Narinder Sharma drove a cab for nine years, borrowed money from friends and sank all his savings into the restaurant he wanted to open. He spent $35,000 on new floors, ceilings, fixtures and kitchen equipment before opening the Prince Cafe last February, at 801 10th St. NW, where the sign outside boasts of "the world's best pizza."
Late last month, Sharma and his wife Neelan, received a letter from the city informing them that they have until May 31 to make way for the proposed Washington Convention Center. In that respect, the Sharmas are like scores of other small-business owners and about 170 residents of a three-block area southwest of Mount Vernon Square.
Two week ago; the city finished mailing offers totaling $14.7 million to 71 landowners in the area bounded by 9th 11th and H streets and New York Avenue NW. Individual offers ranged from $34,000 to the $1,003,000 for a power substation of Potomac Electric Co.
The Sharmas' case may be the most dramatic, but is not the only instance of best laid plans gone awry. As in any aging area of an old city, the convention center site also is the locus of great visions and punctured dreams. In the early 1970s, Congress approved plans for the Eisenhower Convention Center, an effort on a grander scale that eventually was shelved.
But the Eisenhower center may have killed the area in the another way. "One an area is designated for public action, you can never reap your investment when it's taken by condemnation," said Kirk White, a city planner and a lawyer. "There's no incentive for putting money into a building because you're never sure you'll get your dollars out."
A conversation with virtually any store owner brings the same pained sigh of resignation. After years of waiting, the ax finally fell.
Although the area is decaying, businesses that depend on walk-in trade now face the prospect of being moved from their customers and being charged rents that may be too steep.
Joseph Rappaport has operated the Bargain Book Shop at 808 9th St. NW for 34 years. "It's not the best location in the ciy," he said, standing behind the front counter of the booklined store, "but it's been good for me. I've made a living here for 34 years. To have to pick up and leave at this stage of the game, it's not easy."
Rappaport said he would like to stay in the downtown area to "retain some of the goodwill I've built up." Finding another location downtown that he can afford "is not likely," he conceded.
Rappaport and his family own the building where his stoe is located and the city wants to buy the building within 30 days for about $81,000. If the building is sold, the city will rent him the space he now uses, Rappaport said - for $150 a month more than what he now pays.
Romeo P DiGiulian runs the business his father stated in the early 1900s, American Mosaic Co. More than 60 years ago, according to DiGiulian, his father and some partners constructed the building at 912 I St. where the company continues to operate.
"My father put these floors in," DiGiulian said with pride, showing a visitor tile floors with mosaic designs. "You know, when you've been coming to a place for 40 years, it's like a home," DiGiulian said. He pulls out a 1905 journal in which most of the entries are in Italian, in his father's hand, he said. He poined to the old oak filing cabinet, old desks, a swivel chair and a mirrored mantel near his desk. "Everything I've got around here is antique," he said.
On a walk through his building, he noted the solid structure, with slabs of marble for flooring and walls laid aside for storage. DiGiulian estimated that he has 10,000 to 15,000 square feet of storage space. He, too, is skeptical of finding another property with equal space that will not cost him much more than what he now pays.
Alden J. Buell has operated Buell's Carburetor and Ignition Service at 811 10th St. since 1940. If he sold his property to the city for what he has been offered, he would have more than $1 million. But Buell plans to buy land somewhere else and keep things going, turning the "business over to the fellas who are working for me," if they are interested in having it, and selling the business if they are not. "I want to let the fellas run it," he said.
According to city officials, the officers to lanowners are based on reports by two independent appraisers, subsequently reviewed by city appraisers who recommend one of the two appraisals if they differ.
Landowners are free to refuse the offer and attempt to negotiate. But city officials ultimately can take the land, exercising the city's right of eminent domain, and let the courts decide later what the fair market value of the land should be.
The city will advise business people about where they might relocate, but no guarantees are made to find them comparable space at equivalent rents. In most instances, the city will pay a business its moving expenses - nothing more.
"They don't care about goodwill or loss of income or anything," Rappaport said glumly.
The city has a responsibility under D.C. law to "find decent, safe and sanitary housing" within the means of the housing residents being displaced, according to Donald L. Croll, chief of the real estate aqcuisition division of the city Department of General Services.
"If we can't find such a place, the project comes to a halt," Croll said.
Relocating area residents is complicated because most of them are Chinese, many of whom do not speak Engilsh and do not even understand each other because they speak differnet dialects. Their lives center around nearby Chinatown.
The city's Department of Housing And Community Development is building an apartment house in the Chinatown area at 6th and H streets NW, and residents displaced by the center will be given first priority on relocating ther, Croll said.
Most of the 71 separate property owners in the center site area own relatively relatively small parcels of land and small buildings. In addition to Pepco, one of the largest owners was a company known as Capitol Development Corp., which was dissolved last July for tax purposes, according to the trustee, Patricia Bissell.
Walter Green, one of six shareholders in Capitol Development, said that in the late 1950s he and the other four stockholders started buying small pieces of property in the area "purely as an investment." All of them had some prior connection, direct or indirect, with the area.
Adm. Wallace Short, for example, owned H Street property that included an Italian restaurant, Green's company owned the Ebbitt Hotel. Philip Corr owned a hobby shop in the area. Frank Calcara owned other property nearby. James R. Sharp was Short's lawyer.
Even in the late 1950s, the neighborhood was less than choice, according to Sharp. Originally, the five thought about building a motel or an office building, but when they sought bank financing, found none, Sharp said.
So, Sharp said, Capitol Development decided to buy more land, hoping that would mean higher value and that borrowing money would be easier. But by 1961, when the company stopped buying, it owned 33,000 square feet-about one-quarter of a square block-and no bank would lend it money.
At that point, Sharp said, headaches began. Good tenants were hard to find because of the neighborhood, property was difficult to maintain because tenants abused it. The Italian restaurant was "a loser" and was torn down to make way for a parking lot.Taxes increased despite the area's blight.
Sharp said the corporation shows a net loss of about $100,000. The city has offered about $1.4 million for Capitol Development's land, but Sharp said any profit will be small.
"You have to figure 18 years of investment," he said. "Anything (invested) at 6 or 7 percent would have done better."
Because the city's plans for a civic center underwent prolonged changes and delays, some property owners gambled that nothing would come of such plans.
Cary C. Conn, an archivist at the National Archives, bought a three-story brownstone house at 919 I St. NW form an estate about a year ago. Conn said he was unaware of the center plans when he bid for the house but completed the purchase after learning of the possibiltiy.
"At that point," Conn said, "the convention center seemed to be out of the question-or it seemed unlikely. I loved the house, I put it in a contract and I bought it." He put on a new roof, installed new windows and restored the inside of the house.
As he spoke to a visitor, Conn stood in a front hallway jammed with 40 sheets of drvwall delivered only an hour earlier. "I ordered it before the letter from the city arrived," he said.
The city has offered Con $76,700 for his house and land, but he figures that he will lose money after selling the house and buying antoher one to reinvest his money.
The most painful problem appears to be that of the Sharmas, who face the loss of all their savings because no one told them soon enough that the civic center might displace them.
Asked if he found the experience painful, Sharma, a native of New Delhi, replied that his situation was "musch more than that. This could finish my career," he said. "That kind of money is hard to come by."