Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Remaking of U Street's Intersections

One of the things that has always fascinated me about U Street was the fact that while the street itself is one of the most lively and vibrant in the District, two of its most significant intersections--13th and 14th streets--kind of, well, suck. At 14th street, you have a dry cleaners, a McDonald's, a vacant building and the colossal stretch of asphalt otherwise known as the Reeves Center. Not exactly the most welcoming and "Exciting!" statement about the neighborhood, eh?

13th street is at least a bit better, although a Starbucks, Rite-Aid, overpriced restaurant and vacant building hardly qualifies as unique or particularly lively.

Luckily, even in the midst of this economic "situation" there are some projects that look to be getting off the ground that look to improve the situation and correct a significant (and long-neglected) issue of density in the area, or lack thereof.

First, there is the massive "Utopia" development, located at 14th and U street.

Image courtesy of DC urban development guru DCMUD.

The Utopia project, which recently received HPRB and BZA approvals to move forward with a slightly modified design, will occupy a gigantic tract of land along the 14th and U street intersection. The building is being designed by Eric Colbert and Associates, which is a good thing if you are a fan of the litany of so-so urban dwelling mediocrity that has sprung up throughout our fair city recently. (Perhaps I am a bit harsh; after all the rendering above doesn't look THAT bad...)

More important than the architectural team however, the development will bring a much more appropriate level of density and development to a corner that is currently just this side of being blighted. The developer, Georgetown Strategic Capital, was forced to forgo plans for a rooftop deck (darn those clinking glasses), but will nonetheless still provide 230 rental apartments and up to 20,000 square feet of retail. You will likely be able to kiss the Taco Bell goodbye, but perhaps a new upscale pet salon is coming? I kid, I kid...I'm sure the retail will be great. Don't go looking for el cheapo apartments here though; apparently Donatelli Development's Ellington is being used as a benchmark for the project, and they aren't exactly giving away units there.

And for those who are wondering: assurances have been made that business currently in operation--the yummy Coppi's and the lovely jazz club Utopia, among others--will remain in business during construction, largely due to the fact that the buildings they in habit will remain largely unchanged (hence the HPRB approval).

The other major development project currently underway--and perhaps a bit more unexpected--is JBG Co.'s boutqiue hotel planned for 13th and U Streets, in the space currently held by Rite-Aid. (Those of you who rely on Rite-Aid for late night runs of cat litter, plastic wrap and cheap candy need not fear; the Rite-Aid will remain.)

The proposed LEED-certified four star hotel--which looks borderline art-deco, if the supplied image from JBG can be believed--would have approximately 250 guest rooms, 23,000 square feet of retail, a "signature" restaurant, a rooftop bar and a public art gallery. Whew.

This proposal is exciting for a number of reasons. First, it addresses another chronically underused corner along U Street. Secondly, the proposal for a hotel--a hotel! on U Street! Good heavens!--means a definite uptick in foot traffic for the neighborhood, which bodes well for area businesses. Finally, the idea that a developer would push forward with proposal for a hotel in this part of the city shows how "mid-city" is increasingly becoming a destination not only for the locals, but for the visiting set as well.

This, of course, may also bring its drawbacks. More taxis doing illegal mid-block u-turns? Check. More families from Florida driving below the speed limit with the map light on trying to figure out what street might come next sequentially after R, S and T? Check. More high school kids talking too loudly into their cell phones about how they just had the Best Chili Dog Ever at Ben's? Check. But hey, we live in a tourist theme-park of sorts, so I guess it's not so bad if some of them want to come crash up here for a few nights. Word of warning to the tourists though: if you encounter a purple-colored sex toy in the alley behind your hotel room, don't even think about recycling it. You have no idea where that thing has been.

Finally, across the street, U Street Girl noticed a construction permit in the window of the old Pink November shop. I haven't heard any formal announcements yet, but since neighborhood shoe repair artist extraordinaire George was asked to relocate to other premises last year, it's a safe bet that something is in the works.

We'll continue to do a reasonably acceptable job of keeping you up-to-date on the various happenings related to the u Street projects. What do you think about the proposals? Comments? Concerns? Please share them below.


Anonymous said...

Replace George's with a tanning salon. The late "Sun on U" was so vital to the community. KIDDING.

Seriously, for retail, we need a good bookstore or a bike shop. A bakery wouldn't be bad. Bagel City??? For restaurants, we lack good Indian or Vietnamese.

Bezzy said...

For a bike shop there is Bike Rack not too far away on Q Street just West of 15th Street.

Love the idea of a decent bakery and bagels.

Anonymous said...

Alas, i think we've already lost Ben's to the tourists. Thanks, Obama.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I love all the plans for the area. Hopefully they'll be able to get financing, but it's near impossible now.

What's going on with that "Lounge of Three" place on U? I think it is on the 900 and 1000 block.

Also, any news on "Patty Boom Boom" around the corner from Marvin on U?

Anonymous said...

(1) Alero really isn't that expensive. And is decent-for-dc mexican/tex-mex.
(2) Taco Bell serves a need. A deep-in-my-belly need. Please don't go!
(3) Ugh on the "Mid-City" name. Ugh Ugh Ugh. Almost as bad as referring to any part of DC as "mid town".
(4) If there is space somewhere (probably elsewhere along U), I wouldn't mind a decent burger joint, or a Scwarma/Kabob place (Five Guys, Moby Dick, you listening?).

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 4:05 PM, alas your culinary tastes pain me. Rid thyself of Taco Bell. And, Alero has possibly the worst food of any restaurant let alone Tex, Mex, or Tex-Mex restaurant. What a waste of a great corner. The restaurant looks cool enough, and bustles with life. Apparently the drinks are popular, but boy does their food look and taste like dog chow.

Bike Rack on 14th and Q is too far away (and I don't particularly like it).

Anonymous said...

Why do we need the Rite Aid? It's a terrible store, and there are now two CVS's within two blocks of there. I'd be happy to see it go, as it's basically a waste of space.

Mr. Other Upper NW said...

Anon, FYI, I didn't use the term "mid city" in an attempt to coin a new neighborhood name or to be cute. I was using it literally as a geographic descriptor--Logan/U Street is pretty much in the geographic center of the city.

Anonymous said...

A hotel on 13th and U? I can't imagine it. I'm open to anything other than the Rite Aid, but a hotel.

We shall see...

Anonymous said...

Even more information about JBG's prosed "U Street Hotel" project can be found on the Cardozo Shaw Neighborhood Association's website:

A New U Street Destination? JBG's "U Street Hotel"

JBG will be presenting an update at CSNA's March meeting on March 12, 7pm at the Source Theatre on 14th Street

JHG. said...

A common thread in comments so far is the need for more high-quality, preferrably ethnic, food that's prepared super-fast. Street food for U Street! Maybe Patty Boom Boom will help? Choosing between the line into Ben's alley and the farcical imitation of pizza below Twins Jazz is painful.

P.S.: Anonymous at 4:05. Your hankering for shawarma can be satisfied at LZ carryout on the SW corner of 14th & Florida, next to the liquor store. I had to dodge a man's active urine stream on my last trip, but it was well worth it!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this detailed post, but I didn't appreciate the crack about the dry cleaning business at 14th and U. That's a local business; they work hard; they're part of the community. Too bad if they're not posh or glam enough to attract tourists. Its not *all* about them.

Anonymous said...

I love the 14th and U dry cleaners - they're always friendly and do great work.

I think the hotel at 13th and U is a horrible idea. I currently rent on 13th and Wallach and unfortunately haven't been able to make any of the neighborhood meetings but I think it ruin the character of the neighborhood. U St is still being discovered and I would hate for it to get over populated. There are plenty of hotels in DC, take a cab to U St.

I like U St just the way it is.

Mr. Other Upper NW said...

Anon- Sorry you interpreted the line as a "crack" on the dry cleaning business; that wasn't our intent. The point I was trying to make was that the corner is one of several that are significantly underdeveloped along U Street--not that the dry cleaners (or the shoe repair shop, or the McDonalds) were somehow "inappropriate" businesses. For example, a Rite-Aid operating on the ground floor as part of a larger, more diverse development makes a lot more sense than a Rite-Aid operating completely on its own.

Alex said...

Anon 9:20:

UGH, I hope you don't seriously like U street in its semi-developed state. It has the potential to be a corridor of full vibrancy, 100% occupancy, and still maintain a flavor special to itself.

And what is the "character of the neighborhood"? The Whitelaw, a half block from your house, was a hotel for most of its history. It's actually only been in recent memory that U street hasn't had a hotel.

Why are you afraid of 'different' people? Whether tourists from Ohio or Brooklyn or business travelers from Denver or Chicago? How is that any different from trying to zone out the poor or block development for the rich?

Anonymous said...

I also like U street the way it is.
It has come a long way since 1968 and the opening of the Metro in 1992/3. It does not need to be like downtown or Town Center or Silver Spring. The two NE corners do need to be developed But does it have to take a multi-million development to do it? The best thing to make a neighborhood exciting is one or two more art galleries and local businesses. If I have the credit I'd open a frame shop or a Bike shop.

Anonymous said...

the price of the air about the Rite-Aid is just getting too expensive it would appear.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

JBG is way off base at 13 & U. Too tall. The scale is wrong for the corner and the site.

14th & You said...

Eli, some people share your opinion. We don't. Go to the most recent post on our blog about this topic to see more. When JBG unveiled a scale model of the streetscape including a couple of blocks in each direction surrounding 13th and U we couldn't immediately spot which building in the model was the proposed hotel. If you want to see the effect for yourself, look up at the Ellington, the self-storage place, and the Reeves center, all nearby the proposed hotel site.