Fire Station or Townhomes?

Confusion Reigns on Minnesota Avenue NE

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From Left to Right: McCree Burwell, ANC Commissioner Dorothy Douglas, Tacretia Cree.

4409 Minnesota Ave. NE is adjacent to CSX train tracks, an empty plot of land except for a long vacant garage. Three houses sit abandoned on the block across the street.

Yet, this parcel is prime for development, just off I-295, on a Metrobus route, and halfway between two Metro stations, Minnesota Avenue and Deanwood. And, Valor Development, the owner of the 55,517 square foot property, has plans for the site. It’s just that no one seems to know what Valor exactly wants. The District government, hoping to build a fire station on the site, has been left in the dark about as much as the community. 

The Plans Keep Changing
In 2015, Valor pitched building about 30 townhomes and a playground on the land. The lot is a peculiar size, a narrow strip of land that’s just wide enough to fit the length of a house. With neighborhood support, the DC Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) awarded them several zoning variances on Nov. 17, 2015 paving the way to build the homes.

Valor hand purchased the land in 2014 for roughly $550,000, according to testimony by the company Principal Will Lansing to the BZA in July 2015. The townhomes were proposed as three stories tall and in the $350,000 price range. An architect and real estate expert were brought onto the project team.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Dorothy Douglas (7D03), who resides across the street, testified in support of the project at the time. So did multiple neighbors.

A Fire Station?
Then this August, Douglas got a notice from the District government. The city was planning to build a new station for Engine Company 27, currently occupying an aging station down Minnesota Avenue, at that site.

According to the Department of General Services (DGS), Valor approached the agency offering the land in spring 2016, in response to a solicitation. Speaking on background, a DGS official explained that Valor, by entering a “non-binding agreement” with the agency to explore building a fire station, made clear they scrapped plans for the townhomes.

DGS had been conducting preliminary site review since summer 2016 to build the fire station, but it wasn’t until this summer that the agency made the news public to ANC 7D, when the ANC was on recess. DGS plans to send the formal proposal to build the station to the DC Council in December. If approved, DGS would begin design work and conduct further community outreach, and draw up lease terms with Valor.

4409 Minnesota Avenue is not large enough to hold both projects. DGS would need the entire lot for a firehouse, Lansing says. “Our interest is to advance the fire station project,” he says.

Keeping Options Open
Except Valor, if their moves at the BZA are any hint, still wants to build townhomes. While going ahead with the fire house plan, in mid-September developers asked the BZA for a two year extension on their original plan. They justified the extension request on the difficulties of securing permits. Lansing says that the firm wanted to make sure the zoning relief didn’t lapse in case the fire house project didn’t pan out.

The BZA granted the extension on Sept. 27. At no point did Valor mention a fire station in their testimony to the board.

Nor did DGS realize Valor sought an extension on the town home project. East of the River magazine broke the news of the zoning relief extension to DGS in late September. “I can’t comment on that,” was the DGS official’s response.

Lansing contends that Valor has just been keeping the townhomes as a plan B. “There’s no signed lease with DGS at this point, but to protect our rights as a private landowner, we believe it’s prudent to extend our BZA application until we’re able to determine the exact direction with the fire station project,” he says.

Neighbors Frustrated
This has left Douglas and a number of her neighbors exasperated. The fire station news seemed to pop out of nowhere, after nearly two years of no activity on the housing project. ANC 7D voted Sept. 28 to oppose the firehouse on the lot. Most people just want the city and developers to be straight with them.

“It’s very strange,” says Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray (D). “It sounds like Valor needs to come up with some information about why they’re proposing two different projects on the same site.”

Douglas now worries Valor will get a lucrative contract and lease, subject to DC Council approval, for the firehouse. She is concerned that her tax dollars will go to a public project that the community had little say in.

Gray asked DGS to extend the community’s comment period on the firehouse until late October. DGS has offered to attend ANC 7D’s Oct. 9 meeting. Meanwhile, Valor has been waiting for the city to take the official lead on organizing community input.

Worrying About Getting Rolled
Neighbors remain concerned. “I think there is a huge ethics issue here,” says Tacretia Cree, who was drawn to the neighborhood in 2014 for its relative affordability. She wants more transparency with the fire station project, which Lansing and DGS promise will be given in the coming months.

Walking through the block on a recent day, Douglas is tired of running in circles to make the city to provide more information. She bought her house, on the corner of Minnesota Avenue and Kane Place, in 1978 and has been a longtime voice in Ward 7.

“We’re just not getting the communication entitled from [Valor] or DGS,” Douglas says.