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Developers In Fast-Growing Southwest D.C. Grapple With How To Support Longtime Neighbors

Southwest D.C. has seen a dramatic transformation over the past decade.

From construction starting on The Wharf's first phase in 2014 to the completion of the $3.5B waterfront megaproject's second phase last year, combined with development popping up around the Waterfront Metro station and Buzzard Point, the area has added millions of square feet of commercial real estate.

But as the multibillion-dollar overhaul of a historically underserved neighborhood takes shape, community leaders worry that it may not be benefiting all of the area's longtime residents, including those who occupy its public housing properties, and developers are wrestling with how to build in an ethical manner to lift up the entire community.

These leaders discussed how to make the neighborhood's growth more equitable last week at Bisnow's Southwest D.C. event, held at The Anthem.

CityPartners’ Geoffrey Griffis moderates a panel with Salamander’s Manuel Martinez, Donohoe Hospitality’s Thomas Penny and Pendry Washington DC’s Pascal Forotti.

Southwest D.C. has several large public housing properties that sit within a short walk of The Wharf, including the 493-unit Greenleaf GardensDonohoe Hospitality President Thomas Penny said the view from the the rooftop restaurant at his firm’s Cambria Hotel in Buzzard Point helps him put the neighborhood's unique dynamic in perspective.

“Every time I'm up there having lunch or dinner, it reminds me of where we have come, but it also reminds me of what work remains,” he said. 

“Because I can see James Creek; I can see Syphax; I can see Greenleaf Gardens. And as someone who had family members who resided in those public housing projects, I want to do everything I can through much of what we do every day to ensure residents have opportunity.”

GOODProjects Chief Engagement Officer Darius Baxter, whose nonprofit has a mission to tear down cycles of poverty and is working with the Southwest D.C. public housing community, said he doesn't think they have benefited from the area's development yet.

GOODProjects’ Darius Baxter in conversation with D.C. Central Kitchen’s Mike Curtin and moderator Department of Energy & Environment’s Tommy Wells.

“It's hard for me to get excited when you look at development, particularly development that’s this close to that large concentration of low-income residents, knowing that when you look at the history of this city, particularly over the last decade, we have very intentionally disbanded low-income residents and made no true effort to try to retain their culture, retain their housing,” Baxter said. 

“When we talk about not just human infrastructure but human development, I've been very disappointed in our efforts when you look at Southwest."

He said he has talked to Hoffman & Associates founder and Chairman Monty Hoffman, whose firm led the development of the Wharf, about his disappointment. 

A spokesperson for The Wharf provided Bisnow with data showing that 54% of nearly 2,000 new hires at the Wharf — excluding retail, restaurant and office personnel — are D.C. residents, a number that exceeded the goal. And for Phase 2, the spokesperson said 30% of new construction hires were from the underserved Ward 8 area, exceeding the requirement of 20%. They added that Hoffman & Associates and partner Madison Marquette put $1M into a workforce training program for D.C. residents.

After completion of the Wharf's Phase I in 2017, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute found that the investment resulted in low-wage, nonunion jobs. 

“Most construction workers at the Wharf were not represented by a union, and had jobs often paying less than $15 an hour with minimal benefits,” read the report.

It also found that out of the 30% of affordable units the developers agreed to, only 10% was delivered. A Wharf spokesperson said it now includes more than the agreed-upon 30% of affordable housing units after the second phase’s completion.

Hoffman & Associates Chief Operating Officer Maria Thompson, in a statement to Bisnow, said the firm has worked hard to invest in the community throughout the building process for The Wharf, plus its other Southwest projects near the Waterfront Metro station and Audi Field.

"We worked with the Southwest community at every step of the process of The Wharf’s development from hiring hundreds of Ward 8 residents to creating and exceeding the city’s job requirement for Southwest residents — while also adding affordable and deeply affordable housing to the neighborhood. We are proud to be a part of Southwest," she said. "It is not only where we work, but where many of us live."  

The firms behind the area's next wave of projects say they are working to ensure their developments benefit the entire neighborhood. 

Global Government and Industry Partners’ Corey Arnez Griffin moderates the developer panel with Hoffman & Associates’ David Roberts, Jefferson Apartment Group’s Greg Van Wie, Akridge’s Kristin Connall and MRP Realty’s Bob Murphy.

“We know we're plopping a number of buildings down into an existing community and that it should feel very welcome to everybody,” said Akridge Vice President Kristin Connall, whose firm is developing the 2M SF mixed-use project The Stacks in Buzzard Point. 

Connall said the development was designed to emphasize public areas meant to be inclusive to the existing community. 

“You do not have private courtyards that only residents can access,” she said. “Anyone can come enjoy them, sit in the park, sit in the open space and sit at the café tables. And there's nothing private about it.”

The stark juxtaposition between the neighborhood's past and future is also on the mind of Jefferson Apartment Group Development Partner Greg Van Wie, as his firm builds up a 312-unit multifamily development on the South Capitol Street border between Southwest and Southeast. 

For J Coopers Row, which topped out in April and is set to deliver by the end of the year, the firm is renovating and incorporating six 19th-century townhomes that were already on the property into the new development. 

“We really worked hard with the community and the ANC to preserve that history of Southwest and incorporate it into a larger, more contemporary project,” Van Wie said.

Southwest Business Improvement District's Steve Moore and Merchants Hospitality's Abraham Merchant.

In March, D.C. Central Kitchen opened a new 36K SF Buzzard Point facility, hoping to act as a starting point in spurring change for the area.

“We are very hopeful that as a part of this community, as a social enterprise nonprofit part of this community, we can be that function box, that conduit through which communities who have been longtime residents can actually take part in — can be part of — this economic renaissance that is happening here,” he said. 

Donohoe's Penny pushed attendees to think about how fostering opportunity for the community that’s already on the development’s doorstep can be mutually beneficial. 

“Southwest is different from Northwest in that we have a workforce within a few blocks of our properties,” he said. “And I think just intentionality and how we engage that and get them in our business, they're uniquely positioned to tell the Southwest story because they've been around, and we try to do as much as we can to take advantage of that talent and the history and the knowledge.”