dome, where low demand has substantially stagnated the price of rental housing.

Regrettable trends that affected many major U.S. cities – such as the post-WWII migration of the middle class to the suburbs and the 1960s urban “renewal” projects – served to reduce areas in Washington, such as those that border the Anacostia River, to their current state of poverty and disrepair. New visions of urban revitalization, however, promise to raise these under-valued areas to new heights by integrating more commercial and residential development and promoting their waterfront locations. If successful, theAnacostia Waterfront Initiative (AWI) will provide more housing, entertainment and shopping options for people seeking the vibrant urban lifestyle of neighborhoods like Cleveland Park and Adams Morgan near the city’s many traditional attractions.

The question, though, is whether current inhabitants of the waterfront areas will remain to benefit from the neighborhoods’ rebirth. AWI, unlike many of its policy predecessors, addresses this concern by incorporating consideration of the existing communities’ needs into the planning process. Mandating a certain amount of affordable housing is among the most basic components to retaining current community members, it claims, but the composition of retails stores and restaurants is also crucial in maintaining community identity.

AWI makes specific mention of the need to accommodate a range of incomes in revitalizing the waterfront. Affordable housing units in Washington are scarce today, and their numbers are quickly declining. Figures from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute(DCFPI) underline the importance of ensuring affordable housing units in new city development. In her December 2005 testimony before the D.C. Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, DCFPI analyst Angie Rodgers reported that since the year 2000, Washington has lost 7,500 units renting for less than $500 per month and 15,000 units renting for between $500 and $1000 per month. During that same interval, it gained 13,000 units with rental rates of $1000 or more.

Introducing these market trends to waterfront neighborhoods, where average household incomes commonly range between $20,000 and $50,000 per year, according to theNeighborhoodInfo DC website, would be detrimental to the continued habitation of many residents. It is crucial to the current communities, therefore, that the city commits to AWI’s proposals regarding housing. Among the proposed policies are: passing zoning regulations to protect the supply of affordable housing, recruiting the cooperation of developers to include affordable housing in new construction projects, and involving federal-level programs, such as the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, to assist in providing developers with financial incentives to construct the necessary units.

Changes in the retail and restaurant environment due to stimulated interest in the waterfront neighborhoods less directly affect residents’ decisions to leave, but certainly impact their desire to stay. Examples of this turnover have already occurred in other Washington neighborhoods. An August 13th article in The Washington Post details the impact that the economic resurgence of Dupont Circle has had on long-time businesses and residents. The author, Chris Kirkham, summarizes the timeline: “In the common pattern, a funky, offbeat neighborhood becomes trendy. Wealthier people move in. Chain retail follows.”

Targeted move-ins by national retailers and restaurants double and triple storefront rental prices and frequently displace existing boutique businesses. The loss of these business owners, many of whom are neighborhood residents, can mean a loss of connection within the community and the special places that defined the community despite the surrounding poverty. In addition, the national chains may not represent the types of goods that appeal to the existing inhabitants, or may be out of the price range of their limited budgets.

The one advantage that the waterfront may have over places like Dupont Circle and M Street in Georgetown is that the changes in Anacostia are top-down modifications deliberately planned by city officials, rather than market-driven changes pushed from the bottom up. Opportunities may thus exist to accommodate the needs of small, independently owned businesses through rent control or tax credits for employing local workers.As it reads, AWI seems to incorporate the best intentions and ideas of the policy world towards solving the problems faced by distressed city neighborhoods.

Something to keep in mind with every new policy brainchild, though, is that as politicians and analysts work toward new ideas of healthy urban environments, they are driven by lessons learned from previous disasters. The wide-scale razing of many downtown neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s, after all, stemmed from the failure of earlier transportation, zoning, and bigoted home-financing policies that left city centers largely abandoned by the middle class. In seeking a solution, planners presumed that ridding cities of blight would be a positive step toward reviving depressed downtowns, and that public housing would be an improvement for poor residents over the crumbling infrastructure of their respective neighborhoods. It is difficult to say whether those planners foresaw the dire social and economic consequences that concentrating the inner-city poor in high-rise buildings would have for the residents and their communities. History, though, has judged the urban renewal practices harshly, and more recent efforts toward mixed-income neighborhoods as the ideal in urban planning have arisen in the backlash. AWI’s focus on the existing community seems to be an improvement, but stems from the same good intentions that have previously harmed the communities it aims to help.

In the coming years, mixed-income development may very well prove to be less utopian for residents of Washington’s depressed neighborhoods than it is for suburbanites seeking shorter commute times, and students and young professionals escaping the Washington housing crunch. It would be unreasonable to expect that any amount of change can be affected without some losses to the status quo. AWI’s more inclusive and collaborative nature, though, gives hope that Washington residents in the future will find any negative consequences of the plan’s implementation to be small policy missteps that require minor adjustments, rather than the sweeping policy failures of old that have left decades of damage to low-income communities in their wake.

Email Karen Beach at



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