The old Handley Motor Co. building on Georgia Avenue NW is a sprawling giant of a place, a vacant warehouse whose fortunes have risen and fallen with those of the avenue itself.
The building, like the street, has seen better days. Built in the 1930s, it was a Ford dealership for nearly 50 years, then a mattress store until last month. But its tenants joined dozens of other Georgia Avenue merchants who have deserted the city for the suburbs. District officials hope to reverse that tide with private and public investment along the blighted commercial strip.
Some investment already has begun. Last week, spokesmen for a group of obstetricians, gynecologists and emergency-care specialists announced an ambitious plan to spend up to $3 million to transform the Handley building into a "state-of-the-art" medical center.
District officials, who plan to announce other Georgia Avenue development projects tonight, said the renovation of the Handley building could go far towards revitalizing the avenue near the Piney Branch Road intersection.
"We have a dream, and if everything falls into place, the dream will come true," said Dr. John P. George, a spokesman for a group of six physicians who have formed a partnership to develop the building at 6323 Georgia Ave. NW.
The partnership, called Metro Ambulatory Care Associates Inc., last year paid $500,000 for the Handley building and lot, said George. The doctors have yet to secure the needed financing to refurbish the building, but preliminary plans call for a $1.7 million to $3.2 million renovation to convert the old automobile showroom into physicians' offices, a pharmacy and an emergency room.
Three of the six physicians declined to discuss the renovation plan in detail, because, they said, the new medical center, designed for low-cost health care, may take away business from five nearby hospitals. Publicity about the project also could jeopardize the lease agreements some of the doctors have for their present offices, they said.
"Depending on how far we go, this will be a state-of-the-art facility, complete with solar heating and central computer for retrieving patient data," said Dr. Thomas Locke, who, like George, maintains a practice on Georgia Avenue.
Locke, who specializes in internal and emergency medicine, said the group of doctors may add a third story and another wing to the building, which now includes a 3,000-square-foot showroom and a spacious second floor. The medical center may include as many as 30 physicians, although George, an obstetrician, said he expects to have about half that number at first.
Renovation probably would take eight months to a year, depending on how elaborate a job is undertaken, the physicians said. The renovation already has been delayed by a contractor who initially agreed on the project, then backed out, Locke said.
The Handley building's location, on one of the District's main north-south arteries, is ideal for the type of facility they plan, the doctors said. "The demographics in that area are very good," said Locke. "We feel we have something to offer the Georgia Avenue community, as well as people from surrounding communities."
A recent study conducted for the city concluded that for businesses to thrive on Georgia Avenue, they must attract some of the thousands of commuters who travel the street each day, as well as nearby residents.
The doctors said that once constructed, the medical center will compete for patients with the five hospitals that ring the Handley building: Howard University Hospital, the Washington Hospital Center and Columbia Hospital for Women, all in the District; and Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park and Holy Cross in Silver Spring.
"There's no question but that if the Handley is developed, the hospitals around it will have their business hurt," said one partner in the renovation project. George said the partnership will announce officially its plans for the Handley building later this month.