K Street: The route of all evil, or just the main drag?

February 5, 2012

It’s the symbol of all that’s wrong with Washington, the front line where the Occupiers dug their anti-authoritarian trenches, the boulevard that has been shorthand for capital corruption during recent Republican debates.

“We need people from outside Washington, outside K Street,” Mitt Romney said in December, as if K were the heart of the heart of darkness. To the outside world, “K Street” means “lobbying” or “influence-peddling.”

Except only one of the 20 highest-earning lobbying firms has a K Street address (and its main entrance is, in fact, on 16th Street), and total spending on lobbying last year ($3.27 billion) decreased for the first time since 1998, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

So to what should “K Street” refer, if not to a corridor of influence?

Something grander. Something blander. Collision, maybe. The tidy mess of it all. Grand vision obscured by quotidian economics. The inelegance of trying to have it all while stuck at a desk under a rectangle of fluorescence.

Think of K Street as the medulla oblongata of Washington — the reptilian part of the brain stem that automates circulation and breathing, contributes to overall sentience and, when malfunctioning, causes imbalance, dizziness and vomiting.

* * *

K Street is unavoidable, in multiple ways.

“You can get anywhere from it,” says Daniel Daudu, 32, a bike courier who lives in Takoma Park. “If I’m going to be chilling between runs, I’ll be on K Street.”

The couriers own the street in a way that eludes cars (which are hampered by buses and ill-timed traffic lights) and pedestrians (forced to cross three separate roadways to get from one side to the other). K Street, for the courier, is the road to which all roads lead, a grid of access inlets and service entrances, a freeway of danger.

“I saw a guy die over at 20th,” Daudu says, pausing on his bike next to the American Legion building. “He was on one of those Kawasaki Ninja joints. A car jumped over to the right lane to make a turn. He went flying. His head ran into a light pole.”

That intersection sits on the busiest stretch of the city’s busiest transit corridor — the 1.5 miles of K between 22nd Street, where it burrows toward Georgetown, and Ninth Street, where it jogs at Mount Vernon Square before setting a course for I-395, Union Station and Northeast D.C. Every day an average of 30,600 vehicles traverses K between 19th and 21st streets. Between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. on weekdays, 100 different city and regional buses lumber back and forth, spiriting workers from crowded medians to more pastoral realms such as Charlotte Hall in southern Maryland. An average of 23,796 riders disappears daily down the escalators at the Farragut North Metro station at Connecticut and K.

For half of January, Dallas resident Rich Cauffman, 42, made K Street his front yard as part of Occupy D.C.

Pedestrians here “seem depressed,” Cauffman says, reclining in the winter sun, his feet propped on an iron post. “They stare at the ground. Like they have no idea where they’re going. ”

Peacoats and blazers pass by, eastward and westward. After 2 a.m. some nights, Cauffman says, drunks fight in the streets outside nearby K Street clubs. There’s no real peace to disturb, though. The Occupy D.C. camp has been the most significant form of housing on the corridor besides the hotels. The rest of K is — what?

* * *

The rest is four-story mansions and heavy-hanging boughs of greenery. Or, rather, it used to be.

In the mid-1800s, K was a ritzy address on the edge of town. Admiral George Dewey held court at his estate at 16th and K, where the Capital Hilton now stands, and District Gov. Alexander “Boss” Shepherd hosted parties in silk-upholstered rooms at Connecticut and K.

By World War II the upper class had moved toward Maryland and Virginia, and over the next two decades their homes were replaced by rooming houses, apartment complexes, hotels and parking lots. The city had slathered the street with commercial zoning by the 1960s, and large-scale demolition followed. Developers, wanting to maximize the building envelope while obeying the 130-foot height rule, commissioned rows of bulky, boxy structures that yielded a cramped, buzzcut skyline.

Lobbying, a practice that had been around since New York merchants petitioned against a tariff at the first session of Congress in 1789, was becoming industrialized as K Street commercialized in the 1970s and early ’80s. Cash-flush lobby shops and other ventures staked out square footage in the developing corridor. In the ’90s, conservative operative Grover Norquist formalized the street’s reputation by launching the K Street Project, a strategy to install Republicans in the leadership of corporations, law offices and lobbying firms.

But lobbyists have been relocating to other downtown areas since the late ’80s. So what is in these 12-floor buildings?

Parking garages. Bank after bank. Mediocre lunch spots. And above: the suite life — hives of office space, renting for as much as $61 per square foot (only Pennsylvania Avenue is more expensive), crammed with accountants and consultants and regulatory commissions and law firms with names that read like a roll call at a New England boarding school.

K Street could be renamed “Limited Liability Way.”

Query: Are there more doctors than lawyers on K? Sometimes it seems that way. Stand at the southwest corner of 20th and K and look eastward, above the CVS, at the diorama of dental patients. Watch them move up and down in motorized chairs as the hygienists pick at their plaque.

* * *

From a 1938 letter to the editor in The Washington Post by Theresa H. Russell, addressing a street-widening program:

“The sickening slaughter of shade trees along K Street is one more profitable project for the cement trust that has been put over on the voteless District. . . . A hideous gash is chopped through the center of a once lovely city through which a few more cars can rush a little faster.”

It’s true: You have to look harder here for loveliness.

At 19th and K, under the imposing concrete overhang of the International Square building, down the escalator to the food-court atrium, is Joseph “Ego” Brown. He’s been shining shoes on K Street for 35 years. His latest spot is a wood hutch with brass footrests next to the Au Bon Pain. For decades he has watched K Street change its look without changing its vibe. He is a kind man.

“It’s a very sophisticated location,” Brown says. “Reputations are made here. It’s an image zone. People judge you based on your looks. The shoe is the foundation of good looks. It’s the pedestal a person stands on.”

If the shoes make the man, does the street make the city?

Seen and heard on K: rolling briefcases, epaulets, tchotchke vendors, strained suspenders, food-truck generators, mobile shredding units, tortoiseshell glasses, women getting their upper lips waxed, faded Redskins jackets, rivers of suds, barrels of kitchen grease, Afrikaans, wobbly hobo shopping carts, an abundance of midday joggers, the Breastfeeding Center for Greater Washington, Abramoff hats (still!), fire-control rooms, commanding officers of the Navy, American flags atop nearly every building.

With an air of confidence, you can walk through many of the office lobbies on K, past the security concierge and straight into an elevator, and up up up.

Ding.

The elevator opens onto the 12th floor of a building between 16th and 17th streets. It’s silent. This is where everyone disappears to? Vacuumed emerald carpeting leads to two giant wooden doors with giant brass doorknobs that seem to discourage knocking. Behind one door is a real estate development office. Behind the other is a lobby shop.

Maybe K Street is “K Street” up here.

* * *

No one likes K Street because it is hard to like.

“K Street is iconic in name but certainly not in place,” says Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District. “It has little or no sense of uniqueness or specialness.”

“It doesn’t have a good presence at the street level,” says Harriet Tregoning, director of the District’s planning office. “A lot of office lobbies are dead. There are a lot of curb cuts and garage entrances. It’s unpleasant to walk.”

“The bulk of K Street was developed in the ’70s and ’80s, which can hardly be considered the high point of American commercial architecture,” says Patrick Phillips, chief executive of the Urban Land Institute. “It predated post-modernism and post-dated real modernism.”

The city has tried to make K Street likable. It was redone in 1962 (when the 20-foot parallel service roads and Washington Circle underpass were constructed to accommodate the burgeoning office population and street traffic) and 1989 (when the city spent $6 million to lay brick crosswalks, granite curbs and three new asphalt coverings over a minefield of potholes).

In the ’90s, desirable addresses shifted east of 15th, where zoning changes encouraged housing and mixed-use developments, where the MCI (now Verizon) Center anchored a maturing neighborhood.

The city still has high hopes for K. The city still wants K to be something it’s not.

Over the past eight years, city agencies completed urban plans and environmental-impact studies for finally transforming K Street into a “grand boulevard.” One plan, called “A New Way on K” by the National Capital Planning Commission, envisioned a grand civic space rivaling Fifth Avenue in New York. Service roads and direct access to parking garages would be eliminated in favor of a transit median and wider sidewalks with more foliage and outdoor sitting space.

The plan was not adopted but continues to inform development discussions, and one route for the District’s proposed streetcar system would link H Street NE with K Street NW via Union Station. In the middle of this artery will be CityCenter, a $900 million development of nearly 700 residences and 465,000 square feet of rentable office space — just off K, linking east and west, past and future.

“This combination of the streetcar and the rethinking of K Street all ties together into a way the city intends to grow,” Bradley says. “The streetcar is the setting of the spine, and K Street is the frame in which we see the new economy, the new demographics, the change of who and what we are.”

* * *

It is, in the end, just a street.

A street on which, at 2:59 p.m. on a weekday, a woman in a pale pink jacket sits next to a puddle of vomit. A perplexed security guard in a navy blazer eyeballs the woman as she whimpers into a cell phone on the steps of the Millennium Building at 1909 K.

“I’m on K Street,” the woman says. “I had two glasses of wine. . . . I’m not going to the hospital. . . . I’m going home. . . . I’m fine. . . . I had three glasses of wine.”

A sob catches in her throat. She’s a wreck. Above her rises the Millennium, built in 1997 as a sleek 12-story reboot of an existing eight-story building constructed in 1973, when developers were still burying K Street under derivative architecture. The vertical marble fins of the 1973 building were preserved. They still poke through the newer glass facade — one era asserting itself through another.

“I’m going home,” the woman says into her phone. “I’ll call you in the morning. . . . I will. I love you. . . . I’m on K Street.”

Honey, all of us are, at one time or another.

What is K Street? Tweet your definitions and impressions using the hashtag #RealKStreet or share them in the comments below. View Instagram photos of K Street and submit your own to our stream by using #RealKStreet.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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