The much-delayed redevelopment of the crumbling Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights could receive final approval as early as April 26, officials said at a public meeting last week. Construction should begin soon after.
The historic 1920s movie palace at 14th Street and Park Road NW would be rebuilt to include a 250-seat performance venue for Gala Hispanic Theatre. Retail shops and offices also are planned, with a Giant Foods supermarket and 40 duplex condominiums at the rear.
The project is one of 11 now planned on city- or Metro-owned lots between Clifton Street and Monroe Street along 14th Street NW. Together -- along with two other publicly owned lots the city hopes to put out for bid later this year -- the developments could transform the riot-scarred corridor into a fully recovered city neighborhood, officials said.
"We can see the vision more clearly than ever of what's about to be happening here," said Ward 1 Council member Jim Graham (D), addressing an overflow crowd of more than 300 neighborhood residents at Bell Multicultural High School on April 8. "What we might see is Columbia Heights becoming the retail center -- the retail center -- of the District of Columbia."
The rebirth of the neighborhood has been predicted many times before -- only to be stymied by a lifeless real estate market or red tape.
But gradually, scores of rowhouses and a few apartment buildings have been privately renovated over the past 10 years. Since 2001, the National Capital Revitalization Corp. (NCRC) has asked developers to bid on publicly owned lots that have been vacant for decades and has negotiated deals to build apartments, shops and other amenities.
Each deal must be circulated for citizen comment, presented at public hearings and approved by the NCRC board -- which has three of nine seats vacant and has struggled in recent weeks to have enough members at meetings to constitute a quorum.
But NCRC chief executive Theodore N. Carter said board members will without doubt be present April 26 at Kelsey Temple Church of God in Christ at 1435 Park Rd. NW, where they will conduct a public hearing on the Tivoli project at 10 a.m., followed at 1:30 p.m. by a hearing on the Greater Washington Urban League's proposal to rehabilitate an abandoned funeral home several blocks south and turn it into its new headquarters.
"Unless there is a major objection from the community," Carter said in an interview, he plans to ask the board to approve both projects at that session. "Both of these projects have been pretty well vetted by the community," Carter said. "Both of these projects are ready to go."
City rules require the board to vote within 30 days of the hearing.
Sean C. Cahill, chief operating officer for Horning Brothers, the developer for the Tivoli project, said the company is awaiting issuance of its final permit and should be able to begin construction within days of getting a green light from the NCRC board.
Residents of the neighborhood have waited years for these and other 14th Street projects. Their impatience was evident in the size of the crowd at last week's meeting, and in the excited murmur greeting the news that construction could -- should -- be imminent.
That does not mean, however, that the projects will not stir controversy in the neighborhood, which is one of the city's most racially and economically diverse, and never lacking in conflicting opinions.
Some at the meeting said the new projects -- especially the theater and supermarket, and a retail complex across the street that is expected to include a Target and other shopping -- couldn't come fast enough.
Others asked pointed questions about traffic, gentrification and whether local shop owners will get a chance to compete with national retailers for the new space. Many grumbled about how long it has taken for the projects to be approved.
Carter and Graham responded that hundreds of underground parking spaces will be built, lessening street congestion. They pointed out that about one in five of the new apartments and townhouses will be set aside for low- and moderate-income residents.
About 15,000 square feet of retail space in the Target-anchored complex will be reserved for local businesses at reduced rents, said Robert L. Moore, president of the Development Corp. of Columbia Heights, which is a partner in that project.
But Moore had complaints of his own about another NCRC-controlled parcel, at 14th Street and Florida Avenue NW. His organization was awarded development rights to build 14 townhouses there by NCRC's predecessor, the now-defunct Redevelopment Land Authority, in 1992. But the project was never launched, in part because of turmoil and turnover in the D.C. government in the mid- to late 1990s.
NCRC now wants to put the parcel out for bid again, at a higher price and asking for more residences on the site, to reflect the increased market demand. Moore's organization is strongly opposed.
The two groups were scheduled to meet this week to try to reach a resolution.
In the interview, Carter said he understood residents' frustration with the slow pace at which the projects are being proposed, negotiated and approved. He said NCRC is working to improve the process -- in part by urging Mayor Anthony A. Williams, whose administration has been late in making appointments to boards and commissions, and the White House, to finish interviewing and selecting new members for the NCRC board. Carter said he hoped to have new appointees named by early summer.
But he also said close oversight is essential when NCRC offers city land to developers.
"These are publicly owned assets," Carter said. "They have to have community input, and government oversight. We hope to, and will, streamline that process. But we cannot remove it."