Two years ago, the corner of 13th and U streets NW was a commuter parking lot for Metro's Green Line. Now, though, it is home to one of the city's newest apartment buildings, the Ellington, which is selling itself as a cool place in a hot neighborhood.
The three-month-old neon-adorned building, which features units with big industrial-style windows, is beginning to fill with residents enthusiastic about the area's liveliness: The U Street corridor near the eight-story building includes a row of mostly independently owned restaurants, bars, boutiques and nightclubs.
Another perk, of course: easy access to the U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo Metro stop right across the street.
"I love the neighborhood," said David Marshall, who previously lived in nearby Adams Morgan. "It has the flavor of Adams Morgan," known as a night-life destination, "but without the sidewalk congestion."
The Ellington is part of a recent wave of condo and apartment construction near U Street, but the neighborhood is still not as densely populated as some other D.C. areas popular with renters. Nonetheless, there are enough people around, both residents and club-goers, that tenants at the 190-unit Ellington say the neighborhood seems safe and fairly active. "U Street is busy. There would always be someone to help out or witness something," said Jin Lee, 24, a research associate at a small D.C. environmental think tank.
Mona Test, 33, an Ellington resident since June 1, said she prefers the area to her previous residence on Capitol Hill. "It has a city feel," she said, "energetic, chic and artsy."
"It's the best location: new and up and coming," said Test, a saleswoman for Nextel Communications Inc.
The Ellington is introducing even more newness to the area by renting first-floor storefronts to mostly community or minority-owned retailers, said Chris Donatelli, president of Bethesda-based Donatelli & Klein Inc., which developed the building along with Gragg & Associates LLC of the District. The building is managed by Bozzuto Group.
These businesses will include the Maggie Moo's ice cream shop and the Mocha Hut coffee shop. Property Manager Ted Brownfield estimates all seven businesses should be open in a few months.
Despite new establishments getting attention, the area is still known for its history. The likes of jazz icon Duke Ellington -- for whom the building is named -- and literary great Langston Hughes -- remembered with the nearby Langston Lofts condominiums -- frequented the area when it was a center of the city's pre-integration black night life. Just off the corner of 13th and U streets, G. Byron Peck's mural of Ellington seems to be keeping an eye on the new building.
"Everybody is glad that big empty space is filled with that nice building," said Ben Ali Jr., second-generation owner of Ben's Chili Bowl, the well-known restaurant up the street.
Bringing more residents to the area will likely create a "more competitive business environment," Ali said. "But that's normally good for customers and can be good for business."
Despite the neighborhood's attractions, Marshall, a researcher at a law firm that is a 20-minute walk from the Ellington, is content to stay in on occasion. He sometimes prefers to hang out in the building's club room "just to be out, but in," he said. The room, with its plasma TV and soft, gray-ish couch, provides a change of scenery from the third-floor one-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife.
"It has the same comfort as my apartment," said Marshall. "I actually fell asleep down there [once], and woke up at 3 a.m. That shows, to me, how safe it is, because I'm someone who's always on guard."
When he does get out, it's likely he will eat at Ben's.
Because a chili half smoke isn't exactly health food, the apartment building's 24-hour gym is especially welcome. Without it, he said, "I'd be in serious trouble."
Another plus is a rooftop deck that Brownfield says will have a community barbecue.
The Ellington is trying to be hip, in its architecture and its marketing. "D.C. errs on the conservative side," said Brownfield. "The attempt was to be contemporary," he said as he sat on the club room couch while VH-1 music videos played on the plasma TV.
The foyer is shiny and stylish, with a lot of gray and blue shades and angular furniture. At first, that was a bit intimidating, said Lee, especially when she left to run errands in her pajama pants and had to walk through what she called a "fancy building."
Now, however, she said, "I feel a little more sophisticated and post-modern than I did before."
One thing -- albeit a very minor one -- that Lee has not been able to get used to: the Ellington slogan, which is "B U on U." Translation: "Be You on U Street."
"I think that's really cheesy," she said. The building's promotional CD, which features plenty of photos of trendy, attractive young adults, "is a little overboard," too, she said.
So far, the building is so new that only about 30 percent of the apartments are occupied, even though about 60 percent are leased, said Brownfield.
That's not something to worry about, said Lee. "It's not like a scary house full of a bunch of empty rooms." She said she still runs into other residents.
And, if anything, this means the leasing office has more complimentary cookies from nearby bakery CakeLove to go around.