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Correction to This Article
A Jan. 27 article about landowners in Washington's Near Southeast area incorrectly attributed a quotation. It was Marty Chernoff, not Leonard A. Greenberg, who said in the Nexus Gold Club, "It saddens me that the place is going to close, but it's progress."

The Last Handshake Deal

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006

Nestled inside the Nexus Gold Club, a strip joint just a few blocks from the site of the proposed baseball stadium in Southeast, Marty Chernoff sits on a dark gray couch cracking Alaskan king crab legs while a tall, skinny blonde in a yellow bikini bottom and skimpy top keeps him company between dances on the mirror-lined stage.

Chernoff does business here, and in a closed-door office where Jesus and his disciples are depicted at the Last Supper, just above four video security monitors.

Outside, cars jolt along potholed streets. Taxi yards sit next to auto-repair garages. Closed liquor stores border litter-laden lots. At M Street and New Jersey Avenue SE, a gleaming 10-story office building, a sign of what is to come, towers over row after row of boarded-up low-rise brick houses. They are to become a multimillion-dollar complex with market-rate housing, retail and offices that will be built around the future home of the Washington Nationals.

Badge-wearing defense contractors who work in the upper floors of the office tower descend at lunchtime to grab a plastic-foam plate of barbecue, some jambalaya and a slice of coconut pie from "the Turkey Man" and "the Cake and Pie Lady," working from an oversize homemade grill towed by a minivan and parked on a bumpy lot.

This is Chernoff's world, and soon it will be gone. He is part of a colorful band of characters who, years ago, saw opportunity in drafty warehouses and contaminated land. The land was cheap, and Chernoff had patience. Some of the other dealmakers inherited property from an earlier generation and kept it even as neighborhoods deteriorated.

They tote figures in their heads; no hauling around thick binders of analysis for them. And for years they quietly operated beyond the notice of stuffed-shirt, politics-crazed Washington.

"We're talking about guys who do deals with a firm handshake and their word. No paperwork here," says Arthur B. Benjamin, a real estate broker with AMR Commercial LLC who recently helped close a $51 million deal near the stadium for one of the guys. "They're old school."

Now that other Washington is moving in, building on the once-unpromising land that Chernoff and his associates bought and sold. Muddy towing lots full of smashed cars will give way to $4 cappuccinos and $9 salads. The rumbling of cement trucks with men from a nearby plant yelling "Back it up! Back it up!" will be silenced. Brokers representing big pension funds and Wall Street, accompanied by fleets of lawyers, will take the place of the smaller players.

D.C. leaders envision the neighborhood on the west side of the Anacostia River near the Navy Yard as a multimillion-dollar, 24-7 bustle of residential, retail and office buildings framing a new stadium. Planners call it the next hot spot of development, much as MCI Center was for the District's East End.

That's okay with Chernoff. "Times change," he says. "People change, and development changes."

The Art of the Deal

Chernoff, 63, is a presence. Balding and just shy of 300 pounds, he dresses in T-shirts and khakis. He wears brown leather sandals year-round, his feet chronically swollen from a circulation problem.

Leaning back on the strip-club sofa, he swings a beefy arm over a cushion and describes how he recently unloaded the land near the corner of Half and I streets SE. He got $8.9 million for the land where the Nexus Gold Club sits plus four small adjacent lots and $35.9 million for the trash recycling lot a half-block away. Once the deal closes, high-end condos and apartments lie ahead.

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