Thursday night, real estate brokers from all over crammed into B. Smith's restaurant in Union Station for a quintessential Washington business gathering. They grazed for crab dip, subtly eyed each others' name tags and inspected a big model of Station Place, a huge office building that soon will go up next door.
"That this deal got done is a boon to this part of town," said Audrey Cramer, a broker at Cushman & Wakefield Inc. who is working to find tenants for the project.
Two blocks away, in Charles McMillion's living room, several neighbors disagreed. "This is a quiet, historical neighborhood," said McMillion, an economist who lives on F Street NE, a half-block from Station Place.
"And that's the kind of building you'd put in the suburbs, out at Dulles," added his neighbor, retiree Peggy Blackford.
"I just want to be able to take my grandkids outside," said Nancy Lucas, who has lived in her F Street house since childhood and is worried about construction noise and dust.
The fight between the developers of Station Place and some of its neighbors is, in the details, about architecture, about land use and about big construction trucks rumbling through narrow streets at 6 in the morning.
But more broadly, it is about two Washingtons. Station Place is at the frontier of these two worlds, and as such, the skirmish over its development shows what may happen in neighborhoods throughout the city as commercial growth pushes into residential areas.
One Washington is a city of stunning commercial growth over the past decade, a downtown bursting out of its traditional boundaries because it does not have enough room for all the law firms, associations and government agencies that want to be there.
The other is a city of quiet neighborhoods: The Washington of people who have lived in the same Victorian rowhouse for their entire lives and are sometimes frustrated by the noise and bustle of change, and of more affluent newcomers who have helped create the new prosperity -- as even they sometimes complain about its discontents.
While the particulars of Station Place are unusual -- it was already zoned for high-density commercial use -- its success shows how the D.C. approval process for new growth is weighted toward that which is new and big. Critics of the development were mollified with some design changes, but ultimately they will become neighbors of a big glass box of which they are none too fond.
In areas such as those around the new convention center and near the intersection of New York and Florida avenues NE, conflicts are likely to play out for years, centering on this question: What should a neighborhood be?
One thing the developers and residents agree on is what a neighborhood should not be: a huge parking lot atop a former CSX rail yard, which is what the Station Place land has been for years.
Developers have tried and failed for almost 15 years to turn the prime land -- 5.5 acres just a few feet from the entrance to Union Station -- into offices. None found the right mix of financing and tenants to make feasible the site bordered by F Street, H Street, 2nd Street, and the Union Station rail tracks.
Louis Dreyfus Property Group eventually bought the land, and the firm set about looking for tenants for a potentially massive space. Last spring, the Securities and Exchange Commission signed a lease to put its headquarters -- at least 650,000 square feet of space -- in Station Place, the largest lease deal in the District in a decade. The developer hired architects Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates to design a big, modern, Class A office building and for the past year has been working to get the plans approved.
Developers plan to ultimately include three interconnected buildings totaling 1.5 million square feet, the size of 28 NFL football fields. Broker Cushman & Wakefield is now searching for big government agencies, law firms or other tenants to occupy the space the SEC does not need. Work on the first building began this month.
At first, the people who live nearest Station Place were excited about the development, hoping for some new stores and activity in the neighborhood. But when they saw the plans, many thought the building -- with its entrance facing away from the neighborhood and presenting an eight-story glass wall towering over their town houses -- would be nearly as bad as the parking lot.
"It's a very cold-looking building," said Drury Tallant, an architect who lives on 3rd Street, a block from Station Place. "It's a two-story stone base and five or six stories of undifferentiated glass above that that simply bleeds off into the sky. There's no cornice, no detailing. It's just kind of a banal federal office building. It looks more like it belongs in Crystal City than in a Victorian neighborhood."
They wanted the buildings set back from the street more, perhaps rising up in steps so as not to have such an imposing facade butting against their rowhouses. They wanted retail on the first floor, to have more places to shop and eat dinner.
So the neighbors took to the many boards with authority over new designs in the area close to the Capitol, including city zoning authorities and the Fine Arts Commission.
This being Washington, it was quite a legal fight. McMillion, who chaired the effort, said 60 neighborhood residents were directly involved -- about a third of them lawyers. Their efforts paid off some, as Louis Dreyfus was forced to revise the plan to make the building less of a monolith.
Bob Braunohler, a vice president for the developer, ticked off the design changes the firm made: "We added setbacks and notches, increased the size of the plazas facing 2nd Street and added fountains to make it more pedestrian friendly. It added a fair amount of cost to the building."
He even has some praise for the activists who pushed those changes. "Even though it will cost us more, the product, the final building, will be just spectacular. The opponents do deserve some credit for forcing us to think a little outside the typical developer mentality."
But it was not far enough outside that mentality for many of the neighbors, who besides architectural complaints argue that the building creates security risks and potential environmental problems.
"Station Place had the potential to connect Union Station to H Street and make the entire area a better place to live," McMillion said. "This doesn't do that."
Cynthia Sewell spends her days managing Wright's Market & Deli, on 3rd Street, a small store on the first floor of the rowhouse in which she lives. She spends her nights working for the Postal Service.
"It's a long day," she said.
Her parents owned it before she did, and the sign out front includes a Pepsi-Cola logo that looks to be at least 30 years old. "A lot of people knew my parents and now shop from me. Kids who grew up in the neighborhood have come back to live here. It's very family-oriented."
But it is not like when she was growing up.
"Everybody used to play together, all of us kids," she said. "Now it's just couples. They don't have kids. They just work and come home."
This influx of young, affluent people is a product of the same development in Washington that is the reason for projects such as Station Place, which Sewell views with mixed feelings.
Graduate student Leah Smethurst, 24, is part of the influx. On Thursday afternoon she was walking a half-poodle, half-cocker spaniel named Cooper down 2nd Street, near the town house she and her fiance bought a year ago.
She is excited about plans for Station Place. She hopes it can spur development on H Street NE, which is now a run-down area of vacant lots. And she dismisses worries about construction noise and the imposing dimensions of the project.
"The truth is, we live so close to the trains, I hear them go by now. We live in the city. Sometimes there's gonna be noise," Smethurst said.
And for a few businesses in the neighborhood, there may be advantages to the growth.
Chris Rotunno owns Banducci's Restaurant, on 2nd Street NE. Business has sometimes been tough in the three years he has been there. But he has been buoyed by support from the neighborhood; he said he has come to know about two-thirds of his customers.
Nonetheless, "I think it's excellent that more people will be in the area," Rotunno said of Station Place, as he tore romaine lettuce to have salad ready for the dinner rush. "I think we'll benefit from the construction phase and the tenants."
A half-block away, though, Lucas, the lifelong resident of the neighborhood, is not so sure. She views her experience as something of a cautionary tale for the residents of the next hot neighborhoods for commercial growth, the future frontiers of commercial Washington.
"The more buildings they build, the more traffic there is, the more crime," she said. "We take my grandkids to Maryland or Virginia for recreation. They go swim in the suburbs, go to the gym in the suburbs. It used to be this neighborhood was a place where kids could have everything they need. It seems like all this growth is more business oriented than about family."
Closings Law firm Foley and Lardner leased 64,000 square feet of space in the Foundry Building at 1055 Thomas Jefferson St. NW in Georgetown, expanding beyond its digs in Washington Harbour. It fills a space being vacated by the National Academy of the Sciences, which is moving downtown. Trammell Crow Co. represented the building owner, TMT Foundry LLC; Insignia ESG represented Foley and Lardner.
Neil Irwin writes about local commercial real estate and economic development every week in Washington Business. His e-mail address is email@example.com.