Five days before the District unveiled a splashy proposal to court Amazon’s new headquarters, a top city planning official withheld key information about where it could go from nearly 30 Hill East residents who had gathered to discuss the future of their neighborhood.
During a community meeting on Oct. 11, advisory neighborhood commissioner Nick Burger asked Sarosh Olpadwala, the director of real estate for the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, about the District’s long-term plans for Reservation 13. Just south of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, the site contains 67 acres of underdeveloped land that has been the subject of planning talks for more than a decade. It includes several municipal buildings and the former D.C. General Hospital, which currently serves as the city’s largest family homeless shelter and is expected to close in 2020 (though a recent zoning appeal could impede the closure).
As of today, many neighbors consider the site an eyesore. But they recognize that it has huge potential to connect them with the Anacostia River, and have pushed for a variety of amenities there, like new homes, stores, and parks.
On Oct. 11, Olpadwala told the crowd that the District would have to figure out how to develop the majority of Reservation 13 after Donatelli Development and Blue Skye Construction complete the first phase of a mixed-use project slated for two of the site’s parcels. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration approved the project in 2015, but it has faced delays due to infrastructure and permitting issues. Both Olpadwala and developer Christopher Donatelli said workers would break ground on the project early next year.
“In terms of what the subsequent phases are, I think we would like to move with expediency, but we also want to be very deliberate,” Olpadwala told residents. “We’re going to tear down D.C. General, and then that will open up just a whole host of possibilities.”
After Denise Krepp, another advisory neighborhood commissioner, called this answer “rather vague” and pressed for more details, Olpadwala said “a lot [would] depend on the infrastructure development” related to the Donatelli-Blue Skye project. “It’s a major property for us, it’s a major portfolio for us, it’s a major neighborhood,” he added.
He did not mention that D.C. would soon feature Reservation 13 as one of four prospective sites in its bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. Residents got that information five days later. Some of them are now fuming over Bowser’s alleged secrecy in selecting the sites, especially given Reservation 13’s knotty history. (The site also includes the outdated D.C. Jail, though the District’s bid does not incorporate that facility.)
Amazon announced its North American competition for a new headquarters site on Sept. 7, saying it would create 50,000 high-paying jobs. A week later, the Bowser administration declared its intention to bid, and kicked off a marketing campaign branded “#ObviouslyDC.” (In a Sept. 14 video, the mayor reads aloud from an article about the competition in The Washington Post, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. She coyly asks an Amazon Echo device on her desk: “Alexa, where is the most interesting company in the world going to locate?”)
D.C. released its proposal on Oct. 16, three days before bids were due. The other sites the District pitched are NoMa-Union Station, Shaw-Howard University, and Buzzard Point-Ballpark-Poplar Point (or “Anacostia Riverfront” in the proposal). The Hill East site is the only one that would offer Amazon a unified campus, as the rest don’t have fully contiguous land.
“[Reservation 13] is a shiny rock they keep dangling, and we still don’t have affordable housing,” says Krepp, who lives a block from the site. “That’s what’s frustrating to my residents: the lack of transparency. You tell us something and you lie to us. Why should we trust you about anything?”
Citing a short-lived idea a few years ago to install an Olympic Village on the site for the 2024 Games (many Hill East neighbors opposed it), Krepp adds that the District has a history of not informing residents “what’s going on in our own neighborhood.”
“We have to FOIA,” she says, referring to the Freedom of Information Act. “But they can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to tell consultants what’s going on.”
Advisory neighborhood commissioner Daniel Ridge was bothered, too. “I would stop short of alleging that they lied to us, but I’m going to stop just short,” he says. “I was surprised, and somewhat offended, to learn that there were renderings. That document wasn’t put together overnight.”
Krepp and Ridge say they first heard that Reservation 13 would appear in the District’s Amazon proposal less than an hour before a mayoral press release went out, but that DMPED asked them not to relay the news until Bowser’s office had done so. Angered, Krepp tweeted it anyway. She says her response to DMPED that morning “is not printable.” Ridge says he “resented” the embargo.
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen says he received a “courtesy call” about the bid from Deputy Mayor Brian Kenner on Oct. 15, a day before the announcement. Allen says they spoke about the challenges and opportunities at each of the sites (three fall within Ward 6), and that he asked DMPED to give a heads-up to the affected ANCs.
“I’m just not sure how an Amazon office-use would be consistent” with residents’ vision for community amenities, Allen says, adding that such a large development on Reservation 13 would require a “substantial zoning rewrite.”
Amazon’s request for proposals stipulates that it initially needs 500,000 square feet of space to begin operating the headquarters in 2019, and up to 8 million square feet “beyond 2027.” The company received 238 submissions and is expected to present a winner in 2018.
In an interview, Kenner insists there was no intent to mislead or deceive residents leading up to the disclosure of the four sites. Since Amazon’s RFP was relatively brief and the company didn’t provide much more information when the administration inquired, he says, the bid was meant to “showcase the diversity of opportunities and attributes” D.C. boasts, from multimodal transit and waterfront areas to a dynamic workforce and universities.
As for Hill East residents’ feelings of being hoodwinked, Kenner says it was simply a matter of bad timing. “This is about an option that we wanted to make sure was on the table,” he explains. “We needed to be mindful of the timing not just for this site but all the sites, because we needed to announce it in a consistent fashion.”
With “nothing set in stone” at this point, officials will reach out to residents if Amazon indicates to D.C. that it’s interested in moving here, Kenner says, because “it’s literally going to take a village to accommodate” whatever the company is looking for. Regarding Reservation 13, he says the Donatelli-Blue Skye project “will not be impacted by anything that could happen with Amazon,” and that D.C. General and the D.C. Jail aren’t “necessarily” hindrances to new development.
Not all Hill East residents, though, are girding themselves to fight Amazon.
“From my time here, it seems like we always get stuck in this place of: Either the whole thing’s going to get developed and D.C. offers it up for one purpose or another, or nothing,” says Ryan Donahue. “I want there to be something between that.”
“I sympathize with the anger,” he says, noting that multiple administrations have “played politics” with Reservation 13. “But frankly, I’m not sure the anger and the outrage is going to do a lot of good.”