Disposition of Big K Site Will Take 18 months

“I know there have been a lot of questions swirling around Big K,” said Denise L. Johnson, project manager of the site for the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) at a public hearing last month. “I’m here tonight to dispel any rumors.”

Since acquiring the Big K parcel – four properties at 2228, 2234, 2238, and 2252 Martin Luther King, Jr., Avenue SE – in the summer of 2010 for just under $1 million, the city has held more than a dozen meetings to discuss the site’s future. According to a presentation by Johnson it will be, at best, more than a year and half before DHCD completes disposition to Chapman Development LLC, headed by Tim Chapman, the only developer to submit a competitive proposal in response to last June’s solicitation. To DHCD’s credit the most recent public hearing did dispel neighborhood speculation and was the most transparent and honest meeting I have attended in nearly three years. 

Challenges of the Big K Site

“It’s extremely important for DHCD to get it right,” said Johnson in response to questions from an audience of more than 30 residents. “This site can be catalytic for the commercial corridor.” In lieu of challenges facing the commercial development of the Big K site DHCD is offering a “subsidy” to Chapman, according to Johnson. If the conditions of the property disposition agreement are met, DHCD will sell the property for $1. “We believe this will help bring back the corridor,” Johnson said. When asked if the proposed sale price would restrict the developer from receiving further subsidies from DHCD or other city agencies, Johnson replied, “The city does not bundle all of its subsidies.”

Before development happens the eventual design concept will have to get approval from the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), as 2228, 2234, and 2238 fall within the boundaries of the Anacostia Historic District, said Johnson, a former HPRB member. The wood-frame house at 2228 was demolished last summer but those at 2234 and 2238 remain. Last year Mayor Gray hinted that the deteriorated houses may have to be moved to another location although that has yet to be determined.  

Another challenge is the presence of the Big K parcel, 2226 MLK, on the corner lot of Martin Luther King, Jr., Avenue and Maple View Place SE. Currently Dale Richardson’s Astro Motors is not part of the Big K development portfolio owned by DHCD. Acquisition of the corner lot “would be a good thing for this site,” Chapman said, extending the frontage lot on Martin Luther King, Jr., Avenue east to west from Morris Road SE to Maple View Place SE. Although no deal appears in the works, Chapman said he has plans to hold “more earnest conversations” with the owner of 2226 MLK in the future.

A final obstacle for the Big K site’s development will be securing financing from a bank. As Johnson acknowledged, “No development can get financing unless there’s a cash flow.” 

Market Study Continues 

With the recent closing of the Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket and the slow replacement of an eatery in the former space of Uniontown Bar & Grill, many neighborhood activists including James Bunn from Congress Heights, Davis White from the Chicago Street Civic Association, and Bruce Holmes offered their support for development of the Big K site. However, some residents questioned what development will ultimately materialize. 

“Everybody doesn’t have a problem with their kidneys or is on drugs or is an alcoholic,” said former 8A Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Greta Fuller in response to the disclosure of Chapman’s initial proposal to develop a “medical facility” on the Big K site. “What people don’t understand is that the Good Hope Institute is designated as a medical facility and it’s really nothing more than a methadone clinic. We have to be careful our community doesn’t become overrun with medical services,” Fuller said, alluding to Unity Healthcare’s new clinic on Galen Street SE, next-door to the Frederick Douglass house.

With the announcement that Chapman and DHCD have agreed to contract an outside vendor to conduct an updated market study before moving ahead with the next conditional step of the disposition, Fuller waved a handful of neighborhood market studies done within the past four years by the city government, the Urban Land Institute, and others. “I want to make sure the next market study hits people in the neighborhood who want a grocery store and a place to eat, a place that can be accessed by everyone and not just a targeted group,” Fuller concluded. 

Ronald Williams, a licensed crabber in the Chesapeake Bay, spoke in favor of the development of the Big K site and asked how he could find support to open a seafood restaurant. “We need to be smart about what we put on this lot and think what its impact will be 5, 10, and 15 years in the future,” Williams said.