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Fourteenth Street NW between Thomas Circle and U Street is a compelling snapshot of life and local cuisine. New one-bedroom condominiums along this stretch fetch more than $500,000, even in a declining real-estate market. Nearly every publication in town has heralded the rebirth of “the corridor” and showered reviews on new eateries that service the incoming neighborhood wealth.
Viridian, Rice, Merkado, Cafe Saint-Ex, and others tell the future of this particular story: highly stylized dining, complex preparations, trendy ingredients, and trendier interior design. But haute cuisine has no hegemony here in the present, where just around the corner from your $12 cocktail list is a Chinese-Subs-Seafood-Wings-Etc. takeout window with 50 options under $6.
The grit’s best weapon against gentrification? The long-term lease, with rates negotiated in the pre-Whole Foods Market era. Leases in the area are primarily 10-year affairs with five-year optional extensions, and given the diversity of owners in the area, the expiration dates on current tenants vary widely. “The neighborhood should be fully developed in about 10 or 15 years, when the leftover leases expire or folks decide to sell and move on,” predicts Wayne Dickson, a commercial-real-estate consultant and fourth-generation D.C. native who moved to the Logan Circle neighborhood 21 years ago.
So just what does a postgentrification lease on 14th Street look like? PNC Bank has set the upper range on asking prices and will soon shell out $56 per square foot for the right to occupy the ground level of the Metropolis-developed Cooper Lewis Condominiums on the northwest corner of 14th and P. The lease is good for more than 4,000 square feet, and a monthly rent of nearly $20,000.
The PNC corner is what Cafe Saint-Ex and Bar Pilar Executive Chef Barton Seaver refers to as “the epicenter – probably the most prime piece of real estate in the entire city.” Directly across the street to the east is the now-fancy Studio Theatre, and to the south is the Mid-City Fish Market.
Despite the upscale crowd that towers over the corner, the Mid-City Fish Market, housed in a graffiti-tagged, 19th-century Queen Anne building, does not sell fresh fish. Kenny and Jane Ham instead provide affordable grease, served most popularly in the form of fried whiting on white bread.
Mid-City is currently four years into a 10-year contract. Monthly rent for Mid-City is $2,700, a figure that puts it in the low $20s per square foot, or one-third of PNC’s cost to sell on the same intersection. The Hams pass on the savings to customers – many of them construction workers – in the form of $3 breakfasts.
Across the street on a recent Sunday morning at 3 a.m., the line spills out of the Yum’s II lobby, filled primarily with drunk, white 20-somethings. In the light of day, midweek Yum’s buzzes with blue-collar activity within a few minutes of its 11 a.m. opening.
“This place is always busy, and that’s a good thing,” says lunch customer Mark Emerson. “The scariest place to go is a Chinese business with no business – that means the food has been sitting awhile.” Emerson, of Mark Emerson Restorations, has been working in the area for 27 years. Yum’s has been around for 19 of those. “This place doesn’t need to change,” he says.
Management sees things the same way. “The area has changed, but not us. We basically have the same customers from the neighborhood. Well, maybe more of them,” claims manager Simon Yum. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Yum’s is uniquely certain of its fate because the family owns the building, which also houses neighborhood midrange standbys Lalibela, an Ethiopian joint, and 1409 Playbill Cafe. The proprietors of Lalibela and Playbill recently extended their leases through 2010 at preferred rates around $30 per square foot. Lalibela doesn’t expect to re-up past then, in part because of rumors that Yum’s building is a gentrification casualty in waiting. “In five years, this building will be gone, and something new will be here,” says Lalibela owner Taye Wogederes.
If the building comes down, prices will go up. Just look around: Lofts 14 Two at Church Street is currently offering 5,010 square feet at $50 per square foot, and the pre-construction T Street Flats has a similarly priced 5,000-square-foot space. In other words, double the rate some 14th Street tenants are currently paying.
Eight years ago and five blocks north on 14th Street, Yongho Chon, left with a failing Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips franchise, opened the Seafood & Crab fish market just off U Street. The sell-it-or-smell-it seafood business proved difficult without a steady and predictable customer base. “It’s too expensive. Nobody wanted to buy much seafood, so now we focus on that,” says Chon, motioning to a year-old display near the front of the place housing a smorgasbord of soul-food options: baked and smothered chicken, pork chops, greens, pig’s feet, Salisbury steak, etc.
The soul strategy has proven successful enough to provide “plenty of money” for Chon and his wife. “We have a different thing going anyway. This place needs diversity,” says Chon. “We get white guys in suits, blacks…Hispanics all mixed together. There are many Cheap Charlies living around here. It’s not fancy like Georgetown – it’s bohemian. Lots of people around here want to pay less than $10 for dinner.”
More important, Chon’s loyalty to location through three concepts recently paid off in the form of a new 10-year lease at $28 per square foot. “I’ve been here since 1992. I’m a good tenant, and so my landlord gave me a deal on the place.”
And in 10 years? “We want to be here. You have to plan ahead and roll with the changes,” says Chon.
Chef Seaver embraces the diversity. “I think it’s necessary. I don’t want to see these places go,” he says. “The people that support all of these establishments are very much embedded in this neighborhood. Success of the neighborhood doesn’t necessarily mean a plague of sameness.