The vaulted, concrete-domed Uline Arena in Northeast Washington can tell a D.C. story better than most. Its transformation has followed the ups and downs of the city’s history — experiencing both glorious and unremarkable moments throughout its 75-year life.
The structure’s latest chapter arrives at a time when the District is in the throes of a redevelopment boom that has attracted young, deep-pocketed and health-conscious residents. On Friday, Uline Arena will reopen as the East Coast’s largest REI store, a popular outdoor specialty chain that hopes to become a destination in the nation’s capital.
“This is transformative. We looked at it as a game-changer for the community,” said Norman Jemal, principal at Douglas Development, which owns and redeveloped the property. “You’re talking about a lot of history here. A lot of Washington, D.C., here. It touched a lot of people.”
Ice distributor Miguel Uline opened the eponymous arena in 1941 as a hockey rink and repurposed it into housing for service members during World War II. After the war, it was restored as a hockey and basketball arena, home to the Washington Capitols — the first NBA team with an African American man on its roster.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower hosted an inaugural festival there, but it was 1964 when the arena — by then sold and renamed the Washington Coliseum — made its biggest headline: The Beatles performed their first U.S. concert there shortly after their famed “Ed Sullivan Show” appearance. Bob Dylan, Chuck Brown and others also performed.
But as the District hit hard times, the arena lost its grandeur. The NoMa neighborhood near Union Station, which only recently acquired its trendy moniker, was a no man’s land filled with warehouses and vacant lots.
Throughout the 1990s, the arena served as a trash-transfer station until Douglas Development purchased the property in 2004. The developer had lofty plans to redevelop the languishing arena but used it as a parking facility during the recession until money was available for improvements.
The 51,000-square-foot REI store now joins a changing NoMa landscape filled with luxury condos, office buildings and retail shops.
“This is part of a story that’s been building, and it’s a moment in time where people are really starting to take notice,” said Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District.
The arena was designated a historic landmark in 2006, so tearing it down wasn’t an option. In its heyday, the Uline Arena was considered the Verizon Center of its time, said Rebecca Miller, executive director of the DC Preservation League.
“All of the cultural events that happened in this building, in addition to its architecture, is what made it significant,” she said.
Even after its redevelopment, the exterior of the iconic building in the 200 block of M Street NE looks much the same, despite newly installed industrial-style windows throughout. Inside, the previously one-story arena is now four floors, with the ground floor a maze of colorful camping equipment, bicycles and outdoor accessories.
As an ode to the arena’s history, columns throughout the store are covered with concert posters of the Beatles, go-go bands and artists who performed there. One wall contains rows of seats from the original basketball arena.
Renovations to convert the building took more than two years. REI occupies the ground floor, and Douglas Development will relocate its headquarters to the building. The upper floors, which are still under construction, will also host a business that rents out shared office space.
The adjacent building, where Uline’s ice distributing headquarters were located decades ago, will be rented out as retail and office space.
The REI store is the chain’s first entry into the nation’s capital and its fifth flagship store in the country. The chain has 147 stores nationwide, including seven in the Washington suburbs.
REI officials say they hope the store will serve as an attraction to residents and tourists visiting the District. The store is near the NoMa Metro station, less than a mile from Union Station and just off the Metropolitan Branch Trail. They envision tourists coming through Union Station, having lunch at nearby Union Market, then walking over to the new REI.
The store has event rooms, a courtyard and a La Colombe Coffee cafe. The National Park Service also has a kiosk inside, where an employee from the federal agency will be on hand to recommend outdoor travel destinations to customers.
A three-day “block party” starts Friday, with traffic restrictions in place for the grand opening and bands performing outside over the weekend.
“If you’re going to come into the nation’s capital, you have to come in an awesome way, and a flagship store is the way to do it,” said Becky Smith, the general manager of the store. “I think it’s going to be a destination.”