Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Many D.C. locals know the barrel-roofed Uline Arena as where the Beatles played their first North American concert in 1964, after appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and whipping millions of American teens into a frenzy. But the building—used for a mix of sports and other events during its mid-20th-century prime—has witnessed a lot more history than that.

President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 inaugural ball was at Uline. Rudolf Nureyev danced there. Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad spoke there. The Washington Lions hockey team and Washington Capitols basketball team both played in Uline, known from 1960 onwards as the Washington Coliseum.

Concerts were banned for a period, after a riot broke out at a Temptations show. (Yes, really.) But by the early 1980s, live music was back. The Coliseum became a regular spot for go-go, hosting Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk, Rare Essence, and other acts.

Fast forward to the early 2000s. The structure was operating as a garbage plant, a smelly white elephant as far as many neighbors were concerned. Its trash company owner moved to tear it down, but preservationists blocked it. After Douglas Development bought it in 2004, the storied arena switched roles again, this time to … a parking garage.

The former Uline reopened again Oct. 21, this time as the D.C. flagship for the outdoor goods retailer REI. Not only has this hulking old building next to the train tracks at M Street NE remained, it has become the showpiece of a national brand, crystallizing just how much the city has changed. And as the lines that snaked around the block at the opening testify, the store embodies a value that has come to define D.C.: a love of the urban outdoors.  

The Uline Arena was built in 1941 by Miguel “Uncle Mike” Uline, a Dutch immigrant who had grown rich running an ice distribution business out of the warehouse next door. It was designed by a Chicago engineering firm, Roberts & Schaefer, based on a special German system of reinforced concrete roofing. The vaulted roof allowed for a vast, unobstructed space inside.

The building has four levels, the upper three of them devoted to offices, and REI occupies the ground floor. The roof is hidden up there, so when you enter, there is no catch-your-breath moment at walking into the belly of a whale. Despite this, REI’s architects, the Seattle firm CallisonRTKL, did their best to play up the 50,000-square-foot expanse.

The lobby offers enticements in three directions: a La Colombe coffee shop to the left, racks of bikes to the right, and straight ahead and down some steps, enough outdoor gear to set up a commune in the Arctic. The rationale for the dropped main room was practical. REI needed a bit more height to display large items like kayaks, so the builders dug down five feet. But the architects get mileage out of the extra spatial volume, using ramps to connect levels and inserting a mezzanine that looks out over the store like a viewing platform.

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The store’s style could be described as warmed-up industrial. Architect Alex Shapleigh says his goal was “keeping the architecture simple, pure,” with materials “that are very utilitarian.” Ducts run across the ceiling. Plywood lines the walls. Floors are recycled dunnage—wood used for packing cargo on shipping trucks—with kilim rugs scattered around. The chunky footings of the arena’s concrete columns were left visible, some still bearing flecks of old paint, and windows were punched into the arched front wall to allow for natural light.

The centerpiece of the store is a courtyard, carved out of what was a gap between the arena and the ice house. Here, you can look up at two of the concrete buttresses that support the barrel roof—the ribs of the whale. “It’s the only spot in the building where you can really see all of that structure in its glory,” Shapleigh notes. Douglas and its architects (Antunovich Associates), CallisonRTKL, and REI deserve credit for making a space where merchandise is not a focal point.

REI prides itself on being a good corporate citizen. Its renovation of the arena is historically sensitive. The new store also fits into the neighborhood around it, a jumble of modest rowhouses and light-industrial buildings between NoMa and H Street.

On the west, directly across Delaware Avenue NE, the store faces a rugged stone wall and train tracks. It’s not a view that beckons. But garage-like windows along the side of the building make this a surprisingly nice stretch for pedestrians, with an assist from a broad new sidewalk and line of trees. The sloping plaza in front of the store on M Street NE doubles as a mini-amphitheater for REI events and classes, and a place for people to hang out.

It would be easy, and not wrong, to see REI’s arrival as yet another sign of gentrification. A hundred feet from the displays of high-end tents and sleeping bags, homeless people camp out in the M Street tunnel. The store’s columns are plastered with reproduction posters for old shows, REI’s earnest effort to celebrate local music. There is deep irony in Fugazi being used to sell $500 ski boots.

The store reveals more about the District than its newfound affluence. Only four other U.S. cities have REI flagships: New York, Bloomington, Minn., Seattle, and Denver. Except for New York, these are outdoorsy places. D.C. hadn’t been one of them. We don’t have the Rockies or Cascades on our doorstep. But we do have  the Blue Ridge—and the city itself.

For most of the 20th century, cities and nature were seen as being in opposition. It was smoke, grime, and noise versus scenery, clean air, and quiet. The urbanist movement has collapsed this false distinction. More and more Americans recognize that living in a city and walking or biking its streets is better for a person’s health and the environment than living in the far suburbs and gazing at nature from the window of an SUV.

Perhaps no city has embraced this philosophy more than D.C., where outdoor activity has surged along with the city’s population in recent years. Commuting via Bikeshare. Kayaking on the Potomac and the (once shunned) Anacostia. Jogging on an ever-expanding urban trail network. It’s no wonder D.C. ranks as the fittest city in the country, according to the American Fitness Index.

So it is great that the REI flagship is properly urban. There’s no climbing wall, but bikes are front and center. The store has ample bike parking and a Bikeshare station steps away. The NoMa-Gallaudet Metro is around the corner, and the Metropolitan Branch Trail runs by the railroad tracks. Sure, there’s also a parking garage—try lugging a kayak on the Metro—but this represents a shift from even 10 or 15 years ago, when REI opened stores in places like Tysons and Rockville, big boxes adrift in massive parking lots off the Capital Beltway. 

The blocks around the Uline Arena are now redeveloping fast. As new apartment and office buildings crowd around it, the brick behemoth will no longer anchor the neighborhood, but serve as a touch of gritty “character” in a yuppie district. REI’s $250 coolers will find eager buyers, no doubt, but the ideal of urban outdoorsiness the store promotes should not be a luxury. Prioritizing public trails and parks, and streets hospitable to walkers and bikers—especially in underserved communities—is the best way D.C. and its inner suburbs can get all citizens to #OptOutside, no purchase required.