Wednesday, April 29, 2009

More on the U Street Hotel

JBG cos. are pushing forward with their plans for a hotel project at the corner of U and 13th streets, but the project has gotten a little smaller.

Bowing to pressure from nearby residents, JBG recently unveiled revised plans for the hotel, which include--among other things--lowering the height of the building from a proposed 10 stories (and 98 feet from ground to parapet) to 9 stories (87 feet). The two images below show what the hotel would have looked like at its proposed 10 story elevation 9top image), and what it will look like with 9 stories (bottom image).

Now, I'm no architectural critic, but I feel that the 10 story version looks a lot nicer. The building seems stunted at 9 stories.

This isn't the worst thing that could have happened to the project of course, but I really do have to question what has been accomplished here. We were in attendance at the March CSNA meeting where the project was discussed, and the height issue was raised. Contrary to the comments made by several in attendance that evening, the proposed height of the structure was not "grossly disproportionate" to the neighborhood. It's tall (by DC standards), but not oh-my-gosh-that-building-is-massive tall. When presented with a scale model of the neighborhood in which the hotel would reside, it was difficult to identify which building the hotel was--something that should be readily apparent for a building that is supposedly so out of proportion to its surroundings.

The building looks fine in its new proposed state, but it could have looked better--and it's hard for me to understand how an additional 10 feet was going to adversely impact the neighborhood.

In addition to the decrease in structure height, JBG has also added a "cantilever condition" in the rear of the building that has decreased the building's footprint and added five additional feet of space in the back. It's not much, but in the original proposal things looked to be pretty cramped back there (particularly when delivery trucks are added to the mix), so it can only help.

JBG will be at the CSNA meeting on Thursday, May 14 to seek support from the CSNA for the project. You can find additional information at the CSNA's website.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Warm Weather = Shootings Galore

Ah, warm weather in DC...dining al fresco, driving with the windows down, and ducking bullets fired by roving gangs of warring teenagers.  We're nothing if not consistent.

Over the weekend, things flared up a bit in our fair city, with no fewer than three shootings.  An adult man was shot at the corner of 14th and W streets on Saturday night, and is expected to survive.  A little farther north, a teen was shot by another teen at the corner of 14th and Harvard, in broad daylight no less.  Finally, a woman was killed and three others wounded when a man opened fire inside a house at 67 N. Bryant St. NW.

The shooting at 14th and Harvard, on Sunday afternoon, was particularly troubling due to its brazenness. From a comment on the DCist blog:

I'm writing to confirm the shooting at 14th and Harvard today. In fact, I witnessed the entire incident at about 4:10PM. Was in my car on Harvard about to turn south onto 14th when I saw a young black male on the opposite side of the intersection pull a black handgun out of his pocket. He lifted the gun and started shooting (about 3 or 4 shots) at another young black male running east on Harvard. Still in shock my friend and I turned right to get out of there but got stuck at the red light by Dunkin Donuts. The shooter (black male, jeans, red t-shirt) came running south on 14th behind us so we decided to drive through the red light to create some distance. Another SUV did the exact same as us and ran the red light to get the hell out of there. We immediately called 911 to report what we had just witnessed. The shooter disappeared by the apartment building on the SW corner of 14th and Harvard.

The scary thing is that this happened in the middle of the day and the people involved looked like they were no older than 15 or 16. People walking nearby on the sidewalk hit the ground as soon as they heard shots.

Still in shock...

And all of this coming on the heels of one of Police Chief Cathy Lanier's "All Hands on Deck" weekends.  Stay safe out there, everyone...

Fighting Capitalism, One Bank Branch at a Time

Thanks to Stephen Schaefer for the image.

You know, I used to find myself in somewhat of a disagreement with the anarchist/anti-WTO protesters and their calling for the elimination of capitalism and money, and a return to...the barter system, perhaps?  

No matter, really, because I have come to the realization that arguments don't have to be based upon any grounding of intellectual reasoning to remain strongly convincing.  I must confess, they've won me over.  No, it wasn't their repeated calls for the elimination of debt and the cessation of the printing of money...what persuaded me was the way the marauding group of anarchists moved deftly along P Street Saturday morning and vented their anger at the PNC and Wachovia bank branches.  Thank you, guys, for turning a street in my neighborhood into a warzone.  I'm sure you'll have plenty of time--I'm thinking something in the neighborhood of 18-24 months--to formulate your next master plan.  I'm sure your parents are proud of you.

Today, the PNC Bank branch on P Street...tomorrow the world!

IHOP is Headed for Columbia Heights; the End is Near!

In case you missed it amidst all of the hubbub over this weekend's shootings and bank window bashing, it was announced that pancake/breakfast/high calorie eatery IHOP was planning to open up in the DC USA complex in Columbia Heights.

The 14thandyous don't get out to IHOP that often, but every once in awhile are tempted by the banana-walnut we look at this as basically a good thing. Also, the DC USA complex has more than it's share of shops masquerading as empty storefronts, so a casual, affordable sit-down eatery in the neighborhood shouldn't necessarily be viewed as a bad thing.

But that seems to be an opinion not shared, apparently, by a number of the commenting denizens of another local blog (which shall remain nameless). A sampling of the commentary revolving around this news tidbit:

"Kill me now."

"That is terrible news!"


"IHOP has no business being in CH."

"if IHOP is uprooting Ellwoods, that would be a public health and urban planning disaster."

"There goes the neighborhood again!!! Just when we were coming up in the world!"

"IHOP is low brow in my opinion. It appeals to a wide range of people, including the lowest common denominator of consumer."

It's really that last comment I want to focus on, because it was prefaced by this:

"For renters, (IHOP) increases the amenities for the hood. For the homeowners, I would think it decreases the trajectory a bit."

Translation: Homebuyers didn't pay $500,000 for a 2 bedroom luxury condo to live above a chain pancake shop, and they didn't pay that to have "the lowest common denominator" running around their neighborhood. (Although I'm willing to bet that if you took IHOP's menu and plastered it under the logo of some independent non-chain establishment with a name like "Syrup" and charged $4 more per item, the idea would go over like, um, hotcakes.)

So, where to begin? First of all, Columbia Heights isn't Dupont. It isn't "high brow". Simply having a handful of higher-priced independent eateries and a lucrative condo market doesn't make a neighborhood "high brow." Up until three years ago, Columbia Heights' commercial strip was little more than a mess of vacant storefronts, carryouts and otherwise unsavory activities. It may sound like a broken record to say this, but Columbia Heights has not become, overnight, the quintessential urban neighborhood. It has improved. A lot. A WHOLE lot, actually...but it's not Capitol Hill or Georgetown. And the presence of an IHOP is not somehow magically going to wreck its character.

Secondly, complaining about an IHOP taking the neighborhood on a "downward trajectory" rings a bit hollow when one considers that the DC USA complex contains businesses such as Target, Marshalls, Payless Shoes and Radio Shack. I would say that IHOP fits in quite well with the existing structure of the DC USA commercial environment.

Finally...why does every eatery opening up in central DC have to be some trendy, expensive independent place? Surprising as it may seem, not everyone can/wants to pay what it costs to dine out at a place such as The Heights on a consistent basis. Columbia Heights has more than its share of independent eateries serving all manner of cuisine--and introducing a low-cost diner-style restaurant into the mix isn't going to bring home values tumbling downwards (the open-air shootings will take care of that.)

In this market, it strikes me that we should be happy to see anyone signing a retail lease in a complex that has more than its share of vacancies. I, for one, would be quite content to have an IHOP-type establishment open in Logan, simply because there are so few cheap, casual dining options.

In other words, calm down...and enjoy your pancakes.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dupont ANC Taking Aim at Saint-Ex?

Is 14th Street brunch/dinner/bar spot Saint-Ex a restaurant or a tavern?

This is the question that has confronted it and numerous other restaurants in the Dupont/Logan/U Street area in recent months, as the city has moved to clamp down on establishments that don't meet the "restaurant" requirements for food sales. Tavern licenses, which offer much looser restrictions on food, can be difficult to obtain because converting an establishment from a restaurant to a tavern necessitates a change in the liquor license, which is nearly always protested.

With Saint-Ex, the issue is a particularly intriguing one, and serves to highlight the problems inherent in both the District's liquor license laws and the way in which such licenses can be protested.

Thanks to a recent article in the Dupont Current, we learned of Saint-Ex owner John Snellgrove's attempt to convert the liquor license of his business from a restaurant-class license to a tavern. The reason, according to Snellgrove, is that "keeping a chef on premises until two hours before closing time [as necessitated by the restaurant-class liquor law] makes no financial sense." So he's seeking to convert Saint-Ex's license to that of a "tavern" which would significantly loosen the restrictions on the hours of food service.

The point to keep in mind here is this: Snellgrove is adamant that Saint-Ex is dependant upon food sales to survive. The establishment currently exceeds the amount required to meet the restaurant-class quota, and Snellgrove has no intentions of scaling back or otherwise changing his food service. He is merely looking to escape a burdensome regulation that is costing his business money.

If you think that this sounds straightforward enough, then you clearly aren't familiar with the way liquor license protests function in our neighborhood. Practically every single license application —be it for a new license, renewal or change — is protested, frequently by the ANC in which the establishment resides. The U Street Commission has already voted to protest the license change in an attempt to negotiate a new "voluntary" agreement with Saint-Ex. I wasn't in attendance at the U Street ANC meeting when this decision was made, so I can't comment on what changes they are looking for. But that move by itself should have been sufficient to address any concerns the neighborhood might have with Saint-Ex.

Not for Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner Ramon Estrada. You might remember Estrada for his ardent opposition to Constantine Stavropoulos's plans to open a 24 hour diner and comedy club at a still-vacant building at 14th and T streets. Well, Estrada is back, and this time he's taking aim at Saint-Ex.

His complaint? Well, Estrada, who lives across from the establishment, is quoted in the Current article as saying "It’s common for 15 to 20 people to congregate on the sidewalk outside the establishment . . . I’m getting e-mails, calls. People are coming to my door saying that late-night noise shouldn’t go on.” Oh, do tell. You mean people are congregating on a block which sits in the middle of one of the most popular late-night corridors in the city and includes both a late might pizza takeout and a Yum's carryout? You don't say.

Never mind that Estrada can't identify which establishments these clusters of people have been patronizing, at what hours they are congregating, or how much of a disturbance they are actually creating (a fellow T Street resident is quoted as saying "We never have problems [with noise]"), it's got to be the fault of Saint-Ex.

And never mind that Saint-Ex doesn't even reside within Estrada's ANC — he led the charge for a unanimous vote (with one abstention) 6-1 vote (with commissioner Jack Jacobson in opposition) by the Dupont ANC to protest them anyway. And yet, the most absurd statement made by Estrada must be this:

“On its face, I cannot accept that you can’t keep your kitchen open until two hours before closing." To which I say: On its face, I cannot accept advice on running a food-serving establishment from someone who never has.

It is not clear what about Saint-Ex's voluntary agreement the ANC is seeking to amend--information and minutes from the respective ANC1b and 2b meetings are not yet available. Presumably though it would be something along the lines of enforcing the "peace, order and quiet"--a catch-all term that is frequently used to protest liquor licenses and which most certainly is already included in Saint-Ex's VA. Regardless, one has to wonder what other steps Estrada and others have taken to address concerns about crowds and noise associated with Saint-Ex prior to filing the protest.

Though we rarely stake out such defined positions on this blog, I'm going to do so now: that the Dupont ANC is involving themselves in a protest against an establishment that was one of the first restaurants to open along a blighted stretch of 14th Street, is not seeking to change its operations and, by all accounts, has served as a good neighbor is preposterous.

We're not against the proper regulation of businesses in the neighborhood, and we're not opposed to protesting said businesses when legitimate issues arise (such as issues related to The Space in Shaw, and their treatment of neighbors there). But there appears at times to be almost an undercurrent of hostility directed at business owners in the neighborhood, and particularly those with liquor licenses, by some in the community. We've mentioned this before, but it's critical to maintain perspective on these issues: are the complaints emanating from a couple of loud voices, or do they represent a recurring, systemic problem with the establishment?

The irony in all of this is that it is oftentimes these very business which have contributed towards the skyrocketing popularity of the neighborhood as both a commercial AND residential destination. We applaud the work of those in the community who seek to make it a more hospitable environment for residents and businesses alike, but this situation presents yet another example of the pitfalls that can arise when the majority of cooler-headed voices in the community are drowned out by a vocal minority seeking to mold the neighborhood into one of their own personal taste.

Travis at the 930 Club

Remember Travis? About 10 years ago, they along with Coldplay were tagged as the Next Big Things, the next Blur vs. Oasis. And while Coldplay rode Chris Martin all the way to the height of popularity, Fran Healy et al. seemed content to out a series of albums that, while perfectly lovely and hummable, weren't exactly destined to pack the arenas.

No matter, because it means that if you like the band you get to take in a wonderful performance at a rather intimate venue such as the 930 Club...which is where the 14thandyous found themselves tonight.

Below are some shots from the show we thought we'd share. Sorry about the quality in some--the 14thandyou's camera just ain't what it used to be.

Fran Healy, captivating the audience

This shot came out looking cooler than was intended...

About halfway through the set, Fran took a stroll through the audience to belt out a tune. Mrs. 14thandyou was a bit concerned that she might end up getting asked to dance with Fran...

...this girl got the nod instead. Oh well.

Guitarist Andy Dunlop doing some rock star posturing on his amp stack

Awwwww....the whole band at the end of the show for a sing-along.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Antonio Parker at HR-57

Sometimes it's easy to overlook the embarrassment of cultural riches that our city has to offer, and that's no more true than in our very own neighborhood. U Street and Logan are blessed with a tremendous collection of jazz clubs that bring in some phenomenal talent. This was no more evident than it was this Friday evening, as 14th street jazz club HR-57 played host to local saxophonist Antonio Parker and his quartet.

If you've never been to HR, you're missing out on a wonderful neighborhood destination to catch some jazz.  (It's also one of the cities rare BYOB establishments, so you can drink on the cheap.)  The 14thandyous have been enjoying performances there for years, and this Friday decided to head out to catch Antonio, one of our favorite local performers.  Antonio's group is a Friday night staple at HR, having been playing more-or-less consistently in that slot for the past couple of years

This evening, the band--Parker on tenor sax, William Knowles on piano, Kenny Thomas on bass and Jimmy "Junebug" Jackson doing a rather fine Buddy Rich impersonation on drums--were in splendid form.  Parker is a Coltrane devotee, and in addition to the bop standard "Giant Steps", the quartet plowed through an original Coltrane-inspired Parker number that Coltrane himself would certainly have been proud of.

Parker has developed into as exciting a jazz frontman as you are likely to find in this area, and his on-stage energy is palpable.  As a frontman, he deftly led the group through all manner of hardbop, ballads, Latin-tinged and even hip-hop inspired numbers.  In addition, his quartet is both supremely talented and well-suited for playing with each other.  The interplay between Thomas and Jackson was a particular highlight of the set, and the inclusion of pieces penned by Thomas (a ballad) and Knowles (a calypso-tinged Latin number featuring a fabulous syncopated beat from Jackson) served to indicate the depth of talent and musicianship on stage.

In other words, you don't have to head up to NYC to hear top-quality jazz.  It's literally right outside your door.

On a slightly down note, it seems that DC audiences aren't quite familiar with the protocol of attending performances in jazz clubs.  The presence of alcohol and a dimly lit room does not present one with a license to talk as obnoxiously loud as one wants, but try telling that to the several tables behind us, who as far as we could tell were not aware that they were actually taking in a performance.  A chatty neighborhood bar this is not.

Crowd noise issues aside (and that's something we haven't experienced before at the club), HR is a lovely--and relatively cheap--venue to take in a performance. You can visit HR-57's website by clicking here (note that Parker's quartet will be playing next Friday as well).  We certainly encourage you to check them out--but only if you aren't reuniting with your long-lost college roommates.  For that, Stoneys is just around the block.

Is the City Enforcing the Arts Overlay Restrictions?

After a week in London, the 14thandyous returned to DC to discover that the Dupont Current had published a front page story on a subject that is near-and-dear to our hearts: the Arts Overlay District, and specifically its restrictions on the type (and volume) of commercial frontage in the Logan/Shaw area. (It didn't hurt that yours truly was quoted in the article, of course...and thus we reach the limits of our self-promotion.)

We won't rehash the article here, nor go over the finer points of the District's stipulations (for more on that, see our previous post on this issue).  However, we did want to bring to light a not-insignificant point raised by the article:  no one seems to know whether the District, and specifically the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), is actually going to enforce the commercial frontage stipulations.  The issue in question relates directly to the retail frontage along certain streets in the area (14th, 7th, 11th, U Street and Florida) and the fact that no more than 25% of this can be restaurants.

JBG Cos., who are developing the old Whitman-Walker building at the corner of 14th and S streets, applied for--and received--an exemption to the 25% barrier in order for them to be able to include a restaurant in their plans for the building.  Even more interesting however is the fact that JBG only applied for the exemption as a precaution, because no one knows for certain whether or not the 25% has been hit (it seems in all likelihood that it has, but no definitive numbers exist) and, more basically, no one has defined what constitutes "retail frontage".  If nothing else, it seems that running afoul of the Overlay District's regulations is not a matter of grave concern for those seeking to develop properties in the area (witness the two new restaurants/lounges coming soon to 14th street, and the recently opened Policy, as other examples.)

All of which begs the question:  if no one is paying attention, and desire to enforce the regulations is lacking, then why not take them off the books completely?  By remaining in force (officially) the Overlay District restrictions present, if nothing else, a potential grounds for protest to future developments, which would be unfortunate.

Greater Greater Washington blogger David Alpert is also quoted in the Current's piece, and I happen to agree with his sentiments:  the intentions behind the Overlay District's restrictions are noble, but the execution is flawed.  We can only hope that this archaic set of guidelines is dispatched--or, at the very least, comprehensively rewritten--before an adverse impact upon the future development and growth of the neighborhood is seen.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Birch & Barley, ChurchKey Headed to Logan

Before we head off on a week-long excursion across the pond to the great Roman colony of Londinium, we thought we'd leave with a bit of restaurant news to chew on during our absence.

Remember the new restaurants/bars that were to take the place of the not-yet-forgotten Dakota Cowgirl? Well, although beer-centric establishments "Birch & Barley" and "ChurchKey" are a bit behind on their anticipated openings, we caught up with Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG) publicist Amber Pfau last week, who gave us a sneak peek of what's to come at the new beer-themed establishments.

That's executive chef Frank Morales pictured above (left right), alongside beer director Greg Engert (you know a place is serious about their beer when they employ a "beer director"). Morales will head up the kitchen at "beer and wine friendly" Birch & Barley on the ground floor of the former Cowgirl building. According to Pfau, B&B will feature a "modern American menu [that] will pay homage to beer in every way." Morales, who will stay on as executive chef at Alexandria's Rustico, is planning a menu that will feature wood-fired artisanal pizzas, as well as more unique dishes such as "duck confit and Kabocha squash crepes with grilled Mandarin orange and roasted red pepper." Altogether now: Mmmmmmm.

Upstairs, Engert will oversee the selection for beer-heavy "ChurchKey", which will serve over 550 beers representing over 100 styles and 30 countries. 50 beers will be on tap, half of which will be American, and 30 of which will rotate out weekly. ChurchKey will also feature something "five authentic hand pumped cask conditioned ales representing rare English and other international styles." With Engert, who serves in the same capacity at Rustico, beer connoisseurs are clearly in good hands.

NRG owner Michael Babin is also pursuing a rooftop deck for ChurchKey, although details about it--or renderings for the establishments--weren't available at this time.

Oh, as to that all-important opening date? While spring was once a "best case" opening scenario, NRG is now gunning for a summer opening, but are prepared for a fall opening as well--presumably if things don't all proceed according to plan. Regardless, the opening of these two establishments further pushes Logan as a culinary destination in the city.

With that, we're signing off for a week to wander about the streets of London and, hopefully, sample some good English ale. Cheers!

Monday, April 6, 2009

So, How About That Circulator?

For anyone who has followed our rantings around here for any length of time knows, we've been advocates of more improved transportation options along the 14th Street corridor. And, godblessit if we didn't get just that recently with the debut of the new Circulator line.

In my previous post on this topic, I had advocated for some forward-thinking initiative as part of the 14th Street streetscape project (set to begin, oh, 2-10 years from now) with the installation of streetcar tracks along 14th Street to link McPherson Square with Columbia Heights and Adams-Morgan.

I still think that a more robust streetcar system is a good solution as part of a comprehensive long-term transit plan for the central part of the District. But until that day gets here, we have been blessed with the next-best thing: a Circulator line that (and this is a first for the Circulator family) actually runs like the Circulator was intended to run. That is, a limited-stop streetcar-mimicking low-cost transit option.

Last week, when the line made its debut, I took it out for a test drive. I walked down to the stop at 14th and P streets, where I waited approximately 4 minutes for a bus to arrive. The Circulator then shot up 14th street, passing not one but two 50-line buses on its way to U Street ("bunching" seems to be a problem that Metrobuses will have, forever and ever). Within less than 6 minutes I was in Columbia Heights, and in about 12 I was in Adams-Morgan. In less than 20 minutes, I was exiting the Circulator in front of the Woodley Park Metro station, where I promptly rewarded myself with a trip to the Chipotle.

And all that for $1. That, I would posit, is PRECISELY how the Circulator was designed to--and should--function. And the route is smartly designed, too. It hits all the major central city neighborhoods--downtown, Logan, U Street, Columbia Heights, Mt. Pleasant, Adams-Morgan--but does so in only five stops. Bloody brilliant, I must say. As anyone who knows me knows, my single biggest gripe about riding the Metrobus system is the unfortunate tendency to make stops along every block--and thus miss every light. With a few exceptions, my typical Metrobus excursion was a frustrating and nausea-inducing ride. But the Circulator smartly takes care of that.

Alas, it's not a perfect system. Emboldened with what I deemed to be Circulator perfection, on the following evening I headed out again, this time with a plan to head up to Columbia Heights to do some errand running at Target. It took me a little longer to catch the bus this time, but still within the "every 10 minutes" window. The trouble arose when i attempted to head back home. I ended up waiting in front of the Columbia Heights metro stop for nearly 20 minutes before giving up and hoofing it back home (I could have taken Metro, but I have a "thing" about one-stop Metro rides). Of course, no sooner do I do this but a Circulator drives by me, followed in short succession by a second one. Oh well. Guess they aren't immune from the bunching issue either.

Still, I would imagine that over time they will work the kinks out of the line, and in time it will become one of the most important transit fixtures in our neighborhood. Hopefully, it will also serve as a model for existing and future Circulator lines in terms of route development (as anyone who has ever travelled along the K Street line can attest, it's frequently as frustrating a ride as a Metrobus).

So, what has your experience been? What positive/negative comments do you have regarding the new Circulator line, and transit options in the neighborhood in general? Please share them in comments.

Also, for those who are into this sort of thing, David Alpert from Greater Greater Washington has put together a really neat map (I call it "public transit map porn") showing the Metro system along with the existing Circulator lines--check it out below. As it shows, finally, we're starting to get some connectivity throughout all of the central DC neighborhoods.