When Gary D. Rappaport set out to build a retail development spanning two blocks in Northeast D.C.’s H Street corridor in 1987, he realized he needed a parking lot out front.
That’s not the way to create a bustling, pedestrian-friendly urban strip, but neighborhood crime was high and developers needed customers and business owners to feel safe. In response, he and a business partner created the H Street Connection strip mall, between Eighth and 10th streets NE, where customers could park in front and walk right in.
Nearly three decades later, H Street NE is filled with entertainment options, luxury apartments and, yes, pedestrians. To keep up with the changing and increasingly expensive corridor, the strip mall is being demolished.
On Wednesday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser celebrated the development and sat in a bulldozer to deliver the first blow to the building — a demolition that will change the landscape of the corridor.
Construction is slated to start this fall on a luxury apartment building with ground floor retail.
“We know that over the course of time, things change,” Bowser said.
That stretch of H Street was filled with rowhouses, surrounded by a vibrant business community in the predominantly African American neighborhood. But the riots that tore through the city in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. brought down the rowhouses and destroyed other buildings on the street.
The city eventually turned those two blocks into a park, but crime followed, according to Rappaport, the chief executive of the development and property management company that bears his name. Most notoriously, a neighborhood gang known as the Eighth and H Crew fatally beat, robbed and sodomized a mother of six with a pole in 1984.
After the high-profile murder, the city looked to redevelop the property. Rappaport co-developed it into the single-story, 37,000-square-foot H Street Connection with businessman J. Gerald Lustine, who died in 2001. When the center opened, Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was on site to welcome it to the neighborhood.
The setup of the H Street Connection, while having a suburban feel, is credited with spurring more development in the neighborhood. When it opened, the complex was anchored by a drugstore on one end and a bank on the other. It also housed a small grocery store and dry cleaner.
Rappaport said the complex had lights on 24 hours a day for safety. He hired someone in the neighborhood to frequently check on the property, cleaning the grounds of trash and the walls of graffiti.
“We all grow upon what’s occurring,” Rappaport said.
The next phase for the property is responding to the latest changes of the neighborhood, now dotted with newly opened bars, restaurants and entertainment venues. The city opened its long-awaited streetcar through the H Street NE corridor earlier this year, encouraging people to explore and traverse the neighborhood.
Rappaport is working with D.C.-based development company WC Smith to transform the space into a mixed-use building. There will be 419 apartment units — 40 of which will rent below the market rate — a rooftop dog park, pool and community garden.
The ground floor will feature more than 44,000 square feet of retail. Instead of parking spots in front of the stores, there will be wide sidewalks, outdoor cafe seating and three floors of underground parking for residents and customers.
Construction that begins this fall is scheduled to be complete by fall 2019.
“We’ve gone through good and bad times here over 30 years and we’re excited to give more of our time and investments to create jobs and give more choice for people to have housing in Washington D.C.,” Rappaport said.