Nearly two decades in the making, D.C.'s convention center hotel breaks ground

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 12:42 AM

It's the D.C. hotel that some have doubted would ever be built.

But after two dozen D.C. Council votes, 19 years and several lawsuits, city officials and developers broke ground Wednesday on a 14-story Marriott Marquis, designed as a complement to the city's convention center.

"This day has been a long time coming," said Gregory O'Dell, president and chief executive of the Washington Convention and Sports Authority. "People have stuck with us, through thick and thin."

D.C. officials began pushing nearly two decades ago for a companion hotel across from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, which itself was on the drawing board.

The convenience of staying next to the center, which opened on Mount Vernon Place in 2003, along with convention-level room prices, would allow the city to compete other regional convention space, such as National Harbor in Prince George's County, where Gaylord built a 2,000-room hotel, officials said.

But years of squabbling over who would pay for the public-private partnership and legal disputes over Bethesda-based Marriott International's winning bid to operate the hotel scuttled plans. Meanwhile, hotel bookings in the District fell short of expectations, and the credit crunch froze the financing needed to make the hotel a reality.

D.C. officials approved $206 million for the hotel over the summer, and the developer secured financing from private investors.

The four-star boutique-style hotel, a mix of glass and steel, is tentatively set to open in spring 2014, officials said. It will have 1,175 rooms, including 46 suites, more than 100,000 square feet of meeting space, a lobby, and five retail outlets and restaurants on the ground floor, at a cost of $520 million.

The hotel will also incorporate the former headquarters of the American Federation of Labor, a seven-story brick and limestone building built in 1916 that is a national historic landmark.

At a ceremony attended by more than 350 people at the hotel site at Ninth Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) jokingly said that the hotel would have been built faster if he and a city colleague had gone to the site every day and "put down brick by brick by brick."

Washington developer Jim Abdo likened the hotel project to a recurring nightmare. Another developer, Bob Gladstone of Quadrangle Development, called the groundbreaking a "reunion of the faithful."

The construction also marks the long-awaited beginning of a neighborhood renaissance in the historically impoverished Shaw section of the city, which has waited for a hip hotel, high-end stores and sit-down restaurants.

In September, construction began at the CityMarket at O Street NW project, which will develop 87,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space and 600 residential units at the site of the 19th-century-era O Street Market. A Giant Food store will anchor that project, which had been in the works for more than eight years.

"The project is not only going to be the key to the revitalization of this area, but it will be a key to one of our burgeoning industries: tourism," said Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

Original plans called for a 1,400-room, $750 million hotel with several stories of underground parking. After developers complained about rising construction costs and asked for more public funding, the size and scope of the hotel were scaled back. But funding issues remained, and a lawsuit filed by developer JBG Cos., which alleged favoritism in the bidding process, complicated matters further.

"We know we've lost about $250 million in revenue over the years of not being able to start, and missed job opportunities," said Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D), particularly "when you look at the unemployment in this city, especially in the eastern end."

Completion of the new Marriott is a long way off. Because of a complex excavation process that includes a tunnel to the convention center and below-ground parking, construction is expected to take a year longer than for other buildings.

City officials said the project will create about 1,600 construction jobs, along with more than 1,000 jobs at the hotel.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company