The Problem with Reservation 13

A rendering of Donatelli Development and Blue Skye Construction's proposal for Reservation 13. While they submitted a proposal during in 2008, they are the only team to submit one in 2012. Photo Courtesy: Donatelli Development

This spring, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANC) in Wards 6 and 7 hosted representatives from the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) and development partners Donatelli Development and Blue Skye Construction, giving updates on development proposals at the Hill East location known as Reservation 13. What they received were questions that highlighted doubts and frustrations. After almost a decade, and three mayors, residents are demanding answers. 

The Area 

Located on the east end of Capitol Hill, Reservation 13 is 67 acres of land bordering the Anacostia River. Created by the L'Enfant Plan in 1791, the area was one of many federally-owned parcels set aside for public usage. As a result, Reservation 13 became home to DC General Hospital (which was federally-owned until its closure in 2001), the Central Detention Facility (DC Jail) and other services throughout the years. Under President George W. Bush, the DC government gained control of Reservation 13. Plans to redevelop the area failed in 1974 and the area has remained unchanged since the DC Jail opened in the 1980s.

The Master Plan

In 2002, DC City Council passed the Budget Act, requiring a draft for a Master Plan, outlining plans for improving Reservation 13 before they used Capital Improvement funds. Congress approved the budget with the planning requirement, adding a deadline for March 31, 2002. What followed was “... the first community-based planning process in the history of Reservation 13,” wrote then-Mayor Anthony Williams. With an aggressive timeline, DC held three public meetings, a three-day planning workshop and a weekend review session for residents to participate. In the end, over 15 government agencies and over 300 residents helped craft the Master Plan. 

The Master Plan aimed to create “an urban waterfront district that serves the District of Columbia and connects the surrounding neighborhoods to the Anacostia River via public streets and green parks.” Key concepts included connecting the area with the waterfront, creating a mixed-use, mixed-income, and sustainable community, and finding new uses for the older buildings.

A Promising Start Ruined 

The year 2008 saw Adrian Fenty in the mayor's office and a request for developers to bring their best proposals for Reservation 13, now renamed Hill East. Four developers submitted their best plans, but it was Hunt Development Group that had the most community support. East of the River newspaper reported in the April 2012 issue that, “The plan maintained the low-rise character of the neighborhood and included most of what residents had asked for.” 

However, with the economy worsening and limited funding, the city downsized the project in 2010. “We realized that as we worked with the developers, there were a lot of conditions put on the site, even before we could start building,” said Ketan Gada, the supervisory Project Manager from the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development (DMPED), during a May 21 7F Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) meeting. “They wanted to make sure that the infrastructure was put in day one; they wanted to make sure the existing users on site were removed before they started building.” 

Instead of developing the full site all at once, they will focus first on the two parcels surrounding the Stadium-Armory Metro Station, named F-1 and G-1. When presenting the new plan to the four developers, the administration offered the right of first refusal, meaning that the city will go to those same developers first if and when they redevelop the rest of Hill East. Two of the development teams, including Hunt, dropped out, halving the number of candidates.  

New Administration, New Problems

By 2010, a new mayor came into office and plans for Hill East stalled. However, residents continued to advocate for the project. “We were pretty boisterous about Mayor [Vincent] Gray finishing what Fenty began,” said Brian Flahaven, ANC Commissioner for single-member district 6B09, which borders Hill East. However, residents were upset when Gray suggested bringing a new training facility for the Redskins to the area, noting that it did not fit the Master Plan. “Ward 6 helped create a vision for the Master Plan, which was approved,” said Villareal Johnson, a community activist who served as the ANC 7A Chair at the time. “They wanted to protect their interests.” 

When those plans fell through, the DC Attorney General advised DMPED against continuing with the two development teams left from the original Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI). Considering the change in scope in the last three years, a legal challenge could hold the project back. Some residents, like Commissioner Flahaven, felt that the reasoning behind the explanation was faulty and that DMPED only wanted to make the prospect less attractive.  

By 2011, Reservation 13 was redistricted to Ward 7, angering many Ward 6 residents. By 2012, DMPED launched another RFEI for the area. This time, only one development team, Donatelli and Blue Skye, answered. “I'm fairly confident that there was no intervention to prevent anyone from bidding,” said Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells. “I do think that the one bidder puts the District in a tough spot for negotiation. So, the District will have to decide whether they can get the best deal going forward when there's only one bidder.”

The Only Response

Donatelli and Blue Skye's presented a two-building plan that would be located on 19th Street and Massachusetts Avenue. The project would include 356 residential units, 30 percent of which would be available to residents earning lower than 60 percent average median income. It would also feature at least 20,000 square-feet of ground floor retail along 19th, featuring a mix of local and national retailers and a quality sit-down restaurant. There will also be 225 underground parking spaces and a street plaza for a farmer's market and special events. As a Matter of Right Development, it does not require zoning changes; this means that if chosen, the construction timeline would go quicker. Other benefits include creating 175 permanent jobs and over 30 apprenticeships in construction and other industries. 

Concerns and Frustrations

While some residents are happy that the project is finally underway, others are frustrated with the long process as a whole. “One concern is the piece meal approach being taken,” explained Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander. “Many residents are anxious to get the massive acreage of development underway simultaneously. By doing the development in phases, some worry that there will be major delays and it may take several years to complete.”

One of the biggest concerns among citizens is whether or not the proposed plan fits with the original Master Plan. “I think the project fits with the Master Plan,” said Kenan Jarboe, former ANC 6B Chairman. “However, I hope that the rest of Reservation 13 isn't forgotten.” While the current proposal is presented as “Phase 1” of the Hill East redevelopment plan, Jarboe noted that dealing with the other land parcels and rehabilitating historic buildings like the Anne Archbold Hall will be more difficult. 

Since the project was billed as “community-based,” residents have made their questions and concerns known through their ANCs and other community meetings, such as the initial development presentation on April 25. Although many Ward 7 residents are still learning more about the plans, Johnson noted that in terms of affordable housing and other amenities, “Ward 6 and 7 are on the same page.” 

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