The residents of Columbia Heights--a neighborhood partially burned and looted by rioters 31 years ago, ensnared in development disputes and ravaged by Metro construction--finally have evidence that a renaissance may be at hand.
A Giant supermarket, a movie complex, an ice-skating rink, an indoor amusement park, stores, restaurants and town houses would be built under two development proposals totaling $149 million that received preliminary approval yesterday from a city panel.
The projects would add an estimated 1,300 jobs to the neighborhood around 14th Street and Park Road NW, a racially mixed area that in recent years has seen an influx of Latinos. The Tivoli Theatre, a dilapidated 1920s movie palace that inspired a passionate preservation crusade, would have its facade and lobby restored; the rest of the interior would be converted into two floors of shops.
In addition to all that, the Columbia Heights Metro station is scheduled to open on the Green Line on Sept. 18, along with the Georgia Avenue-Petworth station. The stations will be potential magnets for even more development, ending years of digging that closed streets and caused businesses to lose customers.
City leaders and neighborhood activists say the commercial projects represent the District's biggest development outside downtown and east of Rock Creek Park in decades.
"I am just absolutely ecstatic," Lawrence Guyot, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who lobbied for the new projects.
But critics in the neighborhood say the city may be missing an even greater opportunity to create a town-center concept for Columbia Heights. In voting unanimously for the two proposals yesterday--submitted by District-based Horning Bros. and Grid Properties of New York--the Redevelopment Land Agency rejected a larger plan proposed by Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises.
Forest City's $135 million plan included a mix of stores, movie screens, a grocery store and town houses. Forest City also proposed restoring the entire Tivoli Theatre as a performing arts space and wanted to build on nearly twice as much land, including lots the chosen developers plan to leave vacant.
The land agency did not pick a developer for two of the parcels that Forest City wanted to build on, including one near a Metro entrance. Two other parcels did not attract any proposals.
"How can they award two parcels out of six and expect real community development and real economic development?" asked resident Geoffrey H. Griffis. "Our Metro entrance comes up to rubble. It makes no sense."
Robert C. Walker, chairman of the five-member land agency board, said the agency did not select Forest City to develop the remaining parcels because Forest City's plan depended on access to one of the parcels awarded to Grid. He also predicted that land values in the area would increase, and that the city could get a better deal in the future, rather than making an award to a developer now without competition.
The agency's move yesterday gives the developers the right to negotiate to buy the property, much of which is owned by the city, and to submit detailed plans. The developers still must obtain financing, tenants and final approval by the city.
"The hard work is in front of us," said Drew Greenwald, president of Grid Properties.
City leaders vow to push the developers to work quickly, though construction probably will not begin for at least a year.
"This should be like the MCI Center in pace," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), referring to the downtown arena built in two years. "If we manage this well--and that's the $149 million question--in all its aspects, this should be extremely beneficial for Columbia Heights and the entire city."
Still, Graham was disappointed that the land agency acted on only two of the six parcels slated for redevelopment, adding that he will continue to push to have the Tivoli restored as a performance space.
The business corridor along 14th Street NW has never recovered from the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, when nearly 300 businesses were burned or looted. Today, the land around the Metro station at 14th Street, Park Road and Kenyon Street features a few store fronts, some apartments and rubble-strewn lots.
Three years ago, the District canceled development rights it had granted 15 years earlier to businessman Herbert H. Haft and partners, who never got much done--in part because of city bureaucrats' missteps and neighborhood opposition to Haft's plans to demolish part of the Tivoli.
The new proposals come as the neighborhood is struggling to deal with a series of killings--five since May--near the redevelopment sites. Such episodes, if they persist, could scare off some retailers just when the stars finally seem aligned to give the neighborhood a chance at rebirth.
"Those incidents don't give you a lot of comfort," said Robert L. Moore, president of the Development Corp. of Columbia Heights, a nonprofit partner in the development projects.
The community also must work on healing wounds opened by the opposing campaigns for different development proposals, which some say divided the neighborhood along lines of class and race.
"It seemed everyone who owned a home, worked all day and had a stake long-term in the community was pushing for Forest City," said resident Mark Barlet.
Guyot, in turn, characterized the Forest City supporters as mainly white people and outsiders, while longtime black residents, he said, favored the projects that won.
"This shows that all people, regardless of race, color or status, understand that economic development can be done with us," he said, "and not to us."
Reviving Columbia Heights
The D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency yesterday approved two preliminary development proposals for Columbia Heights that would add an estimated 1,300 new jobs to the neighborhood.
$18 million project would restore the facade of the historic Tivoli Theatre, filling it with small shops. In addition, a retail center, a Giant supermarket and 29 new town houses would be built nearby.
$131 million, 650,000-square-foot retail and entertainment complex.
CAPTION: Drew Greenwald, left, Joseph Searles, James Murphy and Bob Moore shake hands after the approval of their $149 million redevelopment project.
CAPTION: Workers are finishing the new Columbia Heights Metro station, at the center of the neighborhood's rebirth.