City Paper is not for tourists
Architect John Wiebenson has seen plenty of people come and go in the 25 years he’s had an office at 1739 Connecticut Ave. NW. He and his business partner, Kendall Dorman, rent the second floor of the location, and they have an extra room they’ve sublet over the years.
Their tenants on the nondescript block above Dupont Circle have been an eclectic crew. Sam Smith, longtime local activist and author and current editor of the Progressive Review, now occupies the space, which he fills with political paraphernalia from campaigns ranging from George McGovern’s to Marion Barry’s. Before Smith, there were a few architects, a real estate developer, and a portrait photographer who liked to sail and used to come back with the most glorious photographs of his travels. And then there was the psychiatrist who mostly kept to himself but had this theory that coming out of the opening of the Dupont Circle Metro station was like being reborn. Strange guy.
And that’s not even counting the rest of Wiebenson’s building. Another architecture firm, David Jones Architects, sits on the top floor. They’ve only been there 10 years or so, says Wiebenson. Before that, he remembers a modeling school, Cappa Chell, whose students once included Fawn Hall. Wiebenson never caught a glimpse of Ollie North’s famous secretary, but he does remember watching aspiring models taking so-called stairway lessons—which amounted to little more than prancing up and down the steps. They tripped a lot, though, Wiebenson recalls, and all that feigned grace would break down into girlish giggles. “It was really sort of sweet,” he says.
Wiebenson could go on—and he does, for a while. There are plenty of stories to tell about the 1700 block of Connecticut Avenue. For years, the strip of aging buildings has managed to avoid the wholesale gentrification that has turned the blocks south of Dupont Circle into an antiseptic series of corporate office buildings and chain stores. The block’s age and decrepit condition have long made it affordable for small shops and solo workers who want space to start a business or write a book or just keep to themselves. Like such D.C. landmarks as the Park Lane and Victor buildings, also purchased by developers with plans for revitalization, Wiebenson’s is one of those redoubts of kooks, geniuses, and governments-in-exile that add a tiny bit of spice to the city’s bland business districts. It’s a community that was never planned and couldn’t be re-created.
And it’s certainly not a community that Starwood Urban Investments could build. In April, the local real estate company purchased Wiebenson’s building and two others along Connecticut Avenue. Starwood Urban President Robert Wennett would not comment on the specifics of plans for the area, but the company’s tastes are evident in another strip of buildings it owns, along the 5500 block of Wisconsin Avenue, just over the District line in Chevy Chase. There, locals cruise past a Tiffany & Co., a Brooks Brothers, and a Saks Jandel on their way out to the suburbs. No zany photographers or old-time leftists in sight.
The upscaling of 1739 Connecticut Ave. is supposed to be good news. District leaders have long wished for more investment in the city. But while development may be a boon for the local tax base, it’s a bust for small-time locals who turn regional economic spreadsheets into hometown flesh and blood. Starwood Urban’s plans for redevelopment for the area would double and even triple the rent for current tenants—rates many solo business owners simply can’t afford.
Wiebenson, for one, can’t pay the $2,000 hike on his $1,000 rent and is moving. He’s not sure where yet, but it’s not himself he’s worried about. “I’m sort of discouraged about what they’re doing to the neighborhood,” says Wiebenson. “The key isn’t so much what happens to my office…but I think right now [these stores and businesses] are special places.”
Judy Davis and her colleagues at 1747 Connecticut Ave. were brought together by chance. Davis never thought she’d stay for the 20-plus years she’s been there. She first moved to the third floor of the building in the late ’70s, when she was working on a film called The Global Assembly Line for the Women’s Labor History Film Project. Davis was part of a group of fellows who left the Institute for Policy Studies to form the Public Resource Center, a cooperative with room for about 10 organizations. Over the years, the initial members have gone on to other things, but Davis has stayed and become coordinator of the group.
When they started the co-op, organizers partitioned the floor to create separate office spaces. They then figured rents on the basis of the amount of space and whether certain areas had amenities like radiators and air conditioners. “We’re an institution based on equity and fairness and cooperation,” says Davis.
Over the years, the cooperative has been a breeding ground for all sorts of intellectual enterprise and progressive activity, says Davis. Sane/Freeze, an activist group dedicated to nuclear disarmament, got its start on Connecticut Avenue. Davis brags that at one time, three Nobel Peace Prize winners had space in the co-op.
Right now, the cooperative—which offers office space for as little as $160 a month—includes organizations like the Free Hand Press, a small graphic design business that does work for nonprofits, and the National Association of Black and White Men Together, a 30-year-old organization that fights racism and homophobia, among other social ills. One newcomer is a young woman who recently started the Committee Against Speeding and Aggressive Driving. “If we would exist even another year, she would have a desk, and her organization would be growing,” says Davis.
Years of sunlight streaming through the glass front doors have faded the felt sign listing the building’s occupants—meaning outlines of previous lettering are still visible. You can make out the imprints from large letters advertising the Academy of Theatrical Arts dance studio, still located on the building’s second floor, which once took up the whole board. The studio name has since made space for those of the organizations in the cooperative, a list that has changed constantly over the years as groups have come and gone.
But the chain ends here, says Davis. The cooperative can’t afford to pay a rent that would double under Starwood Urban, so it will move. And finding space will be difficult, says Davis, especially since the group is so large. She says the cooperative will separate when it leaves the building.
The collection of tenants along Connecticut Avenue may have happened by accident, but most occupants say former landlord Michael Heller had a hand in maintaining the diversity of the place. Heller was selective about tenants, turning down pizza parlors to bring in fledgling businesses or nonprofits. Aside from Wiebenson and Davis, Heller also brought in neighborhood favorites like Kulturas, a secondhand bookstore that specializes in Latin American reads, and the Newsroom, a local institution known for its selection of international magazines and newspapers.
Heller’s office has since locked up its doors for good. His answering machine features this message: “The office is closed. We are tired, not retired. You may leave a voice-mail message at the tone and it will be retrieved before Y2K. If important, look us up in Maryland. Thanks.” (He couldn’t be reached in Maryland, either.)
Heller was an old-fashioned landlord. Unlike most modern setups—where a property manager stands between corporate owners and tenants—Heller’s operation was run from an office right on Connecticut Avenue. Tenants had only to knock on his door to deliver rent checks or tell him about a clogged sink. Not that he fixed all that much: Heller was good for proximity and genuine interest, but he didn’t keep the buildings all that clean or well-maintained, say some tenants. Of course, that’s what kept the places affordable.
All that’s changed now that Starwood Urban’s in charge. The sinks will be fixed—for their brand-new tenants. But the new ownership has a tangible downside for both neighbors and the city as a whole. “Cities have to have these little hobbit holes where people can do these offbeat things,” says Smith. “You have to have parts of cities that are run-down. If you start to revitalize too much, you drive all the culture out, and you’re just left with a bunch of banks, upscale restaurants, and Gap stores. That’s what’s happening in Washington.”
Small-shop owners and solo office workers are dying breeds. Once they’re replaced by chain restaurants and expensive stores, District residents will find they live in a city that looks like all others—where every other corner resembles the next and diversity is determined only by the number of espresso drinks you can order at Starbucks.
“There’s a human ecology, just like there is for birds. You destroy the human ecology, you’re going to pay for it one way or another, if only in boredom,” says Smith, who has been renting space from Wiebenson since 1976. “Who needs another Gap?”
Smith hasn’t found a new space yet. “I may luck out,” he says. “If not, I’ll just retreat to my basement. I know a lot of people who’ve done that. I think it’s a sign of the times.” CP