Gentrification Boondoggle D.C. Convention Center Will Displace Residents
By Steve Donkin
Volume 35 Number 5
Get ready for the next phase in the wholesale giveaway of Washington, D.C.’s neighborhoods to corporate interests. This time it’s the proposed “New” Washington Convention Center (yes, we already have a convention center, built just fifteen years ago, but it’s already obsolete). This new monstrosity, three times the size of the MCI Arena, will sit right in the middle of one of D.C.’s poorest residential neighborhoods, at Mt. Vernon Square in historically African-American Shaw.
The site, bounded to the east and west by 7th and 9th Streets, N.W., and to the north and south by N Street and Mt. Vernon Place, has been a target of developers for years. It now contains a parking and impoundment lot, a temporary women’s shelter, and empty land.
The convention center proposal, however, is full of disturbing nuances. Problems with its financing, environmental effects, and impact on parking and traffic patterns have been raised and documented by the Shaw Coalition, a group of activists opposing the project.
Somewhat less attention has been given to the dirty little secret of all big urban development projects like this: the inevitable certainty that displacement of poor people will result. This phenomenon, politely referred to as “gentrification,” is the friend of real estate agents and their preferred clientele of upper-income home buyers, but the enemy of low-income renters and homeowners who soon find their neighborhoods too expensive to live in.
A Brief History
Like most cities, the District of Columbia has been involved in a process of gentrification for many decades. For instance, 30 percent of Georgetown’s population was black in 1930, but by 1969, that percentage had decreased to less than 5 percent, even as D.C. was evolving overall into a majority black city (K.M. Lesko, V. Babb and C.R. Gibbs, Black Georgetown Remembered, Georgetown University Press, 1991).
A similar trend began in the Adams Morgan neighborhood during the 1970s, when, as George Washington University professor Jeffrey Henig states, the community “showed a ‘whitening’ of the population. This occurred, moreover, while the racial composition of the city as a whole remained virtually stable” (J.R. Henig, “Gentrification in Adams Morgan,” GW Washington Studies No. 9, 1982). Changes in the neighborhood’s color coincided with nearby construction of the Metrorail system and a jump in the average sales price of single-family homes from $27,116 in 1970 to $123,362 in 1979.
The economic resurgence of the 1990s has pointed the way for further gentrification, as real estate has become one of the best investments around. A recent article chronicles the process of steady gentrification that has been occurring recently in many of Chicago’s poor neighborhoods (L. Lutton, “There Goes the Neighborhood: Concern Grows as Gentrification Spreads Through Chicago,” The Neighborhood Works, July/August 1997). In the South Loop, for example, per capita income was $12,468 in 1980, and had skyrocketed to $53,000 by 1995. This wasn’t because the folks living there suddenly found good-paying jobs—it’s because they were driven out and replaced. Townhomes now sell in that neighborhood for between $200,000 and $500,000.
An even starker transition has taken place in the African-American community of North Kenwood-Oakland on Chicago’s South Side, where median property values doubled from $95,000 in 1991 to $195,000 in 1995. As one affordable housing expert quoted in the article says, “Gentrification—people start out thinking it’s a great thing. [But] the outcome of gentrification is that land values go up, housing values go up, property taxes go up, rents go up and [the original residents] get kicked out.”
And Now the Future
So how will a new convention center bestow similar fortunes on D.C.’s inner-city poor? A “domino effect” is how some are describing the development frenzy sure to follow the convention center. Potential projects include a 500-700 room hotel or office building one block west of the new convention center, a hotel-and-apartment complex along 9th Street, and development along the New York and Massachusetts Avenue corridors (T. Deady, “Area Awaits Convention Center: Groundbreaking Would Spur Nearby Projects,” Washington Business Journal, Feb. 23, 1998). None of this of course will include housing for low-income residents; on the contrary, these plans will necessitate the removal of such residents currently living in relatively affordable apartments situated along the development path.
Also in the works is a $175 million, 45,000-seat baseball stadium on a 15-acre site just two blocks east of the proposed convention center site (T.C. Hall, “Wild Pitch? D.C. Plays Baseball: District Planning Downtown Stadium,” Washington Business Journal, April 13, 1998). Of course, this project is designed with an eye toward the Washington-Baltimore bid for the 2012 Olympics.
It’s interesting to note the other potential stadium sites in D.C. that were considered. These included: Northeast One between Florida and New York Avenues N.E.; Anacostia Park; Buzzard’s Point on the Southwest waterfront; the Southeast Federal Center; S. Capitol Street S.E., just south of the Southeast Freeway; and Capitol Gateway S.E., near the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. All of these sites are in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods that will be gobbled up by such development as residents are pushed out by rising real estate prices.
But don’t worry; if these areas don’t get a baseball stadium, legislation recently passed by City Council ensures that they will see some sort of greed-driven development in the near future. Bill 12-514, the “National Capital Revitalization Corporation Act of 1998,” sponsored by Ward Four Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, establishes an independent entity called the “National Capital Revitalization Corporation.” This body will “foster economic growth and employment opportunities in the District by retaining, expanding, and attracting business through strategic neighborhood revitalization policies and actions to remove blight, by helping to lower the cost and increase the availability of funds for public and private capital projects, and by facilitating opportunities for commercial and human capital development consistent with the economic, social, housing, and employment needs of residents and citizens of the District.”
The Act gives this corporation the power of eminent domain over so-called “blighted areas,” which include residential zones determined to be “detrimental to public health, safety, morals, or welfare,” or containing “a substantial number of slums, deteriorated or deteriorating structures, predominance of defective or inadequate street layout, faulty lot layout” and so on. In other words, areas inhabited by poor people may be seized for any number of fabricated reasons to make room for the developer’s bulldozer.
The Act further designates “priority development areas,” which include, oddly enough, those low-income neighborhoods listed above as possible stadium sites.
Ward One Councilmember Frank Smith, for his part, has sponsored complementary emergency and permanent legislation whereby the public takes the risk for financing a project based on promises of future revenue collected from real estate and sales taxes (Bill 12-353, “Tax Increment Financing Authorization Emergency Act of 1998” and Bill 12-354, “Tax Increment Financing Authorization Act of 1998”; see also M. Goodwin, “TIF: New Tool to Convince Business to Stay in D.C.,” Washington Business Journal, May 8, 1998). So-called “tax increment financing” (TIF) not only socializes the financial risks of private development; it provides incentives for developing property into commercial real estate rather than affordable residences.
The Message is Clear
If you’re poor and living in D.C., you’d better either be satisfied with the crummy low-wage jobs offered in the up-and-coming hospitality/entertainment boom, or pack your bags and leave. To bolster that argument, a recently released report commissioned by the Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA) promises 8,550 D.C. hospitality industry jobs in the first year of the center’s operation (“Analysis for the Proposed Washington Convention Center,” Coopers and Lybrand, Dec. 30, 1997).
Of course, working at the convention center doesn’t guarantee that your wages will keep up with your rising housing costs. Jobs in the hospitality industry are among the lowest paid (S. Thomas, “Las Vegas Has Largest Share of Low-Paying Jobs,” Demographics Journal, Nov. 27, 1995).
As a further nose-thumbing gesture at D.C.’s workers, a promised “hospitality industry charter school” to be located in a vacant building next to the current convention center, for the express purpose of job training, now seems to be in jeopardy. The city recently awarded a grant to a development company to do a feasibility study for turning the building into an “artists colony” instead (T. Deady, “Hospitality High-Jinks: City Agency Has Other Ideas for Building,” Washington Business Journal, May 4, 1998).
As usual, the best way for residents to fight back is to organize and confront their attackers head-on. Organized activists in Chicago succeeded in forcing the city to set aside a portion of TIF funds for affordable housing, and D.C. residents can win similar victories. The convention center backers know the threat posed by organized opposition; they recently named Terence Golden, CEO of the union-busting Host Marriott corporation, to be chairman of the WCCA board.
Those residents desirous of a city that respects them at least as much as commercial interests need to join an organization and take the charge to our traitorous City Council, the Control Board, and the developers themselves. Council plans to hold public hearings and cast a final vote on the convention center sometime in June, then send it to the Control Board. It’s time to take back our city!
Steve Donkin is a member of the Green Party of D.C. and the Shaw Coalition. He can be reached at (202) 986-9438.