South by West

Photograph By
William Rich

The DC Housing Authority is planning to redevelop Greenleaf Gardens into a mixed-income community.

‘Build First’ Model at Greenleaf Gaining Steam

The Near SE/SW Community Benefits Coordinating Council (CBCC), along with other neighborhood groups, has been working for months on how to implement a “build first” strategy for Greenleaf Gardens to avoid displacing residents from Southwest while the public housing complex is redeveloped over the next several years. In previous cases across the city where public housing complexes were redeveloped, current residents were given vouchers or moved to other areas of the city. Once the new housing was built, some of the residents who met eligibility standards were allowed to return. In the case of Capper Carrollsburg in the Navy Yard, which was redeveloped through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Hope VI program, it’s been about a decade since the old buildings were demolished. Many former residents remain displaced, owing to the extended construction timelines of replacement housing and eligibility limitations.

In contrast, a build first model allows vacant areas of a public housing complex or other parcels in the vicinity to be redeveloped first so residents can stay in the community during the process. Many believe build first is the only way to avoid permanent displacement, but it is typically difficult to implement since there usually isn’t enough land available or the political will to do it. Build first can be implemented at Greenleaf since there is sufficient land available and also community activism. This is the first time public officials have put themselves on record in support of seeing it realized.

There’s Plenty of Land in Southwest

Built more than 50 ears ago, Greenleaf stretches 15 acres across several city blocks on either side of M Street and includes 493 public housing units in 23 buildings. Most of the units are two-bedroom apartments, and the mix ranges from one-bedroom up to six-bedroom units. One of the components of Greenleaf is a seniors building on Delaware Avenue and M Street. Displacement would be more of a hardship to this population, so the focus of CBCC has been on finding one or more sites for a mixed-income seniors building. Unity’s Southwest Health Center at Delaware Avenue and I Street has been identified as a potential location for such a complex, combining health services and mixed-income seniors housing. While the three-story building is a historic landmark, there is the potential to build residential above and on land adjacent to the clinic.

Unity leases the building from the District government and does not have the funds to maintain the building. The elevator no longer works and would be expensive to repair, so Unity has decided to do a minor renovation of the facility by moving all services to the first floor. As a result, the health center will lose dental services once renovations are completed in 2016. If the site is redeveloped as a health center/mixed-income, seniors housing complex as a part of Greenleaf’s redevelopment, funds would be available to fully renovate the building and allow dental services to return to the clinic, as well as offer the potential for additional services. This proposal has been introduced and supported by the CBCC in order to avoid displacement of Greenleaf residents, including the seniors. As CBCC Vice Chair Fredrica Kramer said, “Having easy access – health services by elevator, to a greatly expanded clientele would be a mutual win for the housing authority, the community’s larger-than-city-average senior population, and the current primary healthcare provider.”

Political Support

Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6D in October voted unanimously in favor of the “Resolution in Support of Avoiding the Displacement of Public Housing Residents During the Redevelopment of Public Housing Buildings in the Southwest Neighborhood,” sponsored by 6D 03 Commissioner Rachel Reilly Carroll. It supports a build first model for Greenleaf’s redevelopment. The resolution urges the DC Housing Authority (DCHA), the DC Council, and the Office of the Mayor to form an interagency working group within the next 30 days to evaluate the feasibility of executing a build first strategy using one or more of the 21 publicly owned parcels in Southwest identified during the Office of Planning’s recent Southwest Neighborhood Plan process. The ANC would like at least one commissioner to serve on the interagency working group, and to report on its progress and findings at least once a month to the Greenleaf Neighborhood Advisory Group until redevelopment commences.

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen has expressed strong support. Allen introduced a sense-of-the-Council resolution in October supporting a build first model for Greenleaf. The resolution states in part that “Greenleaf and the surrounding Southwest community share significant concerns regarding potential displacement of current Greenleaf public housing residents as part of the DCHA future redevelopment. The Office of Planning, as part of its extensive small area plan process, recognized these concerns and included recommendations in its Southwest Neighborhood Plan, which was approved by the Council of the District of Columbia on July 14, 2015.”

Greenleaf Redevelopment Plan

A public meeting was held on Oct. 24 by DCHA, master planner Perkins Eastman, and consultant HR&A Advisors to discuss the redevelopment of Greenleaf. Over 100 people attended the meeting at Westminster Presbyterian Church, including many Greenleaf residents, other residents of the Southwest community, and public officials. Many of the attendees expressed their desire for DCHA to implement a build first model for Greenleaf.

At the meeting five design principles were discussed that will be used in the redevelopment of Greenleaf:

  1. Use a mix of tall and low buildings.
  2. Create a well-defined public green space.
  3. Use trees to beautify, help make place, and create a healthier living environment.
  4. Connect the new Greenleaf to other areas of the city.
  5. All new construction must first and foremost be exemplary urban architecture.

The October meeting was the first chance for the greater Southwest community to get involved in the redevelopment process, but Greenleaf residents have been engaged over the past year or so. According to the HR&A presentation, the redevelopment plan will be created over the next six to nine months with two additional community meetings planned in the interim.

The final plan is expected to be completed sometime in mid-2016. After that an RFP will be released, which will take another six to nine months to receive responses, get community input, and select a winning developer. Then developer negotiations will take a year to 18 months to complete, but design and permitting can be done concurrently. After that construction can begin on the first phases, which can take two to three years to complete. Other phases will be completed depending on market conditions.

A Model for the District

The redevelopment of Greenleaf as a mixed-income community should be possible without displacing current residents. Implementing a build first model, starting with a health center/mixed-income, seniors housing complex at the Unity site, would be a win-win for the community – expanded health services in a modern facility and the opportunity for seniors of all income levels to “age in place” with easy access to medical care. This could serve as a model for the District, and perhaps the nation, as aging public housing complexes are razed in favor of mixed-income communities.  

Unity’s clinic on I Street SW has been identified as a potential site to build a mixed-income seniors housing/health center complex.

William Rich is a blogger at “Southwest … The Little Quadrant That Could” (

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