Turning Q-to-U into Arlington
Imagine our surprise at last week’s U Street Neighborhood Association meeting when, discussing one proposed development nobody spoke with us about, we learned of another. That nobody spoke with us about.
Obviously 14th Street is no stranger to new building projects. South of Q and north of U, it’s become a mix of pricey condos and pricier bistros. Many of the projects we would deem a success – the filling of Church Street, the new and improved Studio Theater, and the Langston Lofts and neighboring buildings come to mind. Some less so – there’s really no way to call the Metropole a “good” building in any sense of the term – and we’re seeing more of what we can only term Passive-Aggressive Architecture: buildings that thrust themselves directly into our space, but show little interest in engaging with the street. Still, overall it generally seems to be working.
A key to that has been the space of Q-to-U. Local commerce is thriving. Far from being a gaping development hole, the four-block space between Q and U is a magnet for business of all kinds. While we’re still saddened at the loss of Garden District and Go Mama Go!, just about everything else has found fertile soil in the area – even these two spaces were vacant for about a day before someone else moved in. Whether you’re shopping for high-end furniture, prowling boutiques, brunching, getting your sweat on, fluffing your dog or stocking up the fridge, it is clearly the spot people want to be at. And we expect a prime reason for this is the scale of the spot – the buildings are historic, refitted, set-back and human. Seriously, on a sunny June day would you rather stroll 14 and S, or bump elbows in soulless Columbia Heights?
All this may be set to change in a major way.
Construction is well underway on District Condos at 14th & Swann, and expected to begin sometime soon, or sooner, at the long discussed but often delayed Utopia Project that will command the SW corner of 14 and U. PN Hoffman has purchased the old Verizon building at 14 & R north, and just the other side of R Sequar Development is back to looking at turning several lots into something less AYT and more shi-shi. Great Wall will be getting a new neighbor in the form of a seven-floor non-residential unit from Furioso Development (only after the Frank Geary-like condo proposal was squashed), and just across U to the north there are plans for a Jamal-backed 30-unit apartment building that would stand guard at 14th & Florida.
Hard to argue, then, that the area is home to development-phobic NIMBYs. You see, it isn’t development that’s bad in and of itself…it’s when developers begin to disregard the community that things get sticky.
Which brings us back to our surprise.
Several weeks ago we learned that Level 2 Development – the folks that brought us View 14 – have proposed a 73-foot building of mostly studios and other small rentals aimed at the DC-intern crowd at the corner of 14 and Wallach Place. Of course, we didn’t learn this from Level 2 but from some sharp eyes and ears in the neighborhood. Seems that this proposal has been tippy-toeing around for some time, with the developers (and their backers) holding their breath and hoping nobody noticed. A harsh charge? Not really when you consider that Karen McAdoo, owner of a building that abuts the proposed apartment building was never, not once, contacted by Level 2 about the proposal, construction, inquiry to sell, requested variances – nothing.
And it was in this discussion by architect Eric Colbert of the proposal that someone let slip another proposal that, yet again, everyone seems to have been holding their breath about. This time it’s not a new development but a refitting of the Arena Stage warehouse and practice building into a restaurant. JBG Development – those of District Condo fame – apparently wants someplace all those hungry kids can go after a hard day of gophering on the Hill, and are proposing to turn the historic building into a Matchbox.
The Apartment-To-Be space – Yums, post office, carpet store – is squat and bunker-like. It was always assumed to be a short-term building, and no-one will miss it. But the scale of its proposed replacement just does not fit with the area as it is – NOT the area as developers wish it would be (Ballston, in effect.) If it looks slap-dash that’s because we suspect it is – far fewer parking spaces means digging much less deep means less cost and faster construction. It’s worse than Passive-Aggressive…it’s just ugly.
But Arena Stage building is historic – the former site of the Bali Club, and later the New Bali Club, as well as previous lives as a bowling alley, among other things. The small green patch on it’s south is former home to a horse trough, which once filled the city but are now all but erased. This is a building that wants to be something new, but combined with the new apartments, can the block support them? The alley is often impassible now – how much worse will this make it? Garbage removal now is squeezed – just where will Matchbox put its rubbish? Good luck parking anywhere in the area now – once these, and all the other potential developments start coming on line, what will we have?
Sadly, it seems we might have nothing so much as Arlington, or Columbia Heights. Barren warehouses of people and chain stores simulating an urban experience. 14th Street already is an urban experience – we don’t need reheated suburban re-imaginings to bleach it out.
Let’s hear it for smart development. Three cheers for clearing ugly squat buildings with those that work. But we as a neighborhood seriously risk losing what makes us us, and it’s clear the developers are not interested in hearing our ideas.
We’re going to have to make ourselves be heard anyway.