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Anacostia: The Next Georgetown?

Philip Pannell, one of Ward 8’s most effective political and civic activists, raised eyebrows at a recent meeting when he said that the number of development projects and new residents coming to Anacostia will turn the Southeast neighborhood to “Georgetown East.”

No one in the audience challenged Pannell on that point, as some people nodded their heads while others quietly reflected on what he said.

Pannell said he first heard the “Georgetown East” phrase from a statement by Leo Bernstein, the founder of The Bernstein Company, in an article that ran in the Washingtonian magazine in the mid-1990s.

The Anacostia neighborhood, which consists of the residential and commercial areas close to the intersection of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast, sits on the banks of the Anacostia River in the economically depleted East End of the District.

Until a few years ago, little economic activity took place in the area, which had a reputation of being crime-infested with dirty, decadent housing.

But this year, Anacostia has had a rebirth of sorts, with businesses such as the Busboys and Poets restaurant and bar chain setting up shop on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, just a few steps away from Anacostia Organics, the only store that sells medical marijuana herbs and medicines. Two blocks south will be Maple View Flats, a project that will have 114 residential units — some of those designated as affordable — and 15,000 square feet of retail space that will be anchored by a Starbucks coffee shop.

In the coming years, the development project Reunion Square, supported by a $60 million tax incremental financing component, will include the first full service hotel in the District’s East End and 133 residential units with some dedicated as affordable housing, 310,000 square feet of office space and 20,000 square for retail and cultural use. Also coming to Anacostia will be the MLK Gateway, a mixed-use, 48,500-square-foot development that will have 10,000 square feet of retail and house the headquarters for cybersecurity firm Enlightened Inc.

Anacostia’s average household income is $54,354 and $357,500 comes out as the average cost of a house, according to realtor.com. Blacks make up of 96.8 percent of its population.

On the other side of the District lies Georgetown, an internationally known neighborhood considered a retail mecca and a center for fine dining, entertainment, society events and famous residents. Georgetown has 450 retailers, including shops and residential buildings on upscale Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest, and encompasses the elite Georgetown University.

The median cost of a house in Georgetown is $1.18 million and the average household income in the neighborhood is $75,984. There are no major projects in the near future for Georgetown.

Whites make up 81 percent of Georgetown’s population.

Marcus Goodwin, director of acquisitions and development at the Neighborhood Development Company, knows the development landscape of Anacostia well and said it is H Street NE, not Georgetown, that Anacostia should be modeled after.

“We are seeing a lot of investment coming to Anacostia,” said Goodwin, who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large council seat last year. “There are dramatic changes taking place and with that you will see a rise in property values and some people will opt to sell to leave Anacostia.”

Goodwin said he didn’t know the timeline of Anacostia’s development but said the intersection of MLK and Good Hope Road SE “will be different from what it is 10 years from now and from the standpoint of today — you wouldn’t recognize it.”

Goodwin advised residents in the area to refrain from selling their properties, encourage the D.C. Council to pass a property tax freeze and push to bring profitable businesses to Anacostia.

He praised Busboys and Poets’ new location in Anacostia, but said the Reunion Square and the MLK Gateway will have a more dramatic effect on the neighborhood.

Rising housing prices in Anacostia has many of its longtime residents nervous. Dorcas Agyei, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for single-member district 8A05, said the Anacostia-Georgetown comparison “is more nuanced than that.”

“The District government has to do a better job planning affordable housing and moderate-priced housing than it has throughout D.C.,” she said.

Perhaps no one understands the development of the D.C. region better than Stephen S. Fuller, the director of The Stephen S. Fuller Institute at the Schar School of Public Policy and Government at George Mason University. Fuller has emerged over the past two decades as someone who can put the area’s growth and changes in the context of its history and potential future.

Fuller agreed that Anacostia isn’t going to be the next Georgetown.

“I think that is the wrong comparison,” he said. “Georgetown has its own identity and history. Indeed, Georgetown was a seaport before the nation’s capital was established.”

Fuller said Anacostia has its own unique history, too and to compare it with Georgetown “is an overstatement.”

“Anacostia is changing,” he said. “It has accelerated in its growth compared to what it was 25 years ago.”

Fuller said he knows of Anacostia because he worked with the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation that Albert “Butch” Hopkins managed years ago. He said “it was a pretty tough place before the Metro came.”

The Anacostia Metro station opened on Dec. 28, 1991, and while the ridership has remained constant, the area surrounding the station hasn’t developed along the lines of other Metro stations such as Largo Town Center or Fort Totten.

Fuller called the opening of Busboys and Poets a “positive sign” that should inflate real estate values.

“The Busboys opening shows that the area is becoming attractive for young families and working singles,” he said. “Now the schools in Anacostia need upgrading and when that takes place, Anacostia will be more of a stable neighborhood.

“This isn’t the forgotten Ward 8 anymore and it isn’t the dumping ground of public housing as it was in the past,” Fuller said. “I can see spillover from the Navy Yard and Nationals Stadium area coming to Anacostia.”

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