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Like most longtime residents of the Shaw neighborhood, Mona Bowden has fond memories of the Royalton Hotel, a Victorian structure that stood on a now-vacant lot on the 900 block of M Street NW. When Bowden learned that the new convention center would be built near the lot, she had visions of another inn rising from the weeds and asphalt. So she was a touch disappointed to find out that the space would provide a different accommodation for interlopers: parking.
Shaw developer Ken Welch, who owns the lot, is planning to turn it into a 96-car parking facility. By the time the convention center opens, Welch may opt for more lucrative development alternatives at the site like a hotel or retail outlets. Still, his current plan unnerves neighbors like Bowden, whom convention center officials have assured the mammoth project will not turn their back yards into a black-and-white grid.
“These developers don’t honor their agreements,” Bowden says. A Shaw resident for 23 years, Bowden calls the convention center and its accompanying parking facilities a “death knell” for her neighborhood. “They just want to keep the community quiet until it’s built,” she says.
In the spring of 1996, Welch secured approval from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to open a parking lot at the site, to accommodate up to 50 cars. Under D.C. code, 50 is the magic number for parking lots: If Welch stayed under that threshold, he would be able to duck an environmental assessment and save himself a lot of money and hassle while he bides his time before selling the land off to hotel developers. With the convention center on its way, though, Welch has decided to max out the lot’s capacity of 96 cars even if that means more red tape.
Greg Melcher, president of the Blagden Alley Association, says Shawites had better get used to “Park Here” signs around the neighborhood. “A lot of these downtown properties were bought cheap with the knowledge that one day they would become profitable,” says Melcher. “For whoever owns that land, it’s logical to just pave it and build a parking lot until it’s worth building something else.”
A year ago, Melcher’s 51-member association voted unanimously to support the development of a hotel at the site. Welch appreciated the support but told the association that the property would be easier to sell for hotel development if he could also acquire the adjoining lot. His doing so would require razing several 19th-century buildings on the southwest corner of 9th and M Streets, the only buffer between the convention center and the surrounding community. The imperiled buildings lie just outside the Blagden Alley historic district so neighbors have little leverage to save them.
Even so, Melcher would rather see an outsized hotel than what he sees now. “It’s pretty clearly a case of urban devastation here right now,” he says. “There are a few dissidents who are adamantly against anything to do with the convention center who will say or do just about anything to oppose it, but I don’t think they represent the views of the neighborhood.”
One of those dissidents is Beth Solomon, who led the convention center opposition and dreads what Welch will do to the community. “We need community centers, job training facilities, and retail businesses,” Solomon says. “What this neighborhood doesn’t need is a convention center, and we certainly don’t need parking lots run by Ken Welch he owns a lot of property down here, and a lot of it is in really bad shape.”
Solomon and members of her anti-convention-center group, the Shaw Coalition, fear that the fate of decrepit Shaw parcels will be decided downtown, not among the neighbors. “The city can very easily condemn a lot of these properties to make room for hotels and parking,” says Shaw resident Anise Jenkins. “I don’t even know if we’ll have what you could call a neighborhood by the time this thing is through.”
By the time it’s through, Melcher envisions a new commercial mix on M Street: a hotel, a few restaurants, and some small retail businesses. Failing that, he’ll settle for a parking lot. “Our main hope is to see the land developed to a lucrative purpose,” Melcher says.
There’s no assurance, though, that the financial goals of developers will mesh with the wishes of locals. “Is parking needed? Definitely yes,” says Ed Horvath, a newcomer to the neighborhood. Last December, Horvath braved uncertainties about the convention center’s impact and invested in an 1863 carriage house. “Has the impact on the proposed plan to develop on the south side of M Street taken into account the character and needs of the neighborhood?” Horvath asks. “Not much, if at all.”
Bowden isn’t thrilled that the first broken promise of convention center planners is so close to home, nor is she eager to see a whole block razed and redeveloped. “We don’t need a really big thing,” Bowden says of the eventual plans for the hotel. “We need a jewel.” That may be one commodity the convention center will not bring.