Frank D. Reeves center’s glory days long gone, locals say

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the District Department of Transportation was housed in the Reeves Center. The department's headquarters is elsewhere, while their transportation management center is in the Reeves Center.


The Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at U and 14th streets NW in Washington. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
August 8

Elderly women tied bags filled with fresh vegetables onto their walkers. Little boys ran up and down the sidewalk stopping every so often to munch on watermelon slices.

People of all ages moved between fruit stalls and flower stands at a farmers market on the corner of 14th and U streets NW on a recent Saturday morning.

It was a far cry from the usual activity at the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center — the D.C. government’s tall, aging office building at the center of an ambitious proposal to build a new soccer stadium in Southwest. During the week, only the murmur of small talk can be heard on the hushed first floor. Government employees head off to their offices in small groups of three or four.

Opened in 1986 by then-Mayor Marion Barry, the Reeves Center was meant to bring government services closer to a struggling neighborhood and to revitalize a corner still recovering from the 1968 race riots.

Although the building did meet its original goal, longtime residents and newcomers alike say the building’s utility has faded over the years. That doesn’t mean they want the building to go.


(The Washington Post)

The Reeves Center faces possible demolition as part of a complicated land-swap deal for the stadium. Under the terms of a $300 million proposal, the city would hand the Reeves property over to developer Akridge in exchange for $38 million and land at Buzzard Point in Southwest, where the new stadium would stand.

But residents say the Reeves Center is a symbolic and historic civic space, and they don’t want to see its replacement: more upscale development wiping out the character of a neighborhood once called “Black Broadway.”

Longtime residents recall the building’s early years, when people could see government at work in their neighborhood. The community would gather in the building. Local businesses would host events offering samples of their products.

“The Reeves Center was a feeling that the city was investing in the neighborhood,” said Robin Shuster, who moved into the neighborhood in 1988 and said it made a statement at a time when the neighborhood was visibly plagued by drug markets and prostitution.

For H. Patrick Swygert, president emeritus of Howard University, the loss of the building would do a disservice to its namesake and his former law school professor: Frank D. Reeves.

Reeves made a name for himself as a prominent lawyer in the District involved in the civil rights movement who even advised John F. Kennedy. While Swygert said he believes Reeves’s legacy is strong enough to endure even with the center gone, he said demolishing something akin to a monument to his late mentor would still have an impact.

“You can’t help but diminish some of the meaning of his legacy,” Swygert said.


Mayor Barry and wife Effi bask in applause of several hundred spectators, who frequently interrupted his speech with cheers, in this 1990 photo. (James A. Parcell/The Washington Post)

Troy Johnson, a retired union officer who has lived in the neighborhood for 60 years, credits the Reeves Center for bringing working-class people into the distraught neighborhood. He said he hopes the building stays for the sake of those who work in it.

“This building has always been like a City Hall,” he said. “People work there, there are jobs, there’s employment.”

Doug Johnson, a journalist for Voice of America who moved into the neighborhood in the late ’80s, argues that while not many of his neighbors are calling to save the building, there is concern about losing the services it provides as well as losing the plaza, which is one of the neighborhood’s last public gathering spaces left.

“We need civic space. It’s not too much to ask,” Johnson said.

Several government offices are still housed in the Reeves Center. Community meetings take place there.

But many government services have spread out to other locations across the city over the years, and the community hangout role has been outsourced to places such as Busboys and Poets, at the corner of 14th and V streets NW.

For Donald Lockhard, 64, who has been in and around the neighborhood since 1976, the Reeves Center today is just a place where he goes to play the D.C. Lottery.

“For the average person, [the building] doesn’t mean nothing,” Lockhard said.

Still, many also see the Reeves Center as a better neighbor than another luxury condominium.

In the first half of the 20th century, the U Street corridor served as the spine of African American business and culture in the city — a place that intellectuals, artists and working class professionals alike called home.

Development has led to a transformation of the neighborhood, with high-end condominiums popping up and bars and restaurants dominating the night scene.

Residents such as Lockhard have seen families, mostly black, move out of the neighborhood because of rising rental costs. Others wonder if another residential property would improve desirable daytime traffic for businesses.

Should the Reeves Center disappear, many hope that care goes into choosing a replacement that would sustain the neighborhood, just as the Reeves Center once did.

Shuster, who started running the seasonal farmers market on the Reeves Center’s plaza in 2002, also said she hopes a replacement building — or buildings — would offer enough sidewalk space to host the market that largely attracts local residents but also visitors to the corner.

The D.C. Council is likely to discuss the Reeves Center’s fate in the fall. Residents and shop owners such as Irving “Duke” Johnson, 93, who runs Duke’s Shoe Repair adjacent to the Reeves Center at 14th and V, are left to wonder whether the corner of 14th and U streets NW will also change.

“Everything is changing, even the people are changing. Even the colors,” Johnson said.

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