Developer Has the Past in Mind for Shaw

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 22, 2006

Developer Chip Ellis shows off a grassy vacant lot in the District's Shaw neighborhood where passersby will be able to watch broadcasts through the window of Radio One's new studios. He walks by the shuttered Howard Theater, where he'd like to see a restaurant with a stage for live acts, and the vacant Wonder Bread factory, which he thinks would make great studios for artists and music video producers.

"We want to make this a real entertainment hub," Ellis said. Others have long held such a vision of revitalization for a neighborhood that was once a thriving center of black culture and commerce. Now, Ellis and his well-financed backers think they can make it happen.

They plan to build a $100 million, mixed-use project next to the Shaw-Howard University Metro stop along Seventh Street NW between S and T streets. It would include a 100,000-square-foot office building for Radio One Inc., which plans to move its headquarters from Lanham. Just as the plaza at Rockefeller Center in New York lures visitors with a view of NBC's "Today" show, Ellis wants his development built around a plaza with a window on Radio One's shows.

The project, called Broadcast Center One, is also to include 23,000 square feet of shops and restaurants and 182 condominiums that will range in price from $400,000 to the mid-$500,000s, Ellis said. Construction is planned to begin by year-end and be completed in early 2009.

Ellis is chief executive of Ellis Development Group, which is also building lofts at 14th and T streets NW and townhouses in Southeast. His partners on the Broadcast Center project include Four Points LLC, a spinoff of McLean-based developer West Group; District-based developer Jarvis Co.; mortgage giant Fannie Mae; and the quasi-governmental National Capital Revitalization Corp., which owns the land.

Around the corner from the Radio One site on T Street, Ellis hopes to win a bid from the District to bring the Howard Theater back to life. Opened in 1910, it was one of the first full-size theaters for black entertainers. In the 1930s, entertainers such as Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald performed there. But it closed after the riots in 1968 and attempts to reopen it in the late 1970s and 1980s failed.

Ellis wants to put in a restaurant and a stage for live acts, and he is talking with the Washington Jazz Arts Institute about running day-time classes there.

Ellis said he is trying to buy the closed Wonder Bread factory behind the theater on S Street NW from developer Douglas Jemal so he can turn it into studios for artists and film and music video producers.

Ellis pointed to a boarded-up yellow building that was once a pool hall where Ellington is said to have performed in his early years. More recently the spot was Cafe Mawonaj, until an electrical fire last year. One of its owners had complained that Ellis's project was forcing him out. Now Ellis envisions turning the building into a diner, a bookstore or a coffee shop with a restaurant.

"The history of Shaw is a long one of African Americans locating here," Ellis said. "We're trying to revitalize this neighborhood and make it a destination. We really want to bring it back."

He said Radio One, which targets black listeners, and the Howard Theater would help the area maintain its African American connections as it redevelops. "We're bringing over 100 people to the block with Radio One's presence, and I'd say probably 80 percent of them are black," he said. "And there's a lot of culture that's going to be maintained with the Howard Theater."

Ellis said he envisions nurses and doctors from nearby Howard University Hospital, graduate students and young professionals buying the condominiums. "We think there's a lot of base there already in the community to fill that space," Ellis said.

A few youngsters on a field trip to study architecture and design passed by the chain-link fence in front of the brick, two-story theater and paused to listen to Ellis.

Milan Grissom, 13, a student at Terrell Junior High School, chimed in with a suggestion.

"You should have classrooms for art programs, and a place for the community to gather, and even a museum of what this neighborhood is about," Grissom told Ellis, who said those were good ideas that he would consider.

Ellis has been buying properties along Seventh between S and T over the past two years, and he has his eye on more. Today the block has a family-run barber shop, a CD store, a nail salon and takeout food joints.

Many residents and business owners in the neighborhood welcome Ellis's project. In the streets around it, Victorian homes in Le Droit Park have been renovated, causing a surge in property values as redevelopment has spread east.

"I think the vision Chip's group has is a great one," said Antoinette Charles, the owner of Tobago's, a Caribbean takeout and catering business on Seventh Street. "My whole thing is when, when, when?"

Her landlord sold the building to Ellis's group. "I don't want to go, but hopefully they'll build a space that I can come back to and have a nice, sit-down cafe and restaurant," Charles said.

Some people in the neighborhood are worried that the development will make doing business in the neighborhood too expensive, forcing them out.

Wanda Henderson, who has run a nail and hair salon in the 1800 block of Seventh Street NW for 2 1/2 years, said Ellis is buying the building where she leases space so she will have to find a new location.

"It's a great change that's coming for this community," Henderson said. "As for the business owners, it doesn't give us much opportunity because I doubt I'll be able to afford it later."

Ellis said he plans to offer some subsidized rents for retailers and small businesses from the neighborhood in the first few years. But many nearby business owners say that wouldn't be enough to help them stay. Rents in the new retail space will probably be $25 to $30 a foot, Ellis said, compared with the $15 to $20 a foot that many tenants pay now.

A few doors down from Henderson's nail salon, brothers Gennaro and Lionel Ballard reminisced about how vibrant Seventh Street was -- with upscale restaurants, a grocery store and boutiques -- back when their uncle and father started the barber shop.

They keep a poster with prices from the old days: "Men's haircut: $1.50." Now the brothers charge $12.

"The block never came back after the riots," Gennaro said, but now the city's building boom is spreading beyond downtown. "Here, there's the subway so the location is good. They're moving this way with development."

Four years ago, their uncle sold the storefront building that houses the barber shop to a real estate developer for $400,000. The brothers said their uncle, who has since died, had paid $12,000 for the property. Now Ellis has the building under contract.

"It was just a matter of time before someone did something exceptionally big like this," Lionel said of Ellis's project.

Their rent is $1,200 a month, but they expect it to double. They don't want to move but expect that they will have to find space along Georgia Avenue toward the Maryland state line, where rents are lower.

"We're trying to carry on a legacy," Gennaro said as he cut a young man's hair. "We'll see how long we last."


· CB Richard Ellis hired Randy Harrell and Kevin Howard, two brokers from competing firm Grubb & Ellis. Both men have been at Grubb & Ellis since 1999. Harrell will be an executive vice president, and Howard will be a senior vice president at CB Richard Ellis

· The Peterson Cos., a Fairfax-based developer, said it is selling several office buildings, totaling 1.2 million square feet, at its 7-million-square-foot Fair Lakes office complex. Steven Peterson, president of Peterson Development Co., said the company is selling the buildings to recapitalize for its huge National Harbour development in Prince George's County and other projects.

· Vienna-based Atlantic Realty Cos. bought Quince Tree Executive Center, a 76,800-square-foot office building that it will convert to office condominiums. Transwestern Commercial Services helped broker the deal.

· Washington Real Estate Investment Trust of Rockville paid $50.3 million for the Montrose Shopping Center and the Randolph Shopping Center, both in Rockville.

· Duke Realty Corp. of Indianapolis said it plans to build a 79,000-square-foot industrial warehouse in TransDulles Centre in Sterling and 98,000 square feet of flex office buildings in the Westfields Corporate Center in Chantilly.

Dana Hedgpeth writes about commercial real estate and economic development. Her e-mail address

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