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A new Brookland with 'buzz'? Or just more noise?

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 5:37 PM

As Jim Stiegman peers out the window of his Northeast Washington tavern, he shakes his head.

"There's the Metro, but nobody's walking in the neighborhood," he said. "Nobody walks around in Brookland, because there is no reason to walk around."

Stiegman, who owns Colonel Brooks' Tavern, a landmark in the quiet Brookland neighborhood of rowhouses and single-family homes, envisions a vibrant urban village around the Brookland Metro Station 10 years from now.

As part of that, he plans to close his bar in the next 12 to 15 months and build a six-story, mixed-used development with apartments, restaurants and stores that would take up nearly the entire block between Ninth and 10th streets off Monroe Street NE.

The proposal to build the 220,000-square-foot project, which needs approval from the D.C. Zoning Commission, has stirred opposition from some longtime residents, who question the scale of it and worry that their neighborhood will be filled with noise, more traffic and parking challenges.

"I won't be able to sit out here anymore," Curtis Knight said as he stood on his deck recently. Knight's rowhouse on 10th Street is one of six that would remain on the block, separated from the project by a new alley. "All I'm going to see is this building."

Dellas Wilson, who has lived in Brookland for 34 years, worries about how the building could affect the value of his property. The developers did not make an offer to buy his house or any of the other five rowhouses.

"The scary part is you work so hard to get a house and then someone comes along with a project like this and puts it in your face and they don't give a hoot about you," he said.

Ever DuBose, who lives in one of the six rowhouses, said the project is ill-suited for the community.

"It's just too much for this area," DuBose said. "It will be too much density."

Other residents say additional density is what Brookland needs, especially the 12th Street corridor and the area around the Metro station.

David Grosso, who lives in Brookland, said more residents and retail will infuse energy into the sleepy neighborhood.

"The more retail we have, the more life and buzz we'll have," he said.

Lisa Bonds, who lives on 10th Street, said she moved to the city to have all that a city offers, including the ability to walk to stores. In Brookland, she said, she can't.

"We have what could be a fabulous neighborhood, but we lack what other neighborhoods in the city do - restaurants, coffee shops," Bonds said. Stiegman's plans will expand the retail offerings along the 12th Street corridor, she said.

Bonds goes into other parts of the District and Maryland and Virginia to shop. "We need population density to stay in the community," Bonds said.

Stiegman said his proposal dovetails with the guidelines set in the Brookland/CUA Metro Station Small Area Plan, which was unanimously approved by the D.C. Council in March 2009. The plan provides guidance for development and revitalization of underutilized areas within a quarter-mile of the Metro station.

That's why Stiegman said redeveloping his property is the best option - for him and the community. Five years ago, he said, he realized that he had to explore other possibilities after his bar began struggling financially. It was a difficult decision, he said, but he realized that the bar couldn't escape its past.

The tavern was the scene of a botched early morning robbery that resulted in a triple murder in 2003. Three employees - a cook, a dishwasher and the head chef - were led into a walk-in freezer and shot execution-style.

The dark, wood-paneled bar, which has a wall bearing framed photos of Jehiel Brooks, the 19th-century militiaman-turned-lawyer for whom the bar and neighborhood are named, never recovered.

"Essentially, 20 to 25 percent of my business went away and never came back," said Stiegman, who opened the restaurant in 1980.

The troubles forced him to give up on a companion restaurant, Island Jim, he had opened next door. Island Jim closed in 2006.

Even though Stiegman had fewer customers coming through the door, his property tax bills were getting bigger as developers began to notice Brookland.

He said his assessed value went from $750,000 in 2002 to $2.9 million in 2007. His tax bill rose from $8,500 to nearly $30,000.

"That's a lot of cheeseburgers," he said.

A mixed-use Main Street

Rather than close Colonel Brooks' and sell the property, Stiegman opted to partner with the Menkiti Group and Horning Brothers to redevelop it, joining a host of developers that have projects on the table in Brookland.

They include the construction of a four-story building with 41 housing units and underground parking in place of a one-story warehouse where artists rented work space. Brookland Artspace Lofts, projected to open in the spring, is a joint venture between Dance Place and the Minneapolis-based nonprofit group Artspace Projects. The project, a few blocks from the Metro station, will provide affordable housing and work space for artists, its developers say.

On the other side of the Metro station, plans call for a college main street with 83,000 square feet of street-level retail on Catholic University-owned land along Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street. The $200 million development will feature 720 apartments and 45 townhomes, 15,000 square feet of artists' studio space and 850 below-grade parking spaces. The city has approved the plans, and developers expect to break ground this year.

Wilson, who is concerned about how such developments will alter the community, said, "It seems like when they want to build retail, they keep talking about Ward 5," which includes Brookland.

A neighbor, Ruth Tyler, agreed. Bo Menkiti of Menkiti Group "said he is trying to help the city. I say, 'Go to some of the rundown areas,' " she said.

Stiegman said some residents have asked that the building he is proposing be two stories. But he said that would not make "economic sense." Instead, he has made adjustments to setbacks and created street-level entrances to some of the apartments to give a "neighborhood-friendly feel to it."

"We have some bumps in the road, but I think we are going to navigate them," he said. "We are answering the call for mixed-use on Monroe Street."

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