Eight years and three mayoral administrations after the Columbia Heights neighborhood began its redevelopment, merchants along the 14th Street corridor wonder if the price of progress will be their demise.
The minority business owners aren’t giving up, however. Led by Sheila Reid, owner of Avanti Realty, the owners are still demanding to know what happened to relief funds to revitalize longtime businesses in close proximity to the new structures.
“Every step of the way, it seemed the developers have been intent on driving us out,” said Reid, as she walked several blocks along the 14th Street.
In 2004, Councilman Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) spearheaded an effort to develop the depressed area. In 2006, a consortium of developers acquired a 5-acre plot located in the 3100 block of 14th Street from a subsidiary of the National Capital Revitalization Corporation (NCRC) to build the $149.5 million retail complex.
NCRC set aside $2 million in tax increment financing (TIF) to help these small, local, mostly minority-owned businesses get through the inevitable upheaval involved in the construction of the DCUSA complex. The money was to be administered out of a small business assistance fund. NCRC became a defunct entity that was eventually absorbed by the Mayor Adrian Fenty administration.
The financial aid pledged to aid distressed minority-owned businesses never materialized. Committed set asides for corridor businesses to lease 15, 000 square feet of space inside the complex proved to be a hoax, with lease prices far above those prevailing in the area.
“It required build-outs that would cost far more than any local business operator could afford,” said Reid. “The developer achieved the true goal of guaranteeing only major chains would occupy the so-called set-aside spaces.”
As Reid walked the 14th Street corridor from Oak Street to Columbia Road, she pointed out new townhouses, several mixed-use developments with high rise condos and restaurant chains, department stores and other national establishments lining both sides.
“Small businesses in the area are viewed as nuisances for the gentrified community rather than assets,” said Reid.
Florist Barbara Ferguson has owned her business for over 50 years. Two engineering snafus resulted in the street in front of the storefront being ripped up twice in quick succession. Sidewalk traffic was entirely diverted, and with it, vital revenue.
“The city never gave me any compensation,” said Ferguson.
Councilman Michael Brown (I-At Large), chairman of the Council legislative Committee on Economics and Workforce Development, said this is a major concern that should be addressed. “What the Council needs to focus on very quickly is how revitalizing an existing community wipes out established longtime businesses. How can we keep both,” he remarked.
In 2010, correspondence between Reid and Jennifer Budoff, former aide to Councilman Kwame Brown’s (D-At Large) Committee on Economic Development, explained how the “TIF proceeds had to be used to fill a shortfall in the financing” of the project. The funds were subsequently reinstated but were eventually redirected to non-profits such as the Latino Economic Development Corporation (almost $600,000) and the Mount Pleasant Business Association ($106,415).
“The government’s disrespect for those of us who endured over the years when no one dared to come here is unbelievable,” said Nate Simms, owner of the popular Waffle Shop previously located on 14th and Park Road. He was promised relocation on the corridor. “My family business was wiped out and all its equipment was placed in storage. The city had no real intentions of re-establishing my business.”
Today, few people knowledgeable about the matter are willing to speak out. Neither Budoff, now budget director for the council, or Graham returned calls or responded to e-mail inquiries.
Sheila Reid believed the District should guarantee loans for the businesses struggling to survive today. “In Columbia Heights, racial discrimination has taken a backseat to economic discrimination.”
Minority business owners said they will continue to persevere to get out their cautionary tale of “urban removal” even if it turns out to be too late for them.
Researcher DeRutter Jones contributed to this story.