Monday, July 30, 2012

Interview with Alex Padro, Chair of ANC2C

As a Real Estate Agent in D.C., VA, and MD, in addition to selling houses and helping people find their home, I feel it is my duty to connect to the neighborhood around me.  In this interview, I speak with Alex Padro, Chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2C and the Single Member District Commissioner representing 2C01 since January of 2001.

Kevin:  Alex, I appreciate you being able to meet with me with your busy, busy schedule.

Alex:  No problem.  It’s a pleasure.

Kevin:  How about we start with a little bit about your professional role in Shaw, and how you got there?

Alex:  I am the Chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2C and the Single Member District Commissioner representing 2C01 since January of 2001.  I am what is called is superlocal. I live in the neighborhood, I work in the neighborhood, I serve the neighborhood, and ultimately, I don’t plan on leaving the neighborhood.  All of this happens because I don’t get a lot of sleep (laughs).

Kevin:  And before you began pledging yourself to Shaw?

Alex:  I was born in the Bronx and grew up in Upper Manhattan.  I attended the Bronx School of Science, furthering my education at New York University with a degree in journalism.  I then worked in the publishing industry in New York until I moved to the D.C. Metropolitan area in 1994 and then to the 1500 block of 8th Street in 1997.  I have been in Shaw with my partner ever since.

Kevin:  What exactly is your role as commissioner of ANC 2C01?

Alex:  It’s all about representing the people who live in my district.  But my role has depth and breadth, from making sure that trash gets picked up to convincing the District government to make major investments in the neighborhood.  In the bigger picture, my role is to help move the revitalization of the Shaw neighborhood forward.  “Forward” does not only mean “fast.”  It means justly, sensitively, soundly.  We have to take care of the entire neighborhood.  When I began my service as a commissioner, the neighborhood was severely disinvested.  After the 1968 riots, the public and private sector largely distanced themselves from investing in Shaw, both commercially and residentially.  Except for the Metro system coming to the neighborhood in 1991, Shaw was disinvested until the construction of the new Convention Center began.  As the Convention Center neared completion, Shaw’s property values increased in a dramatic way.  

Kevin:  And what happened when the property values rose due to the Convention Center’s construction?

Alex:  Many people, who for a long time couldn’t find anyone interested in buying their properties commonly got multiple offers over the asking price.  Many families cashed in on the opportunity to sell their homes for half a million dollars or more, as is.  In many cases, they had paid less than $20,000 decades before.  It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  So, there was an exodus to the suburbs.  

Kevin:  What was happening in Shaw at that time?

Alex:  We had an underperforming O Street Market housing a ragtag collection of vendors.   Drugs were being dealt on every street corner and openly inside the Market.  Gang members were shooting each other on the street regularly. Schools, libraries, and recreation centers were crumbling.  Retail had disappeared.  A lot of storefronts were boarded up for decades.  It was bad.  It was a blow to lose part of the neighborhood’s institutional knowledge due to longtime residents selling their homes.  But with the new investment came more residents who wanted to improve the neighborhood.  

Kevin:  So you were elected at a time when Shaw needed some serious help.

Alex:  When I was first campaigning, knocking on everyone’s door, asking each future constituent what were the three things they most wanted to see fixed, one major theme that kept coming up was to ensure that affordable housing in the area was stabilized and that Section 8 contracts were renewed so residents didn’t have to fear displacement.  We had to ensure tenant’s right-to-purchase options were kept alive and protected.  

Kevin:  How successful have you been regarding this battle?

Alex:  We have been very successful.  Up until this day, we have not lost any affordable housing units due to redevelopment.  For example, at Kelsey Gardens, which is now going to be Jefferson at Market Place, the 54 affordable units that were there before are going to be part of 280 units that are in the new complex.  This took many years to achieve.  Last month, we had a ground-breaking with the once and future tenants.  And now, we want folks to come back so that we can be whole again, allowing them to enjoy the good times after having lived through the bad.  This will prove that we have walked the talk. 

Kevin:  It seems like you are, for lack of a better term, “super-invested” in Shaw.  How did you get to be this passionate about Shaw?

Alex:  I stay passionate about Shaw because I live here.  My initial attraction in serving the community was as a result of the establishment of the historic district.  

Kevin:  Would you mind explaining that?

Alex:  In 1999, the Historic Preservation Review Board was going to approve two new historic districts as part of the effort to preserve the neighborhoods around the Convention Center:  one for the area west of 9th Street and north of the Convention Center and one east of 7th Street.  People to the west got upset.

Kevin:  Why?

Alex: At the first ANC meeting I ever attended, there was a battle-royal and lawsuits were threatened over the potential use of “Mount Vernon West” for the western historic district’s name, rather than “Shaw.”  Most people wanted to have the historic district’s name match the neighborhood’s name.  But in some people’s minds, the name “Shaw” was too closely associated with urban renewal and the riots and would have a negative impact on their property values. 

Kevin:  Enter your journalism skills?

Alex:  Exactly.  Using my journalism background, I did the research and built the case as to why the new historic district should be called “Shaw.”  I helped organized neighborhood stakeholder groups to support it and in 1999, the HPRB agreed that it would be called “Shaw.”  

Kevin:  So it worked.

Alex:  It worked.  Because of this effort, the following spring, residents in my ANC Single Member District began urging me to run for the ANC.  The commissioner at the time seemed to be too closely associated with the Convention Center and residents felt uncomfortable with that situation.  The new Convention Center, then under construction, was, at the time, the 100 ton elephant in the room and very controversial.  I campaigned and won in a three way race by a very small number of votes.  It was during that campaign, as I knocked on doors, that the neighborhood’s priorities were solidified in my mind.  First was that affordable housing had to be protected.  Second, for many people, were rats.  We had a huge population of rats!  The Convention Center was the largest excavation on the East Coast at the time, so the rats went nuts.  We got rid of the rats.  And third, people wanted to see businesses come back to 7th and 9th Streets and the O Street Market.  We started Shaw Main Streets to respond to that priority.

Kevin:  What about the Main Streets designation?

Alex:  We applied for and received a DC Main Streets designation for 7th and 9th Streets in 2003, which has been a huge help in strengthening existing businesses and attracting new ones.  The funding we have received from the District government has helped us attract 90 new businesses to central Shaw in the past nine years.  

Kevin: What other improvements would you count as your major accomplishments?

Alex:  I spent 10 years building our new library, making improvements in parks and schools, including new skate and dog parks, have gotten most of the sidewalks in my SMD repaired or replaced, have gotten hundreds of street signs that had been bleached by the sun for decades and were unenforceable replaced, gotten major development in the neighborhood kicked off and progressing rapidly, reduced crime in the area, and got property tax relief for residents who own their homes.  And along the way, got streetlights repaired more quickly, helped families of moderate income during the holidays, cleaned up graffiti, found jobs for residents, helped kids get backpacks for school, helped seniors get out of their homes to enjoy events at the Verizon Center, and much more.  But one of the things I was the most excited to be able to accomplish was re-treeing the neighborhood.  There were over 70 empty tree boxes in my single member district alone when I took office.  

Kevin:  And now?

Alex:  No empty tree boxes, except for trees that have very recently fallen or died.  Another thing was a dog park.  

Kevin: How have you been able to get things done?

Alex: Here’s an example: There was a great desire to have a dog park in the area.  We had proposed a number of locations for the Department of Parks and Recreation to consider, but they said “no” to all of them.  We had Mayor Fenty come out for a neighborhood walkthrough and the Mayor told his teams, “I want this built in 90 days.”  It was finished in 72.  I have had, and still have, very good relationships with our Mayors, even though I did not support some of them initially.  Despite these differences, we have still been able to work together.  It’s not about the politics; it’s about serving the people in the community.  I am speaking for a community that has expectations.  

Kevin:  What about delivering the voice of Shaw?

Alex:  I’m often called upon by the media and the District government to speak for the community because I’ve been fighting for it for so long.  I’ve made cogent arguments and framed the needs to demonstrate that the investments are warranted, so I’ve been able to have Shaw’s voices be heard and its needs met.  

Kevin:  How do you feel Shaw’s history plays into its future?

Alex:  For much of Shaw’s existence, the neighborhood was very vibrant.  It had a very nice blend of residential and commercial.  It has always had fantastic location and transportation access.  Shaw was also, at one point, one of the country’s centers of African American intelligentsia and culture.  For example, before there was the Apollo Theater, there was the Howard Theater.  Very soon, banners celebrating 11 prominent historic figures will grace 7th and 9th Street, many of them African American.  We have the Heritage Trail signs all around Shaw showcasing our heritage and building pride in our history.  But there are parts of our history that we certainly would never want to see again, like the riots, the drug wars, etc.

Kevin:  Also, Shaw is in a perfect location. 

Alex:  Absolutely.  It’s easy to get here, so it draws people here.  1968 dealt a blow to that. The business owners who had insurance weren’t willing to risk further destruction moved to the suburbs.  In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a nationwide trend towards moving retail out to the suburbs.  But businesses and residents are coming back.  Now we have massive new mixed use development in the neighborhood:  City Market at O, Progression Place, the Marriott Marquis and much more!  It is a place that will continue to be a source of pride, a place for families, a place for people who come to be entertained, shop, dine, and everything else.

Kevin:  What is Shaw going to be like in 10 years?

Alex:  Not even ten!  Four years and Shaw’s makeover will be over.  Parcel 42 and the JBG buildings on the 700 and 800 blocks of Florida will all be done in four years.  The redevelopment of Shaw Junior High School is the last remaining major issue.  We’ll have a great mix of businesses filling the new and older retails spaces, more new families in new housing, new streetscapes, a greener, cleaner, safer neighborhood with higher employment and better schools.  With everything that Shaw has to offer, in the end, people want to be here because of its location.  Our location is great.  What’s even better, though, is the community within the location.

Kevin:  Alex, I appreciate your time, being able to accommodate this interview, and I hope after the next four years, you can start getting some more sleep (laughs).

Alex:  Thank you, Kevin.  The interview is my pleasure.  I look forward to catching up on sleep after a number of years more service are complete.

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