There is a 10-foot deep vent shaft, concealed in weeds, wide enough for a child to fall and be trapped inside.
A brown ooze, reeking of raw sewage*, seeps out of the site like a festering wound and out onto the street, running for half a block before entering the storm drain, bound for our rivers.
There is half a decade of trash, shredded retaining tarps, sharp twisted rebar, chunks of concrete and invasive weeds strewn about the site, and an old tattered mattress out back.
There’s not a lot of empty, privately-held land in the nation’s capital. But somehow, this empty lot in the heart of Kennedy Street NW, a district with the fastest-rising home values in DC, has been empty for five years.
The current owners bought the property in 2002, when it was home to a 22-unit apartment building and a neighboring row house. Not much was done to save the building for the community or its tenants, until DCRA finally ordered it town down in 2009. By then, it had been deemed “one of the most troubled in the city” by the Washington Post, a tenement with wet ceilings, cracked walls, and defective radiators that treated residents to sub-zero temperatures.
Rather than the beginning of the end, this was just the end of the beginning.
The contractors made a mess of the demolition, reportedly hitting an ‘underground spring’ and leaving standing water behind. The site looked something more akin to an open-pit acid waste dump. It even made the news on NBC4 in March, 2010. What a reason to be famous.
After much uproar and a year and a half of delays, finally the city cleared the site and entombed the toxic-looking water and waste. This urban block in a city with a housing crisis was upgraded from open pit to landfill.
Four years later, this story still isn’t over.
Let’s talk about this ‘underground spring’.
For a spring, it smelled a lot like sewage. We’ve been told it has been tested and cleared of any unsafe elements, but the noxious gas and putrid color suggested otherwise.
It seems that the entombing of the site didn’t actually fix the drainage problem. Neighbors raised concerns that the site was leaking a suspicious fluid both before and after the site was cleared, but it’s still flowing four years later. That’s right, four years.
The complaints are public. PoPVille posted a letter from a reader about the run-off back in April, 2010. It had already been flowing for four months by then, day and night.
Then and now, the DC government assured dismayed residents that this liquid flow posed no public health threat. Earlier this May on a walk-through with DC agencies and Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, one official again restated that the runoff was safe, except,
“I wouldn’t want to drink it.”
Not entirely reassured, a couple of us bought our own home testing kit and hazmat gloves, and checked a sample of the liquid ourselves. If you’ve gotten this far, you wouldn’t be surprised we found bacteria* and lead, not to mention top levels of hardness and PH.
If that weren’t enough of a public safety hazard, there’s also this 7-foot deep plastic pipe leading to a pit of putrid water on the site, obscured by overgrown weeds. The site is totally unsecured in a neighborhood where kids have few options for play places.
Despite all this tremendous disrespect to the neighborhood, public safety, the environment, and our fellow taxpayers brought on by the owners of this property, nothing but the occasional mowing has been done since 2009.
But that chapter of our street’s history is over now.
On one day in June, two dozen neighbors got together to cut the grass, pick up some of the worst trash, and dig out some of the most dangerous exposed metal. We left it in a pile for Public Works to remove (they did take some of it, eventually).
The longtime owners, Richard Deeds and Lyle Waldron, have been listing the property on and off since they purchased it in 2002 for just over $300,000. Most recently, it was listed by commercial real estate brokers Marcus and Millichap. Their broker said the lot is ‘shovel-ready’ for a new apartment building, and was listed until last recently for a cool $4.9 million. He claimed there was an offer on the table for less than the asking price in June, and suggested they’re holding out for a higher offer.
Mr. Deeds and Mr. Waldron — the time has come to sell at any price.
The story is bigger than one troubled lot in our city. How could this have been allowed to go on for all these years?
In their shepherding these 10,000 square feet of our neighborhood to new lows of blight and despair, the owners have accrued just shy of $10,000 in back taxes. That’s $1 per square foot for this anchor that has been dragging down our community for years.
Various government officials have claimed there is little they can do — a property owner can seemingly avoid punitive vacancy taxes forever by simply listing it for sale — even with no intention of doing so. Also, by tearing down a blighted building and allowing the land to lay fallow, the owners have cut their own tax rate significantly.
Not to mention the runaround that the DC agencies have given successive waves of angry neighbors about who is responsible for the public health hazards here.
We have started a petition demanding action to put this blighted lot back to safe, productive use. During last month’s Kennedy Street Sidewalk Festival, community members shared their dreams for what that might look like.
There were plenty.
So it’s DC government to do it’s part. Enforce the laws we do have about blight, vacancy, and tax leins. Fine the owners to the fullest extent of the law four years of polluting our street. Make the legal reforms necessary to close loopholes that benefit landowners with such blatant disregard for the neighborhood.
Finally, who is accountable for letting this blight and sewage fester for the last four years? Without expecting people and agencies to do their jobs, we can only expect this to happen again. DC must investigate how this wound was allowed to fester for all these years.
Who is going to step up to fix this? Who’s going to help fulfill this person’s wish?
We can only do so much as a community of neighbors and businesses. It’s time for the owners and the DC government to take action and do their part.
— Myles Smith, Kennedy Street Development Association
*Correction: This version of the story removes the words ‘sewage’ and ‘fecal’. Our home test kit does not have the ability to distinguish between fecal and natural bacteria. DC Water told the City Paper that the water is ‘perched groundwater’. We are still waiting for the full results of their test, and an accounting of the public health implications. Everything else in this story stands.