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A Thwarted Renaissance Near the Convention Center

Four years after the opening of the Washington Convention Center, abandoned buildings still dot the surrounding neighborhood.
Four years after the opening of the Washington Convention Center, abandoned buildings still dot the surrounding neighborhood. (Photos By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 19, 2007

Ray Milefsky could not help but dream that his forlorn stretch of Northwest would turn into a pocket of urban bustle when the Washington Convention Center opened in 2003, three blocks from his rowhouse.

Milefsky, a State Department analyst who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, envisioned shops, cafes and apartments taking over dozens of vacant buildings, not least the one next to his house. He painted a mural on that empty building depicting what he hoped to see -- a French patisserie, with a table and two chairs, two cups of coffee and flowers blooming in a vase.

"Bienvenue à Shaw," his artwork reads. "Slum Historique." ("Welcome to Shaw. Historic Slum.")

Four years later, Milefsky's sign and the vacant shell remain.

Over the past decade, Washington has become a city of reborn neighborhoods, from the granite-laden condominiums on U Street to the renovated rowhouses of Logan Circle to the sleek apartments rising in Columbia Heights. When the convention center opened, politicians and neighborhood leaders hoped it would ignite another renaissance.

"This project is going to make a major contribution to this community and quality of life overall," Terence Golden, then-chairman of the Convention Center Authority, said at the 1998 groundbreaking.

Yet, even as a smattering of businesses have opened on Ninth Street and two hotels and hundreds of apartments are on the drawing board, the seven-block stretch between Massachusetts and Rhode Island avenues remains largely defined by desolate sidewalks, ramshackle lots and three dozen vacant buildings.

"Once the convention center opened, we thought all the developers would make a beeline over here, to do what they did in Chinatown," near Verizon Center, said Jeff Harrison, owner of Modern Liquors, across from the center. "But that didn't happen. Here we are, four years later, and we're just starting to have the seeding."

His shop, which his father-in-law opened in 1968 at the corner of M Street, reflects the more recent changes. Harrison has removed the steel mesh over his windows and begun hosting wine and artisan cheese tastings that cater to professionals moving into the neighborhood.

A coffee shop opened across the street, along with the Whitman, a handsome high-rise crowned by a rooftop pool. A block north, a developer is building apartments and shops. Two art galleries and a cigar store have opened, as well as a cafe, nightclub and three restaurants, including one serving Ethiopian dishes and another specializing in vegetarian cuisine.

Yet equally noteworthy is what is missing. The three blocks across from the convention center are lined by more than a dozen vacant properties and lots. "It's lonely," said Lisa Schreiber, owner of Wagtime, a pet shop and spa amid a cluster of empty buildings between M and N streets.

Eleven more vacant properties line Ninth Street between P and Q, including six owned by Shiloh Baptist Church.

Alex Padro, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who lives in the area, said the convention center itself slowed the pace of development by beginning to rent retail space only within the past seven months. The center's first restaurant opened in January, and officials are still seeking tenants for four of its 12 storefronts.

Padro blamed Shiloh for allowing its properties to sit empty at the corridor's northern end. The boarded-up buildings are a regular topic of consternation among residents, who exchange information about the church on Web sites and rail against it at community meetings.

"Jesus Saves, Shiloh Speculates," reads graffiti on one empty church building.

"They've absolutely retarded the revitalization," Padro said of Shiloh, which also owns two vacant buildings on Eighth Street. "They've made the blocks scarier."

Wallace Charles Smith, Shiloh's pastor, said he understands the community's frustration. Nonetheless, he said, the church is not interested in selling the vacant buildings to developers who would convert them to condominium apartments.

"Turning Shaw into another Georgetown is not what we should be about," he said, adding that high-priced housing favors "the wealthiest at the expense of the poor."

Shiloh, which has 3,500 members, has been at Ninth and P streets since 1924 and has accumulated real estate passed on from deceased congregants. In the past two years, the church has sold two vacant buildings on Ninth Street to the National Park Service. The buildings are adjacent to black historian Carter G. Woodson's former residence, and the park service plans to turn the three rowhouses into a Woodson museum.

As for five other boarded-up properties on the block, Smith said, the church's hope to build senior housing has been stymied because another owner controls a building in the middle of the cluster. Still, the pastor said, Shiloh remains committed to that goal.

Since the late 1800s, Ninth Street has been a bridge between downtown and U Street, a strip running through the heart of Shaw, an area rich in black history. For decades, groceries, pharmacies and clothing and hardware stores lined the stretch, many of them closing after the 1968 riots ravaged the area. As the convention center was planned, the project's supporters predicted that it would bring new life to the area.

Jackie Hart, 61, who has lived on Eighth Street for 17 years, is still hoping for a hardware store, a grocery or a bank. Still, she said, the corridor, though desolate, is far improved from when prostitutes and addicts hung out at corners, "and there were rats around here almost the size of cats."

But the paucity of development along the corridor puzzles District officials. "It's impossible not to walk up and down there and not think, 'Why isn't there more retail?' " said Zach Dobelbower of the District's Office of Planning.

At the same time, he said, Verizon Center did not spawn immediate changes on Seventh Street. And shops moved to 14th Street as new apartments drew residents to Logan Circle. "The more rooftops there are, the more residents in the area, the more attractive it becomes to retailers," he said.

Reba Pittman-Walker, the Convention Center Authority's chief executive, said the center has catalyzed change, ticking off the businesses that have opened and predicting that more will come. "It's just a matter of time," she said.

But how much time remains unclear. Several projects are being drafted, including Marriott's 1,400-room convention center hotel. A few blocks away, a developer is seeking government approvals to rebuild the historic O Street Market and put up apartments, a hotel and underground parking.

The declining housing market already has delayed one condominium project, although the developer says he might begin building in August. "The Ninth Street retail strip never really dug in the way many of us hoped," said the developer, Robert Montagne. "When it does decide to pop, it's going to be a blink, and I will be a force behind it."

Tony Morcos is waiting as patiently as he can. The owner of an electronics repair shop on Ninth Street between L and M since 1965, Morcos opposed the convention center, predicting that the construction would close streets and hurt his business. His worst fear came true, he said, estimating that the disruption cost him 75 percent of his clients.

When the center opened, Morcos, 77, comforted himself with the prospect that a developer would buy him out. Except for a single inquiry, he said, his phone has not rung. "I thought this would be my payday," he said, standing behind his cluttered counter, his grimy, leathery fingers working on a 45-year-old reel-to-reel tape player.

Stuart Sugg was more fortunate. He spent $375,000 on a four-story Victorian on Ninth Street in 2001. Several weeks ago, he sold it for nearly $1.3 million to an entrepreneur who is opening an upscale, by-appointment-only wig business.

That kind of sales price was unimaginable when Milefsky, 57, bought his Q Street home -- the former headquarters of civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph -- for $48,000 in 1987. Since then, he has hoped developers would find their way to his corner. He painted the mural of the patisserie ("Toujours Fermé" ["Always Closed"] reads the sign above the door), he said, in part to poke fun at speculators but also to show what the spot could look like.

So much for his vision. Today, the corner is unchanged.

"We're this vortex of neglect," he said, standing on his stoop gazing at a vista that includes 10 boarded-up buildings. "North of here and south of here things are happening. But not here."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company