Though Developers Built It, The Tenants Did Not Come

Shiny new buildings have gone up near Nationals Park in Southeast Washington but have stayed largely empty.
Shiny new buildings have gone up near Nationals Park in Southeast Washington but have stayed largely empty. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2008

It's the office building with the million-dollar views, a 360-degree panorama that looks out at Nationals Park, the Anacostia River, the Capitol Dome, the Washington Monument, the National Cathedral and the Old Post Office.

But 19 months after Lerner Enterprises announced in March 2007 that its shiny 10-story complex at 20 M St. SE, a block north of the baseball stadium, was "substantially complete," it remains substantially empty. The only tenant, a Wachovia Bank branch, occupies a section of the ground floor but has yet to open.

In many ways, the Lerner building -- owned by the Bethesda real estate family that also owns the Nationals baseball team -- is symbolic of the emerging district around the ballpark. Sleek new buildings with offices, condos, apartments and retail space have popped up all over. But many remain empty, seeking tenants in a sluggish economy.

Michael Stevens, executive director of the Capitol Riverfront business improvement district, which promotes development in the area, said the Lerners have been looking for a high-paying law firm for their building. But with no sit-down restaurants or other amenities nearby, big-name firms have not been willing to move to an area that is off the beaten path.

"People are scared to get off the Red Line," Stevens said of the Metro line that runs through downtown, along K Street. "We think the next generation of workers will live along the Green Line, and that's how we're promoting it."

All around the Lerner building are new projects with few people.

At 1100 First St., the Onyx Apartments had two helium balloons attached to a "Move In Now" sign on the sidewalk as window washers hung from ropes on the side of the building.

On the other side of the street, Velocity Capitol Riverfront condos featured a placard with a phone number for potential buyers. And the Capitol Hill Tower building at New Jersey Avenue and L Street had a window sign announcing that "restaurant spaces" are available.

Along Half Street, which leads from the Navy Yard Metro station into the ballpark, Monument Realty is finishing up an office building that is to open next year.

Stevens and Monument Vice President Russell Hines said that although the Lerners have had interest from smaller companies, the family has sought a major client who can pay top dollar in rent and occupy several floors.

"It's a great building," Hines said. "We're rooting for them."

In the meantime, the Lerners, who declined a request for an interview, have held functions on the top floor of their building, including two for city officials in preparation for the opening of the baseball stadium last spring.

On a recent day, the only sign of life was the image of an ESPN anchorman being broadcast on a large television screen facing the street. None of the few passersby stopped to watch.

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