CAPITOL HEIGHTS – When yet another fire started two years ago at the abandoned apartment complex down the street from his home, the Rev. Charles Farmer decided he’d had enough.
For over a decade, city and county officials had stood by as people started fires, dumped trash, and committed crimes on the vacant 10-acre Chapel Wood Apartments property.
“This property was an eyesore and a public safety hazard for the community for a very long time,” Farmer said. “It needed to be gone.”
Now, after years of protests by residents, the blighted property on Nova Avenue in Capitol Heights is being razed and replaced by a new development.
Farmer, 63, has lived down the street from Chapel Wood since 1979. He watched it transition from a thriving residential community to a dangerous dump after it closed in 2000.
“We would find cars – stolen, abandoned cars – dumped at the site,” he said. “And then people would go ahead and set these cars on fire, trying to burn everything down.”
Farmer and his family woke up one night two years ago to find the estate ablaze, something that residents of Nova Avenue said happened every few months.
“The people on the street were constantly afraid that these fires would get out of control and someone would get hurt,” he said.
Surrounded by well-maintained single-family homes, the Chapel Wood complex stands out like a sore thumb. Shattered windows, overgrown weeds, and animal carcasses lend a ghost-town aura to the site.
The property was overrun by rats and bugs and its buildings became structurally unsound. People illegally dumped trash, furniture and home appliances.
“I’ve even seen a boat dumped out here,” said Paul Allen, a resident of Nova Avenue.
Allen said he was concerned about mercury from discarded televisions entering the Chesapeake Bay. Worse, he said, if a fire came into contact with these inflammable materials, “it could get really serious.”
Another challenge: Keeping neighborhood children off the property. A few years ago, Farmer said, someone stole a young boy’s bike as he rode around Chapel Wood.
A bigger problem was keeping out a more menacing crowd. Drug traffickers, prostitutes, squatters and copper thieves began to use the property, said residents, who called it “part ghost town, part jungle.”
The property was purchased by a local developer, The Woodviews at St. Paul Limited Partnership, a division of the St. Paul Community Development Corp., in 2004, according to property records.
In a meeting with residents, the development company’s president Carl Williams discussed the future of the property.
Williams’ father had been a pastor at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Capitol Heights, and was an active member of the neighborhood civic association, said Gwendlyn Bowman, who lives near Chapel Wood.
“So, there was a lot of positive energy in the community that the pastor’s son wouldn’t let them down,” she said.
Williams did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
Two years later, the developer unveiled plans to build a mix of condominiums, town homes and apartments to replace Chapel Wood. The proposal didn’t move forward for more than a year.
During this time, Bowman said, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had shown interest in using the property as a bus depot.
“But then the bottom fell from under the economy, and they didn’t go through with it,” Bowman said.
Metro officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.
In 2009, The Woodviews filed for bankruptcy. After the bankruptcy, Bowman turned to the county to deal with the property during the height of the Great Recession.
The county fenced off the site in 2009 to deter vagrants, squatters, and petty criminals with little to no effect, residents said. As a result, residents asked the county to demolish the property once and for all.
“The county was trying to make the owner of the property do something about it,” said State Sen. Joanne Benson, whose district includes Chapel Wood. “But at one point, the community said no longer. We needed the county to do something soon.”
Residents said the county was slow to respond to these requests. Prince George’s County Chief Administrative Officer Bradford Seamon said that a lack of funding played a role in the delay.
In 2011, Benson took the area’s new county council member, Karen Toles, on a bus tour of the neighborhood. The two women were horrified at the state of the Chapel Wood property.
“We could not believe what we were seeing,” she said. “These hardworking taxpayers should not be subjected to what’s going on in this community.”
Last month, local residents came in droves to witness the much-anticipated demolition of the sprawling complex.
“The demolition of the Bradbury Heights apartments is the highest point of my political career,” Benson said.
The demolition is part of a wider project, the Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative, launched earlier this year to target six impoverished areas in the county.
“This is one of the biggest things we’ve done so far in any of the areas for the initiative,” Seamon said.
Abandoned, vacant properties litter Capitol Heights neighborhoods, such as Coral Hills, Boulevard Heights, and Bradbury Heights. Like Chapel Wood, these properties are havens for drug trafficking, vagrancy, and other illicit activities.
“The county has definitely been taking care of the low-hanging fruit,” said Bowman, referring to the spate of demolished properties on and around Nova Avenue in the past six months of the initiative.
Seamon said increased pressure from the community helped the county start the Chapel Wood demolition, which will cost $585,000 and take four to six weeks to complete.
C.W. Cobb & Associates, Inc., a real estate development firm in Virginia, has agreed to reimburse the county for the razing, said Scott Peterson, a spokesman for the county executive’s office. The company declined to comment on its relationship with the property.
Seamon said the county would like to see a new residential complex of apartments, condominiums or single-family homes built on the property. But, he said, they will discuss future plans with the community before moving forward.
“We would like to see a gated community that’s safe, and top-of-the-line real estate,” Farmer said.
Bowman, who has lived four blocks away from Chapel Wood for 25 years, remembers a time when block parties were held at the property lined with pear trees.
“It is amazing that these trees have bloomed amidst this blight,” she said. “And in spring, when they bloom, it is absolutely beautiful.”