Congress Heights Prepares for a Renaissance

Southeast Neighborhood Teeters on the Verge of Change

Members of a non-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing a business district in one of the city’s most economically diverse neighborhoods shared their plans for the area during a recent press conference on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

James Bunn, chairman of the Congress Heights Main Streets project, presented his organization’s vision before more than 30 residents, business owners and D.C. City Council Chairman-elect Kwame Brown near a newly renovated commercial establishment along the heavily traveled Southeast corridor on Friday, Oct. 15.

“As you know, when you ride around the city there are different neighborhoods that looked bad and now they look good,” said Bunn, owner of the Bunn Building at 3127 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. S.E.

The Congress Heights Main Streets project in Ward 8 has gained the support of Brown (D- At-Large), an advocate on behalf of economic development in the District. The organization hopes to capitalize off the upcoming economic boon based on a new federal government agency’s move to Congress Heights within the next two years.

It’s all part of the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development’s DC Main Streets Initiative – a program that transformed a ho-hum corridor known today as Barracks Row, off Pennsylvania Avenue, into a tony, must-see tourist’s destination, chock full of quaint boutiques, restaurants, art galleries and specialty bars.

Bunn said that the group intends to create a cleaner and much safer environment for the public to enjoy. The non-profit also hopes to attract high-end restaurateurs and popular coffee house franchises like Starbucks or Caribou Coffee, along with other baristas who may decide to put down stakes in Congress Heights.

The Congress Heights Main Street project revitalization project will begin at Fourth Street and extend to Milwaukee Place in Southeast. Fifty-eight businesses stand to benefit from the revitalization project.

“We intend to have a corridor that looks like Barracks Row,” on Capitol Hill, Bunn said.

To date, three or four commercial establishments in the neighborhood have been renovated. The D.C. Council, allocated $150,000 in May toward the revitalization effort in Southeast, Bunn said. The council’s Committee on Economic Development, chaired by Brown, approved the funding to ensure that change occurs in a neighborhood that’s been overlooked by the District for years.

Brown, 39, said that community revitalization projects have been underway for more than a decade in other parts of the District. It’s a “shame,” the council member told the crowd, that revitalization efforts were not organized earlier in Congress Heights.

“It’s time to get the improvements in town that we get downtown,” said Brown, who lives in Hillcrest, a middle-to-upper income neighborhood in Southeast.

During the 30-minute press conference, in front of Hong Kong, a popular Chinese carry-out, Bunn urged business owners and homeowners not to give away their properties for a pittance. Within 12 to 18 months, he said that the Department of Homeland Security, a federal agency, currently under construction in Ward 8, will bring approximately 14,000 new jobs to the area. That influx alone will increase property values for business owners and residents alike.

“We want them to be a part of the new money that is coming,” Bunn said.

The Hong Kong carry-out has already gotten a face-lift thanks to Tina Marie Spencer, a Congress Heights native and Ballou Senior High School graduate. Spencer, the owner of Chosen Contractors, envisioned a new look for the building’s facade. She decided on an “Adams Morgan” feel for the redesign that would bring a level of sophistication to the neighborhood.

Spencer’s thrilled to give something back to her community.

“[Residents are] so used to having everything run down or having second-hand work,” she said. “I wanted to give them something that they deserve.”