Now that Busboys & Poets has announced plans to open a restaurant in Anacostia in the spring of 2016 the hard work begins. At last month’s announcement few intimate details of the deal were shared, leaving many familiar with neighborhood development to question the project’s timeline.
The Far SE Family Strengthening Collaborative, which has owned the vacant building at 2004 – 2010 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE since late 2012, is primarily a case management social service provider without a record of development experience. The non-profit will most likely have to rely on a series of substantial city funds from the Department of Employment Services, Department of Housing and Community Development, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and others to make the project possible, according to a developer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Perry Moon, executive director of the Collaborative, says the community should prepare itself for a “long process.”
What will that process entail? That process will include forming partnerships with a development team and culinary training team and securing financing, none of which appear to be in place.
In late December 2012 the Collaborative purchased the former bowling alley and furniture store for $2.195 million. According to tax records, as of May their outstanding mortgage stood at more than $1.7 million. With a reported revenue, mostly in the form of city grants and case management government transfer payments, after expenses of nearly $0.54 million the Collaborative faces significant capital shortfalls to finance the development.
Since their purchase the property has remained vacant, generating no revenue. Nearly five years ago Unity Healthcare and the DC Primary Care Association identified the building for a new health facility. The neighborhood organized opposition and Unity eventually built a complex adjacent to the Frederick Douglass House.
At the announcement Andy Shallal, founder of Busboys & Poets, indicated he would be signing a 20-year lease. Moon declined to name the conditions of the lease. The Collaborative currently rents offices in the Anacostia Professional Building across the street, and, according to neighborhood sources, plans to relocate at the end of 2015. These present tight deadlines to make a deal.
“They didn’t announce the lease in clear terms,” says Rev. Oliver “OJ” Johnson, a former board member of multiple community development corporations in Anacostia, who began his activism during the administrations of Mayor Washington and President Nixon. “I haven’t seen a prospectus of an agreement detailing what Busboys will or will not contribute to the build out. There’s no evidence there’s any money in this. In order for any bank to underwrite a loan they have to see funding feasibility, the sources of expected grants and other planned revenue streams. There’s nothing here.”
Johnson also questioned the decision making process narrative advanced by the Collaborative. “There’s been no public hearing process or community meetings. There was one or two invite-only meetings. Not one 8A Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner spoke at the press conference. They haven’t been given notice of what their script is. Last [month’s] event was improvised to the fullest.”
“There are no current plans for funding for this redevelopment because none has been applied for,” wrote Marcus A. Williams, Community Outreach Director for DHCD. “However, DHCD has had ongoing conversations with both the Collaborative and Busboys to discuss what subsidies the Department might be able to offer through an open and transparent competitive process. The developer is welcome to submit a proposal to request support for this project next spring when the Department releases information about the 2015 funding competition.”
Summing up sentiments of both the neighborhood and city officials Williams said, “We are excited to see interest in development in Ward 8 and specifically in revitalizing Historic Anacostia.”
The two-story building was constructed in 1940 as a bowling alley and has most recently served as a Masonic lodge and furniture store. Its current space of 20,848 square feet is not enough to house Busboys & Poets on the ground floor and the administrative offices of the Collaborative and a culinary training school on the 2nd floor. Plans to add a third floor and build upon the rear one-story wing passed Historic Preservation Review Board earlier this year and are incorporated into design drawings. Construction would add 7,000 – 10,000 additional square feet.
“The build out will start immediately to bring the building into code and then it will be turned over to Busboys and Poets for our fit out,” Shallal wrote in an email.
According to a Historic Preservation Office staff report by Time Dennee, the building “has hallmarks of the Art Moderne style: uniform light-colored brick, a curved northwest corner, and streamlining suggested by the contrasting, projecting brick flanking the windows and the simple continuous projections above the storefront and as a schematic cornice.”
An addition brings the building’s total height to 45 feet, making it the tallest building within the Anacostia Historic District. Most of the building’s structure – column, beam and slab construction with brick-faced block exterior walls – would be retained and used. The roof and one-story rear wing will be lost with the proposed addition. A storefront in the first-floor facade will also be added.
Signature project for Mayor Bowser?
The lone city employee to speak at last month’s event was the late Councilmember Barry’s chief of staff. The absence of mayor-elect Bowser (who was announced to speak) was telling, according to a number of developers and neighborhood activists in attendance.
“Most likely no current agency director will be around when this project gets started. Nobody can make a promise or a hold a commitment right now. This will have to be a signature project for Muriel’s administration. They’ll have to wait for her to settle in which will take time,” says Johnson.
A developer who spoke on the condition of anonymity offered, “Did you hear Shallal with the one-off applause line, ‘I should have been Mayor!’? Muriel doesn’t want to share the stage with him.”
With Moon giving duplicative answers to a series of questions, including, “How is this really going to happen?” he closed our phone interview by saying, “This will be a long process. We’ll work to see that the community remains excited and enthusiastic and stays with us.”