The District's intersection of 14th and U streets NW, an eyesore of urban deterioration for nearly 20 years, is witnessing a metamorphosis that community leaders say in a few years will bring back the area's once vibrant atmosphere.
Ravaged by the riots following the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the area became home to drug trafficking and other crimes that drove out the area's small businesses. But now, the area is considered a prime development spot, which residents hope will transform the estimated 50 boarded buildings within one block of 14th and U into healthy commercial establishments.
Most attribute the area's development attraction to the District's new municipal center at 14th and U and the planned 1990 opening of Metro's Green Line station at 13th and U.
The municipal center, which is nearing completion after months of construction delays, will house nearly 1,000 city employes from about 20 separate offices by July. About 600 workers have been transferred to the eight-story building. In addition, 10 small retail outlets are expected to open by September on the building's ground floor.
As a result of the interest brought on by the municipal center's opening, land speculation has increased by property owners who now figure they are sitting on development gold mines. Properties that only a year ago were on the market for $20 to $40 per square foot are now running upwards of $100 per foot, according to landowners in the area. In one case, the city's assessed value for a boarded building on 14th Street increased from $25,000 last year to $43,000.
Rental rates have increased in the area as well, making some community leaders fear that the higher prices will drive out some of the smaller businesses that have been an integral part of the neighborhood for years.
"There is some concern about displacement . . . because most of the residents and business people are renters," said Ibrahim Mumin, president of the nonprofit Shaw Coalition Redevelopment Corp. Mumin, like others interviewed, said owners holding out for higher prices are a problem, but acknowledged, "It's very American for people to buy cheap and sell high."
A number of major projects are in the works that community leaders say will revamp the blighted area. Besides the new municipal center and the Green Line extension, the area also will be transformed by the plans that developer Jeffrey N. Cohen has for his property about two blocks to the east of the 14th and U intersection, most of the people interviewed said.
His plans include a $143 million project on the site of the old Children's Hospital bounded by V and W and 12th and 13th streets NW that calls for construction of 1,000 rental units and 300,000 square feet of retail space. Cohen, who called the concept "a town within a town," said construction would begin within 18 months.
Cohen also is spending $12 million to transform the old Lincoln Theatre at 1215 U St. into a performing arts center, and $5 million to $8 million on the Manhattan Laundry building at 14th and Florida Avenue. Construction on that building, which will be leased for storage and office use, is expected to begin this summer.
Other projects are under way closer to 14th and U. Construction began last year on the renovation of the Bennett Building at 1436 U St. When completed late this summer, the old warehouse will contain 36,000 square feet of prime office space that will rent annually for $16 a square foot, a figure that would have been impossible to achieve in that area a year ago.
Many of the large area landholders, however, are taking a wait-and-see attitude regarding the revitalization of the 14th and U area.
Howard Grad, who owns the massive, nine-story Fidelity Storage Building at 1420 U St., said, "We're obviously taking a look at the situation to see what's going to happen." While Grad would not comment on what plans he has for his building, he said he would decide this year on one "of several possibilities to upgrade the building to use for something else."
George Galich, who has one of the biggest landholdings in the 14th and U area, said his only immediate plans call for demolishing a gas station at 14th and W to make way for a parking lot. Galich said he recently hired an architect to study what to do with his remaining property, which totals about 1 1/4 acres directly across from the new city building.
Shirley Cohen, who owns five commercial buildings in the area, said she has had several offers from developers for her properties, "but at the moment, I'm not interested in selling."
Other landholders said they are having trouble convincing lenders that the 14th and U area would be a safe investment.
Henry McCall, who owns five buildings and one empty lot within a half block of the municipal center, said his loan applications to renovate his boarded buildings have been rejected by several area lending companies. McCall said that, although he has been getting three calls a day from people interested in his buildings, he's unable to sign any leases because of the needed renovation work.
Still, some owners are beginning to reap the benefits of investing in the 14 and U area.
"Everybody is tired of waiting for the development to arrive . Each area has its own time, and we are there with this one," said Yigal Rappaport, a real estate broker and landowner at 14th and U. Rappaport said he is completing plans on the sale of a building at 2007 14th St. that will bring a fast-food sandwich shop to the site. He also owns a building at 1334 U St., which he bought four months ago for $90,000. Today, he's asking $145,000 for the property.
Several city agencies are involved in the revitalization of the area.
Kwasi Holman, executive director of the city's Office of Business and Economic Development, said, "We're looking at whatever it takes to get that neighborhood redeveloped." His agency plans to open a satellite office at 1340 U St. within the next two months to assist existing businesses, as well as to attract new firms to the area.
Other projects planned for the area include a 32-unit residential building for low- to moderate-income residents at 13th and W, according to Philip Johnson, the development administrator at the District's Department of Housing and Community Development. Construction is slated to begin this summer on the project.
Johnson said he will decide by summer what to do with other city land in the area, including a vacant lot just south of the municipal center.
Although development of the area is certain, some smaller shop owners said they cannot afford to wait for the business to return.
Kyung Chun, who owns a grocery store and gift shop at 1359-61 U St., said, "Business has been a lot slower than I thought since I bought the property two years ago." As a result, Chun said he was forced to put his property on the market.
"Business will be better in a couple of years, but I don't think I can wait that long," said Chun, who is trying to get $200,000 for his three-story building. "I just want to get my money and get out of here. . . . "
Others say the area's reputation as a tough crime spot might keep away potential investors. Within the past 90 days, police records show more than 40 reported crimes within a one-block radius of the new municipal center, including a rape, robberies, assaults, stolen autos and drug violations. Those statistics do not reflect crime reports for the 14th and W intersection, one of the city's toughest drug-selling corners, where police say it is not unusual to see upwards of 75 drug sellers and buyers milling around.
"We are being the adventurist ones," said Idowu Agunbiade, who started renovation work this week for his Safari Imports store on 14th and V that he plans to open July 1. The store will contain mostly upscale European clothing and other items, a business in stark contrast to the area's other commercial establishments, which are mostly liquor stores, small markets and auto shops.
Agunbiade, whose international company has opened shops in developing neighborhoods in Brazil and Nigeria, said he didn't want to wait for other stores to test the market at 14th and U.
"The potential is here," he said. "It won't be as easy to get in here further down the road."