Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
John Capozzi, president of the high-tech recruiting firm C Associates, has his own miniature Microsoft campus on the third floor of 1342 U St. NW. Working out of a converted one-bedroom apartment above Metro Hair Braiding and Polly’s Cafe, Capozzi has no space for Nerf hoops and barely enough elbow room to work the mouse on his computer. So when he spotted approximately 400 square feet of vacant retail space on the ground floor of the Frank D. Reeves Center of Municipal Affairs this summer, he started inquiring about how he might become the building’s newest tenant.
Unlike many other D.C. government buildings, the Reeves Center was designed to mix private enterprise with staid government offices. On paper, it seemed like a great idea: Businesses would jump at the chance to locate in a developing area with almost guaranteed clientele. The building has 24-hour security. And it’s a recognizable address for which you don’t need to give directions.
“What we need to do is start D.C.’s Silicon Valley right here at 14th and U,” Capozzi chimes.
Not if District authorities can help it. After dialing up various officials in D.C. government, Capozzi has yet to find out the basics about the space: price, square footage, and even whether it’s available for rent. The square patch of commercial space sits emptysave a few rectangular mirrors and a handwritten “No Copies, No Fax” signbehind a locked glass door. “This has gone on for months,” says Capozzi. Each phone call, he gets passed around like a hot potato, never receiving a clear answer to even his simplest inquiries. “In the private sector, you would find out immediately how large the space was and know how much they were charging for it,” notes Capozzi. “The Office of Property Management should have this on public record.”
Playing real estate agent doesn’t come naturally to a city government used to managing a portfolio of ramshackle properties in less desirable parts of town. The coveted retail space in the Reeves Center, after all, hasn’t been assessed since the building opened 12 years ago. Although rents remain frozen at Reagan-era levels inside the building, it’s been a bull market for property owners all along the U Street corridor. The whole charade reinforces the notion that D.C.’s eternal revenue problem owes a lot more to internal mismanagement than to congressional imperialism. “People who rent space at the Reeves Center clearly don’t see generating revenue as a priority for this city,” concludes Capozzi. “There’s no interest in renting out this space.”
The Reeves Center is a symbol of the D.C. government’s commitment to reviving the U Street corridor. In the first half of the century, U Street was known as Washington’s “Black Broadway,” an epicenter of African-American business, entertainment, and culture. But integration slowly chipped away at the commercial strip, and the 1968 riots quickly transformed the once-vibrant thoroughfare into a southern version of Hell’s Kitchen.
City officials hoped that the $50 million retail-office complex would spur private investment in the area once again. “[Mayor Marion] Barry hailed the eight-story, 489,000-square-foot building as ‘an anchor’ of redevelopment and a tribute to minority business that largely built it in an area that had been a haven for drug usersand is still something of a hangout for drug dealing,” noted the Washington Post of the Reeves Center’s official dedication on Sept. 28, 1986.
The first two floors of the building were built to accommodate commercial retailers; the six floors above house D.C. government agencies. It’s an attractive space for an indoor urban mall that has a captive customer base during the day and an ever-expanding one at night.
In the past decade, the “new U” has sprouted a Green Line Metro station, some of D.C.’s most popular clubs, and a variety of stores and services. “There’s a new Adams Morgan-type of atmosphere down there,” says Steve Solomon, a real estate agent with properties in the U Street neighborhood. “It’s a hot corridor.” The fever hasn’t taken over the Reeves Center, though.
In the early ’90s, Wendi Jackson jumped onto the bandwagon and opened the Idnew Boutique in a second-floor space on the 1300 block of U Street. In 1993, she began eyeing a seemingly vacant spot in the Reeves Center as a more accessible location for her successful small business.
“I asked everyone in the mall about the space,” says Jackson. She was referred to various city officials, none of whom could answer her inquiries. “I was told that somebody had the spot reserved, but no one ever used it,” Jackson says. She tried to rent the space again about six months ago, to no avail.
Jackson finally declared defeat and moved herself and her business to Atlanta. She’s getting ready to open a new storeSignature Boutiquein Buckhead, one of the Atlanta’s busiest commercial neighborhoods.
The One Fund, a D.C. government charity drive akin to the Combined Federal Campaign, now occupies Jackson’s prized commercial space. Where Jackson would have arrayed silk scarves and elegant evening wear, the current tenant has plopped cardboard boxes and standard-issue government desks.
“As far as I know, this is our permanent space,” said one One Fund worker when asked about the lease. Sam Jordan, the director of the D.C. Office of Emergency Preparedness and this year’s One Fund chairman, failed to return phone calls about the terms of the rental agreement.
The city’s Office of Property Management acts as the real estate agent for the Reeves Center. “Only one space is available for rent right now,” answers Kenneth Burnette, the office’s administrator. “The other space will be available when we relocate the One Fund.”
The Reeves Center space is desirable not only for its prime location, but for its price tag as well: Burnette says that the available 498-square-foot space rented to the last tenant for a bargain-basement price of $396 per month. That translates into a little less than $10 per square foot. Most retail space outside the Reeves Center near 14th and U rents for twice that price.
Burnette confirms that there has been private-sector interest in the spaces but says that government contracting laws prevent him from expediting any kind of leasing arrangement. He can’t even offer a quote on how much the properties are worth, he says, because his office has to first conduct a competitive bid on the contract to assess the properties. Burnette says the assessment should pop out of the 12-year pipeline any time after that.
“We’re in the process of getting them appraised right now,” he says.
Only an unwieldy bureaucracy like the D.C. government could create a retail space like the one at the Reeves Center. Perhaps taking cues from Department of Public Works efficiency experts housed upstairs, the managers of the Reeves Center haven’t even bothered to change the floor guide to the building since it opened 12 years ago. The suburban-mall-style map still lists long-gone tenants: Butch’s Place, Murph’s Seafood, the Municipal Drug Store, and Shabazz Cleaners are all just memories now.
The spacious ground-floor atrium now supports a hodgepodge of locally owned businesses and government agencies: a branch of the Industrial Bank of Washington, a candy store, a Ben’s Chili Bowl satellite, the Inter-High Connection Gift Shop (a gift store whose proceeds benefit D.C. public schools), the Coach and IV Restaurant, a day-care center, the One Fund, and Convenient Opticians.
It’s not exactly a bustling commercial strip à la Union Station or L’Enfant Plaza. In fact, it’s the opposite: a collection of businesses that could only survive on vintage rents. Take Convenient Opticians, for example: The store, which is located across the back end of the atrium, is open 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and on Saturday by appointment onlya grand total of 10 hours a week. The “designer eyewear” available for purchase in its display cases hasn’t been updated since Dustin Hoffman sported those same frames in Tootsie.
Warren Williams Sr., owner of the Coach and IV Restaurant on the ground floor, says there’s not a lot of cross-pollination taking place in the building. “When we came in, we thought it would be a gold mine,” says Williams. “People say there’s a lot of business, but I’m not sure what’s really here.”
Williams says he experienced the classic D.C. runaround when he expressed interest in opening his restaurant in the Reeves Center eight years ago. It took two-and-a-half years for Williams to finally wrestle the contract. “[Ward 1 Councilmember] Frank Smith was against us being in here,” Williams recalls. City politics put the lease on a merry-go-round, until At-Large Councilmember Dave Clarke jumped in to help. “Dave carried the ball for us,” Williams says. “He was a very conscientious, sympathetic guy. He wasn’t about bureaucracy.”
The Coach and IV’s rental agreement stipulates that the restaurant provide hot lunches for the building. “We thought it would be a great opportunity,” says Williams. “Then [former Mayor] Sharon Pratt Kelly moved people out of the building to One Judiciary Square.” Now, Williams says, the lunch rush in the Coach and IV’s Smithsonian-style cafeteria amounts to a trickle.
Williams estimates that between labor and food costs, the restaurant loses $8,000 to $9,000 per month. The establishment stays afloat by operating “Club U”a nightclub featuring a bar and dance flooron Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Williams’ son, Warren Jr., hopes to renegotiate the contract so that he can replace the flailing lunchroom with a cigar bar and pool tables.
Williams complains that the city neglects the Reeves Center in more ways than one. Some of the ground-floor public bathroom stalls have no doors on them. “Last Saturday, I must have had 20 ladies complain about the bathroom,” says Warren Williams Jr.
Even though Williams and son don’t treasure their time inside the Reeves Center, Capozzi is fighting like hell for the cheapest commercial rent in town. He’s still waiting for a call back from someone in the Office of Property Management about his space. “If the city is serious about getting high-tech industry, I’m waiting to see it,” he says. CP