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Correction to This Article
A Metro photo caption in some Jan. 9 editions said that the Tivoli theater in the District's Columbia Heights neighborhood is at 14th and Park streets. It is at 14th Street and Park Road NW.

Curtain Coming Up Again on Columbia Heights

D.C. Neighborhood Copes With Development as Theater Company Celebrates Tivoli's Restoration

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page C03

The crumbling stucco walls and delicate cornices of the Tivoli theater have been painstakingly restored. The historic canopy is illuminated each night. A dinner and two community festivals this weekend celebrate the Tivoli's reopening as the new home of a Latino arts troupe, 30 years after the landmark was boarded up and left for dead.

Its rebirth heralds the revival of the District's Columbia Heights neighborhood, a formerly bustling commercial corridor devastated by the riots of 1968. Five apartment or condominium complexes are under construction nearby, on formerly vacant parcels along the 14th Street NW corridor. Five other projects, including apartments and restaurants, a dance studio and a huge urban mall anchored by the District's first Target discount store, are slated to break ground this year.

Thirty years after closing, the renovated and reopened 80-year-old Tivoli theater at 14th and Park streets NW is the new home of the GALA Hispanic Theatre. The complex, called Tivoli Square, also will house retail and office space, a supermarket and duplex condominiums. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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The projects will erase the most visible remaining evidence of the fires that burned after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and left a swath of abandoned buildings that eventually were razed. Because the District later took control of the land, city officials have been able to shape this redevelopment far more than those underway in some neighborhoods. They insisted on some affordable housing in each new residential project, for example, and required shops, restaurants and amenities that 14th Street sorely needs.

"It's rare to have an opportunity in an urban setting like this -- to have 10 or 11 acres of land around a Metro station that are empty suddenly be rebuilt," said Christopher J. Donatelli, whose firm Donatelli & Klein is joining with Gragg & Associates on two of the residential-retail projects. "The impact is going to be huge. If you left for a year or two and then came back, you might not recognize it."

More than 600 stylish residences will be built -- nearly a third reserved for low- and moderate-income households -- in a 10-block stretch of 14th Street that has been defined by nondescript subsidized apartment complexes and empty lots. Two day-care centers, athletic and recreation facilities, restaurants and stores are also planned, along with vastly improved versions of the high school and junior high that serve the mostly poor, immigrant and African American teenagers who live in the racially diverse area.

As in other changing District neighborhoods -- from Shaw to downtown's Penn Quarter to the fringes of Capitol Hill -- the boom has spawned tension. An online neighborhood discussion group often features heated exchanges about whether the new projects will benefit longtime residents or only affluent newcomers. A proposal to add luxury condominiums to the site of a Boys & Girls Club stalled after an outpouring of protest from patrons of the club.

Concerned about the potential for mass displacement, the District government and the D.C. Housing Finance Agency have spent millions in recent years to preserve and rehabilitate low-income apartment complexes that were built on 14th Street during its bleakest days. But the city only recently began focusing on tenants at risk of being priced out of the rowhouses and smaller apartment buildings that line the side streets.

In the meantime, scores of rowhouses that once housed working-class African American and Latino families have been emptied and converted to luxury condominiums, almost all of which are bought by high-earning singles or childless couples.

Many longtime residents say they are eager for the restaurants and shopping opportunities, but some add that they can't help but worry that the new projects will heat up the real estate market even more.

"It's not the big projects," said William Jordan, a father of four who lives a block north of the Tivoli and frequently participates in the e-mail discussions. "The housing stock that used to support a family can't really support a family. . . . That's where you're starting to feel the pressure."

Columbia Heights was one of the first neighborhoods to develop outside Washington's original boundaries, fed by the streetcar line that extended up 14th Street starting in the 1890s. For the first half of the 20th century, according to a history compiled by the D.C. Preservation League and the city's Historic Preservation Office, it was a bustling retail district that included the nation's first Hot Shoppe. Luxury apartment buildings lined some blocks. The Tivoli was built as a grand, 2,500-seat movie palace in 1924.

"It was a very, very vibrant area, one of the premier areas that everyone gravitated to," said Stuart D. Schooler, a native Washingtonian whose octogenarian parents still recall shopping and going to movies in Columbia Heights in the 1930s and 1940s. Now a developer, Schooler's firm Recycland, is a partner in four projects along the corridor. "For a young demographic, that is what it will become again," Schooler said. "What it was for them 65 years ago."

As Washington formally desegregated in the 1950s, the businesses and upscale apartments along 14th Street became more open to African Americans. Along with nearby U Street NW, the 14th Street corridor became known as black Washington's downtown.

Hundreds of businesses were damaged and closed after the 1968 riots; eventually, more than 70 acres of burned or crumbling buildings were bulldozed. In 1975, the Tivoli shut its doors.

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