A rendering of Capitol Crossing, with more than 2 million square feet of offices, residences, and retail.
A rendering of Capitol Crossing, with more than 2 million square feet of offices, residences, and retail.

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What does it take to heal the urban-planning wounds of the mid-20th century? The developer working to stitch up D.C.’s most notorious gash thinks it has the answer: a lot of concrete and a little bit of Mario Batali.

Property Group Partners has begun construction on its massive Capitol Crossing project, which will create a three-block mixed-use development in the currently empty space above the downtown portion of I-395 known as the Center Leg Freeway. The expected 2.2 million square-foot project will consist largely of offices, with a smaller residential component and retail.

But it’s the rumored food tenant has been the source of most of Capitol Crossing’s buzz. Speculation that the high-end Italian market and restaurant Eataly would be opening at the site peaked this spring with reports that the eatery had signed a letter of intent with Property Group Partners. As recently as this weekend, however, Batali—-the well-known chef and Eataly partner—-said no deal had been reached, telling Washingtonian that he has “yet to identify a real estate partner” for the project.

Now, though, Property Group Partners founder and president Jeff Sussman says definitively that Eataly is happening. Asked where the negotiations stand, he replies, “We stand in good shape with that. They’ll be coming.” A final agreement has yet to be signed, and an Eataly spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Sussman believes that when Eataly opens, no earlier than 2017, other retailers will see the value of the newly created swath of land. “I think what will happen is, they see it, and they know what they can do there,” he says.

Right now, it takes some imagination. Planning for the Center Leg Freeway began in the 1940s with designs for a freeway network through the heart of the District. Other portions of the controversial highway system were scrapped amid community protests, but construction on the Center Leg took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, displacing the neighborhood that had existed there and creating a wide divide between the once-unified areas to the east and west.

Capitol Crossing has been years in the works, but only now has it gotten underway. Property Group Partners is in the process of moving utilities from Massachusetts Avenue and parts of 2nd and 3rd streets NW to allow for construction. “It’s always wonderful to find utilities where nobody thought there were any,” quips Sussman. Digging on the freeway itself will begin in mid-December, he says, and lanes will start to be closed so the developer can build the massive platform above 395 on which the new buildings will be erected.

Property Group Partners has budgeted five years for the construction, although Sussman says the company is trying to find ways to shorten the timeframe. But the buildings will start to go up before the platform is complete. The first building, at 200 Massachusetts Ave. NW, is scheduled for completion in late 2017. That’s where the Eataly is set to open.

Much as the construction might disrupt life for commuters on the freeway, Sussman sees the finished product as an antidote to the more serious disruption that took place half a century ago—-an era that also saw Southwest neighborhoods uprooted in the name of “urban renewal” and much of downtown consumed by surface parking lots. Property Group Partners views Capitol Crossing as a way to restore the city grid as laid out by Pierre L’Enfant—-so much so that when the project began, its working name was Return to L’Enfant.

“We’re looking at it as tying the city back together,” says Sussman. F and G streets NW will be reconnected to the grid. Drivers on Massachusetts will enter 395 via a new ramp, allowing 3rd Street NW to become, in Sussman’s words, “a beautiful tree-lined street.”

At a time when government agencies and private firms are shrinking their office footprints and commercial vacancy has climbed, Capitol Crossing’s focus on office space might seem counterintuitive. But Sussman insists, “We believe very strongly in Washington as an office center.” With tech and other business expanding, he expects to have no trouble drawing tenants to buildings with views of the Capitol nearby. Office buildings on Constitution and Louisiana avenues, a few blocks away, he notes, have among the highest rents in the city.

As for the retail beyond Eataly, not much has been decided. “I don’t know what the retail mix is going to be,” Sussman says. “We’re not going to become a fashion center like CityCenter.”

But with that downtown development nearly complete, Capitol Crossing will likely be the last mega-project in the downtown area to be built from scratch. And while Property Group Partners might have more trouble persuading would-be tenants and customers that its location is as desirable as CityCenterDC’s—-Capitol Crossing’s site, after all, doesn’t exist yet, other than as an oversize exhaust valve for the freeway below—-Sussman argues he really isn’t creating something novel and risky.

“It’s not really a new location,” he says. “It’s a cut in the city. The other side of it, from Georgetown [Law School] to Union Station and beyond, is developed. And to the west of us is developed, too.”

He adds, in the lingo of urban-planning place-making, “It’s going to be a place.”

Rendering from Property Group Partners