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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Community Blindsided as Pepco Sells Lot at Benning Road Site

Pepco has sold 10 acres of land from its 77-acre Benning Road SE property, which was home to a large power plant. The land was sold to Prologis, a real estate and supply-chain logistics company, for $10.25 million in December 2023.

Logistics real estate involves the rental and sale of warehouses, distribution centers, flexible spaces and other industrial buildings with storage facilities. The project is in the large-tract review process and is scheduled to begin construction on a new logistics center at the site as early as 2026.

The sale came as a surprise to many members of the community. “We’ve met with Pepco in the past and we were under the impression that Pepco had no intention to sell the site,” said Wendell Felder, chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 7D. As Pepco conducted remediation on the site, Felder recalled, representatives would give community updates to the ANC. But an update on the sale was not part of that schedule.

Felder told Pepco Environmental Manager Jamie Hill as much at a Jan. 9 meeting of ANC 7D. “We feel like Pepco has not been a good community neighbor, for Pepco to meet with us and then surprisingly sell your decommissioned power plant,” Felder said.

History
Pepco operated the site for a century before closing and demolishing the oil-fired plant in 2012. Local activists such as George Gurley had fought for closure of the plant since the 1970s and had organized the Urban Protectors to prevent Pepco from expanding the generators. Gurley’s health assessment, which found elevated levels of asthma, bronchitis and cancer in the surrounding neighborhoods, including River Terrace, prompted the federal government to launch an investigation.

In October 2023, the utility agreed to pay a $57 million settlement to clean up contaminants it had dumped into the Anacostia River. The agreement with the DC Office of the Attorney General (OAG) was the largest environmental settlement in Washington’s history. Much of the rest of the site is still active as a service center for distribution operations as well as a community solar facility.

The site requires significant environmental remediation. The Benning Road Landside Feasibility Study, released in December 2023, began evaluation of contaminants on the site.

At the Jan. 9 meeting with ANC 7D, Hill said the “contaminants of concern,” including vanadium, PCE and PCBs, were concentrated on the service center lot rather than the Prologis site. “There’s no acute or short-term risk identified or anticipated with the Benning Road facility,” he explained. “Current site controls prevent any exposure to the site contaminants, and there are some long-term risks that have been identified under the most conservative of estimates there.”

Valencia McClure, Pepco’s regional vice president for government and external affairs, said the sale leaves 67 acres at the site, which houses the service center and substations. There are no plans to sell additional lots, she said.

Hopes Dashed
Parkside residents have long expressed a desire for the site to be redeveloped in a manner that benefits the community. They hoped for mixed-use waterfront development, including amenities such as sit-down restaurants or a grocery store. Felder remembered discussion of a Home Depot possibly coming to the site.

Felder acknowledged that a transition in Pepco’s leadership over the last six months may have affected the delay in communication. “I don’t get the sense that they were trying to be underhanded or anything of that sort,” he said.

Pepco spokespersons said they were aware of the 2015 Technical Assistance Program Report (The TAP, https://washington.uli.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/15/2016/02/ULI-TAP-Report-Pepco.pdf) , but were not a contributor. They said they engaged with District leaders and stakeholders after the public and competitive bidding process began in April 2022.

“We will maintain use of our remaining Benning Road property, which is the hub for many of our underground electric operations, and look forward to continuing to support the Benning community through our engagement with community and workforce development opportunities, work with local nonprofit partners and more,” declared a Pepco statement, which added that the company was exploring small business grants benefiting the surrounding neighborhoods.

Community leaders, however, continue to push back. When Steven Hussain, vice president of cofmmunity relations at Prologis, appeared at a Feb. 13 ANC 7D meeting, Felder asked Prologis to sell part of the land back to the city. That, Felder said, would give the city an opportunity to transform half the site to benefit the community.

Hussain declined. “It’s already a very small parcel for Prologis in terms of the developments that we do,” he explained. “So selling half of it and then being able to do the rest of the business is pretty much impossible, given the size of the parcel.”

In response, Felder, tongue firmly in cheek, said Prologis could get around the problem by selling all 10 acres to the District.

Prologis did not respond to a request for comment.

Commissioners expressed concern about the site’s future. Many claimed the sale helped to perpetuate a history of communities east of the Anacostia getting the short end of the stick. “A lot of residents in this community are extremely frustrated,” echoed Felder, who noted the multitude of possible community-focused uses for the space.

“There are many uses for that particular area of land that we thought we were well engaged on with Pepco,” Commissioner Siraaj Hasan (7D01) noted at the January meeting. “To hear that there’s been some mysterious sale of that land is disheartening to say the least.”

Plans Stalled
The last 20 years have seen tremendous investment in the Kenilworth-Parkside community. Thousands of homes and at least two schools were built. Mayor Bowser cut the ribbon on a seven-story, 172,000 square-foot residential building in April 2022, as part of the 15.5-acre Parkside planned unit development (PUD) southwest of Kenilworth Avenue and Hayes Street NE. The Park 7 Apartments and the District Department of Employment Services building recently opened nearby on Minnesota Avenue.

The Pepco site is close to Metro and I-295 as well as the proposed Benning streetcar route. That’s a lot of potential.

ANC Commissioner Justin Lini argued in a 2016 article for Greater Greater Washington that, with the right changes, the Pepco site could provide much-needed economic opportunities to Ward 7 residents and become the economic and social center that the ward lacked, something like a smaller St. Elizabeths East.

The city had obviously considered it. In November 2015, DC’s Office of Planning partnered with the Urban Land Institute to form a Technical Assistance Panel (TAP) that looked at improving transportation access at the site, creating new community amenities and providing economic opportunities for Ward 7 residents. Ideas included access to the river, public art, business incubators and farmer’s markets.

“The mayor’s office and the new Ward 7 councilmember should be on the lookout for opportunities to use land swaps and other incentives to achieve the goals outlined in the TAP plan,” Lini wrote in the article.

The TAP Report focused only on 19 decommissioned acres along the east side of the river and north near the Department of Public Works transfer station, where buildings had been removed. A good portion of this area has now been sold to Prologis.

Frustration
“Residents have a lot of frustration, not just with Prologis but just living in Ward 7,” Felder declared. “There’s great frustration, specifically in this area, that residents do not have a say-so in terms of what comes into their community.” He added, “We want the same things and the same quality of amenities as other parts of the District. We’re strongly opposed to this.”

ANC 7D voted on Jan. 9 to send a letter to Prologis and Pepco Holdings expressing concern about the sale, with the goal of stimulating “engagement and discussions” with both companies on a community-focused use of the land and emphasizing the importance of the property’s environmental remediation.

Felder thought it was still early in the process and that he and the commission would continue to operate in good faith. Prologis has given its word that it would host community meetings to get a sense of neighborhood desires and share redevelopment plans.

“I think there’s opportunity in that area,” said Felder, who intends to hold the company to its word.

With additional reporting by Theo Weller.

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