The University of the District of Columbia (UDC) recently opened its newest workforce development site on the grounds of the former Democracy Prep Public Charter School in Congress Heights, a testament to what business maven Phinis Jones describes as the economic potential of the Ward 8 community.
In August, the UDC’s community college consolidated its programs at P.R. Harris Educational Center on Livingston Road, the Shadd campus on East Capitol Street and the training hospital at United Medical Center into 3100 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
This deal culminated D.C. Council scrutiny and months of negotiations between UDC and a team comprised of Jones’ District Development Group LLC, and business partners Monica T. Ray and Andrew Botticello.
Jones said that the process highlighted a point he has long attempted to make to residents and colleagues alike about the need for ownership.
“That school sat vacant in downtown Congress Heights for 27 years,” Jones said as he recounted his ground lease of 3100 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. “Homeless people stayed in it and it was an environmental mess with oil and water sitting in there six feet high.
“We had a 65-year ground lease from the city [and] any leasing over 40 years means bank financing,” he said. “We spent over $30 million renovating that building. No one was looking at Congress Heights in 2008 when we were looking into that building.”
A UDC spokesperson declined The Informer’s request for an interview about the new workforce development site.
UDC’s expansion into Congress Heights takes place just as Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has called on the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and the Department of General Services to identify potential properties in Wards 7 and 8 that can serve as space for local government agencies. She said such a move could attract retail and other amenities to historically underinvested areas.
Congress Heights, home to more than 14,000 people, had been designated by Destination Congress Heights as the most economically diverse neighborhood east of the Anacostia River and Ward 8’s largest commercial district. As neighborhoods in the western end of the District have experienced gentrification, investors, elected officials and residents have eyed Congress Heights as one of the District’s last frontier for urban development.
By the late 2000s, at least $455 million worth of development projects had been underway, including that for St. Elizabeths West Campus, THEARC, the Southeast Tennis & Learning Center and the area surrounding Congress Heights Metro Station.
In November, Bowser broke ground on the Residences at Congress Heights, located on St. Elizabeths East Campus. Those seven historically preserved red brick buildings that will ultimately house 252 units, the majority of which will serve as affordable housing.
Not too far from that site, the Entertainment & Sports Arena on St. Elizabeths East Campus has attracted an untold number of Washington Mystics fans and music aficionados since its opening last September. Down the street, the fun will continue this weekend during the 38th annual Congress Heights Day Parade. That night, the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and 5th Street in Southeast will turn into a musical haven during Art All Night, where visitors can expect to see performances by EU featuring Sugar Bear, and Be’la Dona.
In recent years, Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue has become home to a revitalized MLK Deli and a slew of other businesses that have popped up along the blighted corridor. Jones’ daughter and her husband operate the Congress Heights Arts and Culture Center, located at 3200 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast. Jones said he purchased that building in the mid-1970s for a little over $19,000 with $5 as a down payment.
Decades later, he stresses that Congress Heights residents must embrace a similar mindset.
“If you don’t own it, you can’t control it,” Jones said. “I was on this block for 50 years and have encouraged people to buy this space since the mid-1970s. At that time, you could buy anything on [Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue] with $25,000. Whether we like it or not, prices will go up and property values will increase. We can’t complain if we don’t take advantage.”