A Rapid Renaissance in Columbia Heights

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

To stand at 14th Street and Park Road in Northwest Washington is to behold a new world created at whiplash speed.

A billion dollars' worth of development, including a Target-anchored shopping center opening tomorrow, is rising in Columbia Heights, erasing the last vestiges of scars left by riots that ravaged the neighborhood 40 years ago.

And the renaissance is all by design, one intended to create a new city within the city and keep Washingtonians from traveling to the suburbs to splurge.

Even within the rush of construction that has swept across the District, Columbia Heights' renaissance is singular, not only because of its scope but because of its locale, a residential neighborhood that is among the region's most economically and racially diverse.

"What's happening in Columbia Heights, in terms of sheer magnitude of investment, is nothing like anything we've seen in our neighborhoods," said Neil O. Albert, deputy mayor for planning and economic development. "Nearly all our blockbuster projects are on large tracts of vacant land in parts of the city where few people currently live. In Columbia Heights, we're seeing literally a billion dollars' worth of development woven into a large, dense, urban neighborhood."

In addition to DC USA, the block-long mall that features Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond and the District's first Target, the panorama of changes includes six new apartment buildings, a 1,200-car garage, a repurposed Tivoli Theater, a dance school, a Giant supermarket and more than three dozen new restaurants, banks and shops.

As builders rediscovered the city in the 1990s, District leaders and developers gleaned a unique opportunity in the impending arrival of a Metro station in Columbia Heights within steps of seven virtually vacant parcels of land.

Because the government owned the tracts, which were bought or acquired through eminent domain after the riots, the District could control what was built, and officials could woo developers with prices that seem unimaginably low by current standards.

Grid Properties, developer of DC USA, paid $1 million for its parcel. Donatelli & Klein, the developer of two apartment buildings, bought its lots for $4 million. The District offered other inducements, such as financing for the new $42 million garage at the mall.

In exchange, city and community leaders hatched a holistic vision for the individual parcels. They extracted from the developers commitments for luxury housing that would include affordable units and the kind of large-scale retail for which Washingtonians have long clamored -- all of it across from the Metro stop that opened in 1999. Donatelli agreed to share with the city 25 percent of profits generated by sales and leasing of its apartments.

Community leaders, said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), envisioned a neighborhood that would serve all residents' dining and retail needs, and include a kaleidoscope-like civic plaza for the working-class families and professionals who make up the neighborhood's population, as well as the shoppers streaming in from across the area.

"People wanted a comprehensive development -- not just apartments, but major retail," said Graham, whose ward includes Columbia Heights.

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