There was the arrival of Metro. There was construction of the MCI Center (now Verizon Center). There was the convention center — actually, there were two of them.
For decades, Chinese-Americans living and working east of downtown D.C. have felt pushed around by the city’s power brokers for one economic development initiative after another. Now, just as many of them see an opportunity to benefit from Washington’s real estate boom, they say it may be taken from them.
Dozens of Chinese-American residents and business owners — some of them planning to participate in a colossal redevelopment by Monument Realty — railed against a proposal Wednesday to expand a downtown historical district to include their properties, calling it an expensive burden that would add a chapter to a long list of indignities the community has suffered.
The city first granted protection to buildings downtown in 1982, creating a pinwheel-shaped historical area that included the southern side of the 600 block of I Street NW, but not the northern side of H Street NW immediately below it. The block includes the Chinatown arch and abuts a stretch of Seventh Street NW that has become a booming, billboard-plastered center of entertainment, dining and night life in the city.
In January, the D.C. Preservation League, a nonprofit group, proposed expanding the historical district to include 19 other buildings, dating from as recently as 1986, including those along the north side of the 600 block of H Street.
At a meeting last week convened at the Chinatown Community Cultural Center, D. Peter Sefton, a member of the preservation league’s board of trustees, introduced the proposal and said it would fill in gaps in the historical district. “This will standardize the boundaries and smooth them out,” he said. The application reads that the buildings are significant for their association with “the German and German-Jewish populations who built homes and established businesses” there and with “downtown’s Chinatown and its associated Chinese population.”
Sefton took his seat beside planning officials at the front of the room. His suggestion was not well received.
Audrey Wong, whose family owns 617 H St. NW, said she could be bankrupted by the expensive maintenance requirements of the district and that there was little cultural Chinese significance to the buildings remaining, save the Chinese characters painted on the front. “I don’t understand what you all are preserving,” she said.
Albert Der, who grew up on the block, was aghast that the alley between H and I streets was included. “That’s our alley,” Der said, standing and glaring at Sefton. “That’s where we learned to play ball ... that alley has no historical value at all other than that we played there.”
Among the owners on the block is Tony Cheng, a politically active restaurateur. Cheng watched silently for most of the meeting, but stepped in after Sefton said it was unlikely the preservation league would withdraw its application. “I’m here 45 years! You never respect Chinese here!” he said, standing and pointing.
This time around, Cheng and other H Street building owners aren’t trying to fight new development; they’re trying to participate in it.
Michael Darby, president of District-based Monument Realty, says he has contracts for more than a dozen properties on the block, with the Chengs and others. He said the deals constitute enough property to build a 400,000 square feet of retail and offices, but that could grow to 600,000 square feet with other acquisitions.
Darby has lobbied against the historical designation, which would require him to restore the H street facades in addition to the I street facades. The proposal will likely be considered by the Historic Preservation Review Board in coming weeks, and if it is approved, Darby said, “We would probably have to go back to some of the landowners and work on how to make the project viable. Because when we contracted with them, we hadn’t assumed that there would be density removed from the site.”
“You look at the buildings and realize there isn’t much left of the original buildings,” he added.
David Maloney, D.C. State Historic Preservation Officer, said after the meeting that it was hard to predict whether the expansion would be approved. “I think people here were hit cold by it,” he said.
Cheng and his daughter, Stephanie, 31, aren’t planning to leave Chinatown — their deal would allow them to remain in the neighborhood and the restaurant business as part of Monument’s development. “For us it’s not the building that holds significance,” she said. “It’s the blood, sweat and tears that we put into the restaurants.”