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D.C. Site Pitched For Amazon HQ2 Facing Activist Appeal

A planned five-building development east of the Anacostia River on Poplar Point has been eyed for government agencies and is under consideration for Amazon HQ2, but now the project could see a significant delay. 

A rendering of Redbrick's 2.3M SF Columbian Quarter development on Poplar Point.

A group of opponents has filed an appeal with the D.C. Court of Appeals, contesting the Zoning Commission approval of Redbrick LMD's 2.3M SF Poplar Point development, which has been branded Columbian Quarter. 

The appeal was filed by Aristotle Theresa, an attorney who has led the charge against D.C. development in recent years, bringing over a dozen projects to court and recently suing the city over issues of gentrification.

Theresa, reached by email, said he is representing several opponents who are jointly appealing the Poplar Point project. He said the plaintiffs include CARE, an east-of-the-river community organization, Tendani Mpulubusi El, the founder of a Ward 8 arts group, and Paulette Matthews and Greta Fuller, Southeast D.C. residents who are also involved in his suit against D.C. Theresa decline to comment further. 

A rendering of Redbrick's Columbian Quarter project on Poplar Point

The Zoning Commission published its approval order of Redbrick's first-stage planned-unit development application, outlining the overall density and uses for the site, on May 15. The project is planned for a 6.23-acre site near the Suitland Parkway-295 Interchange, across the street from the Anacostia Metro Station. 

The site is approved for five buildings totaling 1.6M SF of office, 692K SF of residential, roughly 700 units and 52K SF of retail. Redbrick plans to build the project in three phases. The first phase would include two office buildings with ground-floor retail, followed by two residential buildings with retail in the second phase and a third office building in the final phase. About 70 of the residential units would be set aside as affordable for those making up to 60% of area median income. 

The project also calls for a new network of private streets on the site, with bike lanes connecting to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. It would include parking garages underneath each building, totaling 983 vehicular spaces and 590 bicycle spaces. 

The site was included as part of D.C.'s Anacostia Riverfront proposal for Amazon HQ2. The proposal, one of four sites the District submitted, included 16.9M SF of development potential, double what Amazon requires. The Poplar Point portion, across the river from the other pieces near Nationals Park and Audi Field, was projected to be in the final phase. The delay from an appeal likely wouldn't stall the development until the projected 2022 time frame for that phase, but it does introduce some uncertainty into the plans. 

Poplar Point is also among three finalists the General Services Administration selected for the Department of Labor headquarters, a 1M SF project. It is also a potential landing spot for the Securities and Exchange Commission, for which the GSA seeks 1.3M SF in the District. 

A rendering of Redbrick's 2.3M SF Columbian Quarter development on Poplar Point

CARE, which stands for Current Area Residents EoTR, filed a letter outlining its opposition to the development during the Zoning Commission process. The group expressed concerns the project would create displacement pressures and change the demographics of the area. 

"The people moving into the nearly all market rate building will necessarily have different wants and needs than the residents currently living in the census tract," CARE wrote in its letter. "Concentrating a large number of wealthy individuals into a largely economically distressed community will rapidly turn the political, economic, and social eco-system on its head because newcomers will have entirely different needs and agendas."  

The letter also outlined objections to Department of Housing and Community Development policies, calling them unconstitutional and saying the agency sought to change the racial makeup of historically African-American parts of the city.

"[The project] is a 700-unit, 10% affordable mixed-income apartment building which represents city and developers' first beachhead, crossing the Anacostia River into the 98% black 'pockets' DHCD seeks to lighten," CARE wrote. 

The Zoning Commission addressed this point of opposition in its written approval order, saying that its purview only includes analyzing how proposals conform with PUD rules, not assessing DHCD policies. 

"The Commission finds that CARE's assertions about the racial composition of the apartment units in the project are completely speculative," the approval order said. 

The project also received several letters in support. Ward 8 Council Member Trayon White and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission both voiced support for the development, as did several groups, including the Anacostia Business Improvement District and the Council for Workforce Development. 

Columbian Quarter is just the latest in the unprecedented string of D.C. developments that have faced appeal in recent years. The nearby Barry Farm project, a 1,400-unit redevelopment of a public housing community, had its Zoning Commission approval vacated by the court in April.

The court has also blocked two projects in Northwest D.C., the McMillan Sand Filtration Site development and the 56-unit redevelopment of a church property in Dupont Circle. It also blocked the approval of Brookland's 901 Monroe project three times. Those decisions represented wins for development opponents and have spurred them to appeal more approved projects. At least 13 developments that would create over 3,600 homes currently remained stalled.

The D.C. Council is considering amendments to the city's comprehensive plan that aim to clear up issues the courts have seized on to block developments. Hundreds of citizens on both sides of the debate testified at a heated March hearing over the amendments.