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The Nehemiah Retail Center did not have a chance. Born ugly and premature, it was conceived as a suburban-style strip mall without any suburban-style comforts. Its red brick façade, ornamental green rooftops, and a too-small parking lot were just charmless enough for drug dealers and their clientele. The center’s most beloved tenant turned out to be a laundromat.
It opened for business in 1995 on a sloping piece of land on 14th Street NW in Columbia Heights, spanning the block between Belmont and Chapin Streets. This thin band of retail had replaced a community garden and was showered with the kinds of overpromise endemic to inner-city development. To cap it off, the strip was given a name it couldn’t possibly live up to: Nehemiah rebuilt a blighted Jerusalem. That’s a lot to ask of a wig shop, nail salon, Chinese carryout, and 24-hour mini-mart.
Instead, the Nehemiah became an almost instant relic, a symbol of lame government-spurred development during the pre-boom years. It was built with hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money, the product of a partnership between the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights (DCCH) and big-time developers Horning Brothers. It never shook off the feel of government cheese.
It took four years for the retail space to be fully occupied. Residents launched complaints early on about the convenience store’s single sales and late-night revelers. The community-owned laundry, Big Wash, spent much of its existence in litigation with Horning Brothers fighting its water bill. The strip’s most public pitchman was DCCH director Bob Moore, an ex-con and Marion Barry crony, who would become the subject of a lengthy Washington Post investigation into his organization’s suspect track record.
A few blocks away in either direction, 14th Street would, a decade later, emphasize pedestrian-friendly storefronts and more imaginative retail and living spaces, including Busboys and Poets and the Langston Lofts. By the time Target and Best Buy opened, the Nehemiah had been boarded up.
The carcass still stands. But soon it will be gone too. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs issued raze permits in September. A demolition crew will get to it by the end of the year and it will be replaced with what residents now see everywhere in Columbia Heights—a nine-story mixed-use rental and retail property.
In March 2006, Horning Brothers sold the property to Level 2 Development for a little more than $13 million. Level 2 is about to build a modern rental complex called “View 14” near the mall. It no longer wanted the view from View 14 to resemble the concrete horizon of Route 1, so the developers boarded up the property and eventually sold it to Denver-based developer UDR for $30 million.
Both the architect, Robert Sponseller of Shalom Baranes (responsible for Langston Lofts), and UDR emphasize the need for the Nehemiah space to fit in with Columbia Height’s new density of retail and high-rise living spaces.
“It was a good opportunity,” explains Tom Lamberth, vice president of development with UDR. “We like the reemergence of the 14th Street corridor….It was outdated and frankly in some form of disrepair. It had run its useful life. It was ready to have something done.”
Level 2 co-owner David Franco is not sentimental about the demise of the Nehemiah. Rather, he is proud to have played strip-mall killer. “I’m very pleased,” he says. “I live a block away from both the shopping center and View 14. I live on 15th Street and I’ve been living there for five years and I am very pleased that as both a resident in the neighborhood and a business owner in the neighborhood that I was able to do my part.”
The only lasting change the Nehemiah brought was its absurd mangling of Chapin Street NW. Before the strip mall opened, the street ran one way east from 15th to 14th Streets. City officials altered the street so it went two ways from 14th Street to the alley behind the Nehemiah and then reverted back to being a one-way street. If drivers turned onto Chapin from 14th Street, they had no choice but to turn into the mall’s parking lot.
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Legends of the mall
The Shop Express wasn’t just any old convenience store. Open 24 hours, it attracted its own set of entrepreneurs.
Aaron Butler moved into a rehabbed condo on Chapin Street in July 2003. “The day I moved in, a gentleman outside Shop Express tried to sell me a LeMond street bike for $100,” Butler, 28, recalls. “He said that he had an eBay auction for the LeMond bike but his computer was down.…A week later, someone offered to sell me a DeWalt hammer drill for $50. I never bought anything [in the store] except the occasional six-pack or Diet Coke.”
The Express, Butler says, always seemed to carry stuff that didn’t quite fit. “They’d have generic ice cream then all the sudden have Ben & Jerry’s at incredibly low prices. They had occasional yuppie goods at discount prices and the worst fried chicken ever.”
• Big Wash opened in September 1995. It was and still is heralded as a community-owned business. Inside, it maintained 58 washers and dryers. Cheery cutout soap bubbles were pinned to the walls. Within three years, according to the Washington Post, the laundromat boasted an annual revenue of $240,000 and employed nine residents.
It was no community garden full of collard greens, but residents hyped the project and what it stood for, despite some disagreement about that last point. Big Wash was an acronym for “Belmont Investment Group Working at Self Help” or “Believers in God Working at Spiritual Healing,” depending on whom you asked.
Stanley Brown, who has lived in Columbia Heights since 1971, had an inside look at what a laundromat could do for a community. He frequented the facility; his wife worked there as one of the managers.
The laundromat had what few laundromats had: street cred. Brown says most of the local drug dealers didn’t bother the facility because it was locally owned. The dealing was “around the laundromat,” Brown says. “It was all out in the parking lot. They didn’t allow those guys in the laundromat.”
But Brown concedes that some dealers did not respect the unwritten rules. On a few occasions, they would do a little business out of the Big Wash bathroom. They’d hide their transactions behind the toilet or under the trash can. “Anywhere there was a crack,” Brown remembers. “They would say, ‘Leave the money in the trash can.’ I couldn’t go to court to say that. But I just happen to know.”
• There seems to be a big divide in opinion on the Nehemiah Center among the residents of the newly rehabbed condo buildings and well-maintained homes on Chapin and the older residents on Belmont.
The Chapin residents talk of opposing the strip mall’s construction. Some do not recall ever really going to Nehemiah except when they absolutely did not feel like making dinner and would patronize the Papa John’s. Mostly, Chapin residents talk about the loitering and the drug deals.
Belmont residents talk about the hanging out, the convenience of a 24-hour bodega, the fried chicken.
The Shop Express owners, from Chapin Street’s point of view, were understaffed and sketchy. Belmont Street describes them as “the best people” who’d let them skate by on IOUs. Belmont insists the fried chicken was damn good. “It was home cookin’,” says one former patron. When you imply that the chicken might actually be far from damn good, Belmont looks at you like you are crazy.
• Any history that includes the history of a bodega with a liquor license has to include a story about voluntary agreements. ANC Commissioner Phil Spalding has a good one.
In the middle of a heated battle over single sales about four years ago, Spalding sat on a grand jury, weighing in on testimony for several different cases. One of them involved Shop Express.
The case alleged a fencing operation inside the store. Law enforcement authorities, Spalding says, presented evidence that stolen goods from area burglaries and smash-and-grabs were being sold there. “I was actually kind of thrilled to hear it,” he says. “It was not one of my favorite places. This just gave me extra energy to attack the voluntary agreement.”
Spalding says he and his fellow jurors agreed there was enough evidence against the fencing operation to go forward with a trial.
But Spalding says because grand jury proceedings are secret, he never used his inside information against Shop Express. “They gave you quite the stern lecture at the end of your grand jury. Fortunately, we did get to a voluntary agreement.”
Cash Express soon went out of business.
“I probably would have at some point checked with the OAG’s office to see if the case cleared,” Spalding says. “We didn’t need [my info]. They were bad enough on their own.”
• Once the ribbon-cutting ceremonies were over, the Nehemiah Center almost seemed ahead of its time. The surrounding neighborhood was in transition. Sometimes even the Papa John’s wouldn’t deliver to nearby residents.
Ernest Springs, a former president of the Meridian Hill Neighborhood Association, got into it with the pizza place after it refused to deliver to his home. He lived one block away on Florida Avenue.
“I tried to convince him that we were right around the corner,” Springs recalls. “And they wouldn’t deliver it.”
Springs decided to walk up to the pizza place and plead his case. An employee explained that the block was infested with drug dealers. Springs argued otherwise: “It hadn’t gentrified at that point, but the drug market had stopped.
The pizza guy said he knew better, that the dealers were still there—they had just shifted their operation a bit. “Ultimately,” Springs says, “he was right.”
Springs says he now has no hard feelings toward the pizza place.
• “Rest in peace,” David Simpson, 66, a Chapin Street resident, says. “I used to go there for beer and the Bank of America (ATM).”
In small graffiti on Nehemiah brick: et rip.
• Lt. Michael Smith, a veteran of the D.C. police department, used to live near the Nehemiah Center. Sometimes he’d get a radio run for the strip mall.
Smith remembers one at the Shop Express. “They had a shooting out front,” Smith says. “I think there was 16, 17 shell casings, and the glass was all shot out of the door. It wasn’t a murder. I don’t recall anybody being hit on that one.…By the time we got there, everybody except for the store clerk cleared out. I think the clerk was kind of shook up.”
“I had a lot of calls for man with gun, drug dealing,” Smith goes on. “Most of those calls were in front of the laundromat.…either right in front or inside. Just marijuana and crack. That’s all you ever saw up there.”
• Everyone describes the Cash Express as always full. Out or in. There were always dudes of all ages standing around. It could be a menacing, chaotic spot.
Tom Porter, a former ANC commissioner, recalls going into the Cash Express one day and finding kids blatantly shoplifting. There was nothing the store employees could do.
“It was obvious,” Porter says. “They were running out with the shit. One guy said, ‘I got dinner!’”
• After the storefronts had been abandoned and the property boarded up, the city found one last good use for the Nehemiah Center—as a facility for training D.C. firefighters. According to Alan Etter, spokesperson for the D.C. Fire Department, firefighters were deployed at the Nehemiah to learn how to “properly gain entry into a building where an emergency is occurring.”
The structure’s shabby architecture was no match for the city’s ax-and-ladder crew. Springs recalls the exercises and the consequences. “The back doors were pried open and laid in the alley. People were using it to sleep, eat, use drugs.”