Mixed-use Development Proposed for Congress Heights Metro Station

A rendering of the proposed Congress Heights Metro Station development. Photo Courtesy: Geoffrey Griffis

When Geoffrey Griffis, the managing member for CityPartners, LLC, reminisces about living in the Congress Heights area, he recalls how close his multiethnic and multigenerational neighbors were. “Everyone looked out for each other,” he reminisced. “I go back all the time and talk to my old neighbors.” Recently, CityPartners partnered with Sanford Capital LLC, who owns several apartment buildings in the area, and submitted plans for a transit-oriented  development anchored by Congress Heights Metro station.

Congress Heights

This is not the first time a developer has shown interest in the area. Monica Ray, executive director of the Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation (Congress Heights CTDC), explained that the former owner proposed placing a Community Residential Facility (CRF) for homeless youth on the property. “In our neighborhoods, there is a perception that we have been unduly burdened with homeless shelters, drug facilities, and all the ills of our community have been concentrated in and around Ward 8,” she said. “The ANC commissioners in that SMD [single member district] expressed their outrage and basically said that this property should not be used for that type of project.”

Although the former owner did not succeed in bringing a CRF to the area, Congress Heights is experiencing a development boom. In fact, Congress Heights Main Streets, a non-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing the area, notes that Congress Heights is the most economically diverse neighborhood east of the Anacostia River and has the largest commercial district in Ward 8. Past projects such as The Shops at Park Village Retail Center, as well as current projects to redevelop St. Elizabeths East Campus and bring the Department of Homeland Security to St. E's West Campus are proof of this. Since St. Elizabeths is closer to the Congress Heights Metro, the developers will be working with them to create a more cohesive streetscape.

Original Plans

In 2011, Sanford City Partners I, LLC bought three parcels of land located on the corner of Alabama Avenue and 13th Street, which included the southern entrance to Congress Heights Metro station. “Because of its small size, lack of vehicular ingress/egress, and Metro operational constraints, the property has limited marketability and independent utility as a stand-development,” stated the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) report approving the $3 million sale. “Selling the property will maximize revenue to Metro by allowing the adjacent landowner, Sanford City Partners I, LLC, to span buildings across property boundaries, thereby maximizing the development density of both Metro’s property and Sanford City Partners I, LLC`s, adjacent land.” The report later explains that the group planned to combine the two properties and “...surround the station entrance with a mixed use, transit oriented development.”

“We had a big idea,” Griffis said. “We wanted to partner with Achievement Prep and build them a new school, in addition to bringing the retail and residential aspects.”  However, plans changed when Achievement Prep agreed to partner with Malcolm X Elementary School, which is located a few blocks away from the Metro station. “We're small developers, but we can come up with big community-based projects,” Griffis said. “With the school, we had a great idea, but we're not in control of all elements.”

What to Expect

Designed by Maurice Walters Architect, PC, the project, which Griffis calls “Congress Heights Town Center,” aims to anchor the up-and-coming neighborhood. The is separated into two components: an eight-story office building and an over 200-unit residential building with a large courtyard. Both 90 foot tall buildings will feature roof-top terraces, giving residents a chance to enjoy city views. The Metro station entrance would be surrounded by a courtyard flanked by ground level retailers. Other amenities include underground parking, a Capital Bikeshare Station, and larger sidewalks for pedestrians.

Project Status

In May, the development team, known as Square 5914 LLC, submitted their planned-unit development (PUD) application to the Zoning Commission. Griffis reported that the application has already met basic requirement and will be sent to the Office of Planning, who will give comments and, possibly, recommend it for a hearing. After receiving that recommendation, the Commission will review the application and decide whether or not to grant a public hearing. If all goes well, Griffis believes that the hearing could be set as early as October. If Square 5914 receives a hearing, then they will need the  community's support.

Building Community Support

“This is the time for us to reach out,” Griffis stated. “We really want to share our vision with the community.” One of the ways they are doing so is through the Congress Heights CTDC, a non-profit dedicated to economic development east of the Anacostia River. When the organization was looking at development opportunities in the area, they met with the developers and offered to help. “Oftentimes, transit-oriented doesn't include affordable housing,” Ray explained. “So, this opportunity was a win-win for our neighborhood.”

Not only does the Congress Heights CTDC acts as part of the development team, but also as community liaison. “With our involvement in the project, they have an advocate that's going to make sure that the community gets its best bang for its buck,” Ray explained. “To have us as a part of the project means going to have someone on the inside that's going to make sure that some of the concerns the community typically has are at least heard.” So far, they presented the possibility receiving affordable transit-oriented housing to the surrounding ANCs and Ray said that they “...accepted it wholeheartedly.”

Giving Feedback and Concerns

The development team believes that if the community is involved throughout the process, the finished product will be better. While the PUD application process can be long and unpredictable, the community's, especially the ANCs', input during public hearings can help make a difference. Also, the developers will make their presentations at community meetings, where they expect community members to give feedback. “We're constantly changing the plan based on community needs.” Griffis said.

Despite not receiving any negative responses to the project, the developers understand that some would have some concerns. “Unfortunately, development doesn't represent a win-win-win for everybody all the time,” Ray stated. “Our job is to try to get the best possible opportunities and make sure that all stakeholders' input is on the table.” When reviewing the proposal, she suggested doing so with an open mind. “Negative perceptions are not always reality,” she said. However, community members should understand that there are things that the developers can do as a matter of right, meaning they can only do so much according to zoning laws. “There are some things that we absolutely have the power to change and there are things that may not be under our control,” she explained.

The First of its Kind

One of the reasons why Ray feels that residents should support the proposed Congress Heights Metro project is because it would be the first transit-oriented development located east of the Anacostia River. “We need to support things that create communities for us that are cutting-edge,” she explained. “Often  when we get stuff, we're the last to get it. This is our opportunity to create a vibrant, walkable, safe new community that is transit-oriented in our neighborhoods.” Griffis agreed, saying “There's a real community here, but it's been terribly underserved. This is a chance to bring more opportunities for retail and employment.”  

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