The decades-long efforts to develop the former industrial neighborhood known as Buzzard Point
For nearly 20 years, government agencies had been trying to redevelop Buzzard Point, but they always faced the same issue: Nobody with money seemed to know where it was. That was the point of the boat trip. The Mayor was new and young. After serving a term on the D.C. Council, he was well-liked by a biracial coalition of voters, particularly in Wards 3 and 8, but distrusted by the bigger businesses in town, whose leaders favored more established Black politicians. With initiatives like this, he was trying to prove he could unite a city riven by decades of disinvestment and budding gentrification. Getting big commercial development onto the Anacostia waterfront, he knew, was a way to shore up the District’s precarious tax base and fund, among other things, an ambitious overhaul of public housing.
The boat departed its dock on Maine Avenue SW and went around the National War College at Fort McNair. It passed two boxy buildings possessing the bare minimum of architecture to get GSA leases and the three drab stacks of Pepco’s power station. Just upstream, it passed the docks of the Steuart Petroleum Company and, even if nobody on board would admit to knowledge of it, one of the District’s hottest gay clubs, Pier 9.
The boat continued under the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, an aging structure the Dravo Corporation built when the production of naval guns and ammunition still dominated the waterfront, then slowly turned around to pause at the old docks of the Smoot Sand and Gravel Company. William Hannan, a representative of the area’s anchor project, the Capitol Gateway Corporation, explained the plan. With a waterfront marketplace and a large mixed-use development beyond, he said, it would be as exciting as Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
“The Mayor wants something done about the situation,” declared D.C.’s director of economic development, Knox Banner. “And we plan to get things rolling by the middle of next summer.” But the mayor, Marion Barry, would see the summer of 1980 come and go without a shovel in the ground, and then four whole terms pass with nothing more than plans.
The boat trip, reported in the Washington Star on December 8, 1979, was squarely in the middle of a succession of plans that shook up the neighborhood before washing away when the economy turned. On the blocks of Buzzard Point, the residue of those plans persist in the zoning, in the names of the plans, and in the image of its derelict placelessness. For the people who lived and worked south of M Street SW, these schemes brought disruption and uncertainty when no new investment came in. For others, the cheap but doomed land was a margin where they could make their own space.
By February of 2020, it seemed like redevelopment would finally stick. But in the face of a global pandemic, an economic recession, and the strongest calls for racial justice in years, will it stall out and leave the adjacent communities with dusty lots again?
“If your business is objectionable, build it on Buzzard Point,” reads a 1911 ad for some of its saturated land. That was not how Peter Charles L’Enfant imagined it in the 1790s. When he laid out D.C., the Frenchman envisioned the northern shore of the Anacostia as an oceangoing port, which is why the Washington Navy Yard has been there since 1799. But relatively few businesses joined it there, leaving the site for agriculture, smoky brickmaking, and dumping. Before the construction of the Douglass Bridge in 1947, the area was a deep dead end south of P Street SW. According to historian Hayden Wetzel, its few residents tended to be poor Black or White immigrants, often farmers.
Businesses did see value in the area bounded by Canal Street SW to the west and New Jersey Avenue SE to the east. The land was cheap, and the residents had little clout and neither Council nor congressional representation. What is now the National Capital Planning Commission pursued a campaign to industrialize the area by rezoning it and building a railroad down Potomac Avenue, with little success. Industrial uses remained small scale and served local purposes. The waterfront fed the growth of the city as the New Deal and World War II swelled the white-collar workforce. Before widespread trucking, the waterfront brought in heating oil at Steuart Petroleum’s dock, housed a power plant owned by PEPCO, and building materials from the barges that came to Smoot’s dock at Potomac Avenue and First Street SE. The industrial activity made the area unrecognizable to old timers, but was hardly the success that NCPC imagined.
The brief period of waterfront activity eroded when the Department of Defense shuttered the massive Naval Gun Factory in 1962, outsourcing the tools of modern air power to the defense industry. This move left about half of what is now Navy Yard and all of The Yards development vacant. Worse, lunch counters, supporting industries, and employees in the neighborhood closed or relocated. To planners, the vacancy presented the possibility of urban blight very close to the area in Southwest they had just cleared and redeveloped in the name of urban renewal.
Beginning with their 1965 comprehensive plan, NCPC began to reimagine Buzzard Point. In one broadbrush plan after another, they envisioned the conversion of the weapons plant into a large complex of federal buildings, a shoreline park, and a vast marina surrounding the Douglass Bridge, with various mixes of commercial and residential buildings in between. By 1975, NCPC’s plan was less visionary but more concrete. After turbulent years that brought wins for civil rights, environmentalism, D.C. Home Rule, and historic preservation, “urban renewal” had come to be reviled as wanton, inefficient, and racist.
The new plans then were more like a framework for growth and government investment. They proposed to remove almost all industrial uses north of Potomac Avenue SW, and rezone most of the area for moderate-income residential uses. Running down South Capitol Street SW from M Street SW would be blocks of taller, mixed-use buildings. The new public marina would not be under the bridge, but slightly to the south. NCPC took its time rezoning the area, not anticipating development activity before it acted. In 1976, however, the plan was already in jeopardy, as the block fittingly designated Square 666 in land records slipped out of NCPC’s hands. NCPC’s report from that year laments, “This marina proposal has been jeopardized because construction of an office building has begun … however, it is not too late.” Behind the planner’s frustration was one of the biggest landlords to the federal government, an enigmatic doctor named Laszlo Tauber.
Laszlo Tauber was a Hungarian Jew with survival instincts gleaned from decades of persecution. His father served and died in the Imperial-Royal Army in World War I. When fascist collaborators came to power in Hungary, Tauber helped set up a Red Cross hospital, where the international clout was enough to keep him out of a concentration camp. After postwar medical training in Stockholm, he came to the U.S., arriving in D.C. in 1949. Unable to get practice privileges at any hospital, he worked as an orderly until he could become certified as a doctor again. He opened a general practice at 1503 Good Hope Road SE, in a historic Anacostia that then was still strictly white.
As that whiteness fled to the suburbs, he saw opportunities. He began developing small garden apartments, the kind of nonspecific projects scattered across suburban Maryland. He joined forces with a more successful developer named Milton Ritzenberg, investing the savings of other doctors, including classmates from Europe. His son Alfred, a retired professor of immunology and bioethics at Boston University, says that Tauber began developing as a way to make money that didn’t depend on patients’ ability to pay. Alfred says his father found the profit-driven medical system cruel, and saw his multimillion-dollar development empire as his “side business.”
Tauber found a niche when he erected the Westwood Shopping Center in Bethesda. He was able to lease a tower there to the General Services Administration, which handles property management for the federal government. Tauber saw how fast the government was growing in the 1960s and 1970s, and understood the unique market conditions for its office space. The GSA looked for a low price per square foot above all else. Location, which most people in the real estate business find important, was not of particular concern. D.C.’s industrial zoning had permissive density limits that were virtually unchanged since 1920. Tauber perceived that local industry was shrinking, meaning land where industry was retreating but not extinct could be optioned cheaply, allowing him to underbid conventional developers. If he got the lease, he would develop the property according to the lease cost, leading to a number of buildings that look like they were designed on a spreadsheet, often by the architect John d’Epagnier. Internally, the structures, like the Presidential Building, which housed D.C.’s Board of Education for decades, had low ceilings, narrow corridors, and no amenities.
Tauber first ventured onto Buzzard Point with rounded-up financing from his network, and for $2.8 million acquired the site of Hall’s Restaurant, a popular spot for boaters at the far tip. He developed a 480,000-square-foot building, eventually named Transpoint, for the Department of Transportation. Then he turned to Square 666. In June 1975, Tauber used his option on the property to win a GSA bid for the new headquarters of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Offering $2.5 million per year, he narrowly underbid in last minute negotiations. NCPC’s planners rushed to protest the project while SEC employees lamented their relocation to what they saw as a remote and dangerous area. “It’s the only thing people are talking about,” an anonymous employee told the Star at the time. “It’s the remoteness and desolation of Buzzard Point.” A younger employee said, “I hear it’s a crime area.”
In July, the SEC’s social organization joined with community and environmental groups and sued the GSA, arguing that an environmental impact statement had never been prepared. The situation took a turn for the worse later that month, when the SEC itself appealed the lease on procedural grounds. In January 1976, the Office of Management and Budget allowed the SEC to back out of the lease. Over the next three years, the GSA sought to fill the building with other federal offices, including USAID and parts of the Departments of the Treasury and Agriculture. The GSA eventually began taking a hard line, refusing to lease space for any federal office in D.C. until they filled the Square 666 building.
As the project wandered through litigation, the FBI’s Washington Field Office moved in, followed by a Department of Defense office. All the controversy invited other nosy factfinders: Congress and the press. Articles delving into Tauber’s business practices revealed procurement irregularities, unsafe conditions at his other buildings, and suspicious transactions with a lobbyist named Arthur Lowell. In July 1979, Lowell was arrested in an unrelated bribery scheme, while the GSA official who awarded the lease had found a job working for Tauber. The doctor, for his part, would never get a GSA lease again. Nevertheless, the GSA kept the leases into the 2000s, and Tauber came to amass a fortune of close to $1 billion before he died in 2002.
If the GSA struggled to draw tenants to the buildings, private investors needed even more convincing. Sure, Buzzard Point had loose industrial zoning and waterfront property, but so did an area closer to the bosses’ houses: Georgetown. Georgetown north of M Street NW had been gentrified, and development was tightly restricted for 20 years, but the historically industrial areas south of M Street NW had the potential for the same land use libertinism Tauber sought. Developers found willing sellers along the waterfront, particularly a parcel long held by a construction materials subsidiary of the Pittsburgh conglomerate Dravo Corporation.
Formerly known as Smoot Sand and Gravel, its business had been dredging the wetlands of the Potomac River for aggregates, the sand and gravel that make up the difference between cement and concrete. While Smoot had been comfortably siphoning the bottom of the Potomac onto barges for more than a half century in 1969, the practice had become unpopular. The dredging issue came to a head when Dravo applied to mine marshes at Mason Neck and Mattawoman Creek that year. Wetland defenders had good reason for concern. Across the river, at what is now National Harbor, Smoot, and later Potomac Sand and Gravel Company, changed the shape of the river, creating a massive, ecologically dead cove between National Harbor and the Beltway from property that once belonged to Smoot as well.
By 1974, William Hannan would later write in a memo, Dravo found its three riverfront properties in Georgetown, National Harbor, and on the Anacostia “useless by reason of an order of the [United States Army] Corps of Engineers.” With the Georgetown property sold, the company examined their land just south of what is now Nationals Park and “urged the renewal of the whole area into a mixed-use community providing much-needed housing, shops, recreation, hotels, and office buildings—in short, a neighborhood.” However pure the mining conglomerate’s intentions, they understood they had something of a gem. Only 6 percent of D.C.’s waterfront was in private hands. Of that, even less was uncontaminated by serious pollution. Sand and gravel are just rocks, after all, and their shoreline parcel was the closest to both the Capitol and a proposed Navy Yard Metro station.
Dravo wanted to redevelop the adjacent properties for more prosaic reasons. Between their 6 acres and the Capitol were blocks of industrial buildings, a Metrobus garage, vacant lots, and the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg public housing project, some of which was itself vacant, after a modernization project stalled out in 1973. The developers needed a critical mass of desirable services and qualities to draw businesses and residents to the area. Tauber’s buildings, after all, hadn’t really drawn any respectable vitality to that area. Dravo proposed to redevelop the entire area west of First Street SE, south of M Street SE, and east of South Capitol Street SE. It’s not entirely clear how the lobbying was done, but by 1976, Mayor Walter Washington had budgeted to solicit proposals from developers in March 1977.
The request for proposals, preserved in the records of the Friendship House Association, was something completely new for D.C. A decade before, on the other side of South Capitol Street, an unelected redevelopment agency would simply have used eminent domain, funded by the federal government, to seize the land and then resell it under planning conditions. Hannan, in fact, had been a strident critic of the practice, arguing that it favored out of town developers instead of the local landowners who were his clients. Now, under Home Rule and a 1974 community development law, the Council would instead invite private businesses to bid on the opportunity to redevelop land. The RFP also stated that the agency “will give considerable weight in selecting a Contractor whose organization includes one or more land owners in the Development Area,” ostensibly to address the major land acquisition costs. The Washington Post couldn’t help but observe that it tipped the competition towards Dravo. Sure enough, in October of that year, the Capitol Gateway Corporation, its newly created subsidiary, won the job.
Residents in the area reacted with interest but unease. Beginning in January 1977, Friendship House, a social services nonprofit that used to be located in Capitol Hill, began discussing the project. In meetings, residents of the redevelopment area like Vivian Williams expressed eagerness to fix up the dilapidated conditions. At the same time, they were haunted by what a disaster urban renewal had been in Southwest. Displacement was at the top of their list of concerns, even if it was simply because of long-delayed construction. Likewise, they wanted to make sure the project provided for low-income housing. These concerns would be repeated at a string of meetings throughout the life of the project.
Capitol Gateway submitted a feasibility study in July 1978. The development’s planned density was lower than NCPC had imagined, with 1,842 rowhouses and apartments, 1.2 million square feet of offices, a festival marketplace along the river, community facilities, playgrounds, parks, a riverside promenade, a marina, and 750 rooms of lodging. 20 percent of the housing units would be set aside for low and moderate income families. The report called for $42 million of public investment, and in return promised as much as $182 million in tax revenue by the year 2000 for the city’s ailing treasury. Capitol Gateway’s consultants estimated it would produce 2,300 jobs for D.C. residents, including a large number of blue-collar jobs.
The schematic design, by a Black, Howard-educated architect named Charles Bryant, included a high number of rowhouses, based on a strong demand for attached single family dwellings as gentrification began to pick up in Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill. It was assumed that office rents would subsidize not just the low-income housing, but also the market rate houses. The 52-acre site was further divided into five parcels, each of which would be a joint venture with another developer. This would allow phased development, beginning in 1982 and lasting five to eight years. The project, the report touted, would increase housing stock, and together with the Southeast Federal Center, a nearby plot of federally owned land the GSA planned to develop, be “a catalyst for regeneration” all over Buzzard Point.
As soon as the Capitol Gateway project was announced, residents reported a wave of real estate speculation. Slumlords had been milking old properties in the area for years, but the threat of “becoming Georgetown” had a different bent. As early as 1975, the Star reported the sale of more than 30 rowhouses on 2nd Street SW to Gerard Dunphy. Dunphy was an early member of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, a preservationist group, and might be understood today as a flipper. In the article, community groups expressed concerns about displacement, but a representative for Dunphy assured the Star no evictions would take place—units would just be resold at unaffordable prices when tenants left. Within the Capitol Gateway area, a 1978 housing survey preserved in Councilmember John A. Wilson’s papers recorded eight evictions since the project started, with 17 of the 54 on-site units vacant. The main owner of rowhouses in the area, the Floyd E. Davis Companies, evicted Williams and was preparing to demolish her house to ensure the land was unencumbered by D.C.’s new tenants’ rights and historic preservation laws.
Dravo’s spokesman told the Star they were “appalled” at the speculators and began working with a community development corporation named Ministers United To Support Community Life Endeavors and Friendship House. Dravo brought Williams and prominent Black real estate investor Flaxie Pinkett onto the board of Capitol Gateway.
Community groups continued to pressure Dravo, as illustrated at three community meetings held between December 1979 and February 1980, in order to qualify the site for eminent domain under D.C.’s community development law. Businesses were mostly concerned with getting money for the land and for relocation. A printer named Arthur Moore emphasized that he did not want to face the same delays his company had when it was relocated from Southwest in the 1950s. A landowner named Pat Ingram sounded a more modern note when she lamented that “the rapid influx of people does not appear to blend in smoothly,” leading to a lack of “community spirit,” and argued that the existing building should remain to provide the “true nostalgic feeling” that Southwest lacked. Of course, people also complained about traffic.
Other attendees had more economic concerns, such as guaranteeing the affordable units, irrespective of whether Capitol Gateway got federal subsidies. MUSCLE’s director, Rev. Robert Troutman of Riverside Baptist Church, pushed for family-sized affordable units and more recreation space. ANC 2D’s executive director, Gottlieb Simon, asked Dravo to issue stock shares at affordable prices to give residents equity in the project and also asked whether government ownership of land would return income to the city.
The meetings allowed the Council to advance the community development program in November 1980, through more detailed study by Dravo. D.C. appropriated $11.9 million for land acquisitions, but things were unraveling already. The Washington Post reported that Hannan aggravated D.C. officials by lobbying for his client’s project in Congress, as he would have pre-Home Rule. The Council nevertheless voted to block all building permits issued in the project area in December 1980. They were concerned ostensibly about land prices, which Simon reported as nearly four times what Dravo had estimated in their feasibility study. Dravo then brought on Orlando Darden, a Black banker, to manage the increasing responsibilities of the company.
In 1982, they started to waver on whether they would construct affordable housing as discussed. That summer, in a series of letters, Darden suggested that a public-private partnership buy out Dravo’s stake in Capitol Gateway, including its land. Unimpressed, the Council did not renew the building permit freeze that fall. In March 1983, Councilmember Wilson learned from District officials that Dravo was backing out, and in 1984, Dravo sold their property and equipment to Florida Rock Industries, Inc., a materials company that just wanted to make concrete.
The project also hastened the end of investment within the area, which opened doors for a different kind of business owner. In 1969, Bill Bickford and Donald Culver had opened a gay nightclub called Pier 9 in an old industrial building at 1824 Half St. SW. They then opened Lost and Found across South Capitol Street in Southeast, with other gay-oriented establishments filtering in around them. As Capitol Gateway started to fail, the clubs gained access to larger spaces. Tracks, at 80 M St. SE, opened in 1984 at the north end of the Capitol Gateway site. Bathhouses like Glorious Health Club and Amusements found real estate that was both central and almost invisible to the rest of the city.
Even as the idea of Capitol Gateway faded, waterfront fever washed over the quietly influential Federal City Council. The FCC, which still exists, served to connect local business interests with national ones and then link both to politicians, in the common cause of preserving investment in Washington’s downtown. By 1981, the FCC’s records at the long-neglected D.C. Archives show that the organization had become very interested in bringing investment back to D.C. through large economic development projects like a convention center and an “international village” commercial center. Also on their radar were recent waterfront redevelopment projects anchored by markets, such as Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
In January 1981, James Lynn, the then-president of the FCC, invited the organization’s members to take part in a task force. The task force promoted investment in D.C.’s waterfronts to local and federal officials “as a catalyst to develop consensus on what is reasonable and possible,” as a bullet point memo from 1982 put it. They recruited the Urban Land Institute and the architectural firm Keyes Condon Florance to advise them, launching the report at an exhibit in January 1982. The report offered opinions on all of D.C.’s waterfronts, including what is now The Wharf and Poplar Point. The report anticipated that construction on the Southeast Federal Center would begin within a few years, leading to “massive spillover effects on adjacent properties” where businesses might want to locate. Still, it did acknowledge that this “stimulus” could be hampered by less desirable neighbors that weren’t going away, including the large amount of public housing in the area. Nevertheless, it concluded, “the opportunity exists to create one of Washington’s more desirable neighborhoods.”
The FCC was busy in the 1980s, so the campaign lacked follow-through until the District issued its first Comprehensive Plan in 1985. The land use document designated large areas around the Anacostia River, including Buzzard Point, as “development opportunity areas,” and developers were glad to take the opportunity. In preparation for further planning, the FCC arranged a meeting in March 1987 between Mayor Barry, federal officials within agencies responsible for shoreline land like the Navy and the National Park Service, and private landowners. Barry and his staffers voiced concern over the lack of planning in that area and arranged for the FCC to reimagine the area, since it was less of a priority for his administration than it was for commercial developers.. Georgetown and K Street NW were running out of space for office buildings, cheaper land beckoned from Virginia, and Barry’s administration had downzoned building sites on Wisconsin Avenue NW.
At the meeting with Barry, Pepco’s president brought up that the electrical utility had hired the developer JBG Properties (now known as JBG Smith) to plan out the long-term possibilities for their 25 acres of land on Buzzard Point. In fact, the long-term landowners in the area, like Pepco, the Steuart family, the Washington Real Estate Investment Trust, the Donohoe Companies, the Pedas family, and the Carr Companies, had formed a 501(c)(3) organization called the Buzzard Point Planning Association to develop a more concrete plan. Ever the outsider, Tauber declined to join, but kept in touch. Benjamin Jacobs, a partner at JBG, appears to have largely led the effort. (City Paper reached out to JBG Smith for comment but did not hear back.)
According to a planner who worked on the project but requested not to be named, the large institutional landowners had concluded that redevelopment of Buzzard Point was inevitable as government consulting boomed, but the area wasn’t ready for it. While the 1985 Comprehensive Plan envisioned a mixed-use area there, the Office of Planning passed on updating the area’s zoning. The BPPA understood that maximizing their returns would require a coordinated phaseout of industrial uses and heavy infrastructural investment by the District. To allow for this changeover, the group conceived of an entirely new kind of zoning district that would ensure design quality, increase density, incentivize open space, and allow a very broad mix of uses. They even imagined that the right design might lure investment to their second Georgetown, rather than Gallery Place, which was still disinvested outside of Chinatown.
Aware of the BPPA’s work, the FCC turned its attention back to the Anacostia with an economic study and then an urban design and transportation plan. The two groups’ plans did not always concur. For example, both believed that residential buildings would not pay for themselves, but added to street life. The BPPA’s landowners wanted them scattered between sites to equalize revenues. The FCC, which wanted to increase D.C.’s tax base by drawing high-income residents into D.C., wanted more residential buildings and to give them the best waterfront property. When the BPPA submitted their plans to NCPC in January 1989, the commission rejected it on the advice of OP, which held that the BPPA’s private process was not legitimate, preferring the FCC’s vision. The FCC proceeded to a second phase, published in 1992 and also never legally adopted.
In early 1992, Mayor Sharon Pratt’s administration began to formally plan the future for the entire area. OP integrated ideas from both the FCC and BPPA, including the special zoning. In October 1992, they released a draft of their plan, called the Buzzard Point / Near Southeast Vision 2020 plan. The name, the report says, “indicates that a long term vision is needed and that it will take 20-30 years (to the year 2020 or longer) to complete the rebuilding of this area.”
The “or longer” has to do some work to make the report’s authors prophets. And the lineage in this article is definitely not the full story of why the area has transformed. But these forgotten visions deposited themselves on the Anacostia waterfront like sediment, forming the perceptions and regulations that are the foundations of the area’s new growth. Before Capitol Gateway, Buzzard Point was thought of as the area south of M Street in near Southeast. Now, with the Ballpark located where Dravo envisioned Capitol Gateway, it’s seen as a different part of town. The idea of a unique zone took a torturous route through the 1990s, until it was dusted off in 2001 to direct investment to the area. Originally called “Buzzard Point-Capitol Gateway,” they ditched the bird moniker in an April 2002 hearing. The area is now regulated by the Capitol Gateway zone district, although few planners even know its source.
Names aren’t the only shifts in the area, of course. The speculation that began in the 1970s set the stage for the area’s transformation as land became expensive and industrial tenants became “cover” that paid the expenses of holding the land. Most developers who are currently building in the area had staked out claims to a patch of the waterfront-to-be by the end of the 1980s. Everyone agreed it would happen, they were just waiting for the market to get there, and if that took too long, they’d need some kind of home run public investment. The Council did eventually use eminent domain on Capitol Gateway’s site to build Nationals Park. They cleared out four spotty blocks, including many of the gay clubs that had tucked themselves into the once-secluded area.
Florida Rock, the firm that bought Dravo’s land, spun off its real estate assets into a holding company in 1986. After a decade of attempts to build a massive office complex at the old barge dock, they realized that the market had shifted. Unimaginable in 1975, demand for office space had shrunk, and high-end apartments offered better profits down there. Tauber died in 2002 and was remembered as a philanthropist; his buildings on Buzzard Point were purchased by separate developers. They gutted the massive structures and reshaped them into residential buildings, once again the first private buildings to lead a trend.
The future is not all clear along the Anacostia, though. In July 2020, the joint venture for the old Transpoint building received approval to use 150 units in the new apartment building as an interim hotel to maintain revenue while its looks to lease its 481 units, perhaps suggesting that, for Buzzard Point, the tide still hasn’t come in. If all the grand plans for adjacent parcels stall out, the neighborhoods just to the north might face the same disruption of unfulfilled promises as seen during the earlier waves of development. Each of these waves moved some people in and others out, and left traces in the shape of what we have now.