A few decades ago, the now vacant and dilapidated buildings at 14th and U streets NW stood at a commercial and cultural crossroads of black Washington. Residents went there to work or to dine in fashionable restaturants. Over the years they could see and hear famous entertainers from the likes of Jelly Roll Morton to the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
Mayor Marion Barry has selected the northwest corner of that intersection as the site for the city's long-planned new municipal office center in hopes of revitalizing the neighborhood and bringing back the preeminence devastated by the 1968 riots and shrouded these days by illegal drug trafficking.
More than 1,000 city employes are expected to work in the municipal building, scheduled to be completed in the next three to four years. It has not been determined what agencies will be located at the site, which is now owned by the Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA), the city's urban renewal organization.
James O. Gibson, director of the city's planning office, said the 300,000-square-foot building planned by the city is not designed to attract the kind of development that has taken place in the city's prime commercial districts along K Street and Connecticut Avenue.
Rather, he said, the city hopes to spur medium-sized commercial development similar to the businesses along North Capitol Street near the Government Printing Office--such as small photocopying stores and headquarters for small trade associations.
The proposal to build a new municipal office building is tied in with plans to develop or renovate three other projects near the 14th and U streets site, said Gibson.
City officials plan to raise $2.4 million in federal and private funds to renovate an abandoned warehouse one block away from the municipal building site at 1436 U Street and turn it into commercial office space.
The old Children's Hospital, two blocks away on 13th and V, is slated for a major refurbishing, said Gibson, and city planners also are seeking funds for a second commercial office building at an undisclosed location near 14th and U streets.
Zoning lawyer R. Robert Linowes said, "When you have an area so depressed and so overrun by crime and that's been ignored for so long, there's no way any change is ever going to come about except by government action. It's not going to happen overnight, but it will create a climate or atmosphere for change."
Some local businessmen interviewed yesterday were doubtful that the new office center would necessarily spur private commercial development in thhe area, particularly high-rise office building construction of the sort that has taken place on a large scale in recent years around Thomas Circle at the southern pole of upper 14th Street.
"From the private sector's viewpoint it would not initially create any new development due to the fact that there is still plenty of land east of 15th Street and south of Massachusetts Avenue that has yet to be dealt with," said Philip Carr, vice president for operations at the Oliver T. Carr Company, one of the city's largest developers.
Carr predicted that it will be another 10 to 15 years before the estimated 15 million square feet of undeveloped land in downtown Washington is depleted and developers start eyeing 14th and U streets as a possible commercial site.
"They haven't been able to make anything happen over there yet and I don't think this office building is going to be any different," said John O'Neill, executive vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association, a trade group that represents commercial property owners. "It's certainly not a good location for hotels or office space unless you're going to hire six-foot-eight-inch bouncers."
Late Tuesday, the mayor asked the D.C. City Council to approve a plan to borrow $145 million for this fiscal year's capital spending projects, including $1.2 million in design funds for the $42 million office building.
Some council members said yesterday that they are cool to the proposal.
"I don't like surprises," said Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), chairman of the committee on housing and community development and a rival of Barry in the campaign for the Democratic nomination for mayor. "The best way I know how to get cooperation is to bring the information to the council first, rather than to take the information to the public as a political stunt."
Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee, said, "It would be a crime in this city to take a piece of land and build anything but housing. An office building? Never."
Residents of the riot-scarred area, who have seen a People's Drug Store and other businesses abandon the proposed municipal building site over the past few years because of vandalism, were enthusiastic yesterday about the prospect of having the new office center in the neighborhood.
"It can certainly have a positive effect on the community," said Edna Frazier-Cromwell, head of the 14th and U Streets Coalition. "But it's not going to eliminate crime and unemployment." Frazier-Cromwell said her group also is concerned that any development proposal include plans to provide new housing in the area.
"I think it's a wonderful idea," said Charles Jackson, manager of the Cottman Transmission shop one block from the proposed office building site. "You could say bricks and mortar won't stop crime, but it will bring people doing legitimate business down here."