CNUdc Interview Series: Elinor Bacon

In 2012 Catherine Vanderwaart interned with CNUdc, and she interviewed several of our active members. Read about the great work they do and their thoughts about DC.



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How did you get involved in new urbanism? I was the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the HUD Office of Public Housing Investments during the last four years of the Clinton Administration, where I led HOPE VI and other Public Housing Capital Programs. New Urbanism redevelopment planning was a fundamental tenet of HOPE VI, and we brought in CNU leaders to play a central design/planning role in helping to shape the program. CNU leaders led the design discussions at our many national conferences, and played a key role in HOPE VI, in many ways. Ray Gindroz, for example, developed accessibility guidelines for the program which resulted in a booklet that was widely distributed. HUD partnered with CNU, AIA, and the Seaside Institute in convening a groundbreaking forum on mixed-income, mixed-use development, held at Seaside.



You’re involved with redeveloping DC’s Southwest waterfront. How did that come about? The District has wanted to redevelop the Southwest Waterfront for years. The area was cleared as part of the of the 1970’s urban renewal of the entire Southwest quadrant of DC. The residential part of that renewal project was successful, creating one of the nation’s best examples of a mixed-income, diverse, modernist urban renewal community which is beloved by its residents. The commercial part was not successful and resulted in superblock-sized low-rise buildings that primarily served the tour bus patrons.


In 2001 I became the first CEO of the National Capital Revitalization Corporation (NCRC), and the management of all District urban renewal land was brought under NCRC, including the 26 landside acres and approximately the same area of riparian rights comprising the Southwest Waterfront. NCRC partnered with the District, as part of its Anacostia Waterfront Initiative (AWI), to create a redevelopment plan for the Southwest Waterfront. AWI was a major interagency public-private partnership, with federal, state, District, and private participation. The Southwest Waterfront plan, approved by the community and the DC Council, emerged from that initiative. In 2006 the city put out a Request for Expressions of Interest to redevelop the area. I partnered with Monty Hoffman, PN Hoffman, and helped put together a proposed development entity that included Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse, waterfront/urban developers from Baltimore; McCormack Baron Salazar, the nation’s premier mixed-income developer from St. Louis; and five local woman and minority small businesses. Our proposal was selected from among 17 other applications.


Since the award in 2006, Madison Marquette, a national leader in retail and mixed-use development, joined our partnership, and we are in the final year of predevelopment for Phase 1 of the development. Stan Eckstut, principal of Perkins Eastman EEK, has led our master planning effort. The area formerly dominated by large low-rise buildings will be transformed into a world-class, beautiful, green, mixed-use, mixed-income community.


What’s the project like?

It will be a 3.2 million square foot mixed-use, mixed-income urban infill project. The plan by master planner by Perkins Eastman-EEK demonstrates great urbanism, and incorporates New Urbanist principles. It will be walkable, transit-oriented, and very green development that will achieve LEED for Neighborhood Development Gold standards, with all buildings LEED Silver or above. With its small alleys, diverse architecture, strong connection to the adjacent community, the National Mall and the Tidal Basin, it will feel like an established, vital, and vibrant urban community when completed.

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In addition to EEK, the master planner, we have brought on a number of world-class architects and landscape architects to design the individual buildings and public spaces. We are bringing the city to the water and creating a great waterfront community for DC residents, the region, and the 20 million visitors who come to Washington annually.


Many people associate New Urbanism with greenfield developments like Seaside, Florida, but you work mainly on infill projects. What challenge does that present? I absolutely love Seaside. It is an exquisite jewel of a community. Its principles, resulting from the in-depth experiential study by Robert Davis and Andres Duany, apply to great community-building, whether greenfields or urban infill. I saw through my work at HUD how the New Urbanist principles, demonstrated in the redeveloped former public housing sites, could be successfully applied to cities large and small throughout the country. Currently, in addition to my work on the waterfront, I have the privilege of working with the DC Housing Authority to bring these principles to bear on the Kenilworth Parkside community east of the river, where DCHA recently won a $300,000 HUD Choice Planning Grant. Choice replaced HOPE VI and, although the objectives are the same, applies more broadly to all HUD-assisted housing and encompasses a more holistic approach to neighborhood transformation.


What do you think of the work being done in DC right now? The major developments under way, such as The Yards and City Center, are tremendously exciting, as are so many small projects which are transforming individual buildings and communities. I live in the Dupont Circle/Logan Square area (which I dubbed DuLo) which has undergone dramatic change, one building at a time, led by dedicated developers, architects and retail/restaurant operators, and embraced by those who live and work in the area; collectively they have created a community that I call “The Epicenter of Cool.”


Tell me about your work with DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board. I am very supportive of the way DC approaches historic preservation. The staff in the Historic Preservation Office is composed of highly trained and extremely dedicated preservation professionals, committed to the District and the preservation of its historic buildings and communities. They work extremely hard with property owners and their architects to make sure their proposed plans comply with preservation requirements and are compatible with the character of the particular neighborhood. Board members have great respect for the staff, and also approach their Board responsibilities with great seriousness, spending significant time and effort visiting the properties and studying design proposals. We are a very collegial group, and often have lively discussions about particular projects. While adhering to preservation law, we recognize that DC is a vibrant city that needs to grow, so the Board encourages development as appropriate. We make sure each project fits the historic character of the neighborhood and adheres to preservation requirements. My neighborhood is an excellent example of the benefits of an effective historic preservation program. There’s been an extraordinary amount of redevelopment in DuLo, both renovation and new construction, that blends the old and new while maintaining the historic character of the neighborhood and its wonderful historic buildings.


With all your experience with public and affordable housing, what do you think of the state of DC’s housing prices? The DC government and the DC Housing Authority, cooperating with the DC Housing Finance Agency, have, I believe, done an admirable job of preserving opportunities for low- and moderate-income people to live in the District, in spite of the rising property costs. The Housing Authority has leveraged its public housing projects to create successful mixed-income communities. The Ellen Wilson development in Capitol Hill, Capper Carrollsburg adjacent to the Navy Yards, and Wheeler Creek east of the river are excellent examples of DCHA’s successful redevelopment efforts. In addition to calling on federal and local funding resources, the District has adopted inclusionary zoning and has leveraged its urban renewal land to assure that affordable housing is produced on former urban renewal land, in a mixed-income context. The Southwest Waterfront project that I’m working on will, from my research, achieve the widest range of incomes in any development in North America, particularly extraordinary since this will be a world-class waterfront development. Units for people earning as low as 30% of area median income (AMI) will be blended seamlessly with units for 60% AMI, workforce housing (100 and 120% of AMI) and market-rate units, many of which will be very high end.


What else are you working on? I’m working on a project in the Kenilworth Parkside neighborhood in Northeast DC, I mentioned earlier, for the DC Housing Authority. The area has distressed public and assisted housing, in a largely solid homeownership and rental neighborhood adjacent to Kenilworth Aquatic Park and other Park Service land. Torti Gallas and Partners is the project’s master planner/urban designer. In addition to the recently awarded Choice Planning Grant, the neighborhood received a Promise Neighborhood grant from the US Department of Education, led by the Cesar Chavez Charter Schools, to transform the educational experience of neighborhood children from birth through career. It is very exciting to be working on a project which addresses the needs of the community in such a holistic manner. DCHA will apply for a Choice Implementation grant for this community, due in early April 2012.

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