Washington Design Center scrambles for a new home


Washington Design Center vendors, like AmericanEye, are working together to find a new place Friday, August 17, 2012. The building housing the Washington Design Center has been purchased and will become a museum devoted to the Bible. (Dayna Smith/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

When the brick building at 300 D St. SW sold in July for $50 million, it marked the first step toward a Bible museum opening in Washington.

It also touched off a scramble by the property’s current occupants, the vendors of the Washington Design Center.

Weeks before the sale closed, rumors began to float through the showrooms of the building’s 33 design tenants that the museum was coming, launching a collective but frenzied process of searching for a new home.

Design center vendors supply fabrics, carpets, furniture and antiques to designers of apartments, hotels, offices and luxury homes in the Washington area. Though the long, well-lit hallways lack the hustle and bustle of retail markets (they are restricted to pre-authorized buyers), they have been a destination for interior designers seeking inspiration for more than 30 years.

There is a reason the vendors cluster, not only here but at centers in New York, Boston and elsewhere: A designer looking for new curtains may need rugs, lamps or bedspreads to match. Customers rarely arrive to just shop one showroom, vendors said.

“We all have separate businesses, but we all contribute to what each other is doing,” said Ken Berry, owner of AmericanEye, which sells vintage and antique items from North Carolina.

The rising price of downtown office space is displacing wholesale operations throughout the country. Indeed, when Vornado Realty Trust decided to sell the Washington Design Center, it also opted to part with a design center in Boston.

After the Washington building’s new owner, a nonprofit created by the owners of the Hobby Lobby retail chain, notified tenants that it planned to begin turning the building into a museum two-to-three years from now, many of the vendors traveled Aug. 10 to New York — where some of the corporate venders are headquartered — to meet and consider their options.

Many have leases that last well beyond the museum’s expected opening in 2016, and for some, there will be heavy losses regardless of what happens next. Vincent and Helena Sagart, the couple behind the Poliform furniture studio, spent 16 months and more than $450,000 building a 3,400-square-foot showroom depicting two modern apartments with lighting and other features that can be controlled by iPhone or iPad. Their lease expires in 2020.

“It will be very difficult for us to find a location in the same basic area or as near to the downtown,” Vincent said.

At the meeting in New York, vendors saw presentations from brokerage firms and elected to work with Cassidy Turley. Vendors said local developers have already shown interest, among them Anthony Lanier of EastBanc, Douglas Jemal, who owns the former Hecht’s warehouse on New York Avenue Northeast, and Forest City Washington, developer of a major mixed-use project near the Nationals Park.

Victor Hoskins, D.C. deputy mayor for planning and economic development, dispatched a staff member to see how the city might assist with relocation.

Berry, who co-founded AmericanEye nine years ago and has a lease that is up in 2014, said he is optimistic that the group will stick together and find a new location, hopefully in the District. “It’s been great business for more than 30 years, and we all have an incentive for it to continue,” he said.

Vincent Sagart isn’t so sure that the collaboration can be re-created elsewhere. “A museum is coming in, which is an organization,” he said. “A community is leaving.”

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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