A June 21 Washington Business article incorrectly stated that the D.C. Council's economic development committee rejected a proposal by council member Jack Evans to build a baseball stadium in Southwest. The proposal was never presented to the committee. (Published 6/23/04)
Five years ago, the Capital Children's Museum started to look for a new home. It had outgrown its five-story, run-down brick buildings, a former convent at the bottom of an overpass behind Union Station that is hard to find and hard to reach.
The museum's search ended this spring after it agreed to move to L'Enfant Plaza -- a broad, open rectangle enclosed by large, drab government buildings, a relic of the 1960s urban renewal projects that swept through Southwest. It is only a few blocks from the popular National Mall, but it is familiar mostly to the bureaucrats who work there.
The museum and Chevy Chase-based developer JBG Cos., which bought some of the buildings and land in L'Enfant Plaza, hope to change that.
How the private, nonprofit museum and the big developer got together is an instructive lesson in how Washington works: The chairman of the museum's board plays golf with a managing partner at JBG, and the chairman's old company had long done business with the developer. JBG wanted a cultural attraction like a museum to jazz up L'Enfant Plaza, and the museum needed a place to land when a deal for a spot on the Anacostia River looked like it would take longer than the museum wanted.
The 30-year-old museum, with such attractions for children as hands-on experiments in chemistry and exhibits on Mexico and Japan, has attracted an influential 21-person board of trustees that includes some of the most prominent names in the District's real estate industry, including developer Giuseppe Cecchi; architect Roger K. Lewis; developer Anthony M. Lanier; and Herbert S. Miller, a developer who is helping design and build the residential and retail project next to MCI Center.
Miller is an ally of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). In recent months, the developer has been pushing redevelopment of a swath of the District from L'Enfant Plaza to the Southwest waterfront centered around a baseball stadium that Miller or some other developer or team presumably would build. Evans has drafted legislation directing the District to buy land, hire a developer and get ready to build a $383 million ballpark -- a move intended to show major-league baseball that the District is serious about drawing a team but questioned by some Council members who worry about picking a stadium site before Washington even gets a team. The council's economic development committee later rejected Evans's proposal.
Kathy Dwyer Southern, the museum's president and chief executive, said the board's expertise was important. "We had people who had a deep knowledge of the city and who are involved in real estate."
The museum needed to move if it wanted to broaden its reach and become nationally known. That meant leaving its three 125-year-old brick buildings on the corner of H and 3rd streets NE, which had also been a home for the poor and elderly. Now they are accessible only by car, bus, or a six-block walk from the Metro stop at Union Station through parking garages and onto an overpass, a tough trek with children. It would also cost too much to expand there, the board decided.
"We were in a good location to serve a smaller community, but we needed to be in a better location to serve a broader community," said S. Ross Hechinger, chairman of the board. Hechinger, grandson of the founder of the family hardware business, which grew into the Hechinger chain of hardware stores, is retired. The chain was sold in 1997 and it filed for bankruptcy in 1999.
What they needed was a site nearer a Metro station and with parking. In 2001, the museum narrowed its list to five sites in the District. One of the top contenders, Hechinger said, was a space along a six-block section of waterfront in Southwest that stretches from the Maine Avenue fish market to Arena Stage.
The neighborhood, built as a 1960s experiment in urban renewal, is home to about 4,000 apartments and townhouses, as well as government office buildings. It has been underutilized, D.C. planners said, because Interstate 395 cuts through it and there are few crosswalks on the busy streets and not enough shops to attract passersby. D.C. officials have long wanted to transform the area into shops, restaurants, apartments and cultural attractions.
The museum started to talk to the District about a site across Maine Avenue from the Arena Stage theater, with the museum replacing some of the parking lots that serve cruise ships along the Anacostia River. But the talks ultimately ended.
"By last summer, we could see things were moving, but they were moving slowly" on redeveloping the waterfront, said Southern, the museum's chief executive. "It became a question of the timing, and we became less certain about going there."
The District was slow to move on the Southwest waterfront, officials said, because it was in disagreement with the publicly chartered economic development corporation, the National Capital Revitalization Corp., over which should control land along the Southwest waterfront. The two reached a tentative agreement just last month.
The museum was starting to get in a hurry. It would need a big campaign to raise money for the new museum, which would take time.
Hechinger then turned to Michael J. Glosserman, a managing partner at JBG, a developer founded more than two decades ago. The firm has projects underway in Northern Virginia, the Maryland suburbs and downtown D.C.
The Hechinger hardware stores had gone into many of JBG's shopping centers in the Washington area. The Hechinger family had also invested in JBG's offices, housing and retail projects. And Ross Hechinger and Glosserman were golfing buddies.
"We asked him: 'What markets did he think would be the most viable for us?' " Southern said.
Glosserman had an idea.
JBG was considering buying part of L'Enfant Plaza. Company executives said they saw the site as ripe for redevelopment; they envisioned putting more shops at street level instead of under the Loews L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, where they are now, plus building condos or apartments, restaurants, and perhaps a museum or other cultural attraction.
"If you don't go to the waterfront," Glosserman said he asked Hechinger and Southern, "would you like to go to L'Enfant?"
At first the museum people weren't wild about the idea, given the plaza's lack of identity. But after they looked at JBG's tentative plans, Hechinger said, he jokingly told Glosserman in a conference call: "Hmm. Let me think about it." After a short pause, the museum chairman said: "Yes."
"We were so excited about the location," Southern said. "It had transportation with Metro coming in there, fabulous parking and it was two blocks from the Mall."
The children's museum meanwhile had a $25 million offer from Jim Abdo, a residential developer in the District, for its old buildings, which Abdo plans to turn into condominiums.
In November, JBG bought 800,000 square feet in the plaza, a piece that includes two nondescript office buildings housing a dozen government agencies; the plaza itself; and a 370-room hotel. An executive at JBG said the price was about $200 million.
"It's a vast plaza area in a great location, but the space is dead," Glosserman said. "We wanted to create something that had a lot of excitement. The children's museum was the opportunity to attract an enormous number of people and make it be the anchor of the site."
In the next few months, JBG said, it will work with the children's museum on the design of its new, 140,000-square-foot museum, which will cost $100 million. The museum plans a campaign to raise the other $75 million.
JBG hired renowned architects Cesar Pelli & Associates to help design the new museum, as well as the rest of the space it bought. It expects to spend up to $300 million over the next five to 10 years rebuilding the area.
The children's museum said it expects to attract half a million visitors a year -- more than twice the number it gets now -- when the new location opens in June 2008.
The old museum will close its doors on Labor Day and mount traveling exhibits to schools and other places while its new building is under construction.
Dana Hedgpeth writes about commercial real estate and economic development. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.