Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Poorly conceived and poorly executed real estate projects fail

New construction on 12th Street NE
Infill rowhousing under construction on the 900 block of 12th Street NE, Washington, DC.

The Post has a story, "A D.C. luxury housing project gone bust," about the failure of a "luxury" housing development in the H Street neighborhood. If you already knew about the project, this really isn't a surprise. The real story is not that "a DC luxury housing project" went bust, but that an inexperienced developer, with an ill conceived project, failed.

1. When the project was announced, mostly, only bottom feeder/less experienced "developers" were taking on such projects in neighborhoods seen as less desirable, especially those involving a handful of lots.

2. It's hard to call this project luxury. The buildings are crap at design-wise. I'd written about them years before and when I criticized them, someone commented about how it's not fair to criticize "affordable housing"--their presumption was that this was an affordable housing project based on the facades, which are completely discordant compared to the rowhouse building stock in the neighborhood which for the most part dates from the 1880s to the 1920s.

3. Probably, if they were really well done buildings, and the "developers" knew what they were doing, the project could have succeeded.

And at the time that would have made a real difference to the positioning of the neighborhood, which was then seen as downtrodden as this was before H Street's resurgence triggered by a new revitalization plan, the rehabilitation of the Atlas Performing Arts Center, and nightclub impresario Joe Englert's decision to build a critical mass of taverns and other establishments at H Street's east end ("Joe Englert, the Showman" from the Washingtonian Magazine).

4. Around 2000, high quality truly luxury rowhouses were constructed at the northeast corner of 5th and East Capitol NE are counter examples of quality new housing. But the H St. neighborhood, if you remember back then, at that time (2002-2003) didn't as a rule attract "high quality" developers.
I think that the East Capitol buildings were designed by local architect Eric Colbert ("Prolific architect Eric Colbert puts his stamp on a growing number of D.C. residential properties" from the Washington Business Journal) while the 12th Street buildings weren't really designed by an architect but are constructed from prefabricated modules.
NE corner 500 block of East Capitol NE
New infill rowhouses constructed on the 500 block of East Capitol Street NE. Ironically, the buildings were constructed on a parking lot that had been created by the Capitol Hill Baptist Church, by demolishing historic buildings considered to be contributing resources to the Capitol Hill Historic District. The earlier action led to the creation of local historic preservation protection laws, because activists realized that protections needed to be in place to protect against "local" actions, not just those of the federal government. Google Streetwise image.

5. Some people might recall that this developer group's first project proposed for that site was originally going to be a "Negro League Baseball Museum." That was a crazy idea too, as this particular area has no substantive association with Negro League baseball history. Maybe it wasn't as outlandish as the former mayor of Harrisburg's desire to create a "Wild West" museum in Harrisburg, thousands of miles east of the "Wild West" ("Where Wild West Artifacts Can Be Won" from the Wall Street Journal).

6. The reason this example is interesting is not because an ill-advised, ill-prepared developer failed. What's interesting is that this "spectacular" failed project won't negatively impact revitalization efforts elsewhere in the H Street neighborhood.

If this would have happened 10 years ago, that wouldn't have been the case.

Fortunately, the H St. neighborhood, as well as many other DC neighborhoods once termed as "blighted," has reached critical mass in terms of positive revitalization energy so this kind of failure can be withstood, and isn't considered the "fault" of the neighborhood as a market, as a confirmation that investment there is too risky, but is understood to be the problem of someone in over his/her head.

That means that it doesn't discourage other investors.


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