Costco at Dakota Crossing are still trudging along. The stage set is a remote patch of forested land in the Fort Lincoln neighborhood, better recognized as the land opposite the Washington Times on Route 50. The players are likely to be Costco and Target, potentially Shoppers Food Warehouse and Staples, even Walmart was once in the lineup. The director is Fort Lincoln New Town Corporation, which brought in Peterson Companies to develop retail as part of a mixed-use, suburban-style shopping center with housing, offices, retail and acres of parking lots. When Peterson bowed out in 2007, Trammell Crow Companies stepped in to oversee its stock and store - big box power centers. All that is missing is the financing and wetland remediation plan approval from the city. And, of course, final commitment from at least one of the big retailers.
The Village at Dakota Crossing, with 537 townhouses, 30 affordable workforce units, 500 more parking spaces and a pedestrian-friendly layout with wide sidewalks, tot-lots and community spaces. The land is a stone's throw away from the National Arboretum and within a 5-minute walk of the Anacostia River
But development has hit two main obstacles. The first is getting retailers to commit to a large project in a suburban setting, which tests current financing models, although Costco has signed a non-binding Letter of Intent to occupy the property. The other is the dated nature of the plans: 20 years ago, paving over a large, unused plot in the city to build a regional shopping center would have easily passed city government hurdles, whatever the environmental or historic implications. But the contentious, yet sought-after site is now entirely forested and home to wetlands, filtering nearby industrial waste and acting as a natural barrier against flooding.
"Our plans call for creating new, high quality wetlands near the retail center as mitigation for taking away the existing wetlands, which have been documented as very low quality, marginally functioning wetlands. These plans are currently being reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA, and will be reviewed by D.C. DOE once the federal regulators finish," said Cel Bernardino of Fort Lincoln New Town Corp. He also noted that the current plan "envisions a model 'green' shopping center with cisterns, green roofs, green walls, and other LID (Low Impact Development) measures."
Costco has been eying this site for the past ten years. Target and Shoppers do not lag far behind in enthusiasm. They might all benefit from TIF (tax increment financing) subsidies from the District, which has supported the development as a neighborhood improvement initiative. Costco alone expects $15 million in TIF financing. But the District must mediate between the environment, small business owners who have fought the behemoth onslaught of all-in-one-for-a-portion-of-the-price big boxes, and competing revitalization projects throughout the city.
"The Office of Planning has worked very closely with the development team to ensure the project is green and pedestrian friendly," reported Victoria Leonard, Director of Policy and Strategic Communications in the office of Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. The District likes it so much it plans on paying $3 million upfront to build retention ponds to offset the 3000 new parking spaces. The funding would come out of the D.C. libraries capital budget, an initiative spearheaded by Council Member Thomas, who noted that "the Shops at Dakota Crossing have been in the books for a decade" back in April of 2009. The funds are being transferred from a Ward 7 libraries project, which should begin to see repayment in 2011. Ward 5 library services will remain unaffected.
Cel Bernardino recounted the various phases of housing that have already been built under the 1970s Urban Renewal Plan for the Dakota Crossing site. About 1370 residential units, including condos and rentals were built at Fort Lincoln New Town during the 1980’s and 1990’s, with most of the rental units built for senior citizens. The 127-unit Wesley House seniors apartments opened early last summer, and 209 "Dakota Crossing" town homes were completed last month. "We have two additional planned residential developments (town homes and condos) that construction hasn’t started on yet – the 334-unit 'Village at Dakota Crossing' across from the shopping center, and the 50-unit 'City Homes' development at the corner of Bladensburg Road and Eastern Ave."
Robert King, Commissioner on ANC 5A12 (Advisory Neighborhood Commission), has been involved in planning Dakota Crossing since the 1970's. He's seen developers come and go, and has remained a reliable supporter of the plan, representing the leading voice of the commission he heads: "The project is finally on track. Some of the first residential units to break ground will be dedicated to firefighters and school teachers, and I am happy about that. The neighborhood is bracing itself for the development of Costco, which is expected to bring jobs, but also increase traffic."
He believes the 1970's plan calling for 3000 units of housing was too ambitious and needed to be scaled back in a neighborhood of just 4000. "There is a significant retirement community in Fort Lincoln, and I am concerned about access to the retail site." Mr. King said he has been trying to organize a bus service to transport seniors across Fort Lincoln Dr. and 33rd Place.
Although a contender for a Dakota Crossing spot a few years ago, Walmart is out. The city refuses to provide subsidies to the union-shunning employer. Nevertheless, word on the street is that Walmart may yet settle into the neighborhood, but now on triangular site bounded by New York Ave., Blandensburg Road and Montana Ave., the site of the Abdo project that fell apart earlier this year. From a traffic perspective, the development of two big box retail sites in such proximity could produce a tangle at what is already a busy thoroughfare. In an area that lacks Metrorail, the arrival of the big boxers and all the parking infrastructure that comes with them does not foreshadow a favorable future for TODs (transit oriented developments).
The architects of the proposed retail development at Dakota Crossing, Bignell Watkins Hasser, with offices in Annapolis, MD and Vienna, VA, have built several local retail centers at both the neighborhood and regional scales. The big box retailers would create what is estimated at 800 new jobs by establishing what developers hope becomes a regional destination, capturing incoming and outgoing DC traffic at the entrance of the Baltimore-Washington corridor.
"I want everybody to know from here to Timbuktu that Fort Lincoln is getting ready to complete plans for Costco. We want to make sure we can tap into every dollar for the city and create as many construction and other jobs as possible" said King, who echoed concerns about the wetlands and retention ponds on the new development site. Area residents seem enthused. "I think its hard to argue against development in one of the last development holdouts in DC" said Hans Posey, who moved to the neighborhood recently. "Its a very established neighborhood, but everybody, everybody, in the neighborhood is gunning for something bigger, something more than the kind of stores that are there now."
Cel Bernardino estimates an August 2011 groundbreaking for the retail part of the development. "I’d say Spring 2011 would be the soonest we are likely to break ground on the shopping center. We have 'solid' commitments from our anchor tenants. No leases signed yet." The current site plan/design for the shopping center received concept design approval from NCPC on June 3, 2010.
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