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Feeling the Pinch Of D.C.'s Prosperity

Paul Ruppert adjusts a picture while his parents, Molly and Raymond Ruppert, talk in the family cafe on Seventh Street NW, which the family is closing.
Paul Ruppert adjusts a picture while his parents, Molly and Raymond Ruppert, talk in the family cafe on Seventh Street NW, which the family is closing. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

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By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007

In a storefront that once housed his great-grandfather's hardware store, Paul Ruppert and his mother, Molly, manage an art gallery, theater and music hall. Theirs is an unexpected pocket of bohemia in a District neighborhood defined by brick-faced walk-ups and the gray behemoth that is the Washington Convention Center.

After 15 years, the Rupperts are closing their music venue and a cafe, and they may shut the rest by year's end. The reason: an expected fivefold increase, from $52,000 to $269,000, in the 2008 property tax bill for the enclave's three buildings and an adjoining parking lot.

That increase, they say, does not allow for rockers and abstract painters, not to mention a reasonably priced glass of merlot.

"There has to be another use to pay the taxes," said Paul Ruppert, whose great-grandfather moved to Seventh Street NW 117 years ago. "It'll be impossible to continue to operate."

Washington's retail corridors have long been populated by homegrown businesses -- quirky taverns and bookstores, groceries and eateries that are touchstones of neighborhood life.

Yet, as development surged across the city in recent years, the value of commercial properties jumped as much as 40 percent in some neighborhoods, and some merchants fear that they will be driven out by rising taxes and competition from national chains.

"It's the downside of prosperity," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). At risk, he said, is "the fabric of our city and losing what makes us different than Pentagon City. You're losing your local businesses that are unique to Washington and replacing them with Starbucks and the Gap and chain restaurants."

The council has set aside $11 million in one-time relief for 11,000 small businesses that gross up to $500,000 a year, but officials acknowledge that the funding is no solution.

"We need to come up with some tools to help people," said Erik A. Moses, director of the Department of Small and Local Business Development. "Some of these businesses won't survive. That's the natural order of things given the way the city is evolving."

No wave of small-business closings and relocations has been attributed to the jump in assessments, District officials said. But the complaints of merchants bemoaning steep increases can be heard from Georgetown to Shaw to Capitol Hill and in the gentrifying swaths in between.

In Brookland, Colonel Brooks' Tavern, which opened in 1980, is a place where college students and residents drink beer in a room adorned with dark wood and framed photos of the 19th-century lawyer and landowner for whom the bar and neighborhood are named.

Jim Stiegman, the tavern's owner, began assembling the 35,000-square-foot parcel in 1978. His assessment, he said, rose incrementally until 2003, when developers discovered Brookland.


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