Game, Set, Matchbox

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-shiGreat 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.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Game, Set, Matchbox

  1. Al

    “soulless Columbia Heights” – hmm, resorting to neighborhood bashing? Not going to win you a lot of friends around here newbie. Columbia Heights encompasses a beautiful and diverse range of sub-neighborhoods. I suspect you mean specifically the block around th CH metro – but make sure to specify in the future. Those of us that live in 100-year-old Victorians think CH has lots of soul.

    • Doug

      Newbie? Nice. Why don’t you come here and talk to the nice lady on T Street who’s lived here for 23 years – in the house here mother owned. Or our neighbor, who grew up in the house I currently live in. Or any of the other residents – I don’t need to list them – who have invested decades on this street.
      Welcome to DC – and I’m glad you like Columbia Heights. But your neighborhood is not ours.

  2. scott

    You don’t want chain stores yet you praise the Room & Board building? Can’t have it both ways.

    • Doug

      Scott: why is it either all or nothing? How about a healthy mix of local merchants – like Cork and Pulp and Bar Pilar – plus good long-term residents, like Room and Board? Oh, we can so have it both ways…or all ways…if the development is right. If it’s wrong, we end up with TGIMcNothing.

  3. fl

    Are you really opposed to opening a Matchbox here? I think that would be a huge plus to the neighborhood.

    I kind of get why you’re opposed to the big buildings. People love to rail on new buildings in DC and I agree that some of the designs aren’t that innovative, but you seriously prefer the crap that is there?

    • Doug

      Again, why is it either/or? Why do we have to embrace bad building to get rid of Yums? Let’s try and encourage something different, eh? We’d all like that.

    • Craig

      Matchbox a huge plus to the neighborhood? Like we need an overpriced pizza joint to ‘make’ this ‘hood? The residents of these blocks shape the community far more than the merchants, and we’ve been doing just that for decades.

      So far many of the clubs and restaurants in the area have proven to be less than good neighbors. We’ll see what sort of cock and bull the Matchbox people try to peddle us.

  4. scott

    Oh, you want the best of both worlds? Right, the neighborhood called Utopia. I’ve always wanted to live there. I hear it’s lovely. Unfortunately it doesn’t exist.

    Neighborhoods change, and it usually goes like this: local residents take substantial risks by buying homes and starting small businesses; when those businesses succeed, then other retailers move in; the neighborhood becomes ‘hot’ and a place to travel to from outside the neighborhood; suddenly it’s ‘safe’ and then the more risk adverse chains move in; that makes it ok for suburbanites; then all hell breaks loose and developers move in to make a quick buck off everyone else’s back. We’re at the end of this cycle. If you moved into a neighborhood that has crappy worth-tearing-down buildings like that bunker of a post-office, you should know there’s a chance this will happen.

    And unless they’re doing something illegal, there’s nothing you can do about it. I should stop here and say that I think the building is horrible, that tiny rental studios are totally wrong for the neighborhood and I’ve told the developers that to their faces. But tough crap for me. And you. I’m curious about what you’ve done for the area other than buy a house that apparently has a clause in it that says your neighborhood will never change for the worse. Have you started a business? Developed a property? It seems like mostly you’re just crying because you weren’t told about it happening in advance. Waaahh. That must have been in your home settlement package as well. The area is becoming a douchey, late night pizza box littering, woo-hooing drunk girls on crappy margheritas, version of Adams Morgan, Meatpacking and every other gentrified neighborhood. Either accept it and move on, or move out.

    • Craig

      Scott: Yeah – neighborhoods change and the residents are to be credited for that, not necessarily the merchants who draughted in our wake. Maybe the goal is to hold the developers accountable before they turn the ‘hood into a douchey Adams-Morgan, rather than roll over and play dead like you suggest. And yes there is something that can be done about it – as evidenced by the Historic Boards unanimous rejection of the Level 2/Eric Colbert plan. The Commission did not have one kind word to say about the building’s size or design.

      You’ve completely missed the thrust and goals of the larger effort – no one’s crying at all. We moved into that neighborhood welcoming and begging for development, but Level 2’s biggest failure was keeping this project a secret from those who could be their most vocal advocates and partners.

  5. Re the purchase of the Verizon building by PN Hoffman…..any word on whether they will use it for residential/commercial or both? PN Hoffman seems to be focusing on commercial at the moment.

    Re retail/architecture….keep it small, keep it personal. Who needs big box stores downtown, unless they are underground. Put the Dupont trolley system to use. Expand on it. Montreal does it. DC can too. Walmart doesn’t need windows.

    • Lance

      The Verizon building is going to be residential with a very small (1000 sq ft?) commercial spot on the first floor. Additionally, Verizon is retaining use of the entire basement and most of the first floor for its equipment. Also note that it’s only the (smaller) building right on the corner that is undergoing the conversion. The larger Verizon building immediately to its north (on 14th Street) is going to remain a Verizon switching station. (The architect presented to the Dupont Circle Conservancy last month.)

  6. FYI, news broke about Matchbox coming to 14th and T about three weeks ago: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/2011/06/09/big-time-philly-restaurant-group-gets-into-d-c-market-other-14th-street-news/. It wasn’t widely publicized, but was included in Lydia’s restaurant wrap-up. The Arena Stage building had been on the market for a renovation/new tenant for some time prior to this.

    2015 First: the PN Hoffman building will be entirely residential, with the exception of one wrap-around commercial space on the ground floor. They don’t yet know whether it will be condos or apartments. The same is true for the Bonstra-designed condo building across the street in the parking lot next to AYT.

  7. Logan Res

    I agree that we all want good architectural design but who is to say what is good design. Often times, incredible designs are scrapped because a few vocal residents would prefer that the new building look similar to what is around rather than being bold and designed specifically to look different and modern. Building height and scale is a concern but there are taller buildings already up and down 14th Street with more in the pipeline. This is one of the cities major commercial corridors which plays well into the urban design “village” concept by zoning the large scale buildings along transit corridors and wider streets creating the village like feel of smaller, residential streets feeding into them.

    Scaling this project down is not smart for a commercial street, within walking distance to metro, and on a future street car route. Furthermore, providing studio sized condos and apartments is exactly what we need more of in DC. This attracts the single income dweller working in a non-profit, retail, or hill staffer position who does not earn enough income to invest in a larger, one-bedroom condo. Income diversity is good.

    I was hoping that this new blog would be a good source of ideas and information sharing for the neighborhood but quickly turned off by the poor writing, lack of any credible sources, and use of fear-based references. Sadly, this site is nothing more than voicing opinions based on intolerance and resistance to change.
    I find the development updates and articles posted to greatergreaterwashington.org to be much more balanced and sensitive to good urban planning with respect to transit and smart growth.

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