Pick up any story about U Street these days, and chances are you’ll read that a wave of urban renewal has rumbled through every last square foot of this historic corridor.
Just weeks ago, for example, the New York Times gushed, “Gentrification along U Street…means that the neighborhood known to Washingtonians as Adams Morgan—formerly the closest the city really got to trendy—has spread its tentacles almost to New York Avenue, the artery used by residents trying to get out of town.”
Those tentacles missed a block—an important one, too: U Street between 13th and 14th Streets NW still has that post-riot, pre-gentrification look. Start with the room inside the large store windows on the Northeast corner of 14th and U. It’s filled with scattered glass and debris. Next door, a sign notifies curious passers-by that 1359 U St. has been condemned. Massive “For Lease” banners stretch halfway down the block and up the east side of 14th Street.
And now local leaders are decrying the blight. “It is a horrendous eyesore,” says Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham.
Dee Hunter, a local advisory board commissioner, chimes in: “The U Street corridor has been ground zero for the gentrification of the city. The 1300 block of U Street has got to come into play soon.”
Graham and Hunter, as locals know too well, have made careers out of blasting the impact of D.C.’s housing boom. But all this gentrification is a funny thing. Everybody’s against it, until it stops happening. What makes advocating for urban renewal acceptable on this particular block, says Hunter, is that the properties are vacant. “People aren’t being displaced by this development,” he says.
Graham has tried everything short of formal government action, he says, to bridge U’s crevice. His campaign has boiled down to an effort to convince Thomas Tsianakas, owner of the building at the Northeast corner of 14th and U Streets for the past 15 years, to sell. “I’ve met with [Tsianakas], I have pleaded with him,” Graham says.
Tsianakas says he had no reason to sell. “This space was rented out for almost 10 years to what was supposed to be a Burger King,” he says.
When the Burger King gave up its 30-year lease three years ago, Tsianakas bought the land next door and began the process of rebuilding the vacant space, which he hopes will one day house an upscale restaurant or lounge. “It was never abandoned,” he says. Denise Wilson, a spokesperson for the Burger King Corp., says that since the lease belonged to a franchise store, she can’t provide details.
Whatever the case with Burger King, construction on the abandoned-looking building has been sporadic at best. Graham is skeptical that he’ll soon be dining on white tablecloths at 14th and U. “I assume he has run into some financial troubles because improvements on the properties have stopped,” he says.
Not so, Tsianakas responds. “It takes forever to develop,” he says.
Down the street from Tsianakas’ building, and past another abandoned property, stands the fire-engine-red remains of a nightclub—1357 is spray-painted in giant numbers on the dirty glass window above the door.
The empty nightclub is a particular blight, says neighborhood commissioner Philip Spalding. “There is only so much you can do,” Spalding says. “It’s an old nightclub and looks really bad, but the owner is just not interested in selling.” According to city records, D.C.-based Henry B. McCall owns the space, which is valued at more than $1.5 million.
Spalding says McCall once owned several buildings on the block and all were in disrepair. In response to complaints, Spalding began working with the city’s condemnation board but has been unable to persuade McCall to complete work on his remaining property or to sell it.
“His asking price is far beyond what is reasonable,” Spalding says. “I’m not sure he’s terribly interested in selling.” McCall didn’t return repeated calls.
The city’s vacant-property taxes are virtually the only torch the city has to hold to an owner’s feet; they are more than five times the residential rate and more than twice the commercial rate. Yet the vacant tax is riddled with exceptions. (Graham and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh are pushing loophole-closing legislation in the D.C. Council. “The bill will cut way back on the exemptions that allow individuals to escape the vacant property rule,” Graham says.)
According to city records, McCall and the owner of a boarded-up building at 1359 are currently exempted from paying the vacant rate. So is Tsianakas. It’s a situation that has Graham speculating about the landowner’s speculations: “Maybe he thinks it’s a gold mine in the future.”