By Amy Reinink
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 10, 2010; F01
Khalil Ghannam moved his home and founded his business in NoMa two years ago based on hope for what the neighborhood could become.
Plans for the old railroad yard and warehouse district north of Capitol Hill and Union Station called for more than 20 million square feet of new mixed-use development over the next couple of decades, so Ghannam, 49, opened Pound Coffee on Second Street NE and waited.
Two years later, Ghannam and others who staked claims in NoMa in its earliest days say the neighborhood, named for its location north of Massachusetts Avenue, is on its way to becoming a full-fledged community, with a spate of new apartment and condominium buildings yielding a rapidly expanding pool of residents.
"I moved here simply to be near the shop," said Ghannam, who rents an apartment off New York Avenue. "But now you can really see the neighborhood starting to emerge and grow."
NoMa has its roots in a classic "build it, and they will come" scenario: Area merchants contributed to a public-private partnership to fund the construction of the New York Avenue Metro station in 2004, hoping that it would lure new business, said Elizabeth Price, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District.
In March 2007, the D.C. Council and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty approved a special assessment for commercial property owners in the 35-block area to fund the NoMa Business Improvement District, which provides services including maintenance, public safety and marketing.
Tenants started rolling in. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives set up shop in NoMa in August 2007. Sirius XM, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and CNN also have offices or headquarters in the neighborhood, and future tenants are expected to include NPR, the Community College of the District of Columbia and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Ghannam opened Pound Coffee in a ground-floor retail space in the ATF building in April 2008, moving into a nearby apartment about the same time. Ghannam and other residents admit that they felt some isolation in the neighborhood's early days as the first retail and residential developments were completed.
"I'd get home from work and realize there really wasn't anywhere I could go without getting in the car," Ghannam said.
But that sense of isolation is becoming a memory as new buildings open almost monthly.
Just last month, the 212-unit Loree Grand at Union Place apartment building opened, as did a 340-bed intern-housing facility and the eight-mile Metropolitan Branch Trail, a paved trail that runs between Union Station and Silver Spring.
In August, the long-awaited Constitution Square development is slated to open with 440 apartments, a Hilton Garden Inn hotel and two office buildings. A Harris Teeter grocery store is slated to open in December.
The neighborhood's earliest residents say amenities such as the bike trail and the Harris Teeter will help NoMa start to feel like a cohesive community.
"Something as little as the bike path can be huge," Ghannam said. "Just having a recreational activity nearby makes you feel like your neighborhood is connected to the larger city."
NoMa is surrounded by historic neighborhoods, including Eckington, Bloomingdale and Capitol Hill, and many residents said they were attracted to the excitement of new construction surrounded by the stability of historic homes.
"I loved that I'd have brand-new development on one side of the block and an established neighborhood with residents who have been there for years on the other side," said Maria-Lana Queen, 41, a grant manager for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Queen said she initially turned to neighborhoods such as the U Street corridor when searching for a diverse, energetic community that would inspire the abstract art she creates outside her day job, but she found NoMa after deeming U Street "too congested."
"NoMa had the kind of positive energy I was looking for," Queen said. "It's a different take on city living."
Beverley East, 56, an author and a handwriting analyst, said the new condominium she bought in Capitol Overlook, one of NoMa's first new residential buildings, drew her to the neighborhood three years ago. Her condominium on R Street NE is modern and spacious, and it sits on a block that seemed quiet and safe, East said.
Only after East moved in did she start to appreciate amenities such as the Metro stop and the Greyhound bus station, not to mention the FedEx depot she uses frequently for business and fast-food restaurants such as Five Guys for her then-teenage son.
"The neighborhood was not what sold me on moving here, but I love it," East said.
For all the amenities and pending construction, residents say there are still gaps they'd like to see filled, such as a sit-down restaurant in addition to Au Bon Pain and the other "fast casual" places.
Ghannam said that if his business is any indication, more restaurants and retail shops will emerge soon: Pound Coffee recently started to stay open on nights and weekends to cater to the neighborhood's growing pool of residents in addition to its established group of office workers.
"At first, we were open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and we were out of here right after lunch," Ghannam said.
"Our entire client base was in the ATF building," he added. "I think we're a good example of the evolution of the neighborhood. It may still be a while before the residential side comes into its own, but it's heading in that direction. It's starting to realize its potential."