Tag Archives: development

The Sad Tale Of 1330 U Street

This story begins and ends with an empty building at 1330 U Street, and all its possibilities.

Before there was a Gold + Williams or Vastu, Muleh or Room and Board, there was an empty building on U street, right by what used to be Pollys, now Desperados. At the edge of the area’s renewal, a new store opened up that proved to be a treasure on the street – Urban Essentials. Sure, they had a stunning offering of contemporary furniture, somehow mixing comfortable and chic, old and new. But just as much, Urban Essentials played a role in opening up the neighborhood, giving residents both a store they needed and an early step in rebuilding U.

Yet another store forced from the neighborhood

Yet another store forced from the neighborhood

They were, in short, a company that got it – quality interior design and purposeful community building.

When they opened rents were *relatively* inexpensive in the area. But with every new restaurant and bar came more and more landlords looking for the quickest way to make the most money possible. Say what you will, but food & beverage service – notably the latter – make large bill.

You know what happens next. Several businesses, more and more, begin closing as landlords, envious of the higher rates that bars can command, begin pushing out those who had helped make the area desirable in the first place. And that’s what exactly what happened at 1330. The landlord raised the rates for Urban Essentials, even though the owner was public in his desire to remain in the neighborhood. When that failed, he tried to negotiate with JBG, the firm seeking to build yet another apartment building right next door. That, too, went nowhere. UE eventually relocated, down to 14th near Rhode Island Ave., and the neighborhood had yet another victim of mono-development; namely, an over concentration of one type of business in a concentrated area.

Knowing exactly who was interested in 1330, a restaurant developer with some success in Georgetown who wished to open a new restaurant & bar called The Fainting Goat, several local residents (as in those right behind the proposed establishment) met with the new team to try and negotiate a settlement agreement, or what used to be called the Voluntary Agreement. Here the residents and the entrepreneur negotiate basic things such as hours of operation, outdoor seating, live music, trash, noise and parking issues. Just what being good neighbors is all about. And in fact, according to both sides, while agreement wasn’t final, negotiations were going very well, were civil, and close to agreement.

At the same time, however, a few voices on the Internetz began a plaintive cry, saying in essence: “What ever are we to do with an empty space in the heart of U?” Here, the idea goes, was someone who wanted to make use of an empty space…if only those certain nasty, terrible blah blah blah people would stop standing in the way of everything! I guess for these pious few the idea of citizen input and democracy means little.

Regardless, here is where the tale turns sadder still. Enter the ANC 1B.

For years now, some parts and some commissioners have valiantly pressed forward, working hard at jobs most people would never willingly accept. Unfortunately, other parts, and other commissioners, have largely slept at the wheel, making up rules and procedures as they go and letting important agenda items simply fall through the cracks.

This has been known to the very small number of committed residents on all sides of any issue who regularly attend not just the big meetings, but the innumerable sub-committee hearings. (Lesson: attending hearings is not much fun.) But as last Thursday’s public meeting laid bare, the ANC 1B is in serious need of repair.

Borderstan has an excellent summary of the rumpus that ensued, but in short, nobody seemed to have any firm knowledge about specifics of the proposed settlement agreement – several members said they never even saw it – or any votes that may or may not have been taken in the ABRA sub-committee. Unfortunately, the Fainting Goat was caught in the confusion, leaving everyone concerned, on all sides, discouraged.

Here’s the truth: for years, the liquor licensing sub-committee has largely failed to work, at times being uncertain of who actually sat on the board, failing to muster quorum for meetings, and in a number of cases, simply letting license applications pass without any hearing or action at all. Last Thursday is only the latest example of mismanagement.

If a government or private corporate board acted in this way, the stakeholders would be justifiably upset and demand improvements. In an odd twist, however, a few have taken their fight online to blame those who pointed out the errors, and who were actually close to sealing the deal with the Goat. Easier, I guess, to just vilify than lay out the truth of the matter.

And now, nobody trusts anybody else. Some supporters of the Goat (I number myself a supporter, by the way) want to pick up the negotiations again, but noticing the chaos at the ANC have been forced to take the only action they can; to oppose the license for the moment so that everyone and all sides will negotiate in good faith. Can locals trust an ANC that appears to simply make up votes or agreements? Can license applicants trust either supporters or opponents who seem to be fighting a larger battle? Can people on all sides stop making claims – much like Limbaugh makes of Obama – that their opponents simply want to ruin the neighborhood, only before telling them to move?

That, perhaps, makes me saddest of all.

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Of Cabanas, Condos and Coppis

The Entire U Street Area Dances with JBG

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

It was a full room on a full moon that greeted members of the U Street Neighborhood Associaition this week. Perhaps because of the brief candidate speeches of those seeking to replace Mr. Orange (or in his case preserve it, ending awkwardly by repeated “I am not a crook” when the bell rung and he was out of time. Foreshadowing, that?) Or perhaps because of someone else in the room; namely the company that ate our neighborhood, JBG.

The meeting chairs worked to keep things brief, but meetings like this always feel like squeezing 7 pounds of sausage into a 4 pound casing. This time, to their credit, there actually was a tremendous amount before the USNA, so thanks guys!

Candidate’s stump and pumps finished, and one disturbing crime report later – summary: larcenies and robberies are rising, duh,  – we turned to Sheryl Walter, who heads Historic Preservation and Development, who in turn handed the spotlight to Bryan Moll and Jim Nozar of JBG.

Louis' roofdeck, complete with cabanas and fire-pits.

Nice for some, but not for you

A few minutes of fumbling with the right graph and the framed drawing and the sketches on boards, and it was time to present “Louis!” Or  “Loo-ee” to his friends, apparently. Louis is, if you haven’t heard, the 268-unit apartment building running nearly hundreds of feet along 14, and turning the corner at U before running hundreds more down 14th. “It’s a mixed use  building,” repeated manager Bryan Moll, “with 40% 1 bedrooms or greater.” Which still leaves 60% studios and efficiencies. And NOT in the price path most could afford, as the questioners learned.

Teases were rolled out. “Here is where we hope to have a produce store, which we are not able to *CoughtraderjoesCough* put out there, and elsewhere we hope for dry goods.” Said Moll: “We going up to Brooklyn right now to see some exciting new opportunities!”  Thank God they’re not going to Ballston.

Nozard picked it up from here with another framed gauzy portrait of the Louis’ roof: “We’re really excited about this! In fact I wanted to live in this building!” he said, even though 5 minutes earlier he said he lived nearby and was committed to his house. Anyway: “There’s going to be a roof top pool – a plunge pool – a club room, tvs and bars. We’ll have cabanas and grilling stations and firepits, and in the summer a huge screen on which we’ll show movies in the night. It’s totally the placed you’ll want to hang out!”

Too bad nobody but the building’s residents will ever do so, although the rest of us are likely to hear.

Concerning, “fortunately or unfortunately,” as Moll says it, the McDonalds, it isn’t likely to move. However the other treasures of U – Rice Noodles, Coppis, Stem and Utopia and the Deli? Well, while Moll and Nozard suggested vague ” negotiations are continuing”, the plan would call for the shut down of all those establishments (plus the deli) for major construction work for at least a year.

Negotiations? Didn’t seem to ring a bell with the owner of one of those restaurants; one of the first in the area when U Street was largely drugs, prostitutes and crime.  We promised not to use his name, but will check in soon with him. We hope he and his colleagues have a clearer idea of JBG’s proposal soon. His take: ‘nobody’s talked to me about anything.’  That’s not good.

Moll and Nozard detail an old drawing

And soon is a relative term. Moll and Nozard were clear: they expect the site to be cleaned by April, with the first crane up in June – a crane that will sweep in its arc well over East 14 and Wallach. Lease-holders were less clear.

Apart from “Louie’s” friendly name and the two smiley JBG reps, lots of people had deep worries about ‘Louis’; traffic problems, construction pats, partking variences, what potential owners had or hadn’t been told about moving into a rapidly noisy and crowded area. In short: developers saying one thing at the start, and something else once they’re underway.

Then came questioning about the JBG development a couple doors down, at 14 and S. (Look for the skycrane – it soon won’t be lonely.) Originally sold as condos, JBG now tells us that “the economics have changed” and that they would now be – just like almost every other new unit in this tiny region – rental. The crowd as not pleased. What else might change, JBG?

Tick tick tick, time was running out at the meeting, and with the most controversial proposal at the end. That’s the sort of thing 1st term Senators play. Brief address on Florida and 8th and the Atlantic Plumbing complex (they own a great deal of the land there but aren’t planning at this point anything mammoth or monumental.)

“We’re aware of releasing too many units on the market at the same time,” said Nozar. Which gives one pause: units at Louis, units at 14& S, units at a large development at Floriday & 8th, units at the sweeping “Atlantic Plumbing” area, units at the 14th and R Central Mission rehab (a Colbert Project), units at the proposed Colbert “WallachZilla” at 14th and Wallach place. Are we missing anyplace?

Anyone care to tally up all those units? And do we really expect a non-disruptive rollout?

Oh, and then there’s this other thing. “We said when the time was right we wanted to return to this idea of a development (an Ian Schrager-like all glitz and no room) hotel at 13 and U,” said Nozar, showing a pastel drawing of a 120 foot monstrosity. It if looked familiar, it’s because it was.

“You’ve said you’re going to seriously modify the proposal, but what you’re presenting is the old drawing that was roundly rejected. Why are you showing us this?” I asked.

Fumferfumfer “We’ve definitely heard the community and we’re working on modifications.”

‘Like what?” someone hollered. “Is it still going to be 120 feet?” said another. “Well fumferfumfer we’re just not there yet, but we do hear you.” “How about the parking variance?”  How about the complete lack of infra-structure support?” “Yes, yes, we’ve heard you and will do our best.”

“When?” I asked. Sheryl spoke up: “JBG has promised a special session for this project once they have something to present.”

“Isn’t that gonna be too late?” said someone.

*Ding* Time was done.

Except, time isn’t done. We’re curious to hear much, much more of these many developments. And thoughts about all all this is changing the very nature of this community.

The meeting chair regained order. “OK,OK, let’s wrap up and move on.”

Don’t get me wrong. Jim Nozar looks you square in the face and seems to answer honestly. Bryan Moll is very good at standing and lending an aura of handsome inevitability.

But this is not how decisions get made IF a community is involved.

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Black and Orange and Blue All Over

Another New Restaurant/Night Club, Same Old Issues

14th Street & U is apparently just about the only place restaurants want to open anymore. What was once Washington’s auto dealer showplace is increasingly home to restaurants aiming for somewhere between hip, trendy and boozed-up. The latest example is Black & Orange Burger.

Now before the lurkers from DC BID or other pro-development organizations try to again mischaracterize comments here, this is emphatically not a slam on Black & Orange and their line of $6.00 burgers with names like “Now and Zen,” “Curried Away,” and “Pardon My French.” Like every other establishment, the proprietors are trying to carve out an image, a brand, and a market. Good for them. Does it mean anything that I prefer my burgers without names other than their ingredients, or places with less self-awareness like the Saloon on U, or my fish tacos served with less flash and cost but major flavor, like at Pica Taco on Florida? Nope; nothing more than my tastes, so either dispose of that red herring or don’t bother writing.

People have every right to spend their money how they like on the food and entertainment they desire. But establishments do not have unlimited rights to open anywhere they choose without regard to infrastructure or community, or operate a nightclub masquerading as a restaurant. That’s why we have development boards, ANC committees, the Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration, historic review boards, and any of the other regulatory offices meant to keep some semblance of orderly development.

This Tuesday, December 20 at 7pm, a committee of ANC-1B will meet to discuss Black & Orange’s alcohol-service request. Although the meeting is limited in scope, the continued welter of new establishments serving alcohol in a very compressed space at late hours is starting to weigh on the minds of local residents. This, on the heels of the approval of extra-late night alcohol service at Matchbox, two doors down, joining other establishments such as St. Ex, Lost Society and many others too numerous to list, have raised concern. Are these restaurants, or nightclubs? Are some of them trying to open their doors posing as one, only to turn into another? And how many bars is too many in one block?

Security Measures Reexamined After Man Killed Outside Heritage India Restaurant “And Club” In Dupont Circle, DCread the headline at WUSA9.com. “The violence is prompting owners, the city and police to re-examine what goes on when eating establishments turn into nightclubs on weekends. Restaurants can rake in thousands more in revenue if if they become clubs at night, but many people say you need the proper security,” reads one graph.

This was hardly an isolated incident. Extra late nights + lots of liquor + more and more of the same in a tightly compressed area tends to equal trouble. Will anyone’s experience of the U/14th Street area be significantly lessened by one less place to get a beer, a mojito, or a vodka ass-smasher at 3am? No serious person can argue there aren’t plenty of places already open happy to pour you a cold one. However, is the neighborhood adversely affected by ingredients that may – or are – lead to more crime, more congestion, and, frankly, more rats?

Cross-my-heart, pinky-swear, hand to God: talk to local restaurant workers. They know what local residents see every day with their eyes: the area is a rat jamboree, and every new food-eatery-funtimery is making it worse. Rats aren’t just in the alleys, people; they are without question in the kitchens and storerooms of all your U Street watering holes. That’s not something you’ll see on snazzy websites (yet) or hear from boosters who won’t be happy until every inch is occupied by a bar, kitchen, or late-night destination (usually some of the both,) but it is as true as the Sun rising in the East and setting in the West.

There are other issues as well. For example, walk the alley behind Black & Orange (still in construction.) There’s not a single inch available for one more dumpster, let alone grease-catchers or recycling. The corner turn, with the Slice-O-Pizza on one corner and houses on the other, don’t even have room for a truck to turn. Result: the already over-burdoned alleys around U, Wallach and T will get only more so.

Additionally, if you want to start a massive, groaning gripe-fest, just say “parking” to anyone who lives in the area. Lives – not commutes, not visits, not enjoys the zesty ambiance: lives. There is none, and in spite of tone-deaf assurances from developers that “these are really Metro-type places,” the plain fact is that many are driving here, turning the streets on any night other than Monday into little better than a demolition derby. To all who say I exaggerate: come spend just one hour with me and some neighbors some Friday or Saturday. Bring a camera, and let’s just watch what happens.

Here’s the deal: Black and Orange is applying for a Restaurant Class C license. Not a tavern – like St. Ex – but a restaurant. Could it be less “St. Ex” (personally I love that place) and more “Estadio,” just down the street, home to great food, packed tables and sane hours, closing at midnight, 1am on weekends? Or “Pearl,” which just got a great write-up in the Post Sunday, which somehow closes sat 11pm every night yet is still able to manage a great bar and impressive menu? There are many other examples, just as there are many possibilities for any one business.

The point should be clear: development isn’t all or nothing; empty store fronts or the French Quarter, no in-between. People have the right to eat what they want, and communities have the right to have some say in determining what they want to be. Both rights co-exist, not one or none, and it is the difficult job of being a good citizen to try and find a balance.

Tuesday’s meeting, 7pm, is at 1816 12th Street NW. Hopefully all views will be welcome.

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The Cost of Living

What Sends It Up, and How It’s Brought Down

I recently took a stroll down 14th street; a road I walk frequently, but often in a hurry, trying to get here or there on time.  But I had no appointment, and was interested in taking a close look at what’s been happening.

A view from the rooftop of the JavaRama 14th and T street NW Washington DC 1987

There’s a few new(ish) things – restaurants mostly, none of them new or stellar enough to merit mentioning.  And of course, we do have holes in the ground – and cranes overhead.  At least four, just in a small strip along 14th from around R up to Florida.  There’s promises of more to come – the Utopia complex at 14 & U, the Level 2 intern condo 1/2 block over; a new “Matchbox”.

But I was also looking at what wasn’t there anymore.  El Paraiso – the most authentic Salvadoran cuisine this side of Columbia Heights – was a stalwart and fed us well for years.  But they’re gone, as soon will be the odd Masons hall that I’ve never set foot in, yet always found a curious addition.  Dogs by Day and the neighboring pet store are gone – moved on elsewhere where rents are cheaper but foot traffic is slower – as is the Big Monkey comics store.  We all miss the irreplaceable Noi Chudnoff, and now we miss her store, too…closed for good.  Pulp, always good for a gift, a card, a little scope-age, and big welcomes is welcome here no more it seems.  At least, the economics of the area are forcing its shutdown in the near future.

Feel the love...but do it elsewhere

Garden District helped many of us dig, plant, mulch, fertilize, grow, and just pretty-up our neighborhood, all without needing a car.  That’s gone.  So is HR57, a genuine club in the legal definition that hosted music just OK to kick-ass, consistently mellow crowds, and that feeling of just being a little bit somewhere-else by merit of their membership-to-drink policy.  Now they’ve gone somewhere else.

There’s a lot of other places too; admittedly, not all of them losses.  Was I sad to see Paradise Liquor close up shop?  Mostly not – the days of super-angry Korean shop-keepers yelling from behind plexiglass are probably a thing best left in the past.  The Yums?  There will be no ironic tears or kitschy send off when that place shuts – they were sloppy neighbors, never shoveled their walkways, and didn’t give a damn about anything.

But for every Paradise Liquor, there was a Ruff and Ready – a treasure of a place that just might have a certain treasure for your house, if only your were persistent and open-eyed enough to catch it.  Want a one-of-a-kind piece?  Well now you can get one hand-crafted, from reharvested forests, all for only 100X the price at any of our high-end shops.

High-end seems to be the aspiration these days…although plenty of people are actually doing it and making good coin.  The Ellington selling for $100 million dollars to TIAA-CREF?  View 14 – try $114 million.  Developers are making big money by digging for gold in our streets – and as developers earn money, so, too do a lot of people with hands out — including politicians.   Everyone wants a taste of that sweet pie.

Pro-development-at-all-costs types argue, incessantly, that more housing necessarily equals lower cost of living.  It’s an elliptical argument that assumes a sort of perfect supply-and-demand world that only exists in text books and theorists heads.  Real life is much sloppier, and rarely cheaper.  Each one of those closed shops closed for particular reasons, but there’s no doubting the cumulative financial pressures forced many, if not all their hands.  And for each of these new mega-buildings – those who don’t live here say that more housing will drive prices down.  Funny, exactly the opposite has always happened here.  Craig and I, and many of our neighbors, have lived here long enough to see a steady and inexorable progression: more units built, more people moving in, higher prices to live, around and around.  Today’s shoe-box jr. one-bedroom for an intern will price that intern out of the market within two years.

Leaving what behind?  Fewer stores that are naturally of the community and more that are for outsiders.  Band & Olufson?  How many $15,000 TV’s have been purchased by our neighbors?  St. X?  A gem of a place that used to have room for us now is squeezed at nearly every hour by people driving in from Montgomery or Fairfax county.

image courtesy M.V. Jantzen

I like living in a place where I can walk the dog to my vet.  Pick up mail around the block.  Get yelled at in a run-down liquor store, find the gayest possible gifts in a store that feels more college than city.  Some development is clearly good: Hello Yes Market!  But some local institutions – like the Saloon – are literally irreplaceable, whoever moves in next to cash out.

It’s just a thought.  But perhaps development isn’t always good – for the neighborhood, for the people wanting to move in, or for those living or working there.  That’s why those who hurl the ‘NIMBY’ slur will always be wrong: because we’re not, and just perhaps, some of our backyards are OK as they are.

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The Colbert Report

Notes From Our Public Meeting – and What Comes Next

Last Thursday neighbors from around Wallach, 14 and 13, T and U crammed into our home to hear about the proposed development at 14th and Wallach from those who know it best – the developer & architect.

David Franco from Level2 Development and Eric Colbert with the eponymous Eric Colbert & Associates came by early and were generous with their time that evening – especially knowing that they might face a skeptical crowd.  We didn’t disappoint.

Even before turning to the design itself, Colbert got it rolling immediately by noting that this project had undergone more revisions than any other he could recall – a point he and Franco returned to several times. That may be, and it’s clearly tried the patience of the principals who no doubt want to move forward as quickly as possible.  All the more reason why community input would have been so valuable at the beginning, rather than the end when everyone starts getting frazzled.

The as-yet unnamed building – we’ll just call it WallachZilla for now – will be tall: 73′ for the main building, with the rooftop patio going to 83′ – 90′ if you count the machinery needed for a handicap-friendly lift.  It will also be large –  filling the same footprint as the bunker that’s there now housing a Post Office, carpet store and one of the few remaining Yum’s in DC.  The building proposes to be around 85% studio rentals, averaging a cramped 400 or so square feet – leaving several neighbors wondering why the equivalent of a dorm building is so needed for that spot and our neighborhood.

The concerns roughly broke into two themes; the first being the aesthetic quality of the proposal itself.  Franco (mostly) and Colbert (somewhat more quietly) repeatedly emphasized the details – the mix of brick and metal, the long top line of windows creating a “sheet of glass”, the (undeniably small) set-backs on Wallach, the “warehouse-style” look of  windows evoking 14th Street’s history as a auto dealership magnet.  Critics noted the general blandness of the look, with very little (if anything) distinguishing it from a hundred other boring buildings sprouting around town.  “I can drive around and point out – there’s a Colbert building, there’s a Colbert building,” noted one attendee to the architect himself – who curiously made only small efforts to defend the design.  “We can at least be proud that our block will boast one of the world’s finest examples of the Late Ballston School of architecture.  Outside of Ballston,” noted another neighbor.  Frankly, it’s a fair hit, and listening closely to Franco and Colbert that night, one senses they would agree it’s not far from the mark.

The other and much larger theme was impact of the building – how it will hulk over the entire block, casting neighbors into constant shadow; how traffic whizzing down Wallach will increase and street parking (which is to say what barely exists now) will evaporate; how residents on T and Wallach who share the same alley will face exponentially more trouble negotiating in and out of their off-street parking spots, and how what is in the developer’s own terms “a building for interns” is being air-dropped into a neighborhood that’s now more Sesame Street than Soho.

“Had shadow studies been done?”  Mmm, nope. (loud blinking.)  “How many guest parking space will you have?”  Uh, two.  (sound of plates hitting floor.)   “What’s going to keep residents, friends and visitors from jamming Wallach and the alley to get to parking?”  Well, nothing really.  (uncomfortable silence as everyone waits for everyone else to respond.)

While Franco and Colbert were polite throughout, they grew notably shorter and more evasive with their answers, perhaps out of irritation with the continued questioning.  Attendees were reminded that the proposal already received unanimous ANC support (more on that later) and a preliminary OK from the Historic Preservation Board – which is to say, it would be nice if we would just be quiet and support WallachZilla, but it’s by no means necessary.

But that’s really not true.  In fact, this week, on June 30, the HPB will hold an open meeting at 1pm at 441 4th Street NW, room 220 South, and board members appear open to hearing and airing some of these concerns.  While Level2 might be hoping for a slam-dunk, given the at-times lenient attitude from the HPB to new development near Metro lines, it is no longer guaranteed.

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