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How 2 Long-Delayed Southwest Parcels Have Taken Center Stage In D.C.'s Battle For Land Ownership

Two of the last undeveloped parcels near the Southwest Waterfront have remained stagnant for more than 15 years since receiving zoning approval as the rest of the neighborhood has rapidly risen around them.

These parcels at Fourth and M streets SW, now delayed by another two years after Brookfield Properties received its third extension, are at the heart of a debate about land use, affordable housing and ownership in a historically marginalized community.

The western parcel, 425 M, is 61K SF and activated by a weekly farmers market, a summer night market and other cultural programming.

Brookfield plans to develop the parcels into mixed-use multifamily buildings with 598 residential units. But as it fails to move forward, community groups are pushing for a different outcome.

Activists see the property, sitting between massive waterfront developments The Wharf and The Yards, as a chance to advance a new community ownership model in a neighborhood with a history of displacement that dates back to the urban renewal era of the 1950s.

Representatives from Douglass Community Land Trust and community group SW DC Action met with Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. housing officials in May to present a proposal: that the city acquire the land and turn it over to the community land trust, allowing local residents to own the property and decide its fate. 

“The most important part is control over the land and what gets built there. More Class-A apartments or potentially permanently affordable housing and retail space?” SW DC Action organizer Coy McKinney, who was at the meeting, said in an interview with Bisnow.

D.C. Council Member Charles Allen, whose Ward 6 jurisdiction includes the M Street properties, said in a statement to Bisnow Tuesday he supports bringing a community land trust model to Southwest D.C.

"Previously, I’ve asked the Mayor to explore whether purchasing the private land at the 4th and M, SW site is feasible, but the Executive branch has not indicated a desire to explore that option and noted that they would prefer to put public dollars for housing into different locations," Allen said.

Totaling 100K SF, the plots are the last pieces left of a two-decade-old redevelopment effort across the 13 acres adjacent to the Waterfront Metro station. The rest of the Waterfront site has been developed with six buildings featuring around 1,300 residential units, 120K SF of retail and 50K SF of public space.

The Zoning Commission originally approved plans for the lots at 425 and 375 M St. SW in 2007. Since then, the commission has extended the approval three times and agreed to change their use from office to mixed-use residential in 2018. The latest extension came at the end of July, after Brookfield reported it has been unable to secure financing to start construction for the first building at 375 M St. SW and thus wouldn't meet the deadline to submit a building permit by Jan. 31, 2024. Its new deadline is Jan. 31, 2027.

Today, the plot at 425 M is activated by community programming, including a weekly farmers market and arts and culture events hosted by the Southwest Business Improvement District, while the other lot serves as a green walkway from the Metro station. 

Brookfield put 375 M on the market in spring 2022, after attempts to finance the development failed, the company said in Zoning Commission filings. That’s when the groups began advocating for community ownership over the site. 

The eastern parcel, 375 M St. SW, is 47K SF and currently used as a pedestrian walkway.

In the community land trust model, D.C.-based Douglass CLT acquires parcels in the District — it has previously acquired townhouse parcels in Ward 8’s Skyland neighborhood and a ground lease for a multifamily development in Congress Heights — and transfers them over to community ownership as a way to preserve affordable housing and create generational wealth.

The organization gathered nearly 1,000 signatures last year on a petition to support D.C. purchasing the M Street sites and handing them over to the trust. 

“It would be a transformative change. I think it would send a signal that the mayor is serious about addressing racial injustice in the housing system,” McKinney said. 

Brookfield declined to comment on community efforts to acquire the land, but a spokesperson provided a statement on its most recent extension. 

“We appreciate the Zoning Commission’s approval of the extension and look forward to continued engagement with local community stakeholders as plans for the site progress,” the spokesperson told Bisnow in an email. 

The groups worry that Brookfield’s plan would add to what some members see as densely populated, expensive housing that has dominated the area's growth over the last decade. The Amaris, which opened at the Wharf this spring, set a record for the most expensive condo ever sold in the District at $12.76M. 

The submarket including Southwest D.C., Navy Yard and Capitol Hill had Class-A apartment rents averaging $2,728 as of last quarter, the third-priciest area in the District, according to Delta Associates. The area had 1,762 new units deliver over the last year, the second-most in the city.

A 55K SF Safeway sits at the mouth of the superblock of delivered developments at Waterfront.

"We’re tired of all these Class-A apartments being built in the neighborhood that aren't serving the needs of those who have been intentionally and historically underserved, but also not serving the needs of just regular people that live in D.C.,” McKinney said.

Brookfield’s plan at Fourth & M calls for about 8% of its units to be affordable for residents making up to 60% of the area median income, according to the Zoning Commission’s 2018 order. The buildings are also planned for 40K SF of retail, 32K SF of office and a 6K SF community center.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Andrea Pawley, whose district includes the M Street parcels, told Bisnow that affordable housing was one of the main concerns she heard from those advocating for D.C. to purchase the properties, as the ANC was deciding whether to support the latest two-year extension. 

But she highlighted two new properties on the boards nearby that are planned for larger percentages of affordable housing: Hoffman & Associates’ nearly finished The Westerly, on the north side of the Waterfront development, which will reserve 136 of its 449 units for affordable housing; and Bozzuto’s planned redevelopment of Westminster Church, which envisions 99 market-rate condos and 128 units of senior affordable housing.

“Having more affordable housing in Southwest D.C. is extremely important. But we actually have a good number of affordable units coming online very soon,” Pawley told Bisnow.

Pawley said she has heard community concerns about the loss of the weekly farmers market and public programming on the site. But she pointed to a plan to relocate the market to a new public park nearby, a $3.5M project for which the District has awarded the architecture contract to Lee & Associates.

At its June meeting, ANC 6D gave its approval to Brookfield’s extension request. 

“Are we going to fulfill a duty to move stuff along, or are we going to be obstructive [when] it wasn't going to be clear what the positive result would be,” Pawley said. “Because at the end of the day, the developer still owns the property and has not sold it.” 

In the four months since the community groups’ meeting with the mayor, McKinney said he has followed up about once a month with the participants via an email thread but has not received any update. He said he plans to keep pushing the city for a response this fall.

A spokesperson for D.C.'s deputy mayor for planning and economic development told Bisnow that at the meeting, the mayor committed to reviewing the proposal, but no final decisions have been made regarding the project. 

Department of Housing and Community Development Public Information Officer Tim Wilson told Bisnow in an email that although the agency “has met with community groups regarding the use of the lots at 4th and M Streets SW, there has been no activity by the agency to acquire them for residential or public use.”

ANC 6D Chairperson Fredrica Kramer didn't respond to requests for comment, and Southwest BID President Steve Moore declined to comment.

Deals Falling Apart

A rendering of a view down Fourth Street SW, flanked by Brookfield's proposed developments.

Douglass CLT began advocating for the city to purchase the property after the group became aware that it was for sale in March 2022.

In its latest Zoning Commission filing, Brookfield confirmed that it did put the property on the market in March 2022, and that by May, it had received qualified bids from 13 institutional investors. In June, Brookfield agreed to a selected qualified bidder, which began due diligence in July, the filing said.

But the bid fell through in October due to increases to the 10-Year Treasury note that changed the economics of the deal, Brookfield Properties development group Senior Vice President of Development Rich Fernicola wrote in the filing.

After the bid fell through, Brookfield engaged in good faith efforts to negotiate with a bidder and other competing bidders through last winter, Fernicola said. 

“Unfortunately, economic conditions only worsened over this period such that we were ultimately unable to reach a deal with the selected bidders or other bidders, despite our best efforts to do so,” he wrote.

A representative for Brookfield Properties told Bisnow the properties are not currently for sale. Brookfield said in the filing it has re-engaged its consultant team to advance construction documents.

“We are still very much committed to ensuring the success of the project and will move forward as soon as market conditions allow,” Fernicola wrote.

Debating The Waterfront Vision

A rendering of the Waterfront superblock, including the planned U-shaped developments at 425 and 375 M St. SW.

The parcels were part of a vision to redevelop the 585K SF “superblock” near the Waterfront Metro, which dated back to 2002. The area bounded by M, Eye, Third and Sixth streets SW had been home to the 1970s-era Waterside Mall, which notoriously housed the Environmental Protection Agency until its lease expired in 2002.

That year, three developers — Forest City, Kaempfer Co., Bresler & Reiner Inc., together making up Waterfront Associates LLC — petitioned to redevelop the aging mall into a mixed-use development with residential, office, retail and public space. 

The parcels at Fourth and M were originally intended for office buildings when they were approved in 2007, but in 2018, Forest City, which has since been acquired by Brookfield, applied to change them to mostly residential with some office and ground-floor retail.

The Zoning Commission approved the change in September 2018, after a nearly year and a half long PUD process. A dozen letters filed in opposition argued the land should be preserved as an open area for community activities, including the Saturday morning farmers market, or that the developer should keep its plan for office rather than add to what one letter called a market “oversaturated with luxury apartments and condominiums.” At the same time, many took issue with the 8% of affordable housing proposed. 

A petition organized by McKinney, which brought in around 230 signatures, argued that the parcels should remain a communal space. 

The Zoning Commission’s final approval order included some adjustments to the development based on community feedback, adding a community center with 30 years of free rent and dedicating 25% of the retail space in each building to small retailers. The developer also added one more affordable three-bedroom unit to the five it had planned.

375 M St. is planned to house the 6K SF community center within a 289-unit apartment complex.

McKinney and five other area residents appealed the approval with the D.C. Court of Appeals in February 2019, arguing that the change from office to mostly residential did not adhere to the District’s Comprehensive Plan. The court ruled in favor of the developer on Jan. 31, 2022, but the appeal pushed the deadline for Brookfield to submit a building permit application for 375 M to Jan. 31 2024.

Five of the eight originally approved buildings have been delivered, and one is nearly complete. The five that delivered in the early 2010s include 895 residential units, 11.8% of which are affordable, and a dry cleaners, a dentist, a Safeway, a CVS, a Starbucks, a Subway, an American bistro and an Indian restaurant. Hoffman & Associates has a 99-year ground lease for the sixth, owned by the District, which is expected to start leasing in the coming weeks and will include an early learning center and doughnut shop.

While the plots at Fourth and M themselves are in contention, they’re also part of a larger discussion about land ownership, displacement and equity in a community that’s been historically marginalized through urban renewal.

In the post-World War II era, Southwest D.C., mostly populated by poor Black families, was swept up in the nation’s agenda to redevelop blighted areas. The result was large-scale displacement and removal of Black-owned businesses in the area. By the 1970s, only 13% of the original Southwest population had returned to the neighborhood, according to Boundary Stones, WETA’s online history publication.

The area became additionally segregated from the rest of the D.C. with the creation of the nine-lane I-395, which effectively cordoned the quadrant off from the rest of the city, according to Boundary Stone, while major roads like Maryland Avenue were cut off from going out of the neighborhood. 

For community activists like McKinney, the parcels at Fourth and M are one part of this larger idea: taking ownership over a future that has for years appeared to be out of their control. 

“It's kind of ironic that Southwest, which is like the home of urban renewal — and it's like kind of going through urban renewal 2.0 — it would be really symbolic to move in the complete opposite direction of that and really give power back to residents to repair some of the initial harm that urban renewal caused to the neighborhood,” he said.