WMATA parcels for sale… again
WMATA owns three vacant lots on the 700 and 800 blocks of Florida Avenue NW on the east end of the U Street corridor. The agency has just put the lots up for sale for the fourth time in 9 years. Judging by the brief sales window and by developer JBG’s previous hefty offer, we suspect the lots will be sold for a mixed-use development quite soon.
First let’s revisit this 9-year saga.
The agency acquired the lots decades ago to build the Green Line and the lots have remained vacant, save for weekend flea markets, ever since. The agency first tried to sell the lots in 2002 and tentatively set a deal with Howard University in 2003. The university already owns the lot occupied by the CVS and its surface parking lot on 7th Street between Florida Avenue and T Street NW.
Litigation brought that Howard deal to a halt and WMATA offered the lots again in 2007. Banneker Ventures LLC, infamous for its park contracts, won that round and aimed to lease the land for redevelopment into apartments and retail space.
Then came the recession and the agency lost patience with Banneker’s inability to get financing for the deal. Last year the WMATA board voted to end its engagement with Banneker and put the lots out for bids yet again.
U Street land barron JBG offered WMATA $11.5 million, by far the highest offer, to buy the lots. The agency recently determined that in Act 3, none of the bids were “technically compliant” and so no sale could be completed.
Now, nearly nine years after the agency first tried to dispose of the lots, WMATA is requesting sale offers again. These will be due May 2, leaving a 3-week window for offers. We assume (and hope) this fourth act is a formality so WMATA can properly sell the land to one of the third-round bidders.
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WMATA parcels should be developed to include active, ground floor arts and retail with offices and residential above. Preference may be given to projects which include specialty restaurants, a small-format anchor and/or a cluster of retail shops, small clubs, and/or museum uses themed to the African American culture and experience of the district.
Furthermore, WMATA has requirements for design, too:
- Any building rising to the maximum permitted by-right height of 65 feet should provide a meaningful cornice at 65 feet. A one to one setback from the cornice should be provided for any building height above 65 feet (to a maximum of 90 feet) if requested through a planned unit development.
- Provide a minimum of 14’ ground level floor to finished ceiling clear height.
- Parking should be below grade. Please note that below grade parking will be limited by the presence of WMATA’s train tunnel directly below the Property
- All buildings are to be set directly on the front and side property lines.
The tops of the Green Line tunnels are about 30 feet below the surface, thus limiting the size of any underground garage. Since the lots are with within 900 feet of two metro stations, the parking demand for any project will be low.
WMATA’s requirements are good in that they mandate design features that create vibrant streets. Ground-floor retail (or cultural space) and the fact that the buildings will go up to the sidewalk are requirements that will enliven the sidewalk, especially at night. Prohibiting above-ground parking will prevent unsightly parking decks and will limit the ability for projects to induce car traffic.
We hope this last round will finally get these vacant lots into productive uses that enhance, rather than detract from, the area. With Progression Place and the Howard Theatre already in the works and with Howard Town Center just a few years off, these blocks are slated for some much-needed rejuvenation.