Thursday, December 21, 2006

New Town/Capital City Market Redevelopment

Yesterday, DC council passed a bill that allows for the redevelopment of the Capital City Market. Richard Layman, on his Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space blog, posted the bill I highly recommend Layman’s blog to anyone interested in development issues, both here in DC and globally.

In case you don’t know, the Capital City Market is the clump of wholesale and retail market and warehouse buildings along Florida Avenue near Gallaudet University in Northeast. It is a vibrant area full of small businesses and vendors. It may look a gritty, but it’s a thriving, non-blighted place.

I’ve got some concerns about the way the city and New Town Development, LLC, wish to redevelop the Capital City Market. I think a “main street” program that helped revitalize Barracks Row on Capital Hill is a great thing, but wholesale redevelopment of 24 acres of private property harkens back to the misguided policies of the mid-20th century that created so many urban problems and dead urban spaces, not to mention the destruction of many small businesses. The similarities are eerie: starting in the 1930’s and accelerating into the 1950s and 60s, local governments would declare an area “blighted”, and then use a combination of public and private money to “improve” the area. The problem was that many areas they labeled as “blighted” were anything but. They may have been working class and a bit run down in places, but they contained successful small businesses, families, churches, and tight-knit communities. Look at Southwest Washington between Independence and I-395, which is really nothing more than a suburban office park stuck next to the National Mall, to see the legacy of 1950’s redevelopment of blighted areas. Admittedly, the Capital City Market is a single use area (wholesale and retail), so the correlation with Southwest is not perfect. What it may need is the development of other uses while retaining the affordable storefronts and economic activity that make the Capital City Market the wonderful place it is right now.

But even the housing component of the new bill makes little sense. The bill has the noble goal of increasing affordable housing for people like fire fighter, teachers, police officers, and other workers who simply can’t afford to live in the city. However, one particular line in the bill undermines this goal: “(k) The land trust shall require that all units developed under the program remain perpetually affordable.”

This sounds good, but if these homes are for sale, why would anyone buy them? Homeownership is one of the basic and most successful ways for people to build a stable financial future. The teachers and cops I know have the same dreams of financial independence as anyone else. If they can’t sell the house at market rate later on, why buy it? It makes no sense. Creating homes that are affordable for first time buyers is a good thing, but to then limit the home’s future value is self-defeating.

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