LOSER: Sections 219, 218, 217, and parts of 216, along with Suites 31 and 32, among others
Baseball boosters love the Capitol dome. Back when skeptics were lining up to bash the notion of a publicly financed park, the pro-ball crowd was using this graceful ivory iconography to sell it. A shiny new ballpark anchored just so spectators would get a view of the U.S. Capitol—no other city could compete with that kind of architectural gravitas.
HOK, the Kansas City-based architecture firm that designed the stadium, saw the Capitol as critical to its blueprints. “It became very important to the client strategically for the Capitol to be viewed,” explains Jim Chibnall, the lead designer for Nationals Park.
And then it became not so important.
Blueprints and models are one thing. But now the stadium is mostly built, and the sightlines aren’t quite as clean.
Nats fans sitting in Sections 219, 218, 217, and parts of 216, along with the fat cats in suites 31 and 32, will find the dome simply out of their sightlines. They will have great views of home plate, the outfield, the jumbo screen—and, well, a 10-story office building.
For this obstructed vista, fans can thank the family that owns the Nationals.
In March 2007, the Lerners completed construction of an office building at 20 M St. SE. The edifice resembles either a sleek laser printer or paper shredder and effectively screens out the Capitol for fans seated to the right of home plate.
“That building was the first to obstruct,” Chibnall says. He adds that it won’t be the last: “There have been a number of buildings that have been built and will continue to be built [that] will obstruct the view. We knew that going in.”
Chibnall says the Lerner building isn’t a sign of a lost promise. It’s a “great sign of progress.…To see a number of buildings coming on line proves the mayor right,” he argues. “Once you make an investment in the area, other investment is sure to follow. It’s a good sign.” The building has yet to fill its office space.
Of course, Chibnall offers, baseball fans will have other ways to glimpse the Capitol, right in their own living rooms: “You have to remember there will be games that will be televised from the stadium so you’ll have these aerial views.”
LOSER: Positive Nature
Before finding its space near Nationals Park, nonprofit Positive Nature had some real-estate troubles. It got its start operating out of a converted girls locker room at Kramer Middle School in Southeast.
There were three shower stalls, each with a purpose. One housed the fax machine. Supplies were stored in another. A third contained a deep freezer. These stalls were not blessed with electricity. If work had to be done, it was done under the shaky glare of the office flashlight.
Eventually, the organization, which supports at-risk youth, moved into the basement of Hart Middle School. “It was mice and rats,” recalls Positive Nature’s co-founder Jennifer Murphy. “The heating system—either it was 13 degrees or 300 degrees. Just not ideal.”
Ideal describes the nonprofit’s current place, at a warehouse located on New Jersey Avenue SE, one block up from the Navy Yard Metro.
The space had previously been an old print shop and a library. At the time, Murphy says, the location was part of an incentive-rich Enterprise Zone.
The property’s managers—Potomac Development Corp.—were so eager to unload the building that they agreed to rehab it to fit Positive Nature’s needs. They converted the space into classrooms and made a decent gym with high ceilings. They also sweetened the deal by offering the nonprofit use of an adjoining grassy lot rent-free.
Above the building’s entrance, the nonprofit hung a giant blue Positive Nature sign.
“It was just what we needed,” co-founder Brian Bailey says. “All the children felt they could have some ownership. They were able to commit. This is our building—look at our name on the wall.”
But when Positive Nature signed its lease agreement for the building in early 2004, it included one provision Murphy and Bailey would come to regret: Along with their monthly rent, they would be required to pay the taxes on the property.
At the time, Murphy recalls, the taxes were appropriately low for an area featuring two carryouts, an empty lot, and a methadone clinic. The taxes on both the building and the lot came to a few thousand dollars.
That’s not the case anymore.
In March 2006, a massive, 204-room Courtyard Marriott opened on the block. The land suddenly became very expensive.
Positive Nature’s property tax increased by 755 percent. In the last two years, the nonprofit had to pay roughly $100,000 in property taxes, says Murphy. Last year, the taxes alone ate up 30 percent of Positive Nature’s total operating budget.
“We were stupid. We didn’t have a crystal ball,” she says. “I didn’t know that thing was coming.” That thing was the stadium.
Susan Rollins, vice president of Potomac Development Corporation, says the District shouldn’t be in the business of taxing her nonprofit renters out of business. “I feel like the city contradicts itself,” says Rollins. “They want green space, they’ve been mandated to do after-school programs, so they contract out [to Positive Nature] and they tax [it] off the land. Every site is not a development site.”
Positive Nature has since given up on using the grassy field for outdoor recreation. It has also cut back on full-time staff and a variety of activities for its kids. Camping, white water rafting, and city trips were cut.
All these trips had a huge impact on expanding students’ experiences, Murphy explains. Once during a trip, after arriving in Lewes, Del., a girl got out of the Positive Nature van and peered at the ground. When asked what she was doing, Murphy says the girl replied, “I’m looking for the line.” She wanted to see the Delaware state line like the one drawn on her map.
Inside Positive Nature’s classrooms, vocational training also took a hit. The cuts are all part of an effort to hold on to their address and the 30 to 50 kids under their watch.
Murphy says she has started paying employees out of her own pockets. “This is all just really hard for me,” she says. “It’s a calling and a way of life.”
For now, the kids keep showing up. And Murphy and Bailey keep greeting them with their booming, cheering voices at the door. The kids treat the building like a home, slinging their backpacks on the floor and sharing the latest details of their lives with the staff. One kid seeks out job advice from Murphy and Bailey. Another recalls seeking counsel on whether to avenge a relative’s murder. One teenager, who works at the building part-time, waits for the day his surrogate dad will rescue him from his group home.
Many of the kids have had a lot of experience with caseworkers and too many foster care moms. If they have a problem, Positive Nature is usually the place that hears about it first. The only constant in the lives of some of these kids is Murphy and her staff.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, a handful of teens assemble on folding chairs and a beat up leather couch for the day’s group discussion of Alex Haley’s Roots.
A girl turns her jacket into a blanket and covers her face with it. She had a miserable day at school.
A few boys giggle over jokes.
Another girl stares at the floor. A jumble of black curls is all anyone is allowed to see.
The room couldn’t be farther away from the ’70s miniseries. Their adviser, Randy Fix, asks: “What’s a family tree?”
A boy offers: “A family line.”
“Is anyone here aware of your family line?” Mr. Fix asks.
Mr. Fix gets a round of shrugs. A boy mentions a grandmother. The rest of the room is just confused by the concept.
“You can ask your guardian questions,” Mr. Fix gently offers.
“It will never be gone,” one teenage boy says of Positive Nature that afternoon. “It will be here forever.”
As a way to entice a reluctant city to put public funds behind the construction of Nationals Park, District officials several years ago fell back on a familiar and seductive argument: The stadium would surely raze the strip’s mechanic shacks, gas stations, and decrepit carryout joints in a neglected hive of Southeast. City planners already had a name—the Stadium District—for what would follow.
In a March 2005 story in the Washington Post, officials described the area as a tree-lined scenic gateway gilded by grassy areas, new residential and retail spaces, and museums. “You can see things just starting to domino,” Jose Galvez, chairman of the South Capitol Street Task Force, told the Post. “Everything will just start to accelerate.”
In mid-January, the stadium produced its first domino. It’s not a marble-columned ode to a war or baseball-themed pub. The domino isn’t really a domino at all. It’s a little family business: a dentist’s office called the South Capitol Smile Center.
Located across from the ballpark’s hulking parking garages, the center’s crisp white-on-black banner stands out among the mechanic shacks and greasy carryout joints.
The center’s owner, Dr. Sheila Samaddar, says it took her three years to settle on the location and 15 months to secure the permits and construct her examination rooms. “The potential is enormous just for the visibility,” she says. But right now, she says, “it’s me and the liquor store.”
Samaddar is not exactly relishing being that first domino. “I’m astonished,” she says. “Where are people going to go to eat? Where are people going to drink?” But she’s still counting on her new neighborhood’s promised resurgence and steady crawl of traffic outside her front door.
Samaddar hopes fans will at least know where they can get their toothaches fixed. Her practice offers about as many options as the liquor store’s variety of cheap vodka: They range from upscale smile makeovers and tooth color restorations to cleanings and extractions. “I love a beautiful smile,” she says on a recent Saturday afternoon after seeing six patients.
So will fans sign up? “I’ll probably get a few—hopefully not because they incurred an injury from the game,” Samaddar says.
On one side of South Capitol Street, a thousand construction workers are busy putting the final touches on Nationals Park. On the other side, residents bustle around the James Creek and Greenleaf housing projects, where cops post up on every other block and apartments are characterized by peeling paint and busted doors. To these residents, living in the shadow of the stadium will not mean summers cheering on the home team. It can only mean displacement.
“We got to move,” explains Harold, 47, a James Creek resident. “Come on, man. We are in a poor neighborhood. We’re already expecting that.”
Harold is standing outside Cap Liquor on a weekday night. His side of South Capitol is quiet and mostly dark. The only activity is under the liquor store’s glow, where an old man is asking for change. Since the first seats were installed in the stadium, the neighborhood has lost a gas station, a fast-food place, and a few other shops. The strip seems to have more boards than windows.
The panhandler complains he’s already a stadium victim. Since his other favorite liquor store recently closed, he’s had to find other storefronts. A lot of his regulars disappeared.
Harold notices the boards, too.
“Everything we need is gone,” he says, trying to build up his conspiracy. “Waterside is torn down. Safeway is supposed to be torn down. We have nothing for us.” He adds that there have been five or six evictions recently, and those vacancies haven’t been filled.
Harold says he’s fearful of the changes. He has a part-time job waxing floors. It’s not enough to get by in the District’s rental market. He predicts he will end up in shelters if the bulldozers come to James Creek. His uncertain future is a constant worry.
“I have to see it every day,” Harold says, pointing to the stadium. “Every day of the week I think about getting evicted or getting a 90-day voucher or going to a neighborhood where they [want] us to move…places I don’t know.”
Dena Michaelson, director of public affairs for the D.C. Housing Authority, says the number of vacancies in James Creek and Greenleaf are in line with their other properties. She adds that a number of the facilities got rehabbed recently. The Greenleaf Senior building got a new roof, and the adjacent building received a new lobby and mailroom. She is adamant that there are no plans to redevelop, demolish, or sell either property.
Michaelson goes on to dictate a direct quote from Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Kelly on whether the properties will be vacated: “Absolutely not. People who start and spread those rumors are irresponsible.”
But the rumors can’t be taken back. Residents have all heard them and firmly believe them. “We have to move because of the stadium in 2010,” explains Jimmy Anderson, 20, a James Creek resident. “That’s what they told us.”
Anderson says there was a meeting at the recreation center just before New Year’s. That’s where he got the news. “Just another neighborhood that’s changing,” he says.
LOSER: Market Deli
“You ain’t gone yet?” a burly regular asks as he slides up to the Market Deli’s counter on a recent Monday afternoon.
Andy Lee, Market Deli’s owner, gently takes the ribbing. He laughs off the question and then grimly jots down the man’s turkey sub order.
The deli is heavy with old fry smells. Wings glow under a heat lamp. Two cooks look on, bored. The turkey sub order will be one of their last of the afternoon. It’s all part of the deli’s deathwatch.
Two or three times a day, Lee says, his old customers will call up to just ask: “Are you closed or not?”
Not yet, Lee tells them.
Outside is loud with backhoes digging into cold earth, hammers on rebar, and the thud of dump trucks shifting into gear. The deli, located at 1st and L Streets SE, is at the epicenter of new development. In nearly every direction there are buildings being made one layer at a time. All of it was just background noise until three months ago.
That was when construction crews closed 1st Street and then ripped it up. Lee must wait out the new road’s construction. He says he’s lost 30 percent of his business—at least 100 customers per day.
If it rains, Lee says, traffic is even worse. “There’s no lady want to walk in the mud,” he says. “All the heavy equipment makes people afraid.”
Lee, along with his parents and three sisters, came to the U.S. from South Korea in the early ’80s. They ended up in Fairfax. Lee got a job cutting shirts in a textile factory. “I didn’t know nothing about America; I just kept working,” he says.
Soon Lee’s family started up its own dry-cleaning business and kept at it until the early ’90s, when the deli became available. When he took over, Lee says, he knew nothing about the food business.
Lee adds that he still has no deep passion for the jumbo burger special ($5.50 with fries or chips and a huge soda). But that didn’t mean he didn’t have ambitions. He works six days a week, arriving in the wee hours, commuting home in the dark to Greenbelt.
Lee never installed bulletproof glass; he makes it a point to chat up his regular customers. And inside his small kitchen, he worked hard on his menu.
He put a lot of thought into French toast. He says he realized a good stack of French toast requires good thick batter and thick bread. It soon became a morning favorite.
When the new office towers rose up, Lee studied up on the Reuben, trying to figure out the perfect equation of corned beef and toppings. “The amount of meat, the crunchiness of the bread,” he says are key to his Reuben. “When you buy it, it has to be crunchy like grilled cheese.” The Reuben became one of his top sellers.
Now it doesn’t seem to matter how crispy his Reuben is. There is still the moat bordering his deli. The regulars aren’t willing to dodge the jackhammers and dump trucks for French toast. Lee thinks he may be able to outlast the construction. “I’m afraid to ask the landlord about [the lease],” he says. “I keep quiet. I don’t hear anything. I consider that a good thing.”
WINNER: Homeless Kids
According to a recent survey by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, more than 1,200 children reside in the District without shelter. There’s a good chance that these kids are familiar with the stuffy waiting room of the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center.
Located at 25 M St. SW, the center is the place where their parents must sign up for housing. It has served as an intake center for homeless families for decades. Every morning, kids are dragged past the bored security guard and into the waiting room.
Thousands of kids have been dulled by the TV blaring court shows while their parents try and fill out exhaustive forms. Eventually, many amble out to the adjacent play area where a large painting of Tweety Bird declares: kids are cool.
In mid-February, the room’s toy supply had dwindled to a smattering of torn books wedged into a shelf, a set of plastic chairs and small tables, and three wooden play mazes. A play kitchen—with a fake electric stove and not much else—took up the far right corner. Its cupboards were bare.
Cornell Chappelle, chief of program operations for the Community Partnership, says the toys haven’t been replenished in months. Most disappear fairly quickly because kids are allowed to take them when they leave the facility.
But soon, Chappelle says, kids will no longer have to put up with the empty play area. On Feb. 28, the center will be moving to a new facility at 920A Rhode Island Ave. NE. The District’s month-to-month lease on 25 M St. was not renewed, and the building’s owners—Vornado/Charles E. Smith—have decided that the facility is no longer viable. They plan to tear it down and are considering turning the space into a temporary parking lot.
Few if any patrons will mourn the loss of the dingy 25 M St. The new center will be located across from the Rhode Island Avenue Metro stop and have new facilities (including working bathrooms for men and women).
But no one stands to gain more than the homeless kids who walk through the new building. They will be getting two playrooms instead of one. Both will be stocked with toys, Chappelle says.
Kenny Hinton, 21, his 2-year-old son Kenny Jr., his wife, and daughter can’t put off applying for housing, waiting for the new center to open. They have used up the better part of a late Thursday morning filling out forms. Hinton says he and his family were staying with friends at 1st and Florida Avenue NW but had to move out because there wasn’t enough space.
In the center’s playroom, Kenny Jr. is soon joined by a 2-year-old girl clutching a turkey sandwich. They sit at a table and flick wood shapes down wires, then play the sandwich like a drum.
When he gets bored with that game, Kenny Jr. discovers what the center still has in abundance—black-and-white pamphlets and flyers—and invents a new one: giving information about the rights of disabled homeless to his dad.
WINNER: Kenneth Wyban
Kenneth Wyban left D.C. for good on Feb. 3, 2006. He dropped off the keys to his dream home with a District official at Judiciary Square. Then he drove by 21 N St. SE one last time. He had wanted to turn the 1850s-era brick home into a bed and breakfast, but the Nats needed it for a new parking garage.
Wyban remembers the song on his car stereo as he said his final goodbye: the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.” “Every time I hear that song,” he says, “I think about that day.”
Three months later, a squad of hardhats tore down his house.
After the 20-acre site along South Capitol Street had been selected for the stadium, few if any had a better claim against the decision than Wyban.
The media—including Washington City Paper—flocked to him. In the annals of one man’s fight against eminent domain and Major League Baseball’s greedy gazillionaires, reporters would find no better source.
For a while at least, Wyban obliged the journalists scribbling his every word into their notebooks. And he obliged the cameramen parked in front of his home. It was a good story.
Wyban had resided at 21 N St. SE for eight years. It was the longest he had ever settled in one place. He grew up around Cleveland, where his father took on various jobs as an apartment superintendent; the family moved around a lot. In 1969, he was drafted and went straight to Vietnam. He stayed in the Army for 30 years, moving 15 times before retiring as a sergeant major. He thought he’d spend his retirement years in his house.
The five-bedroom, two-story brick house needed a lot of work. He fixed up the basement and made sure the house’s six fireplaces were in working order. He patched the roof and replaced the drafty windows. In the backyard, there was a 10-foot wall. Below that wall, he planted a garden.
Where others saw a horizon of industrial wasteland and seedy clubs, Wyban saw a neighborhood with a spectacular location. “I wanted my view of the Capitol,” he says. “I wanted my view of the Washington Monument.”
Stadium planners wanted that view, too. Wyban walked away with $1.53 million. He says the city reneged on its promise to pay for his moving costs.
Wyban ended up in Tampa to be with his mother. She got lung cancer and then pancreatic cancer. With his settlement, he paid off her house and debts. And he got the time to just be with her.
“The best thing was being able to hang out with my mom,” he says. “There were times we’d be in the hospital five days a week. Little conversations between us would come up—how I got my name,
different things like that. It was just so nice for her to share that with me. When you spend so much time with someone—you’re just killing time waiting for doctors—
I could actually feel and learn about me as a child.”
“She filled me in on my childhood memories,” Wyban says.
After she died, Wyban decided to move back to the Cleveland area to be near his father and has yet to come back to D.C. He says he doesn’t miss the press attention. “It all worked out very well,” he explains. “The nice thing about not having a news camera is it gives you a chance to forget about it and let it die.”