“This is D.C.’s yuppified version of collaboration,” said Joe Englert, the D.C. bar and restaurateur who co-owns the Ivy City property and is behind much of the development along H Street NE. “I think it’s really viable.”
The idea that “yuppie,” Ivy City and “viable” could be strung together in the same thought was implausible just a few years ago.
Only 5 percent of the District is industrial property and Ward 5, where Ivy City is located, houses 50 percent of it. City officials say the land is underutilized and have analyzed how they can use the property to meet city needs while addressing concerns of residents, who long have said they don’t want to be a dumping ground for unsavory city services.
The Ivy City neighborhood — a 1.7-square-mile triangle bounded by New York Avenue, railroad tracks, Mount Olivet Cemetery and Gallaudet University — is home to the city’s parked snow plows and school buses and, more recently, a gin distillery. Residents in the neighborhood, which had an unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent in 2012, have spent recent years fighting city plans to build a bus depot there as Union Station undergoes major renovations.
Now, D.C.’s big-pocketed developers are putting serious money behind the idea that Ivy City can transform like so many other neighborhoods in the city. Douglas Development purchased the massive, six-story Hecht Warehouse on New York Avenue in 2011 at an auction and Doug Jemal, the development company’s president, told Washington City Paper the area could be the next Meatpacking district. MOM’s Organic Market opened in the Hecht Warehouse last November, Planet Fitness opened this summer, a Nike store opened in April and the restaurant group behind Ghibellina on 14th Street NW is planning to open three restaurants there.
And now there’s a rock-climbing gym to add to the Ivy City lineup — the only facility of its kind in the city. Englert and real estate investor Langdon Hample purchased the property at 1240 Mount Olivet Road NE, the former home of Strauss Photo repair shop, about a year ago for $1.1 million. They’re partnering with Steep Rock Bouldering in Manhattan to transform the vacant space into Rocky Mount Bouldering Corp., a 40-foot tall, single-story bouldering facility for all skill levels. (In bouldering, all climbing is done without ropes.)
Qualia Coffee, a coffee shop and roasting company in Petworth, is expected to move into 3,500 square feet of the space. The Petworth neighborhood outpost is moving its entire roasting operation there and will have a standard coffee shop as well. There will also be a beer garden, serving a still-undecided type of local beer.
Joel Finkelstein, the owner of Qualia Coffee, said while he expects some local residents to drop in and hang out for a cup of coffee, the bulk of his revenue from that location will come from the roasting operation.
“We are going to get way more car and bike traffic than foot traffic,” Finkelstein said. “It lets us focus on our core customers, people coming for coffee, and not just coming for convenience.”
Englert similarly predicts that most people will travel to the gym via “Ubers and bikes.”
Ivy City is about 1 1/2 miles away from the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station. Englert has considered the idea of providing shuttle service to the location.
Still, he and Hample said, Ivy City is more convenient for D.C. residents than a popular rock-climbing gym in Rockville that many D.C.’s rock climbers visit. Not to mention that places like Union Market — which opened in a similarly ailing industrial area in 2012 — are thriving, despite not being immediately adjacent to a Metro station.
“We can build two more of these and people would go bonkers over them,” Hample said.
In 2014, the city released a five-year strategic plan, “Ward 5 Works,” to examine how it could transform 1,000 acres of industrial land in the ward into a mixture of parks, restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses that create jobs and serve the community. The plan calls for increased connectivity to these industrial areas, including bike lanes, sidewalks and bus routes — possibly even a rapid bus line like one in Alexandria.
“I imagine that some residents, maybe not all, will be interested in grabbing coffee there,” said Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie. “One component of what we want to do is attract a diverse group of businesses to Ivy City … It’s extremely important that Ivy City, which has historically been underserved, has access to high-quality neighborhood-serving retail.”
The gym membership won’t come cheap. At Steep Rock in Manhattan, a day pass at the gym costs $20 and a standard monthly membership runs $88 per month, plus a $25 activation fee. Englert and Hample hope the establishment attracts all types of people, not just bouldering aficionados who can cough up high prices for a monthly membership.
The beer garden and coffee shop will be open to everyone. There will be a room for yoga and the whole space can be rented out for corporate events and birthday parties. On some nights, they envision covering the boulder walls and transforming the building into a space for live music.
And, Englert said, there’ll be employees on hand to ensure that people don’t imbibe pitchers of beer before climbing the 40-foot walls. The ideal flow would be for customers to go rock climbing, and then grab a beer.
“It will be incredibly hard to go bouldering unless you are incredibly sober,” said Englert.