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A condo developer jockeys for Adams Morgan’s only parking lot.

When Pat Patrick moved to Adams Morgan almost 30 years ago, he wasn’t drawn to the neighborhood by the expansive menu of ethnic restaurants. He didn’t relocate for the funky speciality shops or to be closer to the rollicking nightlife.

That’s because in the early ’70s, when Patrick fled Nixon-era Capitol Hill, Adams Morgan wasn’t home to a concentrated business strip. By Patrick’s count, there were just seven restaurants open along 18th Street NW between Florida Avenue and Columbia Road. And the neighborhood still housed single families in row houses, rather than single professionals in condominiums.

But one thing hasn’t changed.

“Even then, the parking was terrible,” Patrick says. “It was awful. All these cars and no place to go. What a nightmare.”

As anyone who has driven though Adams Morgan on a Saturday night can attest, Patrick could very well be talking about last weekend. Traffic snarls and illegally parked cars on and around the 18th Street strip have become as commonplace as utility cuts on District streets. And the problem, by all accounts, is only getting worse.

So you’d think Patrick, the former president of the Adams Morgan Business and Professional Association (AMBPA) and a real estate broker, would be thrilled by the prospect of a new parking garage on 18th Street. Designed to replace Adams Morgan’s lone—and largely inadequate—parking lot on 18th Street near Belmont Road NW, the planned 280-space garage has been in the works since the late ’80s. A groundbreaking for the new development is scheduled for October; once completed, the lot will roughly double the amount of available parking and slightly ease the congestion from cars that flood into Adams Morgan every weekend.

But if the project’s developer gets his way, more parking won’t be the only thing coming to the 18th and Belmont lot. District-based Potomac Investment Properties also wants to build 60 luxury condominiums on the city-owned spot, each priced to sell for around $400,000. As part of the complex, street-level space is slated for additional retail and commercial development.

Those plans don’t sit well with Patrick and other members of AMBPA, or with the 1,400 people who have recently signed the business association’s petition to stop the project. Patrick and others contend that instead of more upscale housing and pricey shops, Adams Morgan simply needs more parking. They’d like to see Potomac Investment’s plans scrapped in favor of a five-story parking lot with 540 slots—a proposal they first pitched seven years ago.

“We’ve needed it for years,” Patrick says. “Should we have to sacrifice that need for parking to make way for some condos that Adams Morgan doesn’t really need? No way.”

If you frequent Adams Morgan and have a car, chances are you’ve parked in the lot at 18th and Belmont. Its entrance sandwiched between the DCCD alternative-music record store and the Cassava Cafe, the lot managed by Colonial Parking isn’t anything special to look at. A swath of crumbling asphalt slopes down a short, steep hill to a gravel-strewn, puddle-pocked expanse. Contained by a collapsing chain-link fence, the unmarked parking spaces cost a maximum of $7 per day.

Since January, the entrance to the lot has become notorious as the site of three late-night murders.

But for Adams Morgan’s business community, the lot is much more than a poorly lit potential crime scene. It makes their financial success possible. Restaurants and bars depend on the suburban, car-driving socializers who come to Adams Morgan on weekends and will suffer, say business owners, if people frustrated by a lack of parking drive elsewhere for a good time. And the increasing daytime traffic that Adams Morgan shops so desperately want to encourage will also vanish without parking, AMBPA members predict.

That thesis will get a real-world test later this month, when Potomac Investment plans to close the existing lot to prepare for construction. Michael Gewirz, the developer in charge of the project, has told those involved that he has no plans to create an alternative parking site during the nine- to 12- month construction period. Business owners at a recent meeting of AMBPA insisted that Gewirz had made an earlier promise to do so and are furious that their customers may face a whole year of highly competitive on-street parking.

“This is a real crisis,” says Constantine Stavropoulos, owner of the coffeehouse Tryst and the current president of AMBPA. “It’s a no-brainer to say that everybody, both residents and businesses, will feel the ramifications. The real question is whether Adams Morgan can get through this intact.”

“It’s terrible what’s going to happen to Adams Morgan,” says Stephanie Abbajay, co-owner of the Toledo Lounge, a bar on 18th Street. “We’ve worked to become a vibrant community, in that we’ve attracted a lot of new business and residents to the area, but our ability to maintain that business is really up in the air if we don’t have a bigger place for people to park.

“As hard as we try to talk people into using Metro or taking cabs, you can’t force people out of their cars,” Abbajay says. “They can just take their business and drive someplace else.”

Not surprisingly, plenty of nearby residents wish they’d do just that and stop carousing on neighborhood streets at 3 in the morning. Mike Gould, president of the Kalorama Citizens Association, says the last thing that Adams Morgan needs is a mammoth parking garage—especially when the city is trying to promote public transportation alternatives, like the Adams Morgan-U Street bus link.

“Getting people out of their cars is the real parking relief that Adams Morgan needs,” Gould says. “Some huge parking garage isn’t going to solve our problems. Are these people crazy?”

A number of residents believe that their efforts to redevelop Champlain Street and the outer edges of the Reed-Cooke neighborhood, which stretches east from 18th Street below Columbia Road, would be in vain should a five-story parking garage be erected on the site. On Aug. 19 and 20, fliers imploring residents of Adams Morgan, Reed-Cooke, and Kalorama Triangle to oppose AMBPA’s petition were slipped under front doors and windshield wipers.

“A parking garage would undermine everything we’ve worked for in the community,” Gould says. “You would probably have to rezone all of Champlain Street to make way for a garage, and that would change the entire feel of the neighborhood. We would be on our way to becoming another Bethesda.”

By all accounts, D.C. feared that a parking shortage would hurt the redevelopment of Adams Morgan. In the late ’80s, the District used federally appropriated money to purchase the land at 18th and Belmont for a proposed parking garage. At the time, according to accounts in the Washington Post, the city envisioned a five-story garage for the lot, even though parking problems were not as severe then as they are today.

The land deal sat stagnant for years, until 1993, when Patrick and AMBPA started a petition drive to start work on the garage. Four years later, the District signed a 40-year lease with Gewirz, in which plans for the 540-space garage were shelved in favor of a 350-space garage/condo development.

“We didn’t like it, but we supported it,” Patrick says of the 1997 plan. (Since then, the number of parking spaces has been downsized yet again.)

At the time, Gewirz promised a July 4, 1998, groundbreaking on the project. It didn’t happen. The construction start date was pushed back to fall 1998, then to spring 1999, and then to summer 1999. A summer 2000 groundbreaking was delayed, too.

Earlier this year, Gewirz, who did not return numerous phone calls, told the InTowner that most of the delays were the fault of the city bureaucracy. But one District official who’s been watching the project closely says he knows that Gewirz has had a green light on the project for at least a year and a half.

Gewirz confirmed to the InTowner that he is still trying to secure financing for the development—a claim that raises a few eyebrows among those familiar with the project. “Adams Morgan is a red-hot real estate market right now, so why is he having so much trouble?” wonders the District official.

The garage project, in fact, has been delayed so often that it has taken on the qualities of an urban myth. “I know that some people are asking why we didn’t speak up earlier about our concerns with the garage, but the fact is that this has been a stop-and-go project for years,” Stavropoulos says. “One minute, it’s coming. The next minute, it’s stalled.”

Gewirz was scheduled to meet with Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham and members of AMBPA this week to talk about the project’s future, as well as proposals for alternative parking solutions while the garage is under construction.

Stavropoulos and AMBPA are pushing Graham to urge a delay in the garage’s construction, but the councilmember, when reached earlier this week, said he wasn’t planning to stand in the project’s way.

“I am very concerned about the lack of parking and its effect on the businesses and neighborhoods,” Graham says. “It’s already a mess, and the situation looks like it will just get worse. I am not sure how we will handle it.”

But Gould says the business owners’ attempts to delay or even rework the project could result in a dead deal and the persistence of today’s decrepit lot—something that would ultimately hurt Adams Morgan even more than a few new condos.

“Once you knock Humpty Dumpty off the wall, you can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” Gould says. CP