Developers turn to artists to create buzz

By Jonathan O'Connell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010

In coming years, developer JBG plans to tear down a string of storefronts it owns along the 1300 block of U Street NW and put up a 240-room boutique hotel, built atop new retail and topped off by a rooftop pool and adjoining bar.

But Chevy Chase-based JBG is more than a year away from construction. The developer needs a hotel operator and will need to finance construction, a tall order until lending picks up again. Meantime, the company will fill part of its property with something different: Andrew Wodzianski.

Wodzianski is a local painter and mixed-media artist whose specialties include robots and Barbie doll iconography. For two weeks beginning Monday, as part of a special public art gala, he will occupy a specially constructed 100-square-foot cube in a vacant JBG storefront. There he will paint, sculpt and live using miniature furniture that pops up from the floor, nearly 24 hours a day before passersby on U Street.

The exhibit, Wodzianski said, "taps into my willingness to sacrifice myself, my foolishness and my growing interest in performance-based art."

"It's going to require two weeks of sponge bathing, but I'm okay with that," he added.

For JBG, which also has a residential project planned around the corner, on 14th Street, the exhibit is a chance to put vacant retail space to use supporting a neighborhood in which it is heavily invested. "That sort of street activity and excitement is what's so great about the neighborhood, and we think that the hotel is going to contribute to that," said Matt Valentini, JBG development manager.

The JBG exhibit is one of five around the region that the Cultural Development Corp., a D.C. nonprofit that develops space for art and artists, arranged for its Pop-Up Gala fundraiser. The exhibits will be on display until May 1, when the organization will hold a 150-plate dinner, which is sold out. Each developer is also contributing $5,000.

Anne L. Corbett, the nonprofit's executive director, said teaming artists and developers might lead to more permanent collaborations, and she hopes it offers developers a unique chance for publicity in a tough market.

"It's not hard for JBG to get a business story written about the development they're doing, but they need someone else to say that JBG is doing the coolest project on 14th Street right now," she said.

Another developer, Rockville-based Cohen Cos., is in need of a little exposure. The company is scheduled to complete the first phase of its 230,000-square-foot mixed-use Union Place, near Union Station, in May, and is looking to lease 212 apartments there. Jefferson Pinder, a video artist, has constructed a cubic installation in a 3,000 square-foot storefront that the developer ultimately plans for a restaurant.

"Creating buzz about our space, and about our building, allows us to attract residents and potentially tenants," said Eric Siegel, Cohen Cos. executive vice president.

District-based developer LaKritz Adler, Minneapolis-based Artspace and Vornado/Charles E. Smith are also hosting art in vacant places. An "urban playground" has been constructed in the courtyard before 2121 Crystal Dr., one of 26 office buildings Vornado owns in Crystal City.

"Art and architecture make good buildings, whether that's for attracting tenants or whether that's for retaining tenants," said Mitchell N. Schear, Vornado/Smith president.

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