Friday, February 26, 2010

The Art Place Cometh: Bring on the Drills

In case you missed it, the early phases of the Cafritz Foundation's proposed construction of a 2 million square foot transit oriented development on 16.67 acres of land between the Ft. Totten Metro station and South Dakota Avenue has begun. Earlier this week several mobile drilling units showed up on the property and began work on establishing the level of the water table in the area. Several holes were drilled in and around the sparsely habitated Riggs Plaza Apts. A quick run down of what will go on the proposed site when all phases are completed are:
  • Demolition of the 15, mostly vacant, walk-up apartment buildings on the site
  • Construction of 4 buildings between 3 and 8 stories high; An overall floor area ratio (FAR) of 3.1 excluding roadways, and 2.9 including roadways
  • Provision of 1,180,844 gross square feet (GSF) of residences, comprising approximately 929 one to three bedroom units
  • Approximately 870,051 GSF of non-residential space including:
    - Approximately 305,000 GSF of retail uses, of which 102,000 GSF is projected for a grocery store and in-line retail, and approximately 203,000 GSF of anchor retail use;
    - A 47,000 GSF children’s museum
    - 170,000 GSF of cultural and arts spaces
    - A possible 6,500 GSF daycare facility and a seniors’ center, for which space has been reserved
    - A possible replacement branch library for which the applicant would be willing to reserve space
For those not familiar with construction practices, it is common to establish the water table level whenever you begin construction of a major complex...especially when it would lie adjacent to an area designated as Protected Wetlands. Yes that is right the small strip of marshy soil running between Ingraham and Hamilton St's is a registered WETLAND!!! "The District Department of the Environment (DDOE) lists the 0.46 acres of the site as wetlands area No. 46. This is located at the eastern border of the site, adjacent and parallel to South Dakota Avenue. DDOE has jurisdiction over this area"as stated in DC's Final Report – Revised Application for Zoning Commission Case No.06-10
Consolidated and Preliminary Planned Unit Development and Map Amendment for the proposed Art Place and Shops at Fort Totten. If this is what environmental protection gets you in DC, I would love to see what no protection would do...oh wait i think we already do. Hopefully the new Art Place will make good clean use of the area. Maybe they'll turn it into a little nature center for kids to learn about our impact on the environment, or at the very least a real nice parking lot!!!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

It's Old To Us But New To You: The Brookland Cafe

Along the quiet and somewhat unremarkable Brookland Main Street, also know as 12th St. NE, sits a small neighborhood gem...The Brookland Cafe. In a neighborhood where dining is sometime limited to the choice between Pizza Boli and Subway or chinese take-out and Wings To Go, a new trend in modern eateries has begun to take hold.
Opening underneath the mostly unknown and unmarked Inn at Brookland earlier in 2009, sits this small cafe/lounge with a modern casual feel.
The Cafe boasts a menu that is a perfect analog for the neighborhood itself. Often when visiting the local hotspot, patrons are greeted and chatted up by owner Dmaz Lumukanda himself. Dmaz had always had a passion for food and wine, but noticed the lack of any sufficient upscale establishment in the Brookland area. The wonderful mix of southern inspired deserts, caribbean influenced appetizers, vegetarian staples and american classics has become a hit in the culturally diverse neighborhood. While the ever changing cocktail menu boasts a list of DC inspired beverages.
With reasonable prices and friendly service, it has become a local success. The Brookland Cafe a is great place to grab a drink and some food with friends and family. As their website states "We’re a discerning yet unpretentious neighborhood tavern and we’re looking for passionate individuals, foodies and wine/spirit lovers. Our atmosphere is friendly and upbeat." Being that the cafe is quaint (read:small), it gives you a definite chance to meet and mingle with neighborhood locals on almost any night. Like the cafe itself, the patrons are welcoming and eager to share with you the wonders their neighborhood has to offer.

--make sure you try the sweet potato cake or cupcake from Delectable Bakery...unlike anything else in the city--

Friday, February 19, 2010

Riding on the Metro: WMATA Swimming Through Apologies

The Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, an organization in the throws of utter failure. The last year and a half has not been kind to WMATA...especially to it's most infamous and eldest branch, the Red Line. Most of the country is well aware of the June 22, 2009 accident just past the Ft. Totten Metro Station. This horrible crash that claimed 9 lives, however, was hardly the initiating incident for the Metro's woes. Poor management, even poorer maintenance practices and an aging/ignored system are the real culprits for the current state of WMATA.
Coming into 2010 looking to revitalize their tarnished image, WMATA had identified a significant $40M budget gap. As appaling as that initial estimate seemed, WMATA had a plan...a 10 cent fair hike across the board from Feb to June of 2010. However, only a few weeks after the first gap announcement, WMATA finally settled on an almost unfathomable number...$189M. A $189,000,000 dollar kick in the stomach to an organization already laying still and motionless on the ground. This forced a shift in focus from the system wide fixed and rolling stock issues to simply balancing their horribly off0kilter budget. Metro has come up with a new plan to balance their budget...Service Cuts, Fare Hikes (another $.10), Subsidy Increases and Staff Reductions. What this means to the everyday commuter is WMATA will make the metro more expensive, less accessible, lower staffed and demand it's partner states to use more of their taxpayer money. All this plan does is attempt to close the GAP in the budget, but does not provide any money for the capital improvements needed to fix and/or upgrade it's system. The second most used commuter system in the country outside of New York City.
Closing the budget gap is important, but it doesn't address any of the issues that arise from utilizing an aging system (WMATA Capital Needs Assessment). All rail transportation systems have two components, Rolling Stock (equipment that moves or "rolls" on the rails like passenger cars, locomotives and power units) and Fixed Stock (stationary equipment like switches, the actual rails and signals). The metro has been gradually phasing out older rolling stock, or reducing their service time. This combined with potential new maintenance practices could be addressed over time without a major investment outside the budget. The larger and more pressing issue is the age or the Fixed Stock assets. Much of the system, inparticular the Red Line, has been in place since 1976 (CNI Prioritization Slide 3) Now this is not particularly old or overused for a transit system. The bigger concern is the number of switch, signal or rail failures in the past few years. The need for a significant capital investment seems to be necessary, but unlikely to happen with significant budget gaps and state partners unwilling to foot the bill. In fact WMATA has published its Capital Needs Inventory (CNI), detailing more than $11 billion of capital improvements that are necessary over the next 10 years to maintain the transit system’s safety and reliability.
With a revolving door of General managers and Chairmen for the past few years, it seems to be a case of the right hand no knowing what the left hand is doing. A world class commuter rail system is a difficult animal to reign in, however, cities and countries all over the world manage to do it every day. Is there a case to possibly privatize the system or bring in an outside operator (similar to Cal Trans has done for it's commuter system in San Fran or Seattle has done for it's Sounder line) to run the system? Commuter rail was, is and never has been a for profit business. It is a service provided by a government to it's citizens, so raising money is always a challenge and a burden on the same people who pay to use it. This however does not excuse poor management and safety, putting the financial and physical security of the very people responsible for funding the system at risk.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

In Praise of Backus: A UDC Conversion Plan

As with most things in life...change is inevitable. Such is the case with the former neighborhood cornerstone of Bertie Backus Middle School. As part of Mayor Fenty's plan to reconstruct the District's faltering public school system, Backus (and several other schools) was closed in 2008 citing low enrollment as the cause. At one time Backus was a vibrant and successful community centered school. But for the past two years, it has sat silently used only to house DMV equipment on part of the property.
The District of Columbia's Fiscal year bulletin states that it "treats Bertie Backus Middle School as vacant, requiring an annual expenditure of $172,328 to pay for the fixed costs associated with maintaining this building." With the community unsure of the decaying building's future, the District was in the process of drafting legislation to unload most of their unused property. Starting in the spring of 2009, the City began taking bids on the 126,800 square-foot building sitting on 2.91 acres of land. Three official proposals were submitted, ranging from complete site conversion to a new Public Charter School. Of the three, the city council unexpectedly chose the University of the District of Columbia's bid.
UDC's plan is to take the large parcel of land, and it's associated facilities, and convert it into the new central location for their fledgling Community College. The proposal, although in the very early planning stages, cites the properties proximity to a major Metro Station, property size/condition and the other major development plans in the area as deciding factors in selecting Backus. The Community College would no doubt be a state of the art facility allowing district and community residents access to higher education and world class training. This grand vision, however, would not come without it's costs. The Office of Property Management says that "if UDC decides to use this building, it would have to spend approximately $1.7 million on construction in FY 2010 . The FY 2010 budget for UDC allocates $1.9 million for recurring costs and $2.4 million for onetime costs associated with the lease of this property." The financial costs are not the only ones...consider the fact that directly across South Dakota Ave the Cafritz Foundation is preparing to break ground on their massive Art Place at Ft. Totten project. Converting a modest intersection into a cultural, residential and educational hub would undoubtedly require the City to invest millions in infrastructure and transit upgrades. All this construction taking place within one city block could make for an interesting neighborhood dynamic.
While many locals are excited for all the re-imagination of the area and access to never before seen amenities (and most support the plans), the opposition is getting more of the press. The two most outspoken opponents of the plan are former Mayor Marion Barry, and outgoing Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Neil O Albert. Although they both differ in their reasoning (Barry's being school closures and Albert's being budget strains), they have managed to stir the pot enough to get some publicity. As is the case with the Art Place project, the community has mixed emotions about the forced change in it's identity. However, the majority still feel that the creation of a state of the art Community College campus with in walking distance would be invaluable and help inspire local children.
A community on the verge of transition and gentrification will always be one torn between the past and the future. The prospect of access to convenient education is always appealing, but at what cost? No matter what the final decision may be, it is just another sign of the times...and an exciting and promising one at that!

Monday, February 15, 2010

New and Hot: The Art Place at Fort Totten

For the past few years the development buzz that had been steadily growing around Ft. Totten, is now becoming a dull roar. Previous projects in the neighborhood, including K. Hovnanians continually growing townhouse develpoment and The Fort Totten Station apartment and retail complex, pale in comparison to the The Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation's newly approved project.
The Cafritz Foundation is a private non-profit development organization whose efforts are focused solely in the District of Columbia. Of the more than $314 million dollars in grants since 1970, a majority of their disbursements have been focused on one of 4 areas: Arts and Humanities, Community Services, Education and Health. None of their previous projects may meld these four areas together into one the way that the planned Art Place at Ft. Totten will.
The proposed and recently approved Art Place will reside on a 17 acre plot between Galloway and Ingraham St. NE along South Dakota Ave. The entire complex (once completed) will be comprised of an estimated 929 housing units, a 60,000-square-foot grocery store and a 47,000-square-foot museum. This monumental feat of construction would not be completed until 2017. In the near term, the first phase of construction is slated to start in a few months. Currently the land is occupied by the 1950's era Riggs Plaza apartments, an unassuming conglomeration of six to eight brick three level apartments. Some area and Riggs Plaza residents feel that the proposed plan is too grand and modern for the quiet neighborhood. These are the same residents who are controversially being forced to relocate to other properties in the city for the two years construction will take (the displaced residents have, however, been guaranteed residence in the new apartment complex at the same rate they currently pay). Others are welcoming to project with open arms, citing the added access to amenities and cultural attractions as benefits. "I think that the project will give a much needed boost to the local area's economy. The proposed children's museum and art center will give the community a much needed cultural center" said one local resident.
Combine the Art Place Development with the proposed conversion of Bertie Backus Middle School into the University of the District of Columbia's new Community College and you would have quite a complex residing at the corners of Riggs Rd. and Galloway St NE. No matter which way you slice it, the Ft. Totten Metro Re-Imagination is on the march. The one thing for sure is that you can either get in line or get out of the way.

**The Washington Post article about proposed Art PlaceProject

Welcome to The Totten Life

North Michigan Park and Fort of the few true "Communities" left in Washington,DC. This small section of DC surrounding the sometimes infamous Ft. Totten Metro, has always been a tight knit community filled with blue collar workers and their families. A place where for better or for worse, all the neighbors know the who, what, when and where of everyone on their block. A quaint series of late 1930's and late 1950's brick semi-attached row houses residing under a canopy of well established trees.
The historically black neighborhood, which seemed more like a suburb of DC rather than part of the city, is changing. The acres of under or un-developed vacant land surrounding the Metro Station, the abundance of green space provided by the Fort Circle Parks, affordability of mid sized starter houses and easy pedestrian access to three major Metro Lines is causing a buzz in the N.E. neighborhood. No longer an ignored middle class section of the city, Ft. Totten has been in the cross hairs of real estate developers for the past 4 years. With several major multi-million dollar projects planned, underway or completed the area looks to be on the rise. Whether or not you agree with this change, it is going to make for an interesting dynamic in the coming years.
It is the goal of this blog to chronicle the latest developments and possible impacts to the residents of this neighborhood, as well as the major interests and goings-on in the District.