The Fairmont Apartments are keeping more than 200 renovated affordable rental units in the District's rapidly gentrifying Columbia Heights neighborhood, the result of a joint venture between the tenants association and KSI Services Inc., a Vienna developer.
The tenants used the District's right-of-purchase law, designed to allow residents to keep their homes from being bought up for condominiums, to strike a redevelopment deal with KSI. In many such situations, residents sell their rights or become condo owners themselves. But in a neighborhood where expensive condos are increasingly common, the two-building Fairmont complex will remain rentals, available to tenants eligible for Section 8 federal rent subsidies.
Construction was finished in April on the first of the two matching beige brick buildings, the 96-unit Fairmont I at 1400 Fairmont St. NW; the building is now fully occupied. Renovations began in July on the second of the three-wing, six-story buildings; tenants from the extensive waiting list will move in by next spring, according to Betty Wells, property manager.
Wells, who has been at the property since 1998, noted the addition of 13 much-needed three-bedroom units spread between the two buildings, units large enough to provide homes for families.
"We have a lot of kids in the building," she said. Although there are no places for children to play on the grounds, there is a community park about a block away.
The Fairmont I and II buildings take up much of their respective blocks of Fairmont Street between 14th Street and 15th Street, about a 10 minute walk uphill from the busy U Street corridor. It cost an estimated $31.7 million to redevelop the two buildings, with $4.8 million of city funding, according to the District of Housing and Community Development's 2003 annual report.
The once-rundown neighborhood surrounding the buildings bears other signs of renewal: Just north of Fairmont II, the Heights of Columbia is under construction. The seven-story, 56-unit condominium will have 20,000 square feet of ground-level retail space. About half of the units will be made available at prices for lower-income families, according to the National Capital Revitalization Corp.
The Fairmont buildings themselves, built just after World War I, and left vacant for a time after riots following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., are grand even with minimal landscaping -- small pine trees and shrubs just inside black iron gates. The buildings' brick exterior details include window moldings, simple scrollwork and other horizontal elements to break up the otherwise flat monotony of the brick.
Inside the front entrance of the Fairmont I, the high-ceilinged lobby is simple but elegant. The politely efficient 24-hour security guard stands watch behind a long, black granite desk. A sitting area to the right has tasteful light fixtures, richly upholstered chairs and a large commissioned painting of D.C. street scenes superimposed over an image of the Fairmont itself. Two standard elevators plus a special wheelchair elevator lead to wide resident hallways.
Many units have balconies that can be entered from narrow doorways off both the living room and bedroom. The balconies are long and narrow, providing little opportunity for entertaining, but residents seem to use them for bikes, plants or a couple of small chairs.
Tara Perry, a Fairmont resident since January, found the building through For Love of Children, a nonprofit group whose Hope and a Home program provides significantly below-market-rate rental housing for up to three years. "It's been a great, wonderful, positive experience . . . It's a five-minute walk to Metro. There are groceries, everything you want -- it's very convenient to everything," she said.
Among her favorite restaurants are the Adams Morgan Diner and Duke City on U Street, about a 10-minute walk.
The Fairmont has also been a positive experience for her 14-year-old daughter, she said. "It's comfortable for her. People are friendly; they speak to her."
Michael Cephas lives in an impeccable one-bedroom unit. He has been in the building for about three months now, after spending 2 1/2 years on the waiting list. The long-time District resident said the neighborhood is lot nicer than it used to be. "Around 14th and U, it's changed a lot" in particular, he noted. He said he typically goes to the restaurants and nightclubs there for entertainment.
Richard Kinard Bey originally moved to the Fairmont in 1999. He has recently relocated from the Fairmont II to his new apartment in the renovated building. "It's brand spanking new . . . It's quiet and peaceful," he said of his one bedroom unit, which has a balcony facing one of the interior green spaces between the three wings of the building. "It's a nicer atmosphere; it's a lot cleaner," he said.
Bey also said the location is convenient. "It's easy transportation -- bus lines, subway -- you can get anywhere in the metropolitan area." In the immediate vicinity, "there's a drug store, Giant and three hospitals close by, plus a recreation area for children. It's real nice."