A controversial city plan to own and operate a parking lot on 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan has grown into something potentially much more controversial: A mixed-use structure with retail, office, and residential space facing 18th Street and a 350- to 500-car garage facing adjacent Champlain Street. The scheme, which the city plans to unveil to neighborhood residents in October, is more elaborate than either parking advocates or parking critics have been expecting.
Though supported by some business people, municipal parking facilities in Adams Morgan have been resisted by many residents of the neighborhood, where parking spaces are at a premium. The Kalorama Citizens’ Association (KCA), for example, officially opposes any off-street municipal parking that requires public funding, and Adams Morgan Transportation Options, a grass-roots group, has written to Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith opposing the garage. More parking, citizens suspect, is likely to draw more cars (and therefore more pollution) rather than merely provide more spaces for existing cars.
The city’s plan to take over a privately owned parking lot in the 2300 block of 18th Street also involves evicting a small business, the well-patronized M.L. Hardware next to the lot. The city wants to tear down the store to expand the parking area.
“That would be a loss to be neighborhood,” says KCA President Bill Scheirer. “It symbolizes what’s happening to our retail neighborhood,” with resident-oriented businesses being displaced to make way for restaurants and entertainment-oriented uses—and parking for the cars they draw. (Full disclosure: Washington City Paper is renovating a building in the neighborhood and will move into it this fall.)
“It’s a continuation of the freeway battle,” says Scheirer, referring to the ’60s civic turmoil over plans to destroy D.C. neighborhoods for a network of inner-city freeways. (The freeway battle has begun again, of course, with the anti-transit, pro-automobile Kelly administration pushing for an unpopular new highway link across the Anacostia River.)
Eviction of the hardware store is just the beginning, though. The city is now contemplating buying the land and putting out a request for proposals for a private developer to build a mixed-used complex on the site. According to Paul Roe, special assistant to Assistant City Administrator for Economic Development George Brown, the city envisions a retail/office/residential structure whose revenues would cover the costs of assembling the land and constructing and operating the adjacent garage. (The D.C. Council has already authorized a bond sale to finance buying the land.) The 350 to 500 parking spaces would dwarf the street parking currently available on 18th Street, and undoubtedly increase congestion on narrow Champlain Street.
The parking garage would remain city property, while the rest of the development would be sold or leased to private interests. “We’re looking at this as an investment,” says Roe, who won’t comment on the size or density of the proposed project but says it will be “compatible with existing structures on 18th Street.”
“These plans acknowledge that the parking can’t support itself,” comments Scheirer. “Why should the city subsidize parking when it has other needs?”
The proposal adds the curious element of city sponsorship to a development plan similar to one previously advanced for the site by Citadel Corp. That scheme, which was regarded skeptically in the neighborhood, evaporated after Citadel ran into financial problems with other properties, notably its nearby Citadel Center, a sound stage that saw more use as a concert hall.
It’s not even clear that Councilmember Smith, who represents the area, can support the city’s proposal. Smith has publicly stated his support for a city-owned parking lot, but has said he doesn’t endorse a garage.
Lincoln Revived The blank storefronts on the 500 block of 11th Street and the 1000 blocks of E and F Streets NW, empty since the Oliver T. Carr Co. evicted its tenants in preparation for an office building dubbed Lincoln Place, may be reanimated. The 38,000-square-foot parcel, which faces three of the square’s four sides, was sold last month to the Lawrence Ruben Co., according to a report in the Corridor Real Estate Journal.
The sale is “good news,” says Chris Reutershan, a former Carr employee who now runs Reutershan and Associates, a development consulting firm. “It paves the way for development on this very important parcel.”
The Ruben Co. is a New York firm that was among the developers of Pennsylvania Plaza, a residential/office/retail project built at 6th Street and Indiana Avenue NW under the aegis of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. The seller was South Charles Realty, a real-estate subsidiary of MNC Corp., the bank holding company that took control of the land after the Carr-led partnership that owned it, Freedom Hill Farms, went into bankruptcy.
The Carr Co.’s scheme for the site included renovating and incorporating many of the square’s historic facades, rebuilding Whitlow’s restaurant, and constructing a multiscreen movie theater on the E Street side, a contribution to the E Street “theater corridor” envisioned by city planners. After some rancorous hearings, the plan was approved by the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB). It’s not known if the Ruben Co. will (or will be allowed to) follow Carr’s plans for the block, which were drawn up by David Schwarz Architectural Services. A spokesman for the development firm, Richard Ruben, could not be reached for comment.
If the Ruben Co. starts from scratch, it will need both to get HPRB approval and to meet the requirements of the city’s SHOP zoning, which is designed to encourage more retail space in the area. Although approved before SHOP went into effect, the Carr proposal met the requirements, largely because the zoning gives a 2-1 bonus for theaters.
The new owner has one major advantage over its predecessor: financial flexibility. When Freedom Hill Farms filed for bankruptcy, it valued the parcel at $44 million. The Ruben Co. purchased it for $9.5 million, a decline of almost 80 percent. The difference between those two prices will make it much easier for the new owner to make a profit on the property.