Ivy City: At the corner of development and gentrification

Ivy City Neighborhood

The Ivy City neighborhood in NE Washington DC. Pictured is the Hecht Warehouse, an old warehouse converted into an apartment building and shopping area. (Ted Eytan/ Flickr)

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Architecture, Business & Economics, Infrastructure, Policy

“So is my life at Ivywall: replete with beauty and enjoyment. And the rose, that is its central ornament and pride.”  -Thomas Seaton Donoho

Donoho had a love for the ivy plant, so much so that he would write poetry and a book about the plant. But his greatest stamp on history for his love for ivy was the naming of the historic Ivy City neighborhood in Northeastern Washington, D.C.

Ivy City has a rose, the Crummell School, which the residents in the neighborhood once had great pride and joy in. Since its closure in 1977, the school has withered and been neglected by every stakeholder involved: local government, local businesses, and even the residents themselves.

After decades of neglect, in 2016 there were plans to redevelop the school after decades of no substantial plan. These plans would give the school the chance to bloom into the rose Ivy City needs.

“The tale hath History told – but words are weak, and may not with the pencil’s eloquence speak.” -Donoho

Opened in 1911, the Crummell School was named after African American preacher and academic Alexander Crummell. The school served the black community of Ivy City, not only as a primary school, but as the community center that held the neighborhood together.

Prior to the school closing in 1977, it experienced turmoil and problems that it never recovered from. In the years since, it has been a failed day care, a failed bus parking lot, and finally a D.C. historic site that the Environmental Protection Agency has labeled a brownfield — a property “which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”

For the Crummell School, the hazardous contaminants include arsenic, barium, chromium and lead. This contamination not only impedes the economic development of the land, but creates a negative environment for the public health of everyone in Ivy City. Cleaning and redeveloping the land will increase the standard of living for the residents in the neighborhood.

“My ivy, and mist the storm soon tear thee from thy trust, strewn wild and withering, and I, alone, Hopeless to battle with a world or wrath!” -Donoho

There are two redevelopment plans being explored. One plan turns the land into a community center, health clinic, 100% affordable housing, and a park. The other plan turns the land around the school into townhouses, restaurants, community center and the expansion of a local fish distributor.

The first plan, developed by Empower DC — a local grassroots organization aimed at improving the lives of low and moderate-income Washington, D.C. residents—  ultimately lost in the bidding to Ivy City Partners, a group of businesses interested in developing the area, which has led to tension between all of the stakeholders.

Parisa Norouzi, the Executive Director of Empower DC, hints that the tension of the Crummell School project might increase.

“Next steps may be lawsuits…by any means necessary,” she proclaimed.  “It’s not a matter of playing fair at this point.”  

The Empower D.C. plan primarily was developed by the group, which already had represented the residents of Ivy City in another instance when they faced a bus parking lot installation on the Crummell School property. Empower DC successfully sued to block the Washington, D.C. government from turning the lot into a parking lot for tour buses. The project would have exposed residents to harmful exhaust fumes and other pollution, as well as additional traffic. The successful fight connected Ivy City residents with Empower DC, and proved the organization had the neighborhood’s well-being in mind.

The focus of Empower DC’s plan was to create a space that would mirror the community’s needs with only 100% affordable housing, a health clinic and a community center. What would make the project elevate Ivy City would be the addition of a park and basketball courts, in which the neighborhood has neither. Both of these entities create positive environmental and public health outcomes that all members of Ivy City will experience.

The benefits of a public park include decreased air pollution and car crashes due to the greater access to a walkable area, according to the Center for Disease Control. The personal health benefits include  risk of some cancers, improvement of mental health and mood, reduced instances of obesity, and the strengthening of bones of muscles due to increased physical activity.

“Parks are essential for high density, urban, walkable areas. It’s important that the parks you build are not only well planned, but more importantly well managed,” said Christopher Leinberger, Chair for the Center for Real Estate & Urban Analysis at The George Washington School of Business.

For a park to work, “Its best if the neighborhood itself manages the park…[and] have a source of funding” he stated. “Wishing does not make it happen, someone has to have the foresight and a checkbook.”

These factors have to be in place so that citizens can reap all the benefits of a park, which is a challenge for any neighborhood.

“For sympathy had brought our lives together in a sweet unison: we smiled, we wept, we hoped and feared together.” -Donoho

The construction of the park is the major benefit of the Empower DC plan, however the main issue with the plan is that many jobs initially created will be lost when development is finished. Ward 5D, the ward that Ivy City is a part of, had an unemployment rate of 18% in 2015, double the city’s average. The poverty rate of the ward is worse, with 30% living below the poverty line in 2015, one of the highest in the city.

A community center and a health clinic are some things that Ivy City needs, but the most important need in for the neighborhood is more jobs, which is not something that this bid could deliver.

“How the ivy climbs the tower, embracing it so lovingly, and struggling upward, still upward, with a proud affection, till both together share the sacred light.” -Donoho

The other deal from Ivy City Partners comes from a place that is completely opposite of Empower DC. The members of Ivy City Partners, Jarvis Company, Stonebridge Carras, and Profish, are corporations with only one, Profish, located in Ivy City. These companies have a goal for the project to be focused on typical redevelopment,one focused on mixed-income housing and corporate expansion.

Chanda Washington of the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development picked the Ivy City Partners plan due to the redevelopment plan, the sustainable building practices, and the community involvement. “It was community driven. We are impacting the citizens of the community” says Washington.

The greatest benefit of the Ivy City Partners redevelopment is the jobs created to fill the void in the neighborhood. Having Profish expand the size and scale of its business, the company also plans to increase the number of employees it has. This would be best for the Ivy City, and other surrounding neighborhoods like Trinidad, in which 45.5% of the residents have a high school diploma or less.

“This is good news,” says Leinberger. “It’s bringing jobs closer to the minority housing concentration on the east side of the region. It’s going to bring jobs, real jobs, jobs where you don’t need a college education.”

What is most important, for Leinberger, is that the residents can learn a skill or a trade and be a part of a regional economy. This will make Ivy City much less detached than how it has been for so many decades.

One aspect of the Ivy City Partners bid that is different than the Empower DC bid is that there will be a focus on mixed-income housing. This is something that is polarizing when it comes to the redevelopment of struggling neighborhoods. On one side, there is an injection of money and capital from middle to upper middle-class residents that a neighborhood like Ivy City desperately needs.

But on the flip side, there is a change of neighborhood that current residents feel would push them out.

Norouzi feels that the Ivy City Partners plan will do just that. “The Ivy City community has teetered [with] gentrification,” she said. The Washington, D.C. government has hurt Ivy City before, with the bus parking lot problem, because she asserts that the administration is in favor of gentrification. For Norouzi, Ivy City will be changed for the worse if the Ivy City Partners plan goes forward and not the Empower DC plan.

But Leinberger emphasizes, “The research shows that gentrified neighborhoods actually have less displacement than non-gentrified neighborhoods because they want to hang around, things have gotten better, why leave?”

He continues by saying there has to be a focus on making sure there is affordable housing for low-income renters, but people want to live in a nice neighborhood that has the jobs that the residents need.

A noticeable downside of Ivy City Partners is the lack of green space in the redevelopment plan. There will be small community gardens around the actual school, which will become the new community center, which is a stark difference then the Empower DC park. The Ivy City Partners plan loses all of the benefits of the park that will help all of the residents of the neighborhood.

Of heart-glow that may make it dear to some – recalling memory in her fairest looks, giving new sunshine to the present day, and confidence to meet the veiled future.” – Donoho

In a perfect world, the positive aspects of both plans for the redevelopment of the Crummell School would be in place. A well-managed park and community center along with jobs and mixed income housing would replace a decaying school and an empty lot. But in the real world that plan does not exist.

The future of Ivy City is veiled, and there are many people, like Parisa Norouzi, that are not excited about the changes to come, and they aim to stop the plan. Others, like Chanda Washington, think that Ivy City Partners plan is by the community and for the community. But one thing is true, with a community divided over these two options, Ivy City cannot be “fixed in amber in all time” as Christopher Leinberger will assert. 


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brownfields, Community, urban redevelopment, Urban Sustainability, Washington DC

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