Sometimes I refer to myself as an accidental developer because I didn’t set out to create a real estate business when I started flipping houses.
In 2013, I was looking for a house to renovate, and landed a project much bigger than the tiny row house I had just completed. This new project would end up being a boutique condo development that dwarfed my first project. But as soon as I had this new project lined up, I learned of another property for sale. Reluctantly, I went to look and immediately knew I was meant to own it. Within 24 hours, I had the property under contract and 30 days later it was mine. Suddenly, I had gone from that single, tiny flip to a significant pipeline of multi-family development. I realized then I had a business, and set out to learn everything I could in an industry I knew nothing about and in which I had no experience.
This essay could be about that: how the purchase of property in southeast DC propelled me into a career in real estate development. But it’s not.
Instead, this essay is about learning to listen and the power of place.
That purchase in early 2014 was of two adjacent lots in a small neighborhood in Southeast, DC. On one lot was a run down, uninhabitable row house; the second lot was vacant, save for a squat, crumbling brick garage on the alley at the rear of the property.
The laws and regulations governing land use in Washington, DC provide that for these two lots, the existing structures can be torn down to make way for new construction of a building up to five stories tall with as many as 28 apartments. Land currently dedicated to a single family home is incentivized to support many, many more. Herein lie the pressures and the opportunities, both good and bad, for redevelopment.
While the rules say that is what could be done, the market — and my gut — told me otherwise. Even in DC’s hot real estate market, the numbers for traditional development on these lots would be challenging. More importantly, my instinct told me this neighborhood — of all places — didn’t need traditional development, at least in the sense it’s often done in southeast DC: as cheaply and densely as possible with little regard to architecture and amenities, let alone the communities that often get trampled or simply erased in the process. This neighborhood needed something different, something that couldn’t be so easily measured by traditional metrics; it needed someone to listen, and a project to celebrate and elevate what was already there.
There is a story here, a history. There is a spirit that lives on Nicholson Street that speaks to community, a spirit that has flourished, and struggled, and hopes to flourish again.
A Neighborhood, Celebrated
Southeast DC is facing the pressures of change and redevelopment like every other neighborhood in DC. But Southeast is unique, separated physically from official DC by the Anacostia river, and historically by decades of poverty and its difficult legacy. Access to the enormous wealth of resources that make Washington, DC one of the most dynamic and powerful cities in the world is limited in these neighborhoods as well. Yet this community “east of the river” boasts an authenticity that can be lacking in the manicured and measured official DC. This authenticity is deserving of celebration.
So I am not tearing down that row house or that garage. Nor am I renovating them in the traditional sense, where walls, flooring and finishes are torn out and replaced. Instead, I am restoring the house to the greatest extent possible, keeping in place the original wood flooring, tin ceilings, moldings, windows, doors and trims. In the process I’m facing the first level outward as a place for community by creating a community garden on the vacant lot, extending the porch into the garden, and adding a large doorway as a transition between the two.
In the second level living quarters, I am launching an artist residency program which will give much needed space and support to artists to live and work, and to activate this space as a place for creativity. Using architectural interventions, creative design, and craft as a medium, the residency program will engage artists in exploring the intersection of art, access and livability.
The Nicholson Project
At a fundamental level, the Nicholson Project will be a place for inquiry about the positive roles art and design play in celebrating and strengthening community. The Nicholson Project and the art that is created here will be an invitation for anyone who is curious to come, see, engage and experience this place, and to see the beauty and dignity of the existing community and its story. It is an invitation to experience the power of this place, and to appreciate it simply for that.
More broadly, the art and programing created through the residency program and the garden will provide an opportunity to engage the immediate neighbors and broader community in a dialogue about the character of the neighborhood. The Nicholson Project aims to be an inclusive initiative to spark conversation around opportunities for innovative, community-focused development. Ultimately, the Nicholson Project can provide a platform for communicating a collective vision for the future of the property and the neighborhood that surrounds it.
I hope the Nicholson Project can also be a gentle reminder that we have more commonalities than differences within our larger community. These commonalities include a desire for the basics of safety, security and opportunity in our homes and neighborhoods. But they also include a longing for beauty, vibrancy, legitimacy, and hope. We can measure those first desires with relative ease; but the others are more elusive, and require work that focuses on metrics that are harder to measure in a traditional sense.
Change is inevitable. It is one of the most important truths that adds to the vibrancy of cities. How we manage that change, collectively, determines whether it is celebrated or denounced. In part, the Nicholson Project is about examining what happens when intangibles like listening, exploration, engagement and creation are put alongside other, more easily measured metrics of price, cost and revenue per square foot. I suspect I will discover that community engagement is hard, but worth the risk and the effort, and that a willingness to listen will also require a willingness to let go of outcome and trust the journey over the destination.
The Nicholson Project is taking on this work with an invitation to all to listen with the hope of discovering the true power of this place.
Stefanie Reiser is the visionary mind behind and Founder of Align Development. She can be reached via email: Stefanie@aligndevelopment.com
Say something, go ahead!