There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Jeff Koenreich was sitting in his Cardozo home on a summer night in the late 1980s, when a car pulled up to a boarded-up apartment complex down the street, at the intersection of 13th and U Streets NW. A man and a couple of kids popped out of the car, and the kids started chucking rocks through the few remaining windows in a once-majestic turn-of-the-century building. Koenreich might have considered calling the cops but realized raising a stink would do no good: The man supervising the rock-throwing youngsters was the owner of the complex, U Street developer Marvin Jawer. Earlier that day, Jawer had fenced in the property to prepare for its demolition on the following day. The kids were merely jump-starting the process.
Koenreich, founder and president of the Cardozo-Shaw Neighborhood Association (CSNA), couldn’t stop the initial assault on the building, but he did what any decent preservationist would have done: He and a few friends looted the place for artifacts. They chiseled away fireplace mantels, ceiling ornaments, carved bricks, hunks of the facade, and a window sign that read “S.H. Dudley,” the famous black entrepreneur for whom the building was named. The next day, a bulldozer pulverized the structure, burying the rest of the building’s historic features. “Marvin is singularly responsible for most of the lost architecture [on U Street]—he and Metro,” says a still-bitter Koenreich.
Today, the 13th and U site is home to a Rite Aid, a Pizza Hut, a bank, and a nail salon. Jawer, though, has not finished his denigration of the strip’s historic fabric. Earlier this year, he was poised to demolish the Exeter, a vacant building at 1330 U St. Local activists, however, arrived before the bulldozers and staved off demolition. Now Jawer is negotiating with Papa John’s, an aggressively expanding pizzeria chain, to occupy the building. The prospect is already turning the stomachs of U Street neighbors.
Over the last five years, Jawer and other area developers have turned U Street into a corporate food court featuring high-rent, high-fat standbys like KFC, Taco Bell, Arthur Treacher’s, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Subway, and Baskin Robbins. The chain glut has no doubt generated foot traffic and furnished a clientele for the strip’s small, independent businesses, but nearby residents—who have weathered the ’68 riots, the city’s failed 1980s development deals, and Metro’s real estate grabs—appear to have reached a tipping point.
“We don’t want it to be a drive-through place; we want it to maintain a character and some individuality,” explains Buck Clarke, current CSNA president. “We’re at a swing area. This could either be the time of our greatest success or the downfall of our area. It’s a very critical juncture.”
Activist types like Clarke don’t like surprises along their corridor. Too often, they say, zoning and preservation laws are too weak to stop developers from blandifying their neighborhoods. The Rite Aid debacle was a prime example. This time, though, CSNA had a jump on Jawer. Clark jokes that “the wrong guy heard about” Jawer’s plans. The wrong guy is Paul Williams, CSNA vice president and a historic preservation fanatic.
On Friday, Sept. 18, Williams learned from a friend that Jawer was about to secure a permit to demolish 1330. Over the weekend, Williams gathered petition signatures from local residents and elected city officials, including Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, whose jurisdiction includes U Street. The purpose of the petition was to designate the site as a city landmark. On Monday morning, Williams appeared at the D.C. Preservation office with his paperwork and a $100 application fee to hold the wrecking ball in place.
Before the city’s preservation board ruled on the landmark campaign, though, Jawer withdrew his application to demolish the building. It appeared that CSNA had won outright. Still, Williams didn’t know what Jawer was planning to do with the building. Jawer told him he just wanted to make it an empty lot. “After two weeks, he was adamant he had no plans for that building,” Williams says. “I stuck to my guns and I didn’t back down.”
The grapevine bailed out Williams, again. While hanging out at an antique car show in Pennsylvania, Stephen Raiche, the division chief of the city’s historic preservation office, ran into Papa John’s real estate broker, Jerry Trout III. The two got to chatting and quickly discovered their common interest in 1330. A few days later, Trout, apparently acting on a tip from Raiche, called Williams and told him that CSNA members might soon have a third national pizza chain in their back yards. On Nov. 13, Jawer met with skeptical CSNA members, who went berserk when the discussion turned to pizza.
“They were horrified; they knew Jawer was pulling scams again,” Williams remembers. “He was speechless. It was a PR nightmare….One man stood up and said, ‘You build shit. We’re not going to take your shit no more.’ It was good.”
CSNA members say Jawer once promised an upscale grocery store, a coffee shop, and a sidewalk cafe at the site that now houses Rite Aid. Jawer did meet with Magruder’s three times and nearly closed a deal with another upscale grocer, but locals are judging him only on results. Jawer refused to comment for the record for this story. However, Steve Solomon, Jawer’s real estate broker for 1330, says CSNA is being “idealistic” and adds that he doesn’t get the historic appeal of the building’s “ugly blue stone.”
“I live out in Rockville. I have not one, two, but 10 of those places around me,” Solomon says. “It’s not an issue. They serve a purpose like any other business. Who doesn’t eat pizza? It’s pizza. Pizza is the No. 1 food in America. Everybody likes it. Why shouldn’t people have choices?”
Papa John’s is wondering the same thing. Just last year, the chain’s campaign to install an outlet on a residential street in Georgetown fell apart after a nasty community fight that ultimately required the intervention of Mayor Marion Barry. Company officials imply that all the fuss would dissipate if only the opponents would bite into one of their pies. “We have the best ingredients,” says Diane Comer, Papa John’s director of corporate communications. “We have fresh dough. We use fresh cut tomatoes…. Every pizza that we send out, we put in a tub of garlic sauce and two peppers.”
Greg Sollitto, the company’s director of property administration, adds, “I’m not sure this is a valid response by the community. I think the community would more than welcome this quality.”
Regardless of how unpalatable the neighborhood types think another faceless chain is, they will more than likely fail to stop Papa John’s from adding to the clutter in Cardozo. Unlike the disputed Georgetown site, 1330’s zoning designation is highly amenable to a takeout store. And as opponents of the MacArthur Boulevard CVS discovered this year, all the grass-roots umbrage in the world won’t stop a chain when the law is on its side.
“There is nothing in the regulation to let us know the restaurants are coming,” says Stanley Mayes, a longtime U Street activist. “There is nothing that operates as a stopgap. It’s good for the fast food restaurants, it’s good for developers….You have residents moving out because of this.”
So while CSNA may have stopped Jawer from destroying 1330 U St., it can’t stop him from renovating the building and signing a lease with Papa John’s. In fact, Jawer could get a 20-percent tax credit if he rehabs the building, according to Williams.
All of which means that the corridor’s character and historic quirks may end up buried behind a forest of franchise signs and generic neon. “Natural economic forces will triumph over what a neighborhood wants or what a developer wants or what politicians want,” says Koenreich, who keeps a piece of the old Dudley building on his front porch. “A national chain like Papa John’s—if it wants a place on U Street, it will get one.”