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H Street NE, The Next Hot Spot

D.C. Embarks on Redevelopment of Long-Neglected Corridor

By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2004; Page F01

Housing developers searching for ever-scarcer D.C. sites are moving into a new neighborhood: The H Street corridor of Northeast, a dilapidated stretch of boarded-up buildings and riot-scarred storefronts that for decades has seen little investment.

Two large parcels, slated for hundreds of residential units, are now under contract along H Street, a heavily traveled east-west thoroughfare on the northern edge of Capitol Hill. Huge office buildings are also under construction or planned nearby.

Roy Wellman looks over the produce at a new Saturday morning farmers' market set up at 6th and H streets NE. (Hans Ericsson For The Washington Post)

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The D.C. government recently approved a Strategic Development Plan for H Street calling for more than $300 million in investment, most of it private, along the corridor from 2nd Street to Maryland Avenue NE. Such plans generally combine zoning restrictions and incentives in an attempt to shape private development to fit public goals.

The plan calls for new housing, retail and venues for the arts and entertainment. More attractive sidewalks and public spaces, as well as the establishment of a light rail or trolley system, are also elements of the District's plan, which will take years to realize.

In the mid-20th century, H Street was a thriving commercial corridor, one of the District's top shopping districts, with theaters, stores and restaurants that attracted both neighborhood residents and Washingtonians from across the city.

The street began to languish in the 1950s and 1960s with the suburbanization of America, like many other urban commercial corridors across the country. People moved to the suburbs and began shopping at malls. Traveling by car to shop, rather than by foot, became the American way, even for city dwellers.

The assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King in April 1968 sparked devastating rioting and looting on H Street. Shops closed down and empty buildings crumbled. Many lots remain vacant; boarded-up shops now line the street. About 60 of 218 existing storefronts are empty, D.C. officials said.

The District's long-term goal -- hard to envision looking down the desolate strip of empty lots and blank storefronts -- is to restore H Street to its bustling commercial glory days, much the way that 14th Street NW, another Washington riot corridor, has been revitalized in recent years.

A flood of development money is already starting. "I'm getting two or three calls a week from developers about H Street," said Derrick Woody of the D.C. government's Office of Planning. "There are some substantial firms looking for opportunities there."

One significant project is District-based Abdo Development's proposed restoration of the historic Capital Children's Museum buildings at 3rd and H streets NE, at the western end of the old commercial corridor. The 130-year-old red brick museum buildings sit on a sprawling 2.4-acre site; hundreds of luxury condominiums are planned.

Abdo Development, with a New York-based financial partner, has agreed to pay the Children's Museum $24 million for the museum buildings, which were built in 1874 and added to in the 1950s and 1960s. The museum plans to build a new facility, the National Children's Museum, at L'Enfant Plaza.

Jim Abdo, principal of Abdo Development, said restoration and construction would bring the price of the project to more than $100 million. He declined to discuss the financing details. Abdo Development plans to fully restore the 19th-century structures; the more-modern, mismatched additions are to be torn down. The company envisions building two other condo buildings on the site to complete the luxury complex. The timetable is still uncertain.

"We've been looking for an opportunity like this for a long time," said Abdo, whose firm specializes in restoration of historic buildings in the District.

His company has never undertaken a project this large. Its biggest project to date was the conversion of a 60,000-square-foot historic building on Rhode Island Avenue NW to luxury condos. Its most recent project was the conversion to loft condominiums of a 100-year-old schoolhouse on Capitol Hill. "Housing is what drives a neighborhood," Abdo said. "We're hoping to be the catalyst that drives development there."

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