Most of the old burned out buildings are still old and burned out" along. H Street in Northeast Washington, 14 years after the riots, said Joseph Sims, manager of Advisory NeighborhoodCommission 6A.
But he and other area residents think they see signs of better times ahead, a rebirth for what was once Washington's second-busiest commercial district.
One hopeful sign is the city proposal for zoning changes that would permit a $20 million development of shops and offices and 96 apartments on H Street, between Sixth and Seventh streets NE. The zoning changes will be considered at a public hearing of the D.C. Zoning Commission on April 26 at 1:30 p.m. in Room 11A of the District Building.
The project would be the first major commercial or retail development in the 13-block H Street corridor since 90 stores were burned and closed and one person killed in the rioting that followed the April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The city plans to raze the boarded-up buildings on the 2.2-acre block in the next few months and sell the site (for $606,000) to a local group headed by Lorraine Alexander, longtime president of the H Street Businessmen's Assocation, according to Russell Simmons, acting chief of marketing and development for the city's Department of Housing and Community Development.
The development, to be called the H Street Mall, will contain a small bank, a department store and other shops as well as some office space, Alexander said. Alexander, who heads a small construction firm, said she already has out-of-state financing for the project. She hopes to settle with the city "shortly" and will begin construction within two months of that settlement, she said.
One of the brightest signs for this area of Northeast Washington is the year-old Hechinger Mall, which anchors the corner where H Street merges with Bladensburg and Benning roads and Maryland Avenue.
The $20 million mall, financed in part with the city's first federal Urban Development Action Grant, is flourishing. John Hechinger Jr., for whose store the mall is named, said some people "thought we were nuts" to open an urban shopping mall in the largely black and depressed section of the city. "But that our merchants are doing well is the proof of the pudding," he said.
The mall's Safeway, the largest store of the nation's largest grocery chain, and the People's Drug Store are doing a booming business, their officials said last week. Almost all of the two dozen remaining shops in the mall have been leased and also are doing well, said Hechinger. About 30 percent of the stores are minority-owned.
Along the dilapidated 13 blocks of H Street, however, and even across the street from the Hechinger Mall where Sears, Roebuck and Co. last week closed a huge, 53-year-old store, there have been few signs of renewal so far.
Sears' five-acre Bladensburg Road store was closed because of poor sales and the age of the building, said Sears officials. The plot is now for sale.
Aside from the Hechinger Mall and the restoration of one or two small one-story buildings, including a bank and credit union, there has been virtually no new commercial or retail construction around H Street.
It's not for want of trying. For more than a decade, city officials, consultants and local merchants and citizens have held meetings and made and revised endless plans to revitalize the H Street corridor.
In 1979, an $8-9 million shopping mall, apartment and town house complex was announced for a two-block stretch of H Street, between Eighth and 10th streets. One of two riot-scarred areas of H Street bought by the city under its urban renewal program, it was sold to a Cleveland construction firm that built a 200-unit apartment building but is still unable to find financing for the commercial or town house phases of the project, said Simmons.
It has been much easier to build housing projects, for which federal loans were more readily available, Simmons said. As a result, "We've got more than 1,000 new apartment units" in the H Street corridor since the riots. The housing isn't actually on H Street, which has been reserved for commercial-retail establishments, but nearby.
"I guess we should be thankful for the Hechinger Mall and what we've got apartments ," said Daisy Powell, an ANC 6A commissioner and vice president of the H Street Project Area Committee, which advises the city on plans for this urban renewal area, one of eight in the city.
"But practically nothing has been happening here; . . . money's been tight, I guess that's part of the problem," said Powell. She and other residents praised the Hechinger Mall, although Powell said she hoped it didn't mean Safeway and People's would close their small, old stores on H Street. Officials for both stores said the decisions on the future of the older stores would be made just before the leases run out, which is not for several years.
Safeway spokesman Ernie Moore said the store at 610 H St., opened in 1964, hasn't made money for a long time. "We've kept it open really as a community service," he sair.