This article was first published by Greater Greater Washington on April 7.
Although the DC Housing Authority’s (DCHA) redevelopment of Southwest’s Greenleaf Gardens community is starting off with some promising signs of transparency, the agency is still leaving a lot to be desired when it comes to the plans for some of the other public housing developments under its purview. One of the more obvious examples is just two miles, or two Metro stops, away in Barry Farm, from which over a hundred households have already been scattered and left wanting for more input on what will happen next.
The history of Barry Farm and its redevelopment
Barry Farm’s redevelopment was part of the city’s New Communities Initiative (NCI), a program with its own long history of over-promising and under-delivering to public housing residents that have long experienced subpar living conditions. Located a block off the Anacostia Freeway and Suitland Parkway intersection, the Barry Farm neighborhood was originally built out by the Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War, with the U.S. Housing Authority delivering the Barry Farm Dwellings across 34 acres of the settlement during World War II.
By the early 2000s, the neighborhood had significantly deteriorated, making it a candidate for redevelopment under NCI. A co-development team with Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), and A&R Development was selected, and in 2014, the Zoning Commission approved a planned-unit development (PUD) that would enable a project exceeding the allowable density, slated to deliver 380 replacement housing units and another 1,000 mixed-income units, 55,000 square feet of commercial space, and a central park.
However, the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association (BFTAA), composed of residents of Barry Farm and the Wade Road Apartments in partnership with organizing nonprofit Empower D.C., appealed the zoning approval, putting the project on hold. D.C.’s appellate court sided with BFTAA in 2018, remanding the project back to the Zoning Commission for reconsideration — but the development team withdrew the PUD application instead. In the meantime, Barry Farm residents had already been given vouchers and relocated to apartments all across the city (and in a handful of cases, the Maryland suburbs).
Simultaneously, a historic preservation application was filed for the community, leading the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) to grant landmark status to five buildings at Barry Farm in January 2020. Prior to the HPRB ruling, the co-developers had already pared back their plans in light of the remand, proposing a total closer to 1,000 units. After the landmarking, however, the co-developers stated that plans would have to be scaled back further, leaving many under the impression that a new proposal for the development would require additional approval and/or would follow passage of the revised Comprehensive Plan.
Instead, the city’s Office of Planning (OP) applied to rezone the Barry Farm site last year in order for the development team to move forward, as a matter of right, with a redevelopment plan from 15 years ago.
A by-right attempt to move forward
Last September, OP applied for a zoning amendment to create the Barry Farm (BF) Zone, and applied to rezone the 25.4-acre site where the community once stood from low-density Residential Apartment zoning (RA-1) to BF-1 and BF-2. Each of those BF zones would have sub-zone designations that sketch out the height and density and uses permitted throughout the site. Although the applications don’t specify what the new development plans will entail, representatives for the co-developers stated at a meeting for displaced residents in October 2020 that there will be 380 for-rent replacement units for the residents, another 320 for-rent units affordable to households earning 30-80% of D.C.’s area median income (AMI; $37,800-100,800 for a family of four), 40 for-sale units for households earning up to 80% of the AMI, and 160 for-sale units at market rate. There would also be roughly 40,000 square feet of retail, including some in the newly-designated landmarked buildings.
At that same meeting, it was shared that the development would take place in two phases over an 8-10 year period, starting with a 108-unit senior building next to the Barry Farm Recreation Center with 77 replacement units. Aside from a couple of renderings reused from previous plans, the details of the redevelopment and its components are yet to be shared in full with former residents or the public.
But these plans supposedly follow the prescriptions made in the Barry Farm/Park Chester/Wade Road Community Revitalization Redevelopment Plan, a Small Area Plan (SAP) so outdated that one of its three titular communities (Park Chester) has already been redeveloped.
The SAP is billed as a plan whose creation was led by the residents, but a lot has changed since 2006, and even if the current plans include everything residents wanted then and now, it still seems worth sharing how that is the case with the people who would be most affected.
Miscommunication and missing communication
Based on testimony at zoning hearings, and over 100 letters of support (primarily consisting of vaguely-worded signed form letters) added to the record, the primary concern of former Barry Farm residents is getting the ball rolling as quickly as possible so that they can return — a priority shared even among residents who are opposed to the pending rezoning case. For many, rushing to approve a rezoning should not come at the expense of being kept in the dark and given only nominal opportunities to weigh in on what they will be returning to. Some residents, stakeholders, and even DCHA’s own boardmembers also seemed blindsided by a redevelopment potentially moving forward this year, expressing confusion at the March 2021 DCHA Board meeting.
DCHA Director Tyrone Garrett suggested to his team at the board meeting that they should begin holding monthly update meetings similar to what is currently happening for residents of Greenleaf Gardens. Considering all of the entities involved with the redevelopment (DCHA, POAH, A&R Development, OP, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development), there has been a lot of room up to this point for absconding responsibility to communicate with former residents.
POAH has been sending out monthly newsletters by snail mail and email and holding sporadic events, most of which are billed as holiday celebrations, giveaways, and cleanups. However, these don’t seem like, and are not used as, appropriate forums for meaningful engagement about the actual redevelopment. The opportunity to build new units before displacing residents has already been missed — nearly all but the landmarked buildings were razed on a rolling basis starting in 2018, after the zoning remand and before all of the residents had relocated. The current push to build by-right, however well-intentioned, seems disingenuous when the onus is once again put on residents to draw information out of DCHA and the co-developers.
“We’re not going to be able to solve every single issue in one fell swoop, but I think the communication is one key ingredient to making things happen and to accomplishing the goals that everyone wants to resolve and wants to have at the end of the day,” Director Garrett said at the October resident update meeting.
The D.C. Zoning Commission was scheduled to hold a hearing on the rezoning case in May. However, the commission postponed Barry Farm’s hearing until June 7 in anticipation of the D.C. Council potentially making a final vote on the Comprehensive Plan on June 1. The Commission also asked the Office of Planning for a supplemental report that gives guidance on how new language in the proposed Comprehensive Plan on displacement and racial equity should be considered.