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Reservations Necessary?

Loved by bargain-hunters, loathed by neighbors, the Braxton Hotel struggles against Logan Circle’s rising tide.

A red carpet rolls out onto the sidewalk beneath the ragged, soot-encrusted awning of the Braxton Hotel at 1440 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Inside, the wallpaper peels above the white-marble foyer panels. A reproduction of Michelangelo’s Pietà and a grumbling Coke machine greet visitors in the lobby. Guests must take the stairs to reach the three floors above; the elevator is broken. Behind the third floor’s red doors, some of the larger rooms glow with pastel colors and floral-print bedspreads; mustier one-bed rooms have all the legroom of a broom closet.

As advertised out front, premium cable channels beam through to faux-wood-paneled television sets, some of which bear clusters of cigarette burns. Meanwhile, dated window air conditioners drown out the sounds of neighboring TVs with streams of air that smell of ashtrays and exhaust. The hotel’s “continental breakfast”—coffee, tea, and powdered doughnuts—is served on plastic trays in the lobby.

With rooms as low as $50 per night, the Braxton attracts bargain-bed hunters to the rapidly gentrifying Logan Circle area and plays trailer-trash cousin to the neighborhood’s haughty renovated mansions. Nightly rates lower than those of a local Econo Lodge or Motel 6 mean that the Braxton attracts a different clientele from the Howard Johnson Hotel Plaza & Suites right next door, where rooms start at $129 per night.

On a recent Saturday night, the Braxton’s diverse visitors include a couple from Philadelphia attending a sister’s wedding, a cadre of European students toting enormous backpacks, and a family of four that pulls up in a Jeep Cherokee.

“There are rats in the bushes out front, but I’ve never seen one inside, so I don’t mind them,” says Louis Bocknight III, an e-business recruiter who says he’s staying at the Braxton while searching for a D.C. apartment.

Normally, high-tech recruiters aren’t the types of people who scare D.C. NIMBYs. And yet neighbors have one word for the hotel—and it’s not “economical,” “thrifty,” or a “bargain.” “Nuisance” is more like it. Several prominent Logan Circle residents and property owners contend that the Braxton no longer deserves a place on their street. Some neighbors, who have watched the hotel for years, say that the Braxton is a magnet for criminal activity, a place where tricks are turned and drugs are sold, where ambulances and police cars visit frequently.

“People matching the stereotypical description of criminals hang out there all the time,” says one nearby business owner, who asked not to be named. “It’s only anecdotal evidence, but I know when I see suspicious behavior.”

Built in 1912, the four-story Braxton originally served as an apartment house at a time when some of Washington’s wealthiest families inhabited Logan Circle. After World War II, however, the area fell into decline; the 1968 riots left the neighborhood half-vacant. Throughout the ’70s, as drug dealers, prostitutes, and the homeless moved into the shells of many of the once-elegant Victorian houses along the circle, the Braxton suffered extensive damage at the hands of its transient visitors.

The building, like its neighborhood, endured something of an identity crisis in the late ’80s. Crunched for public housing and short on money, the District government opted to place hundreds of homeless families in hotels. The Braxton’s present owner, S&N Hotels Ltd., purchased the building in 1987 for $1.5 million, and the District’s homeless crisis helped the partnership recoup a chunk of its investment. According to published reports, the District paid as much as $100 per night to the Braxton for each room in the makeshift shelter. Mothers and their children crowded into the hotel, which lacked refrigerators and cooking facilities. According to residents’ testimonies filed in D.C. Superior Court, cockroaches were a given, but heat was not.

Even after the District finally terminated its “welfare hotel” program in the mid-’90s and the Braxton converted back to a hotel following 1993 renovations, neighborhood groups, concerned about crime in the area, occasionally clashed with the Braxton’s management. Helen Kramer, former president of the Logan Circle Community Association, says the hotel became a “magnet for panhandlers, a magnet for prostitutes, and a magnet for the community’s frustrations.”

Crime and ambulance statistics, however, do not suggest that today’s Braxton is a terribly dangerous place. In the last year, the Metropolitan Police Department has filed only 10 reports involving the hotel. Most of those incidents were property crimes, such as broken windows or burnt trash cans; none of the incidents were violent or drug-related offenses. In fact, of the 58 crime reports filed on the entire 1400 block of Rhode Island Avenue in the last year, two were assaults, one was a narcotics violation, and none were shootings or homicides.

In a recent letter to Ward 2 D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans, Charles Orr, a Rhode Island Avenue resident, wrote that “the rescue squad visits Braxton at least every other week.” But records show that ambulances have responded to medical calls at the hotel just eight times since last October.

Still, the Braxton has had more activity than its next-door neighbor: The Howard Johnson had four medical calls and the same number of police visits in the last year. And the Howard Johnson has 184 rooms, compared with the Braxton’s 64.

John Chon, the Braxton’s manager, says his is an above-board business. Standing in the Braxton lobby, across from an oil-on-wood painting of Christ hung over a Duron paint calendar, Chon has overseen the hotel for a year and a half and thinks his picky neighbors don’t know what they’re talking about. “We provide a needed service,” he says. Mention the suspicions that the Braxton is a hot-pillow joint or drug haven and he will point to a sign on his hotel’s front desk that reads: “Visitors must present two forms of identification for check in.” That policy, Chon says, deters criminals from seeking rooms, as does the house rule barring nonregistered guests.

“Those who say we have negatively impacted this community probably haven’t stayed here recently,” says Chon. “They’re stuck on a stigma from years ago.”

With the $756 million new convention center soon to be completed at Mt. Vernon Square, many developers are trying to cash in on the anticipated increase in guests by building new hotels. According to the Washington Hotel Association, 668 new hotel rooms are under construction in the District, and 1,500 more could open in the next few years. And it seems that no building is safe from hotel conversion: As the Washington Post reported recently, a group of developers wants to turn the Old Post Office Pavilion into luxury accommodations.

Yet Washington’s projected hotel boom may not pan out as expected. A recent study by the New York-based hospitality and leisure practice of Pricewaterhouse Coopers warns that even with its steady stream of well-heeled visitors, D.C. may not be able to support such widespread hotel development. Some would argue that the District already has more than its fair share of hotels charging $150 a night. And that the Braxton, for all its bare-bones service, provides something that the city still needs: budget accommodations.

But the perception that the Braxton is, literally, a low-rent kind of place, makes it a target for neighborhood ire—and development proposals.

One of those neighbors is Jim Abdo, a residential real estate developer who specializes in bringing upscale development to the Logan Circle area. Having helped lure a 40,000-square-foot Fresh Fields to P Street, he will soon boot the 7-Eleven on the corner of 15th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW to make room for Caribou Coffee, a crunchier take on Starbucks. Among his many renovations is a loft-style apartment building on Rhode Island Avenue, directly across from the Braxton.

“It is the type of project that interests me,” says Abdo, who has previously looked into purchasing the hotel. “There’s a challenge in taking on a building that’s in poor condition, that’s historically been a negative for the community, and turning it into something more viable. A budget hotel is not the worst thing in the world. But because it caters to people moving in and out, it’s inconsistent with what we’re trying to do here, which is build neighborhoods and permanent communities.”

Less charitable minds might say there’s another name for the neighborhood opposition: snobbery. All around the Braxton’s cigarette-strewn stoop, developers and affluent homebuyers have transformed streets once dominated by drugs into ones inhabited by flower beds. As Logan Circle’s property values have soared, the Braxton has become more respectable. But nothing short of complete renovation will be enough to satisfy some neighbors.

“The neighborhood has improved to the point where there’s not much reason for undesirable elements to travel through here—except for the Braxton,” says Randi Payton, who lives nearby. Just as the hotel was previously the embodiment of a community’s woes, some neighbors now view it as the striking exception to the block’s rapid turnaround. “I call it the ‘death hotel,’” says Payton.

So if the Braxton no longer threatens neighbors’ safety, it still threatens the neighborhood’s vision of itself. Despite lingering perceptions, the Braxton essentially is what the 2000 edition of the

budget travel guide Let’s Go Washington, D.C. says it is: “a little dingy, but cheap and comfortable.”

As Chon sees it, the Braxton is a valuable relic from a bygone era, a place with so little overhead that it can charge less than half of what surrounding hotels ask for rooms. That, he says, explains the number of return customers, such as the cowboy-hatted man who comes in one Tuesday night and asks for his “usual.” Ed Galvin, a salesman from Fort Worth, Texas, says that he stays at the Braxton every two to three months when he comes to town.

Scurrying over to help carry the luggage of several college students who appear in the Braxton’s vintage lobby, Chon says, “You know, pretty soon we might be the only old thing left on the block.” CP