More than 10 years after riots consumed many blocks of 14th Street NW, the grandeur is being restored to turn-of-the-century rowhouses in Columbia Heights, the 14th Street area north of Florida Avenue.
Some of the big brick residences are boarded-up eyesores owned by the city that are finally beginning to get their long-promised rehabilitation. Longtime residents, as well as community activists who have moved into the area within the past five years, have lobbied hard recently to improve the trash-strewn, dilapidated properties in their community.
Records in the city's building permit office show that within the past year more than a dozen properties in the 1300 block of Fairmont Street NW alone have been approved for rehabilitation, including such things as major mechanical and plumbing repairs and renovation of interiors.
Private owners of some properties in Columbia Heights are rehabilitating them with low-interest loans and grants from the city. More than $750,000 has been directed to a dozen owners on Park Road, Florida Avenue and on Girard, Harvard, Euclid, Kenyon and 13th streets, city records show.
At least one local real estate broker says he can remember a client who tried to get financing to buy a home in Columbia Heights nearly two years ago and was told the savings and loan association didn't lend money in that block. Those times have changed, however -- last year, a section of Columbia Heights south of Spring Road received about $3.6 million in mortgage loans, according to figures compiled by the city's banks and savings and loan associations.
John Savage, an architect working on restoration plans for a house on Irving Street NW, said he is "totally amazed" at the amount of renovation taking place in the area.
"I hadn't seen the area since it was in the down-and-out stage in 1972," said Savage. "If you went there in '72, it was grim. All of a sudden, it's a really exciting place. Thirteenth Street reminds me of parts of the wealthier sections of Philadelphia. The houses are really huge, big shells to work with, not like on Capitol Hill where they're quaint but small."
The three- and four-story brick and stone houses of Columbia Heights have fireplaces and often retain their original molding. Some, particularly those on 13th Street, have panormaic views of the city.
The sprucing up appears to be concentrated just off the riot corridor north of Florida Avenue to Spring Road, with the greatest focus on 13th, Irving, Fairmont, Girard and Harvard streets -- streets whose blocks contain dozens of vacant, boarded-up houses. Residents there say they have been fighting for greater police protection and more city improvements.
Today, the buzz of construction grinders and the tap-tap of hammers can be heard on a stroll through Columbia Heights. Several publicly funded projects are completed or underway and a huge crane dominates the skyline at 14th and Harvard streets, where a high-rise building for the elderly is being constructed under the sponsorship of the National Center on the Black Aged.
Work being done by the city on some properties has contributed to the activity on the side streets of Columbia Heights. Many properties have blue and white signs identifying them as participants in the city's "Taking the Boards Off" program to rehabilitate vacant, city-owed houses. City-wide, 733 units are being rehabilitated, some for use as apartments and some to be sold.
D.C. housing director Robert L. Moore said the city is trying to concentrate its rehabilitation efforts in neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights.
Alan Roberson, an agent for the Colquitt Carruthers real estate firm, says that Columbia Heights is becoming a popular renovation area as a consequence of the "spiral northwest" of such renewal from the Logan Circle area.
Roberson says he was involved in the sale of a number of houses in the Columbia Heights area last year, but stopped actively pursuing listings there in the face of growing renter hostility.
"Their homes were being sold out from under them," Roberson said. "I had a showing on Euclid Street near Cardozo (High School) and the tenants wouldn't even let me in."
Meanwhile, some organizations in the area are trying to make certain that the revitalization of Columbia Heights doesn't spell displacement for existing residents.
Leroy Hubbard, special assistant to the director of the 14th Street Project Area Committee, said the PAC is conducting a survey of the area to determine the extent of renovation and speculation. The study so far shows that extensive activity on 13th Street is spreading, that homes are being bought by both whites and blacks, and that some displacement has already occurred, Hubbard said.
"We're finding much more speculation that we had realized," Hubbard added. "Fourteen Street is almost like an island. We're really getting squeezed. . . . It's gotten to the point that we feel in some cases almost helpless. We've got to send out the word to people to hold on (to their homes). We're afraid the whole area is going to be swept away."
Hubbard added that community workers are hopeful that the revamping of the city's low-interest rehabilitation loan programs will help stabilize their neighborhood by targeting funds to lower-income residents who already own homes in Columbia Heights. "The wrong people have been getting money in the past," Hubbard said.
Rowhouse shells needing major renovation are selling in the $40,000s and $50,000s, real estate agents say. Homes that are liveable and well-preserved architecturally sell for around $80,000, while a three-story, 10-room town house that has been nicely renovated can command a price of more than $100,000, said Norris Dodson, vice president in charge of real estate sales for John R. Pinkett Inc.
Dodson noted that not only have prices gone up, but demand for homes in Columbia Heights has "skyrocketed."
Dodson attributed that to a variety of reasons -- the unusual architecture of the homes, the accessibility to 14th Street public transportation, and the Metrorail station planned for 14th Street and Park Road.
Dodson said the area is attracting investors and speculators, as well as buyers who want to live in the houses despite the area's problems. "They've got the future in mind," he added.
Opthalmologist David Newsome, 37, bought a nine-unit stone apartment building last year for $73,000 in the 1300 block of Fairmont Street NW and hopes to upgrade the property soon.
"It's a very exciting block," he said, adding that he was attracted to the street because he wanted a place "that made a real architectural statement." He may convert the structure to a triplex someday and live in part of it himself, he said.
Newsome, who is white, said that while the largely black neighborhood has been curious about him he's never felt intimidated.
"Unless people have faith in the area and do something constructive, it (the 14th Street area) won't get better," Newsome said. "It's time for it to get better now."
Renovation and demand for homes in Columbia Heights has had another effect on the community. The D.C. Department of Finance and Revenue reported last spring that Columbia Heights had the highest percentage increase in real estate assessments in the city for single-family homes during the past year.
D.C. assessor Joseph Potter said in an interview earlier this year that Columbia Heights is "a ready market for just about anything" these days. Potter said that for the month of January alone this year, there were 45 sales -- including estate sales and sales of half-interests -- in the area.
And a city supervising assessor has been quoted as calling Columbia Heights "like Mount Pleasant five years ago." CAPTION: Picture 1, Houses on Fairmont Street NW are among those in the Columbia Heights area being rehabilitated. Some of neighborhood's low-income renters are being displaced. By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, Work continues on Fairmont Street house. Many owners got rd city loans. By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post