Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Sad Saga of 14th and T, and What It Means For U Street/Logan Development

Image courtesy of the City Paper

The current issue of the City Paper includes a sorry tale of woe regarding the situation with the building located at 14th and T streets. Though it's not overly in-depth, it does take you through a nice history of the building, from its beginnings as a factory for Model T cars, up to its current status as the (maybe?) future home of Minneapolis-based furniture retailer Room & Board.

The piece is both fascinating and frustrating, as one learns how the massive edifice went from abandoned warehouse, to a church, to a condo building, to a future home of a Diner and Dave Chappelle-back comedy club, to the future home of Room & Board, to its now uncertain situation.

Undoubtedly, the most aggravating part of the story comes from the March 2008 time period. It was at this time that plans were formulating for Tryst and Diner owner Constantine Stavropoulos to open up a new cafe/diner on the first floor of the building, with the second floor featuring Riot Act Comedy Club (co-owned by Dave Chappelle) and Boundless Yoga operating on the third floor. The City Paper quotes Stavropoulos as saying that the deal fell apart due to a failure to secure tenant allowances, which Stavropoulos called "crazy." However, that relates only a portion of the story.

From an October 2008 post from greatergreaterwashington (subsequently picked up by Borderstan), we learn of the ardent opposition to the developer's plans by ANC2B09 commissioner (and ANC2B chair) Ramon Estrada, in particular the "24 hour aspect" of the operation. This, in spite of the fact that many in the Logan/U Street corridor had advocated for the project as a way to both increase the vibrancy and security of the area. (Estrada, it should be noted, has also strongly advocated for a reduction in the size of the proposed project at 14th and U streets). The idea for the diner/comedy club went by the wayside, and furniture retailer Room & Board stepped in to claim the spot (although that deal now appears in doubt due to the economic calamity).

So, why bring this up now? Well, for one the City Paper has dredged it up as an example of urban development and local government involvement gone awry. But, perhaps more importantly, with several new operations, along with two massive developments, set to descend upon the neighborhood during the coming months and years, it's important for the community to understand how these types of decisions get made.

I wrote in an earlier post that I could foresee problems with the proposed operating hours of two forthcoming 14th Street restaurants/lounges, and this is precisely the reason why. Even with strong community support, the voices of a few prominent (or loud) members of the community can dictate neighborhood developmental policy, frequently to the detriment of the community as a whole. The ramifications of this type of behavior extend far beyond that of the development in question. DC as a whole is changing, and it's not merely U Street and Logan that have reaped the benefits. Business owners are presented with the ability to pursue opportunities in neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights, H Street, Petworth and other locales should they find the climate there more hospitable.

This doesn't mean that the interests of residents and others in the community should be ignored; far from it, in fact. But stories such as the one at 14th and T show the consequences of ignoring broad-based community sentiment in the name of protecting the interests of a vocal minority.


Anonymous said...

You rock, Mr. 14th & T! -- An admirer to the west.

Anonymous said...

This post is spot-on. However, unfortunately, the silent majority of "live and let live" residents live their daily lives without trying to stop everything in their back yard. Most of my neighbors are all for any development along this still mish-mash corridor, but they don't take the time to go to any meetings because they work late, have families, etc. And frankly, nor do I. Not saying it's right or good, but it's a shame because the people who do show up tend to be the vocal advocates on each side, while the rest of the community doesn't even really know what's going on but would side with the "pro" folks in most cases, with conditions of course. Anyways, I'm ranting. But the squeaky wheel always gets greased, and usually the vocal "anti" people get heard because they make sure of it and the media, ever-looking for a story, often picks up their "plight" (even if the issue in question often has little to no impact on their lives, or a very parochial one i.e. they live adjacent) Sigh...

Anonymous said...

Well, yes... but...
Adams-Morgan haunts neighborhood watchdogs, and for good reason. A once promising, bohemian neighborhood is now a grim strip of bars catering exclusively to the 21-25 year old crowd, and (increasingly) attracting a violent element. So - how do you have *some* nightlife, but not to the exclusion of other businesses that cater to local needs?
- JM

Mr. 14th & You said...

Anon 11:29-

It's one thing if bars/clubs were pushing out other retailers in order to open up their businesses, but that isn't the case here. In terms of density, 14th Street isn't approaching Adams-Morgan, whether in terms of bars and restaurants, or simply inhabited buildings. I don't believe anyone in the community wants to see 14th/Logan/U Street turn into another Adams-Morgan, but we're miles from that.

Anonymous said...

I do agree with Mr. Estrada in the sense that 24 hour establishment would not be good for the neighborhood. I live next to this property and DO NOT APPROVE of a 24 hour establishment! That is not to say an agreement can't be reached.

Anonymous said...

You say that a 24-hr diner would not be good for the neighborhood, then you say you don't want it because it's next to your residence.

If that isn't the definition of NIMBY, I don't know what is.

So, let's discuss whether this would be good for the neighborhood or not, instead of -- as too often happens with proposed projects such as this -- confuse what you do or don't want with what the neighborhood does or does not want.

Mr. 14th & You said...

I'm going to pose an honest question here:

If you live in close proximity to this establishment, it means that you live in close proximity to 14th street and U st. There are a number of businesses along those corridors with operating hours that already extend until 1-2 AM during the week and upwards of 3 AM during the weekend. Given that, how is it that a 24 hour diner would cause such a precipitous drop in the quality of life for nearby residents that it would lead to objection to the very concept of a 24 hour establishment? That's the part of objecting to this idea that I have a difficult time grasping.

Joel Lawson said...

I live very close to this property, with my alley ending at its backdoor, and I do not oppose its use as a 24-hour diner.

That's not to say, however, that a non-24hr-diner, or a non-restaurant, wouldn't be automatically easier for a neighborhood to digest. Dry goods retail obviously generates far fewer concerns: restaurants *can* bring trash, rats, and other noise impacts, and residents do have the right to accordingly seek changes in plans (the relocation of egress or a loading dock, acquisition of a trash compactor, or an internal trash room, as examples).

That's what Voluntary Agreements are for. Residents should, and do, have a role in shaping their surroundings.

For me, however, there is a personal philosophical line in how far residents should go in utilizing that voice. Even though I live close enough to be impacted, I do not believe I have the right to say no to a diner, or to a 24-hr diner.

It is the right of a businessperson to seek a location, and it is my right to seek changes that minimize impact, but it is not my right to harp at them in hopes they abandon their plans altogether--I have often seen good faith claimed, despite its factual absence.

In this particular case, we were dealing with a restauranteur with a stellar track record in the operation of his existing establishments, and beyond that in fostering community organizations and dialogue.

Will Constantine get another shot at this property? That's up to the clock.

The prospect of hundreds of new condo units surrounding this building is not likely to motivate the owner to favor local businesses over, say, a major chain. At the same time, chains may not be able to recover in this economy quickly enough to secure capital to acquire the building.

Like much of 14th, the economy and the calendar are in charge.

Anonymous said...

Sad to miss out on the coffee shop/diner option. Wish I had somewhere this close to walk to with my laptop. I'm certainly not walking to an overpriced furniture store.

Anonymous said...

I'm new to the neighborhood and happened on this post. I'm happy that I can walk to Adams Morgan for the 24-7 experience and live next to a stellar furniture store here at 14th & T. Having a healthy mix of businesses that support (and are compatible with) the community and draw the larger meto area is the best. Smart planning and compatible uses really make sense for a livable, world class city.