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To Build In Wards 7 and 8, Developers Say They Must Create Community Wealth

Developers working in Wards 7 and 8 say in order to get community support, they need to share decision-making power and provide project equity to their neighbors.

They say by doing so, they can raise the economic prospects for underserved communities and build a tenant and user base for the major mixed-use projects already underway.

Anacostia Economic Development Corp.'s Stan Jackson, Redbrick's Tom Skinner, Standard Real Estate Investments' Jerome Nichols, Banneker Ventures' Omar Karim and The Menkiti Group's Bo Menkiti speak during a panel at Bisnow's Future of Wards 7 and 8 event on Dec. 13, 2022.

“We look at it as if it’s a blank canvas,” Bo Menkiti, founder and CEO of The Menkiti Group, said at Bisnow’s Future of Wards 7 and 8 event on Dec. 13. “The reality is it's never a blank canvas, you're always painting on something that's existing.”

That power-sharing ethos has guided projects like Skyland Town Center, which developers WC Smith and Rappaport announced at the event would include for-sale townhomes in its final phase in part to address feedback from the community.

And it has also shaped decision-making at the St. Elizabeths East campus, where Menkiti’s firm was awarded three new parcels to develop earlier this month. That project is slated to include a new office for D.C.’s Office of Behavioral Health and mixed-income rental and for-sale residential units. It is also expected to include 90K SF of community-serving spaces to identify a need expressed by the District.

Already, The Menkiti Group has debuted the first phase of the MLK Gateway project in Historic Anacostia, a project that brought 14K SF new retail and a new employer east of the Anacostia River in D.C.-based Enlightened.

Menkiti said a key role for developers working in communities that have long been underresourced and rarely see new development is to create job pipelines through construction, and to provide technical assistance to longstanding businesses to ensure they can grow their customer base as new developments bring greater traffic.

“How does somebody go from being on at your job site to being a journeyman electrician?” Menkiti said. “We have to start having these conversations about pathways of opportunity. Not just how do we get opportunity, but how do we get pathways to building careers.”

The event was held at THEARC Theater in Ward 8, where a similar story is already playing out. The nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River, which owns the campus, announced a deal to construct a new home for the Washington School for Girls on the parking lot between two buildings already on campus.

Coming to an agreement on the 33K SF building occurred in part thanks to community buy-in, said Rahsaan Bernard, president of BBAR. He said other nonprofits on the site often sign 15- to- 30-year leases because they believe in the stability of the institution.

DMPED's Tim White, D.C. Sports and Entertainment Division's Ralph Morton, The Michaels Development Co.'s Christopher Early, Whitman-Walker's Naseema Shafi, Anacostia BID's Kristina Noell and Building Bridges Across the River's Rahsaan Bernard speak during a panel at Bisnow's Future of Wards 7 and 8 event on Dec. 13, 2022.

“You hear Chris Smith, who is our founder and my board chair, talk about being in the community, being in this business for 55 years, being in this community for 35 years,” Bernard said. “That kind of longevity, it's the reason we sign long-term leases here.”

Developers who haven’t been in the community for quite as long as WC Smith, which began efforts to build out Skyland Town Center more than 20 years ago, are also finding success through a shared-equity model.

Omar Karim, president of Banneker Ventures, said one of the first projects he did east of the Anacostia River was the Deanwood Recreation Center and Library, which was completed in 2010. He recalled filming a marketing video outside the facility several years later when a neighbor driving by rolled down his window and thanked Karim for his work on the community amenity.

“I was so happy to get that spirit, and I was thinking whatever we did to that brother in that truck right there reminded me that we did right by him,” Karim said.

Banneker is building the Clara, an 85-unit mixed-income residential building with retail with the support of Medina Life, a faith-based community development corporation. The Masjid Muhammad mosque, which owns the parcel, will retain a 51% ownership stake in the property once completed. Karim said this was vital to ensure the community would share in the success a new development can bring.

“I want everybody to think about what's the most important thing. We're developing real estate, the underlying thing behind that is wealth, and it's wealth creation,” Karim said. “We want the prime folks developing these neighborhoods to look like they’re from these neighborhoods.”

On the waterfront, Redbrick is moving forward with the Bridge District’s first phase, a 750-unit project branded as The Douglass. Tom Skinner, founder and managing partner of Redbrick, said his firm was working to integrate the development with nearby Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and the St. Elizabeths campus. 

The developer is working on a National Center for Cyber Leadership at the Bridge District, which Skinner said can grow a jobs pipeline and help train students in Ward 8 for careers in cybersecurity. The developer has worked to create jobs more directly as well, hiring local students as interns on its project site and working with local businesses like The Sandlot to create community amenities on site.

“The optimal solution to affordable housing is not to build cheap housing but to raise the incomes,” Skinner said. “That is what we are all striving for.”