High-rises replace parking lots in Mount Vernon Triangle
By Lori Aratani,
For years, the neighborhood now named Mount Vernon Triangle was known for cheap parking and unsavory business enterprises.
Though strategically located with easy access to a highway and within walking distance of three Metro stops, the neighborhood has had its share of problems with drug dealing and prostitution.
“For a long time, this was a forgotten part of D.C.,” said Guy T. Steuart III, senior vice president of Steuart Investment, whose family once ran a Ford dealership on New York Avenue between Fifth and Sixth streets and owns several parcels in the neighborhood.
But today, the triangle bounded by New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey avenues is experiencing a renaissance. Crime is down. Asphalt and parking lots are giving way to high-rises. Even the name of the neighborhood blog — The Triangle: Not Just Parking Lots Anymore — gives a hat tip to the neighborhood’s transition.
Nine new high-rises — apartments, condominiums and office buildings — have gone up since 2005, and at least a dozen more projects are under construction or in the pipeline.
A new 390-unit apartment building, a joint project of Steuart Investment and Paradigm, is to open this month at 425 L St. NW, and ground is to be broken this year on a second phase that will include more than 390 units. The Association of American Medical Colleges is planning to relocate from the West End to a new headquarters on a prominent parcel at New York Avenue and Seventh Street. Historic buildings on the lot are being moved to ready the space for construction.
Later this month, the Wilkes Co. and Quadrangle are set to begin construction on a project that will bring more retail to the area. A sign at Fourth and K streets advertising the development dubs the triangle area “the New Downtown.”
“This will be a case study for how you build a great urban neighborhood,” said Charles “Sandy” Wilkes, chairman of the Wilkes Co., which began acquiring property in the area in the 1980s.
A sudden surge
Those who have long lived and worked in the neighborhood marvel at the transformation. Between 2005 and 2011, 1,824 condo and apartment units were built; just 554 were in the area in 2004. Another 1,569 are planned or are under construction.
“Fifteen years ago, [you] wouldn’t have had any idea this area would have developed into the kind of urban center it is now,” said the Rev. James Terrell, pastor at Second Baptist Church of Washington, which has been on its Third Street site since 1856. “It’s wonderful to have people around again. I can stay late at the church and work in my study and not worry about what’s going on outside.”
On a recent tour, Bill McLeod, executive director of the neighborhood’s Community Improvement District (CID), said developers plan to break ground this year on at least four new projects.
Mount Vernon Triangle still has its rough edges, McLeod said, but the CID has worked to address the problems. On weekends, it hires off-duty D.C. police officers to patrol the community and has worked with the city and nonprofit groups to offer counseling and support services to prostitutes who work the area. Through a jobs program, the CID hires residents from the nearby Gospel Rescue Mission to keep the neighborhood clean.
Issues related to crime, which once dominated the agenda at meetings of the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association, have taken a back seat to discussions about appropriate sites for a playground.
Though there had been previous pushes to redevelop the area, the most recent effort took root in 2004, when developers, the city and three local churches unveiled a seven-year revitalization plan. They christened the area Mount Vernon Triangle. But many say it was the 2008 opening of the City Vista complex — a mixed-use development of apartments, condominiums and retail that includes a Safeway — that really gave the area a boost.
“Safeway was the big linchpin,” said Steuart. “When [that opened] people stood up and took note. Safeway was the kind of success story you could talk to lenders about.”
‘Livable, walkable . . . fun’
Despite City Vista’s success, construction in the area slowed during the recession. Developers, Wilkes said, hit the pause button as they waited for the market to rebound.
The neighborhood continued to flourish over the next few years in part because it had managed to attract a critical mass of buzz-worthy restaurants. Foodies and urban hipsters flocked to the neighborhood for sushi and gourmet submarine sandwiches. At night, happy-hour crowds filled Buddha Bar, Busboys and Poets, Mandu and Kushi.
At least twice a month, Brian Buyniski makes the three-quarter-mile trek from his office at the Department of Labor for sandwiches at Taylor Gourmet. It’s not that there aren’t places to eat near his office; it’s just that the choices in Mount Vernon Triangle are much more appealing, he said.Buyniski’s colleague Michael Delconte comes even more often.
When he started his job at the Department of Labor almost a decade ago, there was no hint of what was to come, Buyniski said. “This area was really desolate,” he said. “You’d never walk over here.”
Developers hope to harness that enthusiasm to make Mount Vernon Triangle a neighborhood that buzzes day and night.
The Safeway helped sell the neighborhood to Samuel Shipley. Back in 2009, he and his now-wife looked for places to live in Columbia Heights and Chinatown, but one question lingered in their minds: Where would they shop for groceries? While riding the Circulator from Georgetown one day, they spied a banner advertising the new Safeway. Several weeks later, they signed a lease on an apartment at City Vista.
“When we moved in, it was still a little like the Wild West,” Shipley said. “The buildings weren’t filled yet. But now my wife has no qualms about going out with the dog at night.”
The area’s popularity has a downside. Shipley said he and his wife are looking to buy a home but fear they may be priced out, a concern echoed by many longtime residents. But several of the older complexes cater to seniors or those on fixed incomes, and developers say they are committed to maintaining that diversity.
Wilkes said 20 percent of the 275 units in the new project his company plans to build in partnership with Mount Carmel Baptist Church will be offered at below-market rates.
“I think we’re getting it right,” Wilkes said. “This neighborhood is going to be livable, walkable and a word not used often in development — fun.”
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