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Doug Jemal, Muriel Bowser, Vince Gray, Jack Evans, Vincent Orange, and community members hurl some dirt to launch the redevelopment of the Hecht Company Warehouse.

The old Hecht Company Warehouse took the latest step in its continuing evolution today with a dozen shovels jammed into a makeshift sandbox.

The “groundbreaking” of the redevelopment of the 1937 Ivy City building on New York Avenue NE may not have broken any actual ground, but it drew the majority of the District’s 2014 mayoral candidates and marked the official start to the process to bring life back to a building that’s sat vacant for nearly a decade.

Douglas Development, which purchased the property for $20 million in a 2011 auction, initially planned to turn the old warehouse into an office building—-a tricky proposition at a site that’s far from downtown and has limited transit access. Yesterday, the company filed a planned unit development application to rezone the site to allow residential development. If it’s approved, Douglas plans to build 350 apartments above two floors of retail. Planet Fitness announced today that it will sign a lease for 20,000 square feet in the building. Mom’s Organic Market has already signed a lease for the building next door, already under construction, which will feature ground-floor retail under a 1,150 space parking garage that’s designed for potential conversion to residences in the future.

Douglas has been known to invest in areas that aren’t yet on most developers’ radars, something Mayor Vince Gray acknowledged today when he said, “There are people who say, ‘Watch where Doug Jemal is buying property, and you should buy some in the same area.'” He and Jemal both referred to the Hecht site as a “gateway” to the city. But it will be a challenge to attract residents to a market-rate building hemmed in by highway-like New York Avenue and municipal parking lots, even with rents that Douglas says will be well below the rates just a few blocks to the west in NoMa.

Norman and Doug Jemal pose in front of renderings of the project.

Still, neighbors are excited about the development’s potential to transform a long-neglected area. “It’s this project that’s going to keep me here, because we don’t have a grocery store,” said Peta-Gay Lewis, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the neighborhood.

Lynne Brick of Planet Fitness is likewise optimistic about the transformative effect of the project. “We hope to have thousands of members,” she says—-both residents of the development and people from the community. She says that combined with Mom’s, the gym, which charges an affordable $10 per month for membership, will help bring healthier living to the neighborhood. It’ll be the first Planet Fitness in the District.

Jemal praised Mom’s owner Scott Nash for the courage to sign on to an underserved location. He introduced Nash as “Scott Nash, who had the balls to come here when there was nobody here.” Mom’s plans to open this fall.

Below are a few renderings of the project.

Photos by Aaron Wiener; renderings courtesy of Antunovich Associates