Gray Proposes Legislative Fixes to Eastside Food and Medical Deserts

$468 Million of Incentives for a Hospital and Supermarket Incentives

Residents in Wards 7 and 8 may not need their large meat freezers in the coming years.

Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray (D) introduced legislation in the DC Council on May 21 that addresses two issues in the Ward 7 and Ward 8 communities: the ongoing food and retail deserts as well as a lack of a community hospital. This legislation, if passed, could help keep residents from having to go into neighboring Maryland or other wards for basic food and shopping needs.

Bill 22-207, the East End Health Care Desert, Retail Desert, and Food Desert Elimination Act of 2017, would provide construction funds for retail and grocery stores to be built on five sites across the two wards. It also would help fund the construction of a new East End Medical Center on the Saint Elizabeths East Campus. The total amount comes to about $486 million in the current plan.

Gray introduced the bill with Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White (D), At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds (D), Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans (D), and Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd (D). The DC Department of Health Care Finance (DHCF) will administer the funds.

Living Without Means in Wards 7 and 8

Community members in Wards 7 and 8 have fought for years to bring more grocery and retail options to their neighborhoods. In recent months, East of the River has reported on the ongoing service and sanitation issues in the Safeway grocery stores at 322 40th St. NE and 2845 Alabama Ave. SE. Since then, the stores have changed management, made upgrades, and set plans to speak with community members and Gray.

While these fixes help some issues, they don’t solve the overall problem: these wards don’t have nearly enough retail and grocery options to meet the needs of residents. 

During a DC Council hearing on Gray’s new legislation, Warren Williams, CEO of Warrenton Group developers, spoke on his involvement with the project and others in the Ward 7 community. He said when they spoke with residents about their needs related to new housing developments, residents kept asking if the units would come with a deep freezer – much larger than a freezer-refrigerator combo.

“Why would you need something like that?” Williams asked them.

They responded, “We’re only able to go shopping once a month because we have to go to Virginia to shop. Our local groceries don’t have fresh fruits and food.”

Councilmember White, also at the hearing, said he hears the same complaints that Gray does. His residents have poor diets because they often rely on convenience foods without access to fresh food.

“Poor diet has a ripple effect and often impacts behavior and performance in school and work,” White said.

Gray wants this legislation to fix the problems. “People in 2017…shouldn’t have to live that way,” Gray said at the hearing.

What the Legislation Offers

The legislation is twofold. First, it calls for the construction and funding of the East End Medical Center on the Saint Elizabeths East Campus in Ward 8’s Congress Heights. Second, it calls for construction and incentive measures for both retail and grocery stores for five projects:

  • Skyland Town Center at the intersection of Good Hope Road, Naylor Road, and Alabama Avenue in Ward 7
  • Capitol Gateway on the 5800 and 5900 blocks of East Capitol Street in Ward 7
  • East River Park on the 300 block of 40th St. NE in Ward 7
  • St. Elizabeths East Campus in Ward 8 near the Congress Heights Metro station
  • United Medical Center on the 1300 block of Southern Avenue SE in Ward 8

The Medical Center would receive $336 million for planning, design, and construction of a full-service hospital, with emergency healthcare, urgent care, and an ambulatory care clinic. DC will own the property and lease it to a private operator for 90 years at a cost of $1 per year.

The legislation would also create a special East End Medical Center Fund from annual District appropriations that could be transferred to the East End Grocery and Retail Incentive Program. That fund will close when the five projects and medical center projects complete.

The incentive program, funded at $150 million currently, would pay for the construction of large anchor stores at the five sites. If the store is on District-owned land, it will lease for $1 per year. If the store closes under the 30-year mark, DC will demand payment for part of the construction costs.

The goal: make healthcare and proper nutrition available at an accessible distance for Ward 7 and 8 residents.

Neighbors: Hoping for Best, Not Sold Yet

Residents in the affected wards have hope for the legislation, but the wait for better grocery and retail options has been 20 years coming now, said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Sherice Muhammad (7D06). 

Muhammad also finds the fact that Gray has fused these two seemingly separate pieces of legislation – the hospital and the grocer/retail incentive – into one bill troubling. “I’m not sure if the two halves are adequately aligned,” she said. “I’m concerned that the hospital and retail and grocers, that it would take some really intricate explanation to join the two. Why not just do a bill that addresses the food desert?”

She worries that the marrying of the two will jeopardize its ability to gain votes when it goes to the full Council. She also wants to see the residents represented in negotiations with retailers as a marketable community, not as beggars in dire need, she said. Ward 7 has spending power and is ready to use it.

On top of that, the legislation should specify that the retailers and grocers employ a certain number of local residents to help boost job opportunities in the area, said Michele Tingling-Clemmons, food policy organizer and president of the Central Northeast Civic Association. Tingling-Clemmons testified at the legislation hearing on May 19 and pressed the councilmembers to meet residents’ needs.

“We might live east of the river, but we are not stupid and we do have demands!” she said.