The much vaunted Benning Station project has lost its main tenant and developer in a recent twist that leaves its future in doubt.
Having long envisioned the Benning Road corridor in Ward 7 as one of the keystones of redevelopment in eastern Washington, DC, city planners aimed to realize their goals by not only attracting new retailers and residents to the long struggling area, but local government agencies – and the traffic that comes with them - as well. To the end, the Fenty administration has masterminded mixed-use projects, like the $108 "Downtown Ward 7" project at Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road, NE that will include large residential and retail components neighboring the new, currently under construction headquarters of the Department of Employee Services. But another project in the same vein may be in danger of falling through. And now community advocates are laying the blame at the feet of those that promoted it – namely the Office of Property Management and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.
Developer (and Fenty confidant) Ben Soto and DBT Development's $55 million, Bonstra Haresign-designed project was supposed to bring a new, 132,500 square foot headquarters for DC’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) to 4414 Benning Road, NE – along with 21,000 square feet of much needed ground floor retail and a future phase that would include sixty-two residential units. Then, last month, the developer told the local ANC that he could possibly be pulling out of the project, just as news came down from OPM Director Robin-Eve Jasper that CFSA would not be relocating to Ward 7 after all.
“[The] reason the CFSA lease was being pulled was that they had found a ready-to-move in space… in Ward 5, specifically NoMa,” says Sylvia Brown of the ANC 7C04. “The DC City Council passed legislation two weeks ago giving developers in that area a $50 million tax break for the next two years. When you look at the fact that Ben Soto has designed the Benning Station project for CSFA with no additional monies requested and he’s not asking for any tax subsidies, that move to NoMa contradicts what the city says about needing a ready-to-move-in space.”
The news not only raised suspicions of community advocates, but was also an unexpected surprise. Soto himself had reportedly spent $11 million of “pre-development investment” funds to ensure the CSFA’s occupancy. Furthermore, according to the Ward 7 Citizens Coalition, the Benning Station project had already received numerous letters of interest from potential retailers, including CVS, TGIFriday’s and “other neighborhood serving retail” and has been tailored specifically to meet needs of the CFSA – making occupancy by another tenant unlikely, even as the project nears the end of the District-led approval process.
“Just this morning, it was before the Board of Zoning because it needs to have some zoning variations and it’s gotten the approval of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, as well as the Department of Transportation,” said Brown. “This is a project that had acquiesced to the CSFA’s needs for an additional 50,000 square feet. How can you…negotiate that additional space to meet your particular needs and then pull out at the last minute?”
Director Jasper will be on hand to answer that question herself, when she attends a public forum concerning the future of Benning Station this evening, Wednesday, April 22nd, at the Kenilworth Recreation Center at 4300 Anacostia Avenue, NE. The meeting will begin at 7 PM.