By Editorial Board
Promises have been made- and broken- about the new focus that would be placed on the city’s most undeveloped section, east of the river. This section encompasses all of Ward 8 and the majority of Ward 7. Unemployment is high, literacy rates are low and crime is ever present. Still, with the many negative statistics one could mutter off about this section, a promise was made.
Each time an election season rolls around candidates come east of the river and say what they promise to do to “fix” the many problems that plague the area. Mayor Vincent Gray, a resident of this section, Hillcrest in Ward 7, has said that there will be a greater focus on southeast because he is a resident of southeast. However, progress has been slow or not at all.
One of Gray’s first perceived legislative victories was ensuring WalMart would build a fifth store in his native Ward 7 at the Skyland Shopping Center, which sits on the edge of Ward 7 and 8 along Naylor Road, SE. During Gray’s first four month’s in office, he in went to the annual retail convention in Las Vegas where he met with WalMart executives to discuss their planned openings of four stores across the District. There he urged them to open a fifth store in the District at Skyland. Gray said, “They hemmed and hawed, and it ultimately came down to, ‘You have a choice. You can do five stores, or you can do no stores.’ ”
Fast forward to 2014 and the project has not even broken ground and many wonder if it ever will. Threatened not to open due to last year’s Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA), where the District’s City Council attempted to force WalMart to pay workers $12.50 an hour, top executives of the big box retailer said they would not open the Skyland store if the bill became law. The bill failed and Skyland still has not seen movement.
Still Gray has announced other plans for restoring jobs to southeast. The east campus of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital has the newly built Gateway Pavilion on its campus, which sits just off Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave. SE. the 400-foot long pavilion was built to attract employees of the U.S. Coast Guard, whose headquarters are located on the west side of the campus. The pavilion boasts that it will have various food vendors and abundant opportunities for programming, arts and entertainment.
Recently the site hosted an ice slide to draw hundreds of children on weekends to a campus, but the 6-week slide cost $220,000 with a little over 3,000 visits. Those 3,000 visits amount to roughly $68-70 per person to ride the ice slide, nearly double the price to get inside of neighboring theme parks Six Flags or King’s Dominion. Compound the cost of the actual building of the pavilion, which by the way was built $3 million over budget, at $8.3 million and the city has spent millions of dollars that have created only a few of jobs, if that.
If the understanding is that Gray is focused on placing measures and initiatives into southeast, how does that focus come without fiscal responsibility? The idea of the ice slide was nice, but down the street from the ice slide is one of the city’s largest male homeless shelters. On the Alabama Ave. SE side of the east campus, sits a vacant and boarded up apartment building, directly adjacent to the Congress Heights Metro Station. While, it does appear Gray is seeking to provide new attractions and funding to the area, the money doesn’t seem to be focused on helping the larger issues- unemployment, illiteracy and crime.
Moreover, the New Communities Initiative that was first introduced in the mid-2000’s has also seen little-to-no movement. According to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute’s (DCPI) website, the initiative aims to revamp blighted public housing, build mixed-income communities, and create economic opportunity for public housing residents while minimizing displacement. There have been four communities identified thus far, with two east of the river, Barry Farms/Park Chester/Wade Road (Ward 8), Lincoln Heights/Richardson Dwellings (Ward 7), Park Morton (Ward 1) and Northwest One [Sursum Corda] (Ward 6).
The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) has not specifically stated why this initiative has stalled, but its clear that the strategy employed has not worked. The commitment to redeveloping these communities should be maintained for the residents who desire development and jobs to come.
DCPI writes, “The goal of revitalizing dilapidated subsidized housing and helping low-income communities thrive remains important” and but this cannot be achieved without the leadership of Gray. The initiative requires that all of the original, deeply subsidized public housing units be replaced and that new construction include equal parts of market rate, moderately affordable, and deeply subsidized units. As affordable housing continues to dwindle this initiative is prolonged.
One can only hope that Gray’s Career Academies Initiative, which is aimed at preparing more residents for the workforce will be more successful because his native east of the river community need