There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Holdout: 707 6th St. NW
Merchant Robert Dorsey receives occasional reminders of just how close the MCI Center is to his 6th Street shop. In 1997, during arena construction, the sidewalk outside the Wilson-Epes Printing Co. became a trench. “I had to step up 2 feet to my front door,” recalls Dorsey. Without sewer drains to collect storm runoff, rainwater leaked into his basement. After one particularly hard rain, he says, flooding destroyed $35,000 worth of printing parts.
And then there were the developers. Before the christening of the MCI Center, Dorsey says, he received as many as 10 calls a day from land speculators scoping out his property. “I’d come in later in the morning and my manager would say, ‘I got four more nutcase calls.’ It was like a daily update on call the get-rich-quickers.”
The phone calls were just the beginning. Once the arena was complete, developers sent a small army of suits to make a pitch for Dorsey’s land. They came in twos and threes, Dorsey recalls. In the past six years, he reckons, he’s received at least two dozen offers.
None of the figures they floated satisfied Dorsey, who won’t disclose his asking price for his 2,700-square-foot lot. The value, he argues, depends on what developers want the land for. City tax records assess the land, in its current use as a print shop, at $648,000. JBG Cos. last year paid from $315,000 to $3,811,000 apiece for several similarly sized parcels on 6th Street, according to city land records.
These days, developers are wary of approaching Dorsey’s storefront. “My reputation precedes me here,” he says.
Every time Dorsey dispatches an offer, he preserves a bit of history. Since it opened, in 1941, Wilson-Epes has been the District’s premier printer of U.S. Supreme Court briefs. On any given day, some of the most prominent government and private lawyers make the trek to Dorsey’s “sleepy, small, dumpy, dirty shop” for last-minute proofreading.
It wasn’t until 2000 that Wilson-Epes installed state-of-the-art digital legal brief machines. Before that, it was one of the last printers in the country to use the hot-metal method of typesetting. Twenty-two hours a day, six days a week, 19 journeymen slammed and banged away on four vintage Intertype machines and two large flat-bed presses. “I had typesetting machines older than the ones on display at the Smithsonian,” says Dorsey.
To keep his equipment in working order, Dorsey employed a full-time machinist, who had to constantly tweak the machines and replace parts, which weren’t easy to come by. His Heidelberg cylinder press hadn’t been manufactured in 40 years, says Dorsey. The previous owner had accumulated a storehouse of cast-iron and soft-steel parts in the basement. “Once they were under water, they were cooked,” Dorsey says. “I had to throw them away.”
Dorsey, a Vietnam War veteran, isn’t the type to take that kind of hit and roll over. He keeps a “Bullshit Bag” tacked to the wall behind the front counter, wears his hair a little long, and sports a skull ring on one finger. When asked how old he is, he answers that he’s “old enough to know better.”
After the MCI Center was completed, in December 1997, Dorsey shot off a snarky letter to arena owner Abe Pollin. He says he wrote to congratulate Pollin on his stunning achievement. But he also made a point of mentioning to his new neighbor that construction had nearly wiped his business out. “I was patting myself on the back for putting up with it,” Dorsey says.
Dorsey’s side of 6th Street has become a living Monopoly board, with land changing hands every few years. Recently, some of the many development schemes for the block have broken ground. Behind Wilson-Epes, AvalonBay Communities Inc., a residential developer based in Alexandria, is building luxury high-rise apartments called the Avalon at Gallery Place. A historically designated town house next door is being converted into condos. And next door to Wilson-Epes, JBG Cos. is building a residential high-rise.
Dorsey says he’s a holdout by default: “If I had a reasonable offer, I wouldn’t stand in the way of progress.”
But, he complains, the developers who have approached him so far “are all talk.”
“They’re the bottom of the barrel as far as I’m concerned. They come in here, see a pair of jeans and a collar, and think I’m a dummy,” Dorsey says. He cut his share of deals in his time. A self-described “corporate dropout,” he bought Wilson-Epes in 1993 after spending 18 years handling mergers and acquisitions for major corporations.
The developers, Dorsey says, fall into a predictable pattern: “Instead of doing right and optioning the property, they offer you the sky. Then they do a study period. They come in 60 days later and they say, ‘Three million is too much. We’ve studied it. We can give you 1 million.’ In the mergers-and-acquisition trade, we call it ‘getting a haircut,’” Dorsey says. “The psychology of it is that you’ve already made up your mind to sell.”
The last developer to make a play for Dorsey’s property was JBG, which owns the parcels on each side of Wilson-Epes. “It makes sense that they would take me out,” he says.
But negotiations with JBG, which began in 2001, didn’t go smoothly. “They told me, ‘Mayor [Anthony A.] Williams wants you to sell. The mayor would like us to develop this whole block,’” Dorsey recalls.
JBG Managing Director Stewart Bartley denies invoking the mayor. “We did not say that,” Bartley says. Dorsey, he argues, “mischaracterized” their exchange.
Bartley’s version goes something like this: “The city would like to see as much housing downtown as possible. Any city planner would like to have development in a uniform waynot with a missing tooth.” He insists that all he told Dorsey was that “the city might have incentive packages to relocate him. We suggested he look into that.”
Relocation, Bartley recalls, was one of Dorsey’s major concerns. So JBG hired a broker to find alternative spots. Dorsey rejected them all.
Ultimately, the disagreement boiled down to price. “[Dorsey] had some expectations that were well above what we could offer,” says Bartley, who declines to quote specific figures.
“His property would be worth more when joined in a development, from a real-estate perspective,” says Bartley. “But he’s not in the real-estate business. He’s in printing, and it might have made more sense for him to keep that location.”
“[The offer] netted out to be just a trade,” says Dorsey. “There should’ve been something in it for my risk and inconvenience.” The price, he argues, should reflect “what it would cost me to move my business and stay in business.”
After several months of back-and-forth, talks between Dorsey and JBG ended. “I told them to get out and stay out,” says Dorsey.
Bartley says JBG pulled out “because at some point you have to commit to a building design.”
Construction hasn’t begun yet, but Bartley says JBG hopes to break ground soon next door to Wilson-Epes on a 12-story building with 46 units to be called the Cosmopolitan. The marketing campaign has already begun. A sign in the lot entices passers-by with
the pitch: “Be the City. Be the Style. Be Cosmopolitan.”
“I wish we could have worked out a deal with [Dorsey],” says Bartley.
Then after a pause, he asks, “Has [Dorsey] said that he might be interested in talking to us now?” CP